The Southern Ocean, that vast body of water that flows unhindered around Antarctica, has to be one of the most forbidding oceans on our planet. Its latitudes are referred to by increasingly unnerving names the gale-force winds that have terrorised mariners since they first set sail here – the roaring forties, the furious fifties, the screaming sixties. Its waters are so cold that they are actually below freezing in places, with only their salinity preventing them from freezing solid (fish here have evolved antifreeze proteins!) As a consequence of these extreme conditions, this region has long remained unexplored. But, as historian Joy McCann shows, explore it we did. Brace yourself for a gripping piece of environmental history, marked by heroism as much as hubris, and curiosity as much as cruelty.
The 19th century was, for Europe and the United States in particular, a time of exploration and scientific study. Large parts of the world were still little explored and poorly mapped. Concurrent with the production of improved maps and atlases, there was a craze for a unique kind of infographic that has long since fallen by the wayside: the comparative tableau, showing the world’s highest mountains and longest rivers. This lush coffee table book sifts through the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, one of the most renowned collections of its kind, to give readers a glimpse into the development and history of these unique images.
Pick a map. Any map really. Chances are that the map is oriented with North at the top. But why is that? Maps are a visual language onto themselves, rich in iconography and symbols, and especially rich in mutually agreed conventions. So rich, in fact, that you will take many for granted without even realising it. In Why North is Up, cartographer Mick Ashworth leads the way through the history of cartographical conventions, introducing when and why they came into being, and how they have changed over time. And as a book published by the Bodleian Library, it is very attractively illustrated with a large number of maps from their – and other – collections.
Checking the weather forecast is like flushing your toilet. A banal activity we all engage in a few times a day. But does anyone of us really know what goes into making it? Andrew Blum is fascinated by infrastructures. His previous book Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet explored the physical infrastructure that keeps the internet running. Here he delves into the infrastructure that enables weather predictions. Most of us might have an inkling it involves satellites and computer models, but that does not begin to describe the globe-spanning collaborative network that hides under the bonnet.
Having just read Barash’s Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, it seemed logical to next read The Selfish Ape by biologist Nicholas P. Money. With the dustjacket calling the human being Homo narcissus, and the book “a refreshing response to common fantasies about the ascent of humanity“, these two clearly explore the same ideas, though one look at the cover suggests a darker tone. Money mostly takes the reader on a tour of human biology to show how we are little different from our fellow creatures, spicing up his writing with bleak observations. This one, my friend, sees through the glass darkly…
Most people will at least be mildly familiar with the story of how the structure of DNA was discovered. Francis Crick and James D. Watson are household names in this story as they went on to win a Nobel Prize. But can you name the third person to share it with them? Most people will also have heard of Rosalind Franklin, but as Gareth Williams shows, so many other people were relevant to this story. Watson and Crick only put the finishing cherry on the cake. Unravelling the Double Helix covers the preceding 85 years of breakthroughs, blind alleys, near-misses, and “beautifully executed bellyflops” by some of the greatest scientists of their time.
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.
Many works of popular science claim to be histories of almost everything or everyone, but earth scientist Robert M. Hazen might actually be in the position to stake that claim. Whether you are talking stellar evolution, the origin of life, organic chemistry, synthetic materials, or hydrocarbon fuels – the multifaceted atom carbon is ubiquitous and pervasive. Symphony in C is a whirlwind tour through geology, biochemistry, and evolutionary biology that is an incredibly absorbing read, although in places it almost comes apart at the seams under the intensity of its enthusiasm.
In a time of fake news and alternative facts, being able to separate the proverbial scientific wheat from the pseudoscientific chaff is vitally important. But seeing the wide acceptance of a lot of dubious ideas, critical thinking does not come easily. So, how, then, do you tell science from bunk? Updating his 2010 book Nonsense on Stilts, evolutionary biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci once again attacks this problem from many sides. Going far beyond cheap potshots at pseudoscience, I found a book that takes an equally serious look at the more insidious phenomena of think tanks and postmodernism, with a healthy side-serving of history of science. The result is a readable introspection on what science is and how it is done.
Over something as mundane as the tone of one’s skin humans have been inflicting intense grief and misery upon each other for centuries. And when biology and anthropology arose as scientific disciplines, they were brought into the fold to justify subjugation, exploitation, and slavery. With Superior: The Return of Race Science, journalist Angela Saini has written a combative and readable critique of race science that seems to be rearing its ugly head again. But in her fervour, does she take it too far to the other extreme?