Harvard University Press

Book review – Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet

Thomas Robert Malthus, a man so praised and vilified that his name has been immortalised in the noun “Malthusianism”. Many people will have heard of him in the context of overpopulation, but how many of you know the title of his famous book? Robert J. Mayhew is a Professor of Historical Geography and Intellectual History and with Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet he makes the case that Malthus’s book is a good example of the unread classic. Deeply researched, this is a scholarly book for the patient reader that charts Malthus’s life and, especially, his intellectual legacy. As Mayhew shows, Malthus remains as relevant as ever, though he continues to be misinterpreted in manifold ways.

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Book review – Gravity’s Century: From Einstein’s Eclipse to Images of Black Holes

When the movie Interstellar was released in 2014, I thought its depiction of a black hole was one of the most hauntingly beautiful scenes. And with input from prominent astrophysicist Kip Thorne, there was plenty of science to this piece of science fiction (see The Science of Interstellar). Amazingly, we only had to wait five more years for an actual image of a black hole – or really its event horizon – to be published. But these astounding images have been a long time coming. With Gravity’s Century, science writer Ron Cowen traces the story back to Albert Einstein and provides an accessible and compact overview of the century-long quest in physics to better understand gravity.

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Book review – Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society

In popular discourse, the theory of evolution has become a victim of its own success, reduced to sound-bites such as “survival of the fittest”. Biologists will of course quickly point out that this is an oversimplification, though philosopher Daniel S. Milo takes things a few steps further. Good Enough is a thought-provoking critique of the dominance of adaptationist explanations. He argues that, while natural selection is important, it is not the only, possibly not even the default mechanism, in evolution. No, Milo claims, the mediocre also survive and thrive.

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Book review – Discovering Retroviruses: Beacons in the Biosphere

In the already unusual world of viruses, retroviruses stand out for being even more so. Called “retro” because they reverse the flow of genetic information from RNA to DNA, rather than the normal DNA to RNA, they have turned out to be ancient, omnipresent, and incredibly influential. They are also important as they cause diseases such as AIDS. With Discovering Retroviruses, Anna Marie Skalka delivers a book dedicated to this particular group that is as technical as it is fascinating.

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Book review – Exoplanets: Hidden Worlds and the Quest for Extraterrestrial Life

Humans have been gazing at the stars since times immemorial. Once we understood what stars were, and that our planet together with others circled one such star, it was only a small step to think that there must be other planets outside of our Solar System. But only in the last 25 years have we been able to start finding these so-called exoplanets. Astronomer Donald Goldsmith here promises, and delivers, an introduction that even an astronomy novice such as myself could understand and thoroughly enjoy.

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Book review – Kin: How We Came to Know Our Microbe Relatives

The problem with many history books is that they are written long after the facts, sometimes when the original protagonists are no longer alive. Historians or journalists often have no choice but to puzzle together the pieces of their story from eyewitness testimony or archival sources. Kin: How We Came to Know Our Microbe Relatives is a welcome exception to this rule. Written by emeritus microbiology professor John L. Ingraham, currently 94 years young, this book gives an intellectual history of the discipline of microbiology based on over seven decades of first-hand involvement and observation.

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Book review – Viruses: Agents of Evolutionary Invention

When I reviewed Planet of Microbes: The Perils and Potential of Earth’s Essential Life Forms, I remarked that microbes are everywhere. If you are willing to stretch the definition of life a bit further still, there is one entity that is even more numerous and omnipresent: the humble virus. We tend to think of viruses almost exclusively in the context of disease (see for example The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses). But, as virologist and pharmaceutical researcher Michael Cordingley shows here, they are so much more than mere pathogens and have a huge influence on evolutionary processes in all organisms. This book paints a remarkable portrait of these unusual life forms.

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Book review – Superbugs: An Arms Race Against Bacteria

Antibiotics have been saving human lives since the drug Salvarsan was discovered in 1932. Penicillin went into mass-production in 1942. This is not a long time when you think about it, but a world without the protection offered by them already seems unimaginable. Not only have they offered protection from diseases such as tuberculosis, and stopped infections following injury or childbirth, they have also allowed us to develop surgical techniques requiring immune system suppression such as organ transplants. However, careless use of antibiotics has accelerated evolution of drug-resistant bacteria such that we are about to lose their protection.

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