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How DDT lingers, and why we help others: Books in brief

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How to Sell a Poison

Elena Conis Bold Type (2022)

The pesticide DDT reduced typhus and malaria during the Second World War; its discoverer won the 1948 medicine Nobel prize. After the war, it was widely used in the United States to kill vermin, and city children played in the mist of trucks spraying it, notes historian Elena Conis in this complex, disturbing study. The chemical’s toxicity to wildlife became notorious with Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962). In 1972, the United States banned it. But even in 2001, more than 100 nations maintained that DDT was crucial for public health.

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Elise Vernon Pearlstine Yale Univ. Press (2022)

Elise Pearlstine is a wildlife biologist turned natural perfumer. Plants must seduce pollinators to flourish, she tells us, and cannot relocate or avoid disease. So they produce attractive fragrances, along with volatile molecules to deter predators and heal tissues. Although these are not created for humans, we fall for them. This charming book discusses spices and scents including frankincense, saffron, rose, mint and musk. It also describes perfume manufacturing and the fashion world’s “hundreds, if not thousands” of perfume launches each year.

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The Altruistic Urge

Stephanie D. Preston Columbia Univ. Press (2022)

‘Altruistic’ has broad meaning, varying with context and speaker. Outside academia, it tends to cover all unselfish behaviour. A biologist might think of worker bees giving aid to their queen; an economist of how many dollars a student will donate to a stranger in an experiment. Psychologist Stephanie Preston focuses her analysis on the “altruistic urge”, defined as the compulsion of an animal or person “to approach a vulnerable victim in immediate need of aid”, for example when rescuing a stranger from a burning building.

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The Wine-Dark Sea Within

Dhun Sethna Basic (2022)

“The history of the circulation of blood is ripe with false attributions and contested claims of priority,” comments cardiologist Dhun Sethna. His elegant, if often technical, history dissects these from antiquity to modern times, pivoting around William Harvey’s controversial discovery of circulation, published in 1628. This replaced classical Greek physician Galen’s view that blood flowed back and forth in two separate systems of vessels — veins and arteries — arising from the liver and the heart.

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The Long Land War

Jo Guldi Yale Univ. Press (2022)

As a child in Texas, Jo Guldi hiked amid ruined camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government work-relief programme for unemployed men that began in the 1930s. Sometimes a hearth and chimney in a forest marked a past “unrecorded ejection”. They sparked her later interest, as a historian, in occupancy rights. Guldi’s global study of land redistribution and allied political movements over 150 years considers how these can inform responses to current crises that affect refugees, including global warming.


Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.


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