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Science reads for the summer of ’17

BENEDETTO CRISTOFANI

From the far-off surface of Mars to the much closer—but no less mysterious—human brain (the frontier between your ears), this year’s picks invite readers to jump into the scientific process feet first. Try your hand at home brewing with an archaeologist’s guide to recreating ancient alcohols. Ride the CRISPR wave with an insider’s overview of gene editing. Take your campfire stories to the next level with a collection of strange tales from nuclear history or a dramatic retelling of Earth’s real-life apocalypses. What insect threw the federal government into chaos in 1793? How did religion lead early researchers to a “Russian nesting doll” theory of reproduction? Which well-known chemist once paid a quarter of a million dollars for a portrait with his chemistry equipment? Find out in the reviews that follow.


Ancient Brews

Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-Created

Patrick E. McGovern
W. W. Norton
2017
352 pp.
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Over the course of a long career, Patrick McGovern has become an archaeological celebrity of sorts, collaborating with researchers around the world to analyze humanity’s chemical footprints—most famously, those we leave behind in the pursuit of fermentation. In the introduction to Ancient Brews, McGovern describes our search for a good nip as essentially a biological drive to consume a universal substance—the genetic underpinnings of which we share with many species, including other primates, honey bees, fruitflies, and zebra finches, just to name a few.

Outside academia, McGovern’s work (if not necessarily McGovern himself) has also gained recognition as a result of his long-standing partnership with Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery. Working, and sometimes globetrotting, together, McGovern and Calagione have, over the years, labored to recreate a series of “ancient ales” based on chemical signatures from many diverse archaeological sites. The core of Ancient Brews comprises short histories for seven such concoctions (plus a bonus cocktail!) from times and places as diverse as Neolithic China, Iron Age Anatolia, and Pre- through Postclassic Mesoamerica.

Chapter by chapter, McGovern presents the process of moving from archaeological discovery to contemporary re-creation, providing readers with cultural histories and carefully describing the trials and tribulations of archaeological science. McGovern repeatedly emphasizes the precariousness of reconstructing the past from limited data and entertainingly describes the contemporary negotiations involved in reproducing ancient brews that are sufficiently “authentic” yet still palatable. To really bring the process home to readers, brewing formulas are provided at the end of each chapter, along with recipes for various pairing dishes (these being only very loosely “archaeological”).

For all that is good and fun in Ancient Brews, however, several critiques must be made. As is unfortunately common with such sweeping overviews, there is a tendency to perpetuate cultural essentialisms and elide the temporal and spatial diversity of human societies. A typical example, from within this reviewer’s purview, is that many of Europe’s pre-Roman inhabitants are inaccurately identified, in both explicit and implicit terms, as “Celtic.”

Certain information given was also incorrect or internally inconsistent. For instance, the Etruscans are first identified as proto-Celtic and then Celtic (they were neither linguistically nor materially “Celtic,” although they traded with, and became eventually entangled with, Celtic peoples). The Etruscan language is then correctly, but contradictorily, identified as non–Indo-European.

Ancient Brews falls into a genre of cross-cultural comparison that, rooted in a sociobiological tradition, focuses on the necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, conditions for humanity’s love of all things fermented. This risks implicitly reducing the diversity of human practices and beliefs around fermented beverages to, for instance, functional, economic, or biodeterministic explanations.

Despite these shortcomings, Ancient Brews is an excellent example of science outreach: honest about the limits of research, forthright about the tentative nature of results, and demonstrative of how scientific research can be a personal passion.

About the author

Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA


A Crack in Creation

A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution

Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
2017
301 pp.
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Biochemist Jennifer Doudna didn’t set out to make waves when she delved into research on an obscure bacterial immune system in 2007. But then again, she didn’t know that she’d soon be working on a tool with the ability to alter life as we know it. The ripple she ultimately made in the research community was no ordinary wave. Instead, it was a tsunami.

A Crack in Creation, coauthored by Doudna and her former student, Samuel Sternberg, chronicles the origin and potential applications of CRISPR, the powerful new gene-editing technique that established Doudna as a household name in scientific circles. They lay out the story in two parts—“The Tool” and “The Task”—and tell the tale in the first person from Doudna’s perspective.

The first section begins with a history of gene-editing technology and how these research endeavors were largely propelled by the quest to eradicate genetic diseases. Although refining finicky techniques held promising potential for human health, it wasn’t a line of inquiry that Doudna and her group pursued until a chance encounter with a colleague introduced her to CRISPR.

Although this section of the book could be perceived as tedious for anyone with a working knowledge of genetics or molecular biology, bear with the refresher course. Reviewing the fundamentals will enable your imagination to unspool. You’ll find yourself pausing to plot your own CRISPR-inspired science project—or science fiction scenario.

In the second half of the book, the authors outline the staggering potential applications of CRISPR technology. These are at times benevolent, imbued with promises of curing genetic diseases or engineering new supercrops to feed a growing population. But they also veer toward the horrifying, evoking fears of unregulated testing on human embryos, eugenics, and the creation of novel biological weapons.

It’s the narrative between the lines that propels the book forward, however. Lurking within Doudna’s discussion of when studies were published and presentations given is the knowledge that many of the researchers mentioned are now embroiled in a legal battle over a nascent industry that’s valued in the billions. When the authors recount the Obama Administration’s 2015 pronouncement against editing the human germ line for clinical purposes in another section, it’s hard not to envision what the future might hold for CRISPR in the new political climate.

Doudna and Sternberg predict that within a generation there will be little left untouched by CRISPR. As such, it’s impossible not to wonder if the motivation behind the book is to stake Doudna’s claims on the technology or if, perhaps, it is meant to serve as a preemptive mea culpa for unleashing a technology that will irrevocably alter life on Earth.

At the end of the prologue, Doudna invites readers to join the discussion about gene editing—to ride out the proverbial tsunami alongside her. However, the wave is coming whether you’re prepared to paddle or not.

About the author

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, Palisades, NY 10964, USA


4th Rock from the Sun

4th Rock from the Sun: The Story of Mars

Nicky Jenner
Bloomsbury Sigma,
2017
280 pp.
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Why should we invest money, time, and resources to go to a barren planet that seems bent on destroying our robotic emissaries? In 4th Rock from the Sun, Nicky Jenner mounts a compelling case for why Mars is worth the effort.

Early Greek philosophers noticed that Mars seemed to reverse its direction of motion for a while before coming to a standstill and eventually resuming its forward motion again. We know now that this is a result of the fact that Mars and Earth travel around the Sun at slightly different speeds. This seemingly subtle detail proved crucial in determining that Earth was actually not the center of the universe. Mars has been keeping scientists busy ever since.

From theories of ancient oceans to speculation about underground reservoirs that could sustain life, from lost magnetic fields to lethal radiation levels, the book details all we know about our most explored planetary neighbor. It also references a wealth of robotic science, describing the exploits of NASA’s martian rovers, which serve as sentinels of a coming human presence on Mars.

NASA

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this close-up of an impact crater in the Sirenum Fossae region of Mars in 2015.

There is a chapter for everyone: The science fiction geek who spends her time thinking about laser swords and warp drive will learn about geology and the intricacies of navigating the solar system, while the hobby geologist will be introduced to a multitude of examples of pop culture inspired by the red planet. The latter is where the book really shines, as Jenner considers the influence of Mars on our history and culture.

Citing the 1940 science fiction story John Carter of Mars, she reveals how 20th-century writers conceived of the planet as a dying world inhabited by Martians, a view that was widely shared at the time, including by some scientists. The slapstick exploding brains of Mars Attacks! also get a mention, as does an episode of Doctor Who featuring sentient Mars water. One is left with a greater appreciation for how pervasive Mars is in science fiction tropes and how tantalizing it is to imagine the many forms that martian life may take.

Jenner also gives a vivid account of the perils posed by space and conditions on Mars, describing what makes it so hard to send satellites to the red planet (distance for one, but also the fact that the atmosphere is too thin to slow a spacecraft significantly but too thick to ignore in calculations) and why it would be even harder to send humans on an extended trip there (the astronauts being slowly irradiated and health problems caused by zero gravity being the most worrisome).

4th Rock from the Sun is more motivational manifesto than instruction manual, offering just one chapter on the technical difficulties of going to Mars but an entire book on why we should still try. In doing so, it serves to inspire the reader to root for this next potential milestone in human history.

About the author

Institut für Geophysik und extraterrestrische Physik, Technische Universität Braunschweig, 38106 Braunschweig, Germany


The Secret Life of the Mind

The Secret Life of the Mind: How Your Brain Thinks, Feels, and Decides

Mariano Sigman
Little, Brown
2017
288 pp.
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The human brain is one of the most complex organs known to modern science, and many things are yet to be understood about how it shapes our identity—or how our identity can shape it. In his first book, The Secret Life of the Mind, Argentinian neuroscientist Mariano Sigman positions readers to explore the fundamentals of neuroscience and psychology in the hopes of uncovering the mysterious ways our brain controls how our faculties and personalities develop.

To comprehend how the brain is formed and how it creates the “Borders of Identity,” as one of the book’s early chapters is aptly titled, one must understand how learned behavior is established in childhood. In the book’s first chapter, Sigman describes the psychology of infants from how they discern patterns in language to how and at what age they develop self-control and a moral code. Here, he elegantly explains some of the psychological experiments that have given researchers insight into the brain development of children.

In one example, Sigman describes research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012, in which the brains of children who grew up in supportive environments were compared with a comparable cohort that lacked social stability. In adolescence, not only were the subjects’ behaviors distinct, the sizes and comparative complexity of their brains were strikingly different: The nurtured children exhibited larger brain size, whereas children with minimal support showed more pronounced ventricles and even signs of atrophy in the gray matter of the brain.

The other experiments Sigman describes in this section read like an impassioned lecture in introductory psychology, supplemented with sometimes long-winded analogies and personal anecdotes. In one particularly compelling passage, Sigman recounts the vulnerability he felt after undergoing a session of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

During the treatment, faint magnetic pulses were targeted to Sigman’s frontal cortex, and he was instructed to answer a series of questions, but only after waiting for a set period of time. Despite understanding the simple instructions, Sigman found that he was incapable of waiting the requisite period of time before answering. These more personal moments of reflection add warmth and context to the sometimes black-and-white nature of scientific studies.

Sigman builds on this meandering introduction with later chapters that delve into topics such as the formation of identity, consciousness, and how the brain changes during the lifetime of an adult, especially during learning. Individual studies, and lessons derived from philosophy or history, are presented in digestible, succinct passages. The insights revealed throughout the text coalesce in the book’s final chapter, where Sigman discusses education and how we may be able to use what we know about the brain to influence how we teach.

Although often rambling, Sigman provides vivid depictions of foundational behavioral psychology experiments and poses intriguing questions about how we view the organ that presides over our thoughts. The book’s exhaustive survey of experiments is, overall, enlightening, and Sigman’s clear passion for neuroscience makes it easy to browse.

About the author

Cell and Molecular Biology Graduate Program, Michigan State University, Grand Rapids, MI 49503, USA


Bugged

Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them

David MacNeal
St. Martin’s Press
2017
320 pp.
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A journalist by trade, David MacNeal awakened his “inner entophile” after pinning a large lubber grasshopper for the first time. In Bugged, he sets off on a journey to understand insects and the people who study them.

Bugged provides summaries of a range of fields, including integrated pest management, forensic entomology, and entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) while highlighting their important role in varied aspects of human society. Topics include the many parts played by these versatile creatures, from pet and pest to producer of honey to potential food source and vector of disease. Complex phenomena like the practice of releasing sterile mosquitoes into the wild to control diseases and honey bee colony collapse disorder are also well explained.

Each chapter introduces the reader to a given field of entomological study, describing its beginnings and explaining where it is today. Interspersed throughout are interviews with relevant experts, including scientists, pest control operators, curators, chefs, and a diverse array of others.

In a chapter entitled “First Responders,” for example, MacNeal explores the importance of less charismatic insects in cleaning up the environment and solving crimes. Here, he interviews ecologists in Ithaca, New York, who explain the concept of ecosystem services, describing how pest-controlling insects save as much as $4.5 billion each year in the United States alone. He also excitedly tags along on visits to labs and a body farm with forensic entomologists in San Marcos, Texas.

MacNeal does not shy away from the details of insect life, never passing up an opportunity to elicit “gross-out” reactions. While preparing an insect for pinning, for example, he gleefully describes removing the viscera and arranging the specimen in detail.

MATT CARDY/STRINGER/GETTY IMAGES

A curator at the Bristol Zoo holds a Lord Howe Island stick insect, one of the rarest insects in the world.

His childlike enthusiasm for insects is contagious. He frenetically lists facts (e.g., a yellow fever epidemic—precipitated by favorable breeding conditions for the Aedes aegypti mosquito—temporarily disbanded George Washington’s administration in 1793) and embraces irreverence (naming a cyborg cockroach Bill “F—ing” Murray, for example), making for an entertaining, if not occasionally scatterbrained, read. I noted several decidedly unscientific recommendations (he extols the virtues of natural pest control remedies after conducting a quick-and-dirty home experiment with tinctures that include everything from ground deer antlers to olive oil, for example), but overall the book would be an informative starting point for a reader unfamiliar with, but curious about, insects.

Entomology is a vast field of study populated with many passionate and unique people, and MacNeal takes full advantage of this. His interviews are where this book really shines, showcasing the passion typical of entomologists for insects and the living world at large. It’s as much a book about the oddities of the insect world as it is about the idiosyncrasies of the people in it, neither of which turn out to be as alien as they first appear.

About the author

Department of Entomology, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA


Atomic Adventures

Atomic Adventures: Secret Islands, Forgotten N-Rays, and Isotopic Murder—A Journey into the Wild World of Nuclear Science

James Mahaffey
Pegasus Books
2017
421 pp.
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Atomic Adventures, James Mahaffey’s latest contribution to the history of nuclear science, reads like a collection of spooky tales perfect for sharing around the campfire this summer. Have you heard the one about the Nazi engineer who built a nuclear reactor in Argentina? Or how a crazed father tried to poison his son with radiation? Or how the Japanese government hired Mexican spies to steal American atomic secrets?

Like any good campfire tale, the stories recounted in Atomic Adventures provoke equal amounts of horror, wonder, and skepticism. But Mahaffey has done his homework. The book is painstakingly researched, with generous footnotes and bibliographic lists of sources. (He concedes that quite a few of the far-fetched stories are, in fact, tall tales, taken from the memoirs of scientists with a flair for the dramatic.)

Anecdotes tumble forth onto the page with only the briefest transitions. One moment, readers are transported to a French laboratory in 1903, where Prosper-René Blondlot has discovered a new kind of invisible ray. The next, Mahaffey is describing a uranium enrichment plant in mid–20th-century Pakistan, where a team of physicists is building a bomb.

As a genre, many studies of nuclear history stick to a single, well-known site—Oak Ridge, Tennessee, or Los Alamos, New Mexico, for example—and are often closely linked to the American experience of World War II. Mahaffey’s globe-trotting atomic tour implicitly argues that nuclear history is global history, not simply American history.

In some ways, Atomic Adventures is reminiscent of historian Richard Rhodes’s book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Both works discuss the personalities of the atomic scientists and military staff involved in nuclear programs. But Mahaffey offers more than just history. He sets out to teach his readers about the science behind the stories. Whenever a bomb, plane, or reactor is mentioned, he jumps into a technically rich explanation of the science involved.

Most of Mahaffey’s tales are pure fun, but his more personal anecdotes offer a lesson. In 1989, several universities raced to prove the existence of a theoretical source of nuclear energy: cold fusion. Mahaffey recreates the tense laboratory atmosphere as he and his colleagues attempted to discover it. (Spoiler: Cold fusion still remains an elusive technology.) These passages give readers a glimpse into the real moments of frustration and jubilations of a researcher’s life.

In a culture fixated on accomplishment, it’s important to talk about the things that didn’t work. What Atomic Adventures does well is to celebrate the full arc of science: the good, the bad, and the quirky.

About the author

Department of the History of Science, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA


The Ends of the World

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions

Peter Brannen
Ecco
2017
342 pp.
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It’s disconcerting to remember that there are vast eons of geologic history recorded in the rocks just beneath our feet. Peter Brannen begins his surprisingly lyrical investigation of Earth’s mass extinctions on just such a juxtaposition: standing on the Palisades basalt in New Jersey, where a major die-off occurred more than 200 million years ago, while gazing toward the hubbub of New York City. He returns to this theme many times throughout The Ends of the World, evoking the image of rocks bursting with ancient secrets available to the curious observer.

Mass extinctions naturally spark our concern: What has to go wrong for the majority of life on Earth to die in a geological eye blink? When will it happen again? Brannen works forward in time from the inception of multicellular life through the many hazards of evolution on a geologically active planet, devoting a chapter to each of the “Big Five” mass extinctions of animal life.

As he explains, there are many ways Earth might try to kill us, from volcanic super-eruptions to less bombastic agents like greenhouse gases and suffocating masses of oxygen-free seawater. Brannen details these events and describes how they may have had catastrophic consequences for the ancient biosphere. He includes copious references to modern Earth for scale, as well as painting vivid pictures of the ecosystems that were decimated with each disaster.

JONATHAN BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES

The Dinogorgon Rubidgei was one of many creatures that did not survive the Permian extinction.

Brannen peruses highway roadcuts for fossils of ancient marine life in the company of both paleontologists and amateur fossil collectors. He journeys to the center of the Chicxulub impact crater in Mexico and to the site of purported tsunami deposits on a Texas ranch. In the book’s final chapters, he speculates about Earth’s future, using the insights of climate modelers and futurists to explore the near-term outcomes for human civilization. Further afield, he ruminates on the planet’s eventual sterile fate.

While Brannen paints vivid pictures of the many doomed players that populated previous scenes in the history of life, he also approaches the science of studying these lost worlds and their endings as the complex and evolving story that it is. He interviews experts who advocate for opposing models and presents alternative hypotheses regarding the historical context and kill mechanisms that precipitated previous mass extinctions, weaving a narrative not only of geological history but also of the push and pull of scientific debate. The integration of these two narratives, and Brannen’s care to impress upon the reader the depth of geologic time and the many unfamiliar biological regimes that have dominated our planet through the ages, are the book’s main strengths.

About the author

Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA


The Seeds of Life

The Seeds of Life: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Sharks’ Teeth to Frogs’ Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From

Edward Dolnick
Basic Books
2017
320 pp.
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Although the truth about how babies are made continues to be shrouded in innuendo and analogy, the science behind human reproduction is well known. If you rewind the clock a handful of centuries, however, the answer to “Where do babies come from?” was more likely to be guided by mysticism and guesswork than scientific consensus.

Tracing the path from early anatomists, through the great “egg versus sperm” debate in the 1700s, into the late 19th century when all of the pieces finally began to fit together, The Seeds of Life paints an amiable picture of blunder, discovery, and the ways that cultural biases and religion complicated scientific discovery in centuries past.

The book is organized into four parts, each full of intriguing anecdotes and colorful historical figures. In “Peering into the Body,” Dolnick begins with an overview of conception myths and ideas from the ancient world, eventually settling in with a slew of early anatomists who endeavored to understand the human body by taking it apart. Here, he traces the contributions made by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Andreas Vesalius to early theories of reproduction.

The quest continues in “The Search for the Egg,” which recounts the century-long debate between “ovists” and “spermists,” who were both certain that one or the other was solely responsible for the creation of new life but couldn’t agree on which.

DAPETHEAPE/ISTOCKPHOTO

Some early philosophers and physicians believed that every creature that would ever exist resided, in miniature, within members of the same species.

Religion and science come together in “Russian Dolls,” as Dolnick tackles the theory of preexistence (or preformation). Those who subscribed to this way of thought believed that every life was stashed away “in Adam’s testicles or in Eve’s ovaries,” each nestled inside the next larger one. Although the idea is laughable today, Dolnick explains how such a notion made sense to early scientists, who would not have conceived of a world without a divine creator. Wrote one scientist at the time, such a theory would “only appear bizarre to those who measure the wonders of the infinite powers of God according to the idea of their senses and of their imagination.”

Slowly but surely, the modern understanding of reproduction comes into focus in the book’s final section. The compelling climax starts with a frog in silk pants and only gets more interesting from there.

The book paints a stark picture of how women were viewed by early scientists; in summary: “Eggs were special. Women were not.” Although quick to highlight and criticize this dismissal, Dolnick sometimes treats that reality as an amusing anecdote. In chapter 6, for example, he summarizes Aristotle’s argument that although both semen and menstrual blood were essential for reproduction, semen alone gave shape to the new life, writing, “One sex performed magic; the other provided supplies.” An acknowledgment that many of the patriarchal systems of the past still hold sway in the present would have been more appropriate in these instances.

As a modern-day scientist, I found myself willing researchers of days long past to look just a little closer and think a bit more critically. In reality, the road to discovery is rarely as straightforward as it appears in hindsight, and The Seeds of Life captures that truth well.

About the author

Genetics Society of America, Bethesda, MD 20814, USA


Caesar’s Last Breath

Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us

Sam Kean
Little, Brown
2017
384 pp.
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The word “gas” appropriately comes from the Greek word for chaos (khaos): Within these intangible substances are trillions of tiny particles flying around at hundreds of miles an hour, forcefully slamming into each other, and ricocheting away in random directions. Yet, because gases are invisible to the naked eye, it is often easy to forget just how powerful and ubiquitous they are.

In Caesar’s Last Breath, Sam Kean describes how gases have played a lead role in many chapters of Earth’s history, from the beginning of the solar system to the current search for life on other planets. He interweaves scientific topics with tangential, but often humorous, stories about the people who helped to reveal important properties of gases. Who knew, for example, that Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, who discovered the role that oxygen plays in combustion, once paid the modern-day equivalent of $280,000 for a portrait that included himself, his wife, and his chemistry equipment?

The book is split into three sections: the nuts and bolts of atmospheric composition; how gases have influenced humans; and, finally, how humans have influenced the atmosphere. Each chapter focuses on a different gas or a set of gases. In one, Kean recounts the “chemical cowboys” whose insatiable desire to find compounds for bigger and better explosives in the 1800s led to lab accidents, innocent deaths, and a vain attempt to repair a maimed reputation (of which the Nobel Prize is a result). In another, he shares the history of how nitrous oxide once wavered between the social classifications of medicine and party drug and describes its eventual role in slashing the suicide rate of patients about to undergo surgery.

Kean’s ability to explain with clear, vivid analogies provides diverse readers access to previously remote scientific concepts. For example, the strong triple bonds in the nitrogen molecules that make up 78% of Earth’s atmosphere render it inaccessible to the living things that require it to survive, he writes at one point, likening the experience to “dying of thirst in the middle of the ocean.” His detailed historical narratives are also interspersed with fun facts (e.g., the Haber-Bosch process, which creates the fertilizer that helps grow half of the world’s food, is responsible for an entire 1% of the world’s energy consumption), offering new perspectives to those already well versed in the science. Readers intimidated by chemical formulas and mathematical equations will be pleased by their minimal presence in this book.

Despite the book’s breadth—Kean covers more than 15 distinct topics—its stories are informative and well organized. He inarguably succeeds with his goal of “mak[ing] these invisible stories of gases visible.”

About the author

Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA