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GABY D’ALESSANDRO

Balancing reverence for nature with respect for the limits of human knowledge, the books reviewed below offer a mix of scientific optimism and caution. Tag along on a voyage to planets where alien life thrives, or join a wacky romp to the future where origami robots take shape. Delve into a tale of a controversial predator reintroduction program or belly up to an evolution-inspired feast. Why would a man risk his life for a stranger? How did primitive tissue transplants evolve into “off-the-shelf” organs? What might a scientist learn from Buddhist philosophy or from steampunk fiction? These answers and more await you.


The Fear Factor

The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between

Abigail Marsh
Basic Books
2017
320 pp.
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More than 20 years ago, the selfless act of a complete stranger affected the course of Abigail Marsh’s life. Now a social psychologist, in The Fear Factor, Marsh invites readers to join her as she explores the biology underlying extraordinary altruism. Translating technical papers into easily understood prose and incorporating personal stories, she answers the question of why a man risked his life to save hers and reveals the complex connections among fear, altruism, and psychopathy.

To study extraordinary altruism, Marsh voyages through psychology and neuroscience experiments and travels deep inside the brain, unmasking the integral role of the amygdala, an almond-shaped collection of neurons. She revisits classic studies, such as Stanley Milgram’s controversial research on obedience, and draws upon brain imaging studies of kidney donors (a population that serves as a proxy for extraordinary altruism) to build the book’s thesis. Repeatedly emphasized and well supported, Marsh uncovers that a person’s sensitivity to others’ fear serves as a strong marker for both extraordinary altruism and psychopathy. (Extraordinary altruists display high sensitivity to others’ fear, with low sensitivity a hallmark of psychopathy.) Amygdala activity and the brain chemical oxytocin form the biological bases for these behaviors.

Chapter by chapter, Marsh moves from heroic to “antiheroic” behavior, from the psychopathic brain and brains of children with psychopathic tendencies, then to “the other side of the curve.” Here, she describes the extraordinary altruists and the “milk of human kindness,” oxytocin. She closes with a chapter addressing whether humans can be better, both as individuals and as societies.

Many recent books that address fear focus on overcoming anxiety, modifying behavior to influence neural activation patterns, technical aspects of the amygdala, or detailed laboratory findings. The Fear Factor fills a gap, bridging popular and technical literature.

Marsh’s dynamic prose brings scientific studies and technical topics to life. However, her candor with respect to her career trajectory conveys the joy of scientific discovery, collaboration, mentoring, and international connections and distinguishes this work from others in the popular science genre. The combination of thorough investigation and personal research experiences creates a volume far more engaging than those typically written by academics.

That said, several sections grow long-winded. Chapter 6, for example, meanders through 33 pages before revealing the scientific punch line: the critical role of oxytocin in response to fear. In addition, although a handful of photographs and illustrations reinforce the narrative, one or two functional magnetic resonance images would have enhanced some of the author’s main points. The penultimate chapter, “Can we be better?,” provides four recommendations for becoming more altruistic, deviating from the book’s main thesis and teetering on overreach.

But The Fear Factor’s virtues far eclipse its shortcomings. Those who seek to comprehend the origin of fear, altruism, and elements of human nature will find this book a key factor in their increased understanding.

About the author

The reviewer is at the McClure Center for Public Policy, University of Idaho, Boise, ID 83702, USA.


Soonish

Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything

Kelly Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith
Penguin Press
2017
368 pp.
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Curiosity is a beautiful thing, and Kelly and Zach Weinersmith have it in spades. Their coauthored Soonish is an unabashed nerd-out of a book, zinging from outer space to DNA, hardly pausing for breath.

The book is ostensibly divided into 10 technologies that will be here “soonish.” But the Weinersmiths are far too broad-minded to consider a technology to be something specific, such as a new kind of carbon nanotube or brain-imaging technique. What they really mean is the capability to do something that humans could never do before, regardless of the exact engineering details. For example, the chapter on programmable matter asks what it would take to make physical objects adaptable into many forms and then dives into four-dimensional printing, origami robots, and minirobot swarms.

In each chapter, the authors savor the weirdest ideas they can find (think rocket balloons, brick-laying robots, and neurotrophic electrodes) and punctuate them with corny cartoons. However, they always bring the discussion back to the essential scientific facts and engineering constraints that make some things hard to do. In the chapter on bioprinting, for example, they point out that extruding cells is like firing tomatoes from a cannon—shoot them too quickly and they burst. In the chapter on what it will take to enable cheap access to space, they explain just how much faster orbital velocity is than even the fastest of supersonic jets.

The gleeful geeking out makes for a great read—I couldn’t help chuckling or outright cracking up a number of times—while surreptitiously teaching some really important science. It’s a winning combination. The sheer breadth of topics covered is also amazing: Probably no other book in history has seriously described the science behind both tentacle construction robots and the human nasal cycle.

Zach Weinersmith

The authors make sure to address the concerns and effects of these technologies if they were to become real. Biohackers could use synthetic biology to bring back smallpox, for example, and ubiquitous virtual-reality glasses could completely destroy personal privacy.

The book also asks how these technologies could change the world. Unfortunately, this is one of the few places that it stumbles. The authors suggest, for example, that 3D-printed housing might help Syrian refugees. Although we can’t rule that out, it’s pretty far down the list of solutions that governments and nongovernmental organizations should probably fund to house displaced Syrians.

The book would make a great gift for that friend who always asks questions like “but why couldn’t we just mine platinum on asteroids—come on, aren’t you a scientist?” The Weinersmiths have done all the homework for you on this and many other far-out questions, and—from the looks of it—they had a great time doing it.

About the author

The reviewer is at Conservation X Labs, Washington, DC 20009, USA.


American Wolf

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West

Nate Blakeslee
Crown
2017
320 pp.
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Once, while I was watching a wolf with a group of students along a roadside in Yellowstone National Park, a National Park Service Toyota pulled up and one of the most famous wolf watchers stepped out, radio antennae in hand. As we gathered around, Rick McIntyre, a “wolf interpreter” at Yellowstone since 1994, pulled out a camp chair and proceeded to tell us the story of the wolf in view, “755”; his brother, “754”; their mate, “06”; and long-time alpha male “21.”

McIntyre features prominently in American Wolf, Nate Blakeslee’s engaging new book about Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley wolf pack, as do the wolves he told us about that day. Blakeslee traces the interpreter’s long career observing wolves and uses it to weave the story of the wolf pack’s survival in a harsh landscape, with anecdotes about researchers, park managers, community members, and volunteer wolf observers. Recalling McIntyre’s early years at Yellowstone, for example, Blakeslee describes the tension that existed in nearby communities, many of whom were skeptical of the wolves’ reintroduction to the park. “Over time he [Rick] came to know which gas stations, restaurants, motels, and curio shops were run by pro-wolf proprietors, and which were anti-wolf. … In some cases, entire communities were considered to be on one side or the other.”

In 1995, after years of negotiation, 15 Canadian wolves were captured and released in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park. Lamar quickly became a mecca for citizen scientists and professional wolf watchers as roadside viewings of wolves in the valley became daily occurrences. The general public watched side by side with scientists as the wolves claimed territories, raised young, and established new packs. Numbers became legends, and invoking “21” or “06,” for example, would bring knowing looks among veteran wolf watchers.

THOMAS WEBER/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

A wolf peers through the trees in in Yellowstone National Park.

American Wolf provides a glimpse into the social fabric of the wolves themselves. Recalling the moment when 755 and 754 left their own pack to join 06, for example, Blakeslee writes, “Instead of squatting, she raised her leg to scent-mark a tree, then scratched the earth nearby, lest her sign be missed somehow. It was the mark of an alpha female, and its message was unmistakable: This land is mine.”

Although focused on the stories of specific wolves, American Wolf also introduces readers more generally to the tensions that can arise when predators coexist with ranchers, livestock, hunters, and tourists. During the court battles that began soon after the wolves’ reintroduction, which sought to determine whether to allow wolf hunting around Yellowstone, a vibrant tourism industry developed around observing them. Blakeslee effectively captures the conflicts that occurred between those who believed that “overreaching bureaucrats in Washington had rammed wolves down their throats” and the scientists and other observers captivated by these creatures.

American Wolf is a must read for researchers, citizen scientists, and visitors to Yellowstone, where the story of the wolves continues to evolve. With nuance and careful reporting, Blakeslee blends citizen science with research data and with politics to provide a balanced and insightful view of one of the country’s most controversial predator reintroductions.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA.


Insider Trading

Insider Trading: How Mortuaries, Medicine and Money Have Built a Global Market in Human Cadaver Parts

Naomi Pfeffer
Yale University Press
2017
372 pp.
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Donating parts of one’s body, either when alive (e.g., blood, kidneys, or eggs) or after death (e.g., eyes, skin, lung, or heart), is an acceptable and commonplace occurrence in many countries around the world and has been so in both the United States and the United Kingdom for well over a century. But what happens to these tissues and organs after death? How are they obtained and distributed? Who has the right to donate or harvest parts from a cadaver? Do potential donors understand how their donations will be taken and used? Do recipients know what they are receiving?

These are some of the questions Naomi Pfeffer tackles in Insider Trading. Focusing on three organs in particular—the skin, the eyes, and the pituitary glands—Pfeffer delves into the history and practices of tissue procurement and the varied uses of human parts. She also explores the differences in legislation, guidelines, and policies surrounding tissue donations in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Burns and eye damage sustained in combat during World War I propelled the initial collection of skin, as well as eye and corneal harvesting. During the same period, the belief that growth hormone could help people of short stature obtain a more socially acceptable height drove the harvesting of hundreds of thousands of pituitary glands from human cadavers. But as the collection of these tissues began to gain traction, so, too, did questionable procurement practices. In chapter 29, Pfeffer describes a particularly egregious example, in which medical examiners’ assistants in Texas were paid $50 for each next-of-kin agreement they obtained, while county supervisors accepted bids for the right to extract parts from cadavers.

Through trial and error, surgeons and scientists were uncovering the immunology of tissue grafting for much of the 20th century while society was beginning to debate the ethics of acquiring and transplanting human body parts. This ultimately led to the establishment of legal precedents both to ensure that tissues were available and to protect personal rights. The rights of the next of kin  were at times upheld, while at other times, they were denied. In 1985, for example, a mother sued the Georgia Lions Eye Bank after her baby died of sudden infant death syndrome and the child’s corneas were collected without her knowledge or consent. The state court initially ruled in favor of the mother. This decision, however, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that there was no constitutionally protected right to a decedent’s body in the state of Georgia.

Cadaver parts, reveals Pfeffer, have become a viable business and are now used for everything from life-saving organ transplants to hip replacements to cosmetic reconstructions. Tissue banks are increasingly adopting a more commercial approach, with some now even offering “off-the-shelf” organs that can be ordered from catalogs.

Pfeffer’s well-researched and enlightening book also includes extensive reference material for those interested in further study. It should be read by transplant recipients, donors and donor families, and legislators.

About the author

The reviewer is at the American Society for Radiation Oncology, Arlington, VA 22202, USA.


Clockwork Futures

Clockwork Futures: The Science of Steampunk and the Reinvention of the Modern World

Brandy Schillace
Pegasus Books
2017
336 pp.
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“Steampunk,” for the unfamiliar, is a 19th-century aesthetic characterized by a fictional world where modern conveniences abound, propelled by atypical power sources (e.g., steam and coal) and energy convenience (e.g., gears and cogs). Clockwork Futures tells the stories of the real-life inventions that inspired the machines of the genre. The inventions enshrined in steampunk were often ahead of their time, were sometimes misguided, and were occasionally outright catastrophic, but, as author Brandy Schillace reveals, they celebrate the ingenuity and imagination that go into scientific research, regardless of the outcome.

The book is arranged to tell the story of what Schillace believes to be the dichotomous drivers of discovery: chaos versus order, darkness versus light, privation versus industry, anarchy versus control, and, finally, death versus immortality. In the first section (chaos versus order), she draws connections between a world controlled by a clock in S. M Peters’s steampunk novel Whitechapel Gods and the work of Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, whose efforts brought mathematical order to the heavens. Frankenstein’s monster makes an illustrative appearance in the next section (darkness versus light) as the fictional embodiment of Luigi Galvani’s 18th-century work on animal electricity. Part 4, which explores the push and pull of anarchy and control, tackles a uniquely social component of steampunk commentary, using Jules Verne’s Paris in the 20th Century to illustrate the folly of a society that would deny the value of art in favor of relentless scientific progress.

The section on death versus immortality brings the reader from the 19th century to a timeless frame of reference: the iconic steampunk hero, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is not generally recognized as a scientist, but Schillace draws connections between criminal and scientific investigations, describing, for example, how both methods of inquiry must fit the evidence (or data), rather than the other way around. The immortality to which Schillace alludes comes from Holmes’s versatility as a character and the endurance of the scientific method rather than an actual example of thwarted death, real or fictional.

INHAUSCREATIVE/ISTOCKPHOTO

Steampunk-style dirigibles invoke and exaggerate the risks posed by real-life aircraft.

One recurrent idea in Clockwork Futures is the notion that advances in technology can have unintended consequences. Perhaps not surprising, given the genre’s focus on steam from coal, the book delves specifically into environmental degradation with regard to industrialization. Unintended consequences make another appearance later on, as Shillace describes Thomas Edison’s concerns about the safety of alternating current—concerns that seemed to prove well warranted by the unpredictable performance of the first electric chair. She concludes with a reference to an interview conducted by Paul Virilio with the French cultural theorist Sylvére Lotringer in 1997. “Every new technology,” argued Lotringer, “invents its own perilous accident.”

Schillace thoroughly examines the world of steampunk in the context of history and society in a way that will initiate a deeper appreciation of the genre. Her careful retelling of both well-known and obscure stories may even motivate further consumption of these works by the scientific reader.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Center for Environmental Research and Education, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA 15282, USA.


The Monastery and the Microscope

The Monastery and the Microscope: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mind, Mindfulness, and the Nature of Reality

Wendy Hasenkamp with Janna R. White, Eds.
Yale University Press
2017
397 pp.
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Although, on the surface, Buddhist contemplative tradition and Western science would appear to represent divergent perspectives, a closer look at these disciplines shows that they are both deeply rooted in the intellectual pursuit of knowledge and a desire to understand the complexities of human existence through empirically verified observations. Individuals from these two sectors who would seek to engage in respectful discourse might therefore find that they have much to learn from one another.

Such an exchange is expertly illuminated in The Monastery and the Microscope. In this captivating and insightful book, Wendy Hasenkamp and Janna White transport the reader to southern India for a private audience with the Dalai Lama as he engages in genuine, and at times humorous, dialogue with leading scientists on topics such as physics, neuroscience, and psychology.

Hasenkamp and White have provided a simple and untouched record of these dialogues, as they occurred during the 2013 “Mind & Life,” an annual event run by the Mind & Life Institute since 1987. The two authors have skillfully curated the hours of conversation that occurred across this 6-day meeting and provide contextual background where appropriate, making The Monastery and the Microscope both a historical record of the event and a delightful educational experience.

The Dalai Lama’s natural scientific curiosity is highlighted throughout the book, as is his clear desire to use Buddhism to promote effective solutions to the humanitarian issues facing the world. In his discussions, he calls for the development of what he terms secular ethics, ethics that appeal to both religious and nonreligious people.

ALTAF QADRI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Dalai Lama prepares to address a group of Emory University faculty and Tibetan Buddhist monks in 2012.

Describing the vital role of scientists within this framework, the Dalai Lama states, “People like me, religious people, what we can do is only collaborate and offer support. But the main contribution, I feel, should come from the scientists.” He tasks both scientists and religious scholars with the responsibility of developing “a more holistic approach to the education of our younger generation” so as to ease human suffering.

Throughout the discussions, evidence of a convergence between Tibetan Buddhism and Western science emerges. As we have moved into the 21st century, an increasing number of Western scientists have set aside an exclusively reductionist approach to the world and have turned their attention toward investigating the nature of internal phenomena. There is, for example, a growing body of evidence showing that meditation and introspective reflection can have profound effects on the brain, inducing neuroplastic changes previously thought implausible.

This book provides a welcome and necessary look at how individuals from seemingly distant disciplines can engage with one another in transformative dialogue. The cumulative experience and knowledge gained from Buddhist investigation and from scientific methodology have the capacity to shape our existence.

About the author

The reviewer is at Cohen Veterans Bioscience, Cambridge, MA 02142, USA.


Dinner with Darwin

Dinner with Darwin: Food, Drink, and Evolution

Jonathan Silvertown
University of Chicago Press
2017
240 pp.
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With today’s well-established foodie culture, what better way to serve up a book on evolution than by appealing to a reader’s stomach? In Dinner with Darwin, biologist Jonathan Silvertown details the relationships between humans, our nutrition, and our environment through the lens of evolution. The story is structured as a 10-course meal of “evolutionary gastronomy,” bookended by chapters on the history of cooking and the future of food.

Using anecdotes about vegetables, herbs, meats, cheeses, and more, Silvertown demonstrates how our relationships with food have defined not only our cultures and histories but also the evolutionary trajectories of our species and that of those we eat. Domestication of cereal grains in the Fertile Crescent of southwest Asia, for example, led to physiological changes in the cereals that make them more suited to human use and consumption (e.g., nonshattering seed heads, larger seeds, and adaptation to harsher climates). It also led to genetic and physiological changes in humans. In early agrarian societies, evolution began selecting for humans with the capacity to regulate blood-sugar spikes associated with increased starch consumption, thus decreasing the likelihood of type 2 diabetes.

Our relationships with food species also affected the evolution of species that interact closely with us. Silvertown notes, for example, that dogs, like humans, evolved to digest starch around the same time that we domesticated cereals.

SHIRONOSOV/ISTOCKPHOTO

The human diet pairs perfectly with a tantalizing tour of evolution, finds Jonathan Silvertown in Dinner with Darwin.

Throughout the book, Silvertown adeptly introduces various evolutionary concepts. The chapter on dairy, for example, explores gradualism (vis-à-vis the origins of milk production in mammals), horizontal gene transfer (as exemplified by the evolutionary advantage conferred by milk’s use of lactose as a sugar source), and the evolution of mutualisms (with respect to the diverse microbiome of cheese).

The book is short, leaving hardly enough space to dig into “courses” as they are served, chapter by chapter. In chapter 3, for example, Silvertown touches on our relationship with shellfish but focuses primarily on how eating them allowed our species to populate the planet. The chapter has little to no discussion about the potential evolutionary interactions between hominids and shellfish. Similarly, the book’s closing chapter on the future of food is far too limited a space to digest the heady topics it broaches, such as the burgeoning global population, land-use trade-offs, and genetically modified organisms.

It helps to think of each section as a series of beautifully plated amuse-bouche, raising tantalizing and rich ideas for future consideration. The book left me feeling as if I had attended a dinner party, where foodies, historians, and scientists mingled, sharing vignettes on various food-related topics. Each “bite,” although not always satiating, left me contemplating the relationships between genetic changes, speciation, and, at times, even the future of our planet.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Resources Assessment Division, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC 20250, USA.


Planet Hunters

Planet Hunters: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Lucas Ellerbroek
Reaktion Books
2017
267 pp.
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Are we alone in the universe? In Planet Hunters, Lucas Ellerbroek traces the story of this question from its beginnings during the age of Copernicus and Galileo to the present day, teaching us the relevant science as he goes. Ellerbroek is particularly skilled at inserting the “astronomy backstory,” giving accessible introductions to both historical ideas and cutting-edge research, and showing how big questions are teased into empirical science.

An astronomer and researcher at the University of Amsterdam, Ellerbroek begins by sharing a snippet of overheard dinner conversation among his academic colleagues: “You thought it was difficult to convince people about the theory of evolution? Darwin had it easy. Astronomy—now that’s a dangerous profession!” Thus, the stage is set for a quick introduction to 400 years of researchers, charlatans, and enthusiasts who brought the field to the modern day.

Bounded by technology and limited by political and religious climates, the men and women who pursued the questions of exoplanets and extraterrestrial life throughout history were often unpopular and were sometimes considered downright heretical. As Ellerbroek explains, at the turn of the 20th century, planet hunters “were the darlings of the public, but were dismissed as pariahs by their scientific colleagues.”

The majority of the book is devoted to the rapid developments in planetary science in the past 50 years, with Ellerbroek asking the major influencers driving the search for extraterrestrial life to relive their early years. Thus, rather than merely learning about the latest research, we are treated instead to stories about everything from faulty equipment to a zeitgeist that pushed researchers to cloak their exoplanetary work under generically titled grant requests. Summarizing the daunting challenges Bill Borucki faced during his initial efforts to establish a large-scale star-monitoring system, for example, Ellerbroek writes, “[H]e wanted to mount an instrument that did not yet exist on a satellite he hadn’t yet got and send it up into space on a rocket to continually monitor 10,000 stars with a precision that had never yet been attained on Earth, to find planets for which there was no evidence at all of their existence.”

As a reader, I felt the excitement as incremental progress slowly pulled those who search for habitable planets from the fringes to the limelight, not just giving exoplanetary research solid scientific standing but making it the “party you really want to gatecrash.”

Although the book is about one narrow field of astronomy, it is also about scientific tenacity: teaching the reader how to deconstruct unknowable questions into their testable parts; demonstrating that the limitations of the technology can be worked around or overcome; reminding us that there is great value in pursuing what drives us; and showcasing that patience, passion, and persistence—rather than genius—are necessary ingredients for success. Most important, the work of these planet hunters reminds us that the fear that we may not be able to answer the big questions should not stop us from asking them.

About the author

The reviewer is at Service Robotics & Technologies, Arlington, VA 22202.