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We are inundated by media updates about global warming, from statistical warnings and satellite images to news and weather reports on the latest storms, fires and floods. These ever-present alerts often focus on what’s happening to the land, but what about threats to the unique ecosystems of our oceans?

This vast water world is the focus of marine biologist and author Helen Scales’ latest book, What the Wild Sea Can Be: The Future of the World’s Ocean. Organized into three sections covering the ocean’s history, vanishing species and habitats, and the ocean’s restoration and future, the book takes a global perspective while also highlighting how specific regions and their wildlife are affected by the changing climate. Statistics drive home the immediacy of the crisis: “Within just the past fifty years, as people have been overexploiting species, destroying habitats, and releasing pollutants, the total mass of vertebrate life in the ocean has halved.”

Scales explores key issues impacting marine life, from warming waters, to disease-causing bacteria and viruses, to plastics contamination, along with striking examples of how these trends play out. For example, whales have a particularly high risk of microplastics consumption due to the shrimp and krill they eat: During migration to the coast of California, blue whales consume more than 10 million of these plastic particles, which can accumulate in tissues and alter expressions of genes, per day. Ecosystem shifts cause invasive migrations that upset the ecological balance, such as that of lionfish; native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, they are now found along America’s east coast and in the Mediterranean. These invasive lionfish number five times their population in their native waters, and they threaten to consume other species to extinction.

But as the title suggests, the book is not all gloom and doom. In her introduction, Scales encourages readers to take part in “mental time travel” and “keep seeing the glory and feeling wonderment in the ocean.” By offering hopeful scenarios and advice for making “conscious decisions about the future of the earth’s biodiversity,” she provides the reader with a level of positivity not often heard amid the overwhelming climate news that can often make us feel helpless. “I hope this book will offer an antidote to the rising tide of eco-anxiety and fears for the future of the planet,” Scales writes. “Turn that fear into commitment and initiative.” What the Wide Sea Can Be provides a glimmer of light in a darkening world.

Helen Scales’ inspiring What the Wild Sea Can Be addresses climate-caused threats to our oceans, while providing a glimmer of light in a darkening world.
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It’s clear from the jump of Jasmin Graham’s marvelous Sharks Don’t Sink: Adventures of a Rogue Shark Scientist why the author feels such a kinship with the titular fish. Sharks, who have survived five mass extinctions, are survivors. As Graham narrates her journey to becoming a marine biologist, from a childhood spent fishing with her Black family in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; to founding Minorities in Shark Sciences, an organization that funds research opportunities for people of color; to becoming a “rogue” scientist, we see that Graham, too, is a survivor resistant to easy classification.

In conversational prose that makes marine biology both accessible and exciting to a layperson, Graham describes the slings and arrows of shark research as a Black woman who has an infectious curiosity in and reverence for the natural world and refuses to be pushed out of it by the white men who still dominate shark science. As some of these men devolve into a screaming match about affirmative action at a professional conference, Graham locks eyes with the only other person of color, thinking, “What on earth have we gotten ourselves into?” Five years later, Graham had enough. In 2022, after questioning if she should leave science entirely, Graham became a rogue scientist, without a permanent academic affiliation. Like her beloved sharks, she adapted.

Along with Graham’s abiding love of all things oceanic, the other most potent force in Sharks Don’t Sink is her persistent belief in community. Graham pays tribute to the many scientists who paved the way for her, from a professor who offered her master’s level work while she was still an undergraduate, to the field-defining work of Japanese American shark researcher Dr. Eugenie Clark. This careful tending by her community has allowed Graham to thrive as a “Black, proud, nervous, and nerdy” scientist who has become one of the most prominent voices in marine conservation.

The cartilaginous skeletons of sharks have made it nearly impossible to leave fossil records.  Likewise, the history and triumphs of too many Black women scientists have been lost. Graham’s story of charting her own course is both an important record and a delight. “You don’t need to change the world,” Graham writes, as she thinks back on the group of Black friends she made as a child at her mostly white magnet school. “You just need to change your small piece of the world.”

 

In Sharks Don’t Sink, marine biologist Jasmin Graham pushes for diversity in her field while also celebrating her deep, abiding love for the titular fish.

Science journalist Sadie Dingfelder has known since childhood that she isn’t great at remembering people or faces. But for decades, she failed to notice that other people didn’t make the mistakes that she did, like hopping into strangers’ cars, or getting lost in her brother’s small house. After she mistook another man for her husband in a grocery store, Dingfelder began to wonder if her quirks indicated something larger. She decided to undergo a test and learned that she’s faceblind: She truly doesn’t remember faces. 

But that’s only the beginning of what she learned over the next year. “Welcome to my midlife crisis,” she writes in her charming debut, Do I Know You?: A Faceblind Reporter’s Journey into the Science of Sight, Memory, and Imagination. “There will be no fast cars or sexy pool boys, but there will be answers to questions that have dogged me my entire life. Mysteries like: Why didn’t I ever learn how to drive? Why hasn’t anyone ever asked me out on a date? Why was I so lonely as a kid, and how did I manage to make so many friends as an adult? (And why, despite having so many friends, do I still feel lonely?)” Dingfelder soon learned that along with faceblindness, she’s stereoblind—the world she sees is flat, not three-dimensional. She also learned that her brain doesn’t create its own mental imagery; when she reads a novel, her brain doesn’t create pictures or scenes. 

Dingfelder weaves her story into the science of how brains process information like faces and names, and how one type of neurodiversity, like faceblindness, is often linked to another. Throughout Do I Know You?, she’s both cleareyed and vulnerable, and though her mishaps and misunderstandings are often comical, she also conveys the losses that she’s only recently begun to mourn. 

Do I Know You? offers a specific story about one woman’s neurodiverse brain (and the book’s appendix offers practical resources for parents who think their child might be faceblind or stereoblind), but Dingfelder makes the specific universal, showing readers both the remarkable diversity in how our brains encounter the world, and how much more we still have to learn about ourselves.

In Do I Know You?, faceblind journalist Sadie Dingfelder explores her condition and reveals the remarkable neural diversity of humans.

Each section of neuroscientist and corporate coach Nicole Vignola’s Rewire: Break the Cycle, Alter Your Thoughts and Create Lasting Change is titled with phrases that will sound familiar to readers bent on self-improvement: “Ditch the Negative,” “Shift Your Narrative,” “Boost the Positive.”

While those imperatives may not be new, the author’s explanations of how one might actually achieve those goals—via understanding and taking advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity—feel remarkably fresh, thanks to her knowledgeable, approachable voice and gift for making the complex clear.

An edifying mix of scientific research, personal anecdotes and real-world examples of rewiring done right provide aha moments galore as Rewire leads readers on a path toward change. Herself a reformed “stressy messy,” Vignola explains that we ignore the fundamental interplay between physical and mental health at our peril (or at least frequent frustration): “The brain is your hardware, and the memories, thoughts, habits and behaviors within it are the software.” For example, someone who’s not eating properly or getting good sleep will run on “low-power mode,” making it especially difficult to overcome negative self-talk, a tendency toward rumination and other long-held habits.

Similarly, while social media is vital to Vignola’s coaching practice and educational endeavors, it’s become a serious energy drain for so many—and a brain without ample rest or space to daydream isn’t receptive to rewiring. “Imagine you were on a treadmill for eight hours a day . . . and then in your lunch break you move on to the stationary bike . . . you’re not actually taking a break,” which stymies “brain energy renewal.” However, planned “strategic breaks” shore up the overworked brain; exercise releases myokines, which “aid in alleviating depressive symptoms, improving anxiety,” and more; and visualization techniques boost adaptability, as exemplified by Olympian Michael Phelps.

Vignola firmly believes that once armed with a deeper understanding of how the brain works, even non-Olympians are capable of effecting positive and lasting change. In Rewire she provides a “neuroscientific toolkit” rife with practical strategies and tips, data and experience to back them up, and an unwaveringly supportive refrain: “You can, if you so wish, create yourself. Whoever you want to be.”

In Rewire, neuroscientist Nicole Vignola provides a remarkable toolkit rife with practical strategies and tips for self-improvement.
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The Internet of Animals: Discovering the Collective Intelligence of Life on Earth is a bonkers, delightful read if you are interested in any of the following: space and satellites, animal migration and behavior, analog versus digital technology, and the many complications that come from following through on the whiff of a very good idea.

Scientist Martin Wikelski had such an idea decades ago: Tag large numbers of animals and track them digitally via satellite. He envisioned a global community of animal researchers all pursuing projects using the same satellite and tracking technology, and making some portion of the reams of resulting data public. In a moment of either brilliance or dark insight into the troubles ahead, he dubbed the project ICARUS: International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space. From the beginning, this was a project that aimed to fly near the sun and see the world anew.

But like the mythic story of Icarus, there were unforeseen complications: identifying the technology needed to create a satellite, fine-tuning the technology needed to tag the animals effectively, and finding global collaborators. This story of scientific advancement is also, like so many others, tied up in cultural differences, funding, politicking and geopolitics. A project that Wikelski thought would take only a few years has taken decades, and it’s still unfolding. Still, his good idea remains as captivating as ever.

Wikelski probes the mysteries of the animal world and shares vivid anecdotes of field research, from unusually sociable rice rats in the Galapagos Islands, to a wandering egret who made friends with a family in Bavaria (when he was supposed to be migrating to a different continent). Wikelski situates these stories within the big questions about animals and how they live on Earth—what they know innately and what they could tell us, if they only had a way. He convincingly argues that these questions should animate us all, and his vision of creating a way for animals to communicate what they are remains a vital, galvanizing example of how human ingenuity and persistence can make a difference in how we understand the world around us.

The bonkers and delightful The Internet of Animals tells the story of author-scientist Martin Wikelski’s efforts to connect animal researchers across the globe, and understand animals anew.

Emily Nagoski’s third book, Come Together: The Science (and Art!) of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections, like her second, Come as You Are, focuses on better sex. But where Come as You Are was aimed at women, Come Together is for couples in long-term relationships. To be clear, though, Come Together isn’t a book filled with sex tips or techniques; it’s a book about relationships, communication and methods to frame and understand emotions. 

Nagoski, a sex educator who trained at Indiana University and the Kinsey Institute, sets out to debunk popular beliefs, primarily one that “puts desire at the center of our definition of sexual wellbeing.” She argues that when we focus too much on desire—a “spark, a spontaneous, giddy craving for sexual intimacy”—our worry about losing that spark “hits the breaks and puts sex further out of reach.” Instead, Nagoski argues that partners should center pleasure, writing that “great sex over the long term is not about how much you want sex, it’s about how much you like the sex you’re having.” Nagoski offers tools to increase pleasure, such as an “emotional floorplan,” a map of the brain’s different emotional states, some which are pleasure-favorable (lust, play, seeking), and some pleasure-adverse (fear, grief, rage); prompts to help partners discuss sex; and even a breathing exercise to help readers tap into their “erotic wisdom.” 

Happily, Nagoski does not exclusively focus her attention on heterosexual sex. Through the dozens of interviews conveyed in the book, Nagoski includes LGBTQ+ couples, as well as those in polyamorous relationships, kink and BDSM communities, and more.

Nagoski reminds readers that the key to great sex over the long term isn’t frequency, novelty or special skills. Instead, it’s trusting and admiring your partner, prioritizing one other and prioritizing sex. She shares research findings, the ongoing stories of three very different couples, and pieces of her own story—for instance, how her work as a sex researcher and coach caused her to lose all interest in sex, and how she and her partner grappled with this loss. For readers with shorter attention spans, Nagoski closes each chapter with a TL;DR summary and questions to consider. Well-researched but accessible, Come Together is an inclusive, good-humored and reassuring book that offers something for every couple in a long-term relationship.

Emily Nagoski’s Come Together is a refreshing, inclusive and good-humored guide to sex between long-term couples.
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“Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Timothy Leary popularized that catchphrase in the 1960s, and it sums up what many remember about the period when he and other outspoken LSD advocates promoted widespread “acid” use. But the reckless Leary was actually a relative latecomer to the field—and did much to undo more interesting scientific work on hallucinogens that started in the 1930s.

Arguably, the most influential pioneers were anthropologists Margaret Mead and her third husband, Gregory Bateson, whose lives are the focal point of science historian Benjamin Breen’s wide-ranging Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science, a look at the rise and fall of hallucinogens from the ’30s to the ’70s.

By the end of her life, Mead epitomized establishment social science, but she sure didn’t start that way. The young Mead had an active sex life with both men and women, and married Bateson after their messy extramarital affair. They were kindred spirits who saw huge potential in the hallucinogens used in mystical rituals that they encountered in anthropological field work. They believed that hallucinogens could open minds and create a diverse, tolerant utopia. But psychedelic science quickly shot off in less idealistic directions, with Mead and Bateson—by then divorced—taking different paths.

Breen illuminates experiments with psychedelics, from the idealistic to the sinister to the strange. The U.S. government tested their use as a psychological weapon, often on unwitting subjects. In one infamous 1953 case, biological warfare scientist Frank Olson took a fatal fall from a Manhattan hotel window after allegedly being dosed with LSD without his consent. Other uses could turn bizarre: Breen recounts an experiment in which researchers doped dolphins to see if they could speak.

Breen chronicles these explorations by conveying the experiences of an intriguing cast of characters who were, at least temporarily, fascinated by psychedelics, including actor Cary Grant, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and poet Allen Ginsberg.

Medicine eventually moved on to drugs like lithium and Valium, leaving the potential of psychedelics untapped. With the current resurgence of interest in plant-based hallucinogens, Tripping on Utopia offers the historical context we need to evaluate their potential. Breen’s smart, entertaining narrative brings this history vividly to life.

Benjamin Breen’s smart, entertaining Tripping on Utopia brings the history of psychedelic science vividly to life.
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After decades of being a largely underserved area of scientific study, fungi are finally having their moment. The phenomenon feels not unlike the overnight appearance of a mushroom; all it took were the right conditions for the right fruiting body. The conditions: a reading public amid COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020, aching for connection. The fruiting body: British biologist Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Life, who showed us just how interconnected we really are.

Gently, affectionately and in the loveliest prose, Sheldrake invited us to discover the unfathomable fungal networks that run throughout our soil, binding and building our whole world. Illuminated with sweet illustrations drawn by Collin Elder in ink from an ink cap mushroom, Entangled Life felt like a classic naturalist’s journal. Except for these drawings and a slim centerfold of photographs, readers were left to imagine the worlds that Sheldrake described. With Entangled Life: The Illustrated Edition, the bestselling, award-winning book transforms into a visual spectacle that contains 100-odd full-color otherworldly images of mushrooms, lichens, mycelium and more.

Mushrooms poke up in jaunty angles like whimsical umbrellas, some neon-bright and avant-garde, others gooey and grotesque. Delicate mycelial networks appear like white lace stretched across great caverns of rotting wood. Globular spores shine like blown glass. There are more intense colors and complex structures than can possibly be described, even in Sheldrake’s gorgeous language, which has been significantly abridged by the author for this edition. The section on psilocybin is particularly well illustrated, featuring photographs of Maria Sabina, the Mazatec curandera who led sacred mushroom ceremonies in Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca, in the early 1900s.

Many images are on an almost incomprehensibly small scale, with electron microscopy revealing fungi living inside a root or dust seeds binding with mycorrhizal fungus. The simultaneous grandness and tininess of mycology overwhelms; by the end of the book, microscopy of spores starts to resemble mushrooms on a rotting log, the scales bleeding together in a riot of colors and textures.

The message of Entangled Life is to be open to new ways of thinking—to be a little less focused on orienting ourselves, and more willing to see the world anew. This is the gift that Sheldrake continues to give us: He reveals fungal life as both more familiar and more abstract than we imagine, and encourages us into the space between the known and the as-yet unknown.

Read our interview with Merlin Sheldrake.

British biologist Merlin Sheldrake shows us just how interconnected we really are with these otherworldly images of mushrooms, lichens, mycelium and more.
Interview by

Your first book, Entangled Life, became such a success upon its publication in the spring of 2020. It was both a product of and a contributor to a new global phenomenon: our fascination with fungi. You’ve said that the book’s reception came as a surprise, but here you are now, transforming it into an illustrated gift edition, filled with stunning macrophotography of lichen and mushrooms, and microphotography of spores and nematodes. What does it mean to you, to present your book in this new format?

So much of fungal life takes place out of the reach of our unaided senses that it can be hard to find a way into their worlds; we need all the help we can get and sometimes words can only get us so far. To come closer to fungi we have to look at them. Indeed, much of our modern scientific understanding of fungi—and life in general—has been transformed by microscopes that enhance our ability to see, rendering the invisible visible. My own understanding of fungi, like those of many of my colleagues, has similarly been transformed by the many hours I’ve spent looking at fungi, often gazing down a microscope. The illustrated edition of Entangled Life is a way to invite readers into some of these astonishing visual worlds and celebrate the remarkable artist-researchers who have painstakingly captured these images. I think it is a beautiful book to hold and explore.

How did you go about abridging the text? Did the imagery guide you in any way, or was it the other way around?

It was a challenge! When writing, I often found myself imagining the book’s themes and stories as cords that I could splice, braid and weave. I soon realized that abridging the text meant more than just cutting words and sections; I had to make sure that I had suitably re-woven the threads. Sometimes I was guided by the imagery, and sometimes I had to let the text tell me how it wanted to flow. I had anticipated that this would be a frustrating process, but in fact it turned out to be satisfying, and I’m happy with the outcome.

Speaking of this new widespread appreciation for fungi, what do you think it’s all about? We can certainly look back to Michael Pollan’s 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind, and the 2019 film Fantastic Fungi, and we can make assumptions about how 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic led people toward yeasty hobbies like brewing and baking, and toward greater desire for mycelium-like closeness. Or perhaps it’s been driven by a desperate hope that fungus will save the world by eating all our plastics and all our problems. What do you believe has most captured our attention about fungi, and why now?

I think there are a few reasons. The first is quite simple: We know more about fungi than we used to thanks to the development of technologies—like DNA sequencing—and decades of brilliant work by mycologists all over the world. The more we have learned, the more we have been able to appreciate the vital roles that fungi play in Earth’s systems.

“These are remarkable depictions of symbiosis in action: You can see the fungi clasping the algal cells. It’s so intimate.”

Second, as environmental emergencies have worsened, a growing awareness of the interconnectivity of all life forms has permeated public consciousness. This has coincided with the rise of network science and network models, now used to make sense of everything from human social lives to biochemistry. Fungi are interconnected organisms—most live their lives as networks and form literal connections between organisms—and so make powerful poster organisms for both ecological and network thinking.

Third, I think the growing interest in psychedelics has also played a part. Much of the recent wave of research into psychedelics has taken place with psilocybin, found in “magic” mushrooms, and I think the astonishing and puzzling effects of this compound have helped awaken curiosity to fungi more generally.

Fourth, as you suggest, people have been captivated by the many ways we might partner with fungi to help us to adapt to life on a damaged planet. Ongoing environmental devastation has brought about renewed interest in the fungal world, and radical mycological possibilities abound, from fungal medicines to fungal foods, to new building materials and more.

So much of your discussion of fungi is about relationships and challenging the definition of the individual–which is another reason we might assume your book has reached so many readers. (Imagine if human social media could provide the level of connection of the mycorrhizal “wood wide web”!) Yet this illustrated edition features fungi portraiture, with close-ups of individual fruiting bodies in their best light. I wonder, when looking at these photographs, do you see an individual?

No, I don’t. Mushrooms are loosely analogous to a plant’s fruit. When I see an apple, I see a representative of an apple tree with tangling branches growing upwards, and tangling roots growing into the soil. Likewise, when I see a mushroom, I see a representative of a sprawling fungal network, itself potentially linked up to one or more plants. We are only ever looking at part of the picture.

Some of the book’s images feel more abstract to the untrained eye. If you know what you’re looking at, an image may inform and illuminate; to the layperson, the same imagery can confound. Which images have been most illuminating to you, and which have been most challenging?

One of the things I was trying to do in this book was to play with scale, moving from images of comparatively large subjects like mushrooms and humans to microscopic subjects like spores and mycelial networks. I’ve found an interesting effect arises when one shuttles between scales: The familiar can become unfamiliar, as if we’re looking at something for the first time. A familiar looking mushroom might suddenly look strange, and a microscope image of a mycelial network might feel like a vast landscape or a dense forest in which one could get lost. In this way I’ve found that many of the images that are most bewildering are also the most beautiful.

As we learn in the section on lichens, the creation of the word symbiosis completely transformed the field of ecology as well as our overall understanding of the way the world works. It was a shift away from the hypercompetitive notion of “red in tooth and claw” evolution, instead acknowledging the complexities of relationships in the natural world. Have any of the images in this book dramatically shaken up your field the way this word did? 

So many of these images represent key concepts and perspectives, but some of my favorites are the images of lichens captured and created by Toby Spribille and Arseniy Belosokhov. These are remarkable depictions of symbiosis in action: You can see the fungi clasping the algal cells. It’s so intimate. I’ve never seen such good images of lichens.

In the opposite case to symbiosis, sometimes words fall short, like when using the word brain to describe the signals sent through a mycelial network. There are also pitfalls in relying too heavily on metaphors, as symbols don’t always translate from one person to the next. And sometimes, the answer to a question is still just “we don’t know,” such as the question of what psilocybin teaches us about the human mind. How do you reconcile the unknown with your scientific pursuit to know?

Much of the practice of the sciences involves choosing how to relate to the unknown. Fungi make questions of our categories, and thinking about them makes the world look different. It was my growing delight in their power to do so that led me to write this book in the first place. I have tried to find ways to enjoy the ambiguities and mysteries that fungi present, but it’s not always easy to be comfortable in the space created by open questions. Then again, when you answer a question, it ceases to be a question. I’ve learned to enjoy the exhilaration of unanswered questions and the way that they pull one forward into deeper inquiry.

“There are so many ways to be a fungus, just as there are so many ways to be an animal. . . . A great white shark might be scary. But the fact that the shark is scary wouldn’t necessarily make you scared of all other animals.”

Two of your own images are included in the book. What brings you the most joy or pride about them?

I love the way that they depict the remarkable intimacy of the physical relationship between plant and fungus. Of course, the images have additional layers of meaning for me: They are representations not only of the fungi living in the roots of a plant, but of the rest of the plant and its web of relationships within a tropical forest in which I spent a lot of time.

Although this illustrated edition has so many incredible images, it’s impossible to rely wholly on vision when it comes to fungi. Our eyes and cameras can only perceive so much. I wonder if this required imagination is why, even in a mushroom-loving cultural moment, some people still fear fungus and its unknowns. What would you say to those whose imagination turns to fear?

Fear of fungi runs deep in some cultures, whether because of poisonous mushrooms, the threat of fungal pathogens or the fact that so many fungi are decomposers and therefore associated with death and decay. In reality, fungi are a kingdom of life, as broad and busy a category as animals or plants. There are so many ways to be a fungus, just as there are so many ways to be an animal. A particular fungal pathogen might be scary, just as a great white shark might be scary. But the fact that the shark is scary wouldn’t necessarily make you scared of all other animals. Faced with fear about fungi, I would turn my mind to their many essential life-giving properties and the many ways human existence is unimaginable without them. No plants could exist without fungi, for example, nor would bread, alcohol, soy sauce or any number of lifesaving fungal medicines.

What is your advice for all amateurs crouching over a patch of forest, hoping for their own encounter with a mushroom or lichen?

One of the most important things is to sit and let one’s eyes adjust. It often takes a while for fungi to jump out at you. Sitting quietly, with a softer focus, can be a helpful way to tune in.

The only way your readership hasn’t been able to experience your book’s content is by taste and smell, so I must ask, is a fermentation guide in your future?

Not currently, although my brother Cosmo and I have recently released a line of live, fermented hot sauce!

Read our review of Entangled Life: The Illustrated Edition.

Merlin Sheldrake has transformed his bestseller, Entangled Life, into a photography book with an abridged text. The psychedelic and disorienting imagery it contains stars mushrooms and lichens, spores and gills, a glorious unseen world now in Technicolor.

Even if the word science only conjures up bad memories of frog dissections and failed lab experiments, you’ll find much to enjoy in Dan Levitt’s What’s Gotten Into You: The Story of Your Body’s Atoms, From the Big Bang Through Last Night’s Dinner. Levitt, a writer and producer of science and history documentaries, delivers a survey of life’s building blocks that’s intelligent, accessible and just sheer fun.

Levitt launches his inquiry with two fundamental questions: “What are we actually made of? And where did it come from?” His subsequent hunt for answers begins in an appropriate place: the discovery in the 1930s of what became known as the Big Bang by Belgian physics professor and Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre. Lemaitre‘s story is especially interesting for the way it encapsulates the tension between science and religion that looms over some of the issues in Levitt’s wide-ranging account.

Most of the book’s chapters follow a similar format. Levitt will open his investigation of a specific topic, such as how water appeared on Earth or the race to discover the structure of DNA, with an economical but informative biographical sketch of one or more of the scientists whose work proved pivotal in the field. Then he’ll dive into the science, with a special enthusiasm for the controversies that pitted one expert against another. While some of these researchers—such as Nobel laureates James Watson and Francis Crick, of DNA fame—are well known, others—such as Justus von Liebig, the 19th-century German chemist who pioneered research in the field of nutrition—are not. Levitt devotes extra attention to the role of women in science, noting the discrimination that has often prevented their work from receiving the recognition it deserves.

Levitt has the ability to present abstruse subject matter in a form that’s easily digestible by lay readers. He’s scrupulous about giving equal time to warring scientific combatants and is especially sensitive to the biases (among them, the “Too Weird to Be True” bias) that have dogged even the most brilliant scientists. One especially stimulating discussion plays out in the chapters titled “The Most Famous Experiment” and “The Greatest Mystery,” describing the controversy over the origin of life and whether it was sparked in the Earth’s atmosphere, in outer space or in the depths of the ocean. Extensive endnotes and a bibliography that stretches to 20 pages reveal that Levitt has done his homework.

Readers of What’s Gotten Into You will come away better informed while still appreciating that some of our most fundamental scientific questions have yet to be answered.

In What’s Gotten Into You, Dan Levitt delivers a survey of life’s building blocks that’s intelligent, accessible and just sheer fun.

Egg

Eggs are the ubiquitous breakfast food, served up every day in kitchens and restaurants around the world. They are also a cornerstone for many savory dishes and added to baked goods to provide richness and leavening. But have you ever considered the egg’s importance beyond its vast utility as a food source?

In Egg: A Dozen Ovatures, author Lizzie Stark (Pandora’s DNA) dishes up 12 ways eggs have affected and benefited humans. Blending fascinating factoids, historical tales and her own personal stories, Stark highlights the remarkable, the unusual and the extreme.

Each chapter focuses on a different topic, describing how eggs have been treasured as artistic objects, hunted by eccentric egg collectors, traded as a precious commodity, used in scientific cures and even sent to the moon. Throughout, Stark fills readers in on related practices and definitions, such as egg candling, “a technique used since ancient times, [that] employs light—a candle in the early days, and later electric lamps—to reveal what’s under the shell.” Such historical and scientific facts are combined with contemporary cultural touchstones in a style that is witty, engaging and descriptive.

Stark also adds moments from her own personal history, which provides a perfect balance to the data points and statistics. From egg experiments with her dad and decorating Ukrainian pysanky eggs with her mom, to her decision to have her ovaries removed to stave off the high likelihood of developing ovarian cancer due to an inherited gene mutation, Stark is skilled at making connections between eggs’ symbolic meaning and real-life significance. Egg is surprising, revealing and entertaining. After reading this delightful book, you will never look at an egg the same way again.

Blending fascinating factoids, historical tales and her own personal stories, Lizzie Stark uncovers the remarkable, unusual and extreme cultural history of the egg.
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In the age of COVID-19, it is impossible not to appreciate how a virus can upend societies, reshape politics and divide populations. But what many of us do not know, and what Pathogenesis: A History of the World in Eight Plagues makes clear, is that viruses and bacteria have been integral to all of human history—including the emergence of Homo sapiens as the sole surviving human species on the planet. In his debut book, public health scholar Jonathan Kennedy explains the complex interplay of humans, germs and animals, and the consequences of those interactions.

Most of us know about the carnage of the Black Death and the devastating impact smallpox had on Indigenous populations. But there have been many other plagues, and the ways their combined effects helped create the modern world make for compelling reading. For example, Kennedy tells how the bubonic plague was a significant factor in creating a new European economy, which in turn influenced the colonization of the Americas. That colonization resulted in not only the decimation of Native populations but also the introduction of enslaved West Africans to take Native Americans’ place as forced laborers—as well as the introduction of the viruses that cause yellow fever and malaria. These diseases contributed to the liberation of Haiti from colonial rule, as well as the economic conditions that supported chattel slavery and its attendant horrors in the Southern American colonies. These forces in turn gave rise to other deadly epidemics that had their own repercussions, and on and on.

Kennedy is not arguing that germs were the sole contributors to these and other historical events; economic, sociological and political factors also played their roles. But Pathogenesis makes a convincing case that germs did help mold history—and that history in turn affected how germs evolved and traveled around the globe with ferocious efficacy. Kennedy’s final chapters are cautionary but not pessimistic. What has happened in the past can happen again—but not necessarily in the same way. With this knowledge, perhaps we can be better armed when, not if, the next plague emerges.

Public health scholar Jonathan Kennedy makes a convincing case that germs, viruses and diseases have helped to mold human history.
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Have you ever wanted to visit space? Reading public astronomer Philip Plait’s Under Alien Skies: A Sightseer’s Guide to the Universe is the next best thing. Beginning with that closest rock, the moon, Plait describes at length what it would feel like to land on the lunar surface, from the bizarre sensation of shuffle-walking because of the difference in gravity to the pesky bits of crushed-up rock, called regolith, that would inevitably dust one’s spacesuit. His vivid imagination combines with his deep and specific scientific knowledge to engage—and educate—lay readers. 

As the book progresses, Plait moves from the familiar—the moon, Mars, Saturn and even Pluto—to wilder reaches and more conceptual destinations. My favorite chapter imagines a spaceship landing on the surface of the Star Wars planet Tatooine; the movie clip of Luke Skywalker standing at dusk beneath a sky with two suns provides the basis for Plait’s enthusiastic explanation of what conditions could lead to a sunset that looks, well, exactly like that. This was a moment, he points out, when Hollywood actually got space right (unlike their interpretations of black holes, which he explores in a later chapter).

Plait could dance circles around what most of us know about space. He has a Ph.D. in astronomy and has even professionally analyzed images from the Hubble Space Telescope. And yet, through the imaginative premise of this book, Plait finds ways to talk about how an everyday person would experience space: what Saturn’s rings would look like up close, how the landscape of Mars might stir associations with the barren, red scenery of the American West, why some stars appear blue and some appear red, what it might feel like to land on an asteroid. By grounding his prose in bodily sensations and then explaining why he believes something would look or feel a certain way, Plait doesn’t just look up at the sky and dream but really envisions what it would be like to spend a summer among the stars.

Have you ever wanted to visit space? Reading public astronomer Philip Plait’s Under Alien Skies is the next best thing.

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