Fake news, alternative facts, misinformation. These buzzwords have been making headlines all too regularly in the last few years. Who to trust and how to tell apart well-executed science from bunk has become increasingly challenging amidst the information overload of our internet era. The edited collection Pseudoscience: The Conspiracy Against Science brings together 22 contributions that examine the problem of pseudoscience from a variety of perspectives. The unbelievable things people believe in may be easy to mock, but, as this book makes clear, they are no laughing matter.
I sometimes wonder whether I am a closet Buddhist. Now, I will be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about Buddhism, but what little I have encountered often strikes a chord with me. The Enlightened Gene shows there might a be a good reason for this. This book chronicles a most unlikely project: the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative. On the invitation of the Dalai Lama no less (!), Emory University has developed a science curriculum to be taught to Tibetan monks and nuns in exile in India. Spearheaded by professor Arri Eisen and in close collaboration with monk Geshe Yungdrung Konchok, the aim is to integrate modern science (focusing on physics and life sciences, especially neuroscience) into their monastic curriculum.
This is a review where I am going to show my age. The year was 1981, long before the Inquisitive Biologist thought of himself as the Inquisitive Biologist (I had probably not turned one yet), and Dougal Dixon’s book After Man was published. And with it, Dixon pretty much single-handedly created the concept of speculative zoology as far as I can tell. The book was re-issued in the US in 1998 but has been unavailable for over a decade. Now, the good folk at Breakdown Press have released a facsimile version of the 1981 first edition to make this gem available to a new generation. And you get a new author’s introduction to boot.
This book is translated from the German Das Internet der Tiere, published in 2014. I started reading it thinking it would mostly deal with what the latest developments in animal telemetry are telling us about conservation, and what we can learn moving forward. With advances in technology, GPS units and tracking devices are now becoming so small that we can even attach them to insects. Scientists are uncovering a wealth of data about bird migrations, whale feeding patterns and many other behaviours that are normally unobservable to us. Instead, this book provides a philosophical blueprint for how technological advances could bring about a new way for humans to reconnect to animals.
I have only ever seen Greenland once while flying over it on my way to a conference in Alaska. But geologist William E. Glassley has spent several field seasons together with two fellow geologists working in this rugged landscape, uncovering its geological secrets. This slim volume describes their work, but more prominently, it is a rhapsodic tribute to Earth’s wild places and the transformative experience of finding yourself far away from civilisation. I had not heard of Bellevue Literary Press before, but they aim to publish books at the intersection of art and science, and I would argue this book fits the bill well.
Sure, I have been lectured about the birds and the bees, and yet I learned an awful lot more about the bees from Thor Hanson’s latest work Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees. Hanson has previously written popular works about feathers and seeds, and in Buzz he turns his attention to bees. Already this book has garnered a lot of positive press and was Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4. Most people associate bees with honey and therefore with the honeybee, Apis mellifera, but Hanson specifically wants to talk about all the other thousands of bee species, many of which are as interesting and as important, even though some of them are diminutive and hardly noticed.
It should have been a straightforward expedition. As a young career palaeontologist, Nick Pyenson found himself in the Atacama desert of Chile, tasked with mapping rock layers to establish a continuous chronology that would help dating fossils found in the area. Whale fossils, Pyenson’s specialty, are rarely found complete, which is true of most fossils. So what do you do when a colleague takes you to the construction site of a new highway and shows you not one, not several, but literally dozens of complete fossil whale skeletons? It represented a treasure trove for science, but retrieving the material before the highway constructors would move in was also a daunting, labour-intensive task that could make or break careers. I almost found myself standing next to Pyenson in the dusty clearing, the Chilean sun beating down on me as he faced this dilemma. This is just one of several immersive narratives recounted in Spying on Whales, which successfully blends travelogue and popular science.
Six years ago (is it already that long?) Katrina van Grouw blew me away with her gorgeously illustrated book The Unfeathered Bird, which gave a unique insight into bird anatomy. Her new book, Unnatural Selection, again features her unique combination of accessibly written text and lavish illustrations. The book celebrates the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. In this and in On the Origin of Species, Darwin frequently referred to the rapid changes that breeders could bring about in plants and animals to make evolution understandable. And yet, biologists and naturalists don’t generally hold breeders and their breeds in high regard. In that sense, Unnatural Selection also celebrates their work and knowledge.
If you have used a compass, you will know our planet has a magnetic North and South pole. You might even be aware that the geographical and magnetic poles are not exactly in the same location. The magnetic poles have a tendency to wander with time. They can even swap places, and we have evidence of a long history of such geomagnetic reversals in the rock record. But how does this happen? And what would the consequences be if this happened today? Earth’s magnetic field offers protection against radiation from outer space, primarily from the sun, so if this field weakens or changes, what will happen to us and our electrical infrastructure? Join science journalist Alanna Mitchell as she explores this topic and delves into the history of electromagnetism.