Skip to main content


New books, fresh for fall


From space weapons to mind reading, the books on this year’s list tell tales of scientific transformation, balancing historical insights with urgent calls to action. Consider a transgender scientist’s reflections on his legacy or tag along on a quest to save a tiny porpoise from extinction. Crack open a history of immunology or confront the future of artificial intelligence. Why would 12 men dine on purposely poisoned foods? Can we overcome “chronophobia”? What can termites teach us about technology? Read on to discover these answers and more.

The Poison Squad

The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Deborah Blum
Penguin Press
352 pp.
Purchase this item now

In 1844, when Harvey Washington Wiley was born, the federal agency at which he would eventually become chief chemist had not even been created. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was founded in 1862. Yet Wiley is still the hero of Deborah Blum’s riveting, stomach-turning new book, The Poison Squad.

Whereas today as many as 15 federal agencies work with international, state, and local authorities to protect the American food supply, Wiley arrived on the scene when virtually no such protections existed. Before his retirement in March 1912, he and his team worked to implement some of the earliest food safety laws. But prior to doing so, they had to quantify how many of the food and drink products being consumed were adulterated (87% of the coffee samples tested, it turns out), determine the health effects of preservatives commonly found in food and drink (such as borax and salicylic acid), and communicate their findings to American consumers. Blum narrates the team’s scientific and political adventures, including their era-specific difficulties (preserving food without modern refrigeration) and the more enduring challenges to consumer protection (obstructionism).

The Poison Squad offers a gripping history of the more than 20 years it took to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, including all of the coalition building, advocacy, political failures, and cultural successes that accompany a major piece of legislation. Muckracking journalists such as Upton Sinclair aided Wiley’s team’s efforts, whereas backroom negotiations between companies and political figures stalled them. Budgets were slashed only to be restored; furious letters were drafted between Wiley and his various antagonists and allies; and an outpouring of support from American women and doctors ultimately helped Congress to pass the bill.

But passing a law isn’t the same as getting it funded, implemented, and enforced. The Poison Squad offers an account of the complex relationship between a law, the appropriations to support its implementation, the rules to carry it out, regulatory decisions about enforcement, and subsequent legal challenges that may alter or undermine it all.

Blum isn’t just telling one scientist’s story but a broader one about the relationship between science and society. And because that relationship is maintained in much the same way today as it was in Wiley’s time, The Poison Squad is a timely tale about how scientists and citizens can work together on meaningful consumer protections.

About the author

The reviewer is at the World Wildlife Fund, Washington, DC, 20037, USA.

Accessory to War

Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang
590 pp
Purchase this item now

In Accessory to War, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang give a sweeping panoramic overview of the enduring alliance between astrophysics and the military—from the Greeks to Galileo to GPS. The book’s key contribution is in documenting the various ways science has aided military endeavors over the millennia and making the sometimes-arcane source material accessible.

As the authors make clear, this isn’t a one-way street, with science simply enabling greater military prowess or lethality. The military “Vela” satellites of the 1960s and 1970s, for example, were looking for gamma-ray signatures from nuclear explosions on the ground during the Cold War. Instead they serendipitously found celestial gamma-ray bursts coming from the other direction, ushering in gamma-ray astrophysics.

And although space weapons may seem like a science fiction threat, they aren’t; China, Russia, and the United States are all investing in space weaponization capabilities right now. DeGrasse Tyson and Lang do a good job of summarizing the state of play regarding the prospect of weapons in space, describing, for example, how the major powers point fingers at each other to justify acquiring ever greater capabilities. The authors outline the various diplomatic initiatives—draft treaties and codes of conduct—that have been put forth to keep space peaceful and why these efforts haven’t met with much success so far.

In national security lingo, space is now cast as “congested, contested, and competitive,” necessitating weapons to guarantee freedom of passage. But ever advancing science and technology create their own military imperatives in space. This echoes the assessment of Herb York, a prominent Cold War nuclear physicist and first chief scientist of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), who, speaking about the arms race, memorably stated that, “the root of the problem has not been maliciousness, but rather a sort of technological exuberance that has overwhelmed the other factors that go into the making of overall national policy.”


Vela satellites, designed to detect nuclear explosions, serendipitously ushered in gamma-ray astrophysics.

There’s no question that national security imperatives have subsidized science, but they have also helped mold academic research. “Given the Cold War underpinnings of NASA’s very existence, no astrophysicist should see NASA as our personal science-funding agency,” we’re told. “We are the wagging tail on a large geostrategic dog.” Tyson and Lang sum it up succinctly: “Space exploration may pull in the talent, but war pays the bills.”

The Cold War architecture seems to be functioning well enough, but what do the authors envision going forward? This is one of many topics discussed for which more critical analysis and the authors’ personal views could have been enlightening. For those interested in a more analytic take on the interplay between science and the military, Daniel Sarewitz’s “Saving science” is a good starting point.

About the author

The reviewer was at the Space and Advanced Technology Office, U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC 20520, USA.

The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist

The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist

Ben Barres
MIT Press
160 pp.
Purchase this item now

In 2007, Stanford University neuroscientist Ben Barres published an essay comparing the experiences of female and male scientists. What made this essay noteworthy was that he wrote from personal experience. Barres, an accomplished researcher, was assigned female at birth and transitioned to male in 1997 at the age of 43. He lived openly as a transgender scientist until his death at the age of 63 from pancreatic cancer.

In his new, posthumously published book, The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist, Barres breaks the account of his life into three sections: Life, Science, and Advocacy. His candor and love for science transform the ensuing story into a portrait of a singular personality that was shaped by his status as an outsider.

Barres grew up in a working-class family in New Jersey. He describes the dissonance of being raised as a girl, revealing the “continued emotional pain… that my gender discordance caused me.” But during this period, Barres also developed a passion for science. After attaining a bachelor’s degree from MIT, he went on to earn a medical degree and a doctorate in neurobiology from Dartmouth and Harvard, respectively.

Although Barres reports that these early years in his career were generally happy, he carefully catalogs the gender barriers and sexism he faced during this period. For example, upon solving a difficult math problem in a class at MIT, he recounts how the professor accused him of having had a boyfriend solve it. Such experiences informed his politics and drove him to champion the rights of female scientists.

Barres’s passion for science is a consistent theme in the book and does not seem to have been diminished by either the sexism he faced as a young academic or the transphobia he encountered later on. He routinely worked 16- to 20-hour days and once attempted a week-long vacation but left after 15 minutes on the beach, deciding he would rather be in the lab.

Barres devoted his scientific career to understanding the role of glial cells in the brain. This choice of subject is fitting: at the time he began his work, glial cells were also outsiders, widely perceived as unimportant. True to form, Barres persisted, and his findings played a big part in changing dogma. Today, glia are recognized as playing crucial roles in the wiring of the brain.

Some readers may find the science in this book inaccessible, which is unfortunate because it is a central element. A description of an experiment suggesting that “target innervation induced RGCs to down-regulate jagged1 mRNA,” for example, sounds more like language used in a review article than in a memoir and fails to convey the drama of discovery or the full importance of his work. But for such lapses, Barres, who began writing this autobiography after his cancer diagnosis, should be forgiven.

In the end, although he reveals much that is insightful and important, the reader is left with the feeling that Barres had so much more to say.

About the author

The reviewer is at Prevail Therapeutics, New York, NY 10011, USA.


Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World

Marcia Bjornerud
Princeton University Press
218 pp.
Purchase this item now

Earth, according to Marcia Bjornerud, is proportionally analogous to a peach. The pit is the core; the fruit is the mantle; the skin is the crust. And peach fuzz? It’s the thickness of the atmosphere.

This is one example of the many wonderful analogies Bjornerud uses in Timefulness to help readers understand subjects ranging from Earth’s structure to the concept of geologic time. Bjornerud’s thesis is that having more people who can think like a geologist, rising above day-to-day concerns to conceive of the long-term consequences of our actions, will help society overcome many problems we face.

Bjornerud, an experienced field geologist, opens with a story about her first field research site on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, a location so remote and austere that it appears timeless. (Indeed, Svalbard literally has “No Official Time” because of a long-standing border disagreement.) It is from this benchmark that she gained an appreciation for the passing of time—a theme built on throughout the remainder of the book.

Bjornerud has a yeoman’s command of historical geology, which she executes by moving through the evolution of our understanding of the age of Earth. She traces the postulations of Charles Lyell, James Hutton, and others, then moves on to the discovery and application of modern radiomentric dating and chronostatigraphy. She writes of the human aversion to the passage of time, which she terms “chronophobia,” as epitomized by our narcissism and our obsession with defying our own ages.

Bjorneurd displays her wit in clever subchapter titles and headings. “Peak performances,” for example, cheekily introduces a discussion of how erosion paradoxically causes mountains to rise in elevation. Quotes from ancient philosophers and notables throughout history add color and levity, while salient storytelling keeps the narrative informative without being tedious.


A research trip to Svalbard impressed upon Marcia Bjornerud the amorphous nature of time.

Black-and-white, hand-drawn sketches illustrate geologic concepts throughout the book. Although the figures complement the conversational writing style, they may be a bit hard to comprehend for those with less than a basic understanding of geology. One figure, for example, illustrates a distant view of a tidal flat featuring algal stromatolites. A block diagram with wavy lines represents a fossilized sample in the foreground. It may be difficult for nongeologists to ascertain how these two images interrelate.

Still, Timefulness is a delightful and interesting read. The author’s cadence and the illustrator’s aforementioned figures made me feel as though I was having a glass of wine with a friend who was explaining geologic history while sketching on a napkin.

Will Timefulness help save the world? Only time will tell.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Delaware Geological Survey, University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716, USA.


Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez

Brooke Bessesen
Island Press
313 pp
Purchase this item now

In a poem for the recently extinct Yangtze River dolphin, Goodbye Baiji, author Brooke Bessesen laments the cetacean’s untimely departure: “We bored of your life, your struggle—We tired of your incessant need, your slow demise… What? You are gone?… Now what will we do, not do?” The baiji’s extinction in 2006 made Mexico’s tiny endemic porpoise, the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), the “world’s most endangered marine mammal.” Unlike the Yangtze River dolphin, however, the vaquita may yet be saved. Vaquita is a lucid, informed, and gripping account of a species that will soon be lost in the absence of effective actions.

Although its populations are naturally small, with limited genetic diversity, lethal alleles have likely been purged, so the vaquita isn’t biologically predisposed to extinction. Another sort of threat has rendered the species at risk.

Fishermen arrived at the Sea of Cortez in the 1920s in pursuit of Totoaba macdonaldi, a drum fish whose swim bladder provides a substitute for that of the critically endangered drum fish Bahaba taipingensis, which is coveted in China for its purported curative powers. A totoaba fisherman can earn up to $1800 for a single bladder, and in China, they can go for up to $250,000.

Since the 1940s, gillnets have been the tool of choice for capturing totoaba, but their unintended capture includes the vaquita, who often become entangled and drown. By the 1990s, as much as 90% of the original vaquita population was lost. From 1997 to 2008, the population plummeted another 57%. One Mexican scientist recently estimated that perhaps 15 remain.

In 1997, an advisory committee was formed, bringing together scientists and fisheries experts to provide input on the vaquita’s conservation to the Mexican government. Bessesen describes the work of dedicated scientists from Mexico, the United States, and elsewhere and reveals that it is not for lack of data that the vaquita has suffered. She praises the work of Sea Shepherd, a nonprofit marine conservation group that assists in patrolling for poachers and safeguarding the Vaquita Refuge.

Vaquita details the tortuously slow and ineffective response of the Mexican government to the vaquita crisis. Past bans on gillnets, we learn, were often ignored or included loopholes that allowed their continued use. Plans to encourage fishermen to give up gillnets were ultimately unsuccessful, despite multimillion-dollar investments. Bessesen describes corruption at all levels of the government, exacerbated by widespread anti-vaquita sentiments.

The government of Mexico will ultimately determine the fate of the vaquita. The actions required to save the porpoise from extinction are clear, such as the need to make gillnets illegal to own and sell, a commitment to effective enforcement, and enabling the use of alternative fishing gears.
The Center for Biological Diversity has submitted petitions to the U.S. government to ban the import of Mexican seafood and other wildlife until the illegal totoaba trade ends. Despite China’s commitment to cut off its consumers, very few arrests occur on that end of the supply chain. Perhaps the network behind the recent trade ban on ivory in China could next address totoaba bladders?

Bessesen approaches the plight of the vaquita with the thoroughness and inquisitiveness of a scientist and the passion of an environmentalist. She has written a must-read for anyone keen to understand the realities of protecting biodiversity. In doing so, she fulfilled a promise she made to a small female vaquita that died from entanglement in a gillnet: “I will tell your story…”

About the author

The reviewer is an independent consultant based in Dakar, Senegal.


Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology

Lisa Margonelli
Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
312 pp.
Purchase this item now

Lisa Margonelli’s Underbug book is definitely not about termites—at least, not as an entomologist would view them. Instead, it consists of stories of visits to labs and field sites, with reflections on questions raised by the research and researchers she encounters. Accounts of the biology of termites are scattered through chapters on how so-called “advanced” termites construct their complex mound nests, whether and how their collective behavior can be modeled and mimicked with artificial swarms of tiny robots, whether the metagenome of termite gut symbionts and their metabolic pathways might be engineered to make biofuels, and the role of termites in natural and restored ecosystems.

Margonelli sketches scientists at work and in moments of reflection, documenting their triumphs and failures. She contrasts nicely the different methods used by researchers to interrogate their subjects—for example, comparing how a team of molecular biologists tries to understand the significance of its data by playing a guessing game with the more systematic approach of a team led by a condensed matter physicist.

The book also has plenty to say about the nature of scientific inquiry and the strange ways that termites show humans in an unfamiliar perspective. To underline these points, Margonelli frequently references Eugène Marais’s The Soul of the White Ant (1925), writing, for example, “His tale of the termite mound is part close observation, part poetic riddle, and part thumbnail guide to the universe, but it’s not exactly scientific. Still, nobody since has gotten further into imagining the thoughts of the mound than Marais, making his book an invaluable document—of our minds more than theirs.”

Comparing termites with artificial intelligence and miniature bioreactors, Margonelli describes familiar worries about the future of robotics and biological engineering, all while lamenting the loss of species and ecosystems. This is a lot to pile onto the backs of tiny insects. Are termite colonies really analogous to the human mind, as one interviewee—a physiologist studying mound construction—suggests?


Termites are not architects, writes Margonelli; their mounds are based on instinct, not a global vision.

Happily, termites stubbornly resist being reduced to mere robots or bioreactors. Far from being compulsively industrious, many appear to be slackers, to the surprise of the compulsively industrious scientists studying them. “You never get what you’re looking for in biology,” roboticist Kirstin Petersen laments in chapter 15. “We thought of every termite as the same termite…We were idiots.”

The biggest weakness of Underbug is its structure: The book’s various stories are told in roughly chronological chapters, so the narrative skips from topic to topic and place to place to such a degree that it becomes difficult to keep track of the various participants. Neither the termites nor the big issues hold the separate lines of inquiry together. That may make a point about science, but it leads to a rather confusing read. In the end, however, Margonelli has succeeded in presenting an interesting and provocative tale in which termites and people cross paths.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Environmental Studies, Stockton University, Galloway, NJ 08205, USA.

The Beautiful Cure

The Beautiful Cure: The Revolution in Immunology and What It Means for Your Health

Daniel M. Davis
University of Chicago Press
272 pp.
Purchase this item now

In The Beautiful Cure, immunologist Daniel Davis endeavors to tell the story of human immunology in eight chapters, spanning foundational concepts, pivotal discoveries by brilliant scientists and their collaborators, the personal drama that has accompanied Nobel prizes and other recognition awarded in this highly competitive field, and anecdotes about how individual choices can affect one’s immune function and overall health.

Most readers will be familiar with the notion that stress increases vulnerability to illness. You may have noticed the way that pesky virus going around the office seems to skip over your meditation-practicing, well-rested co-worker, or perhaps you have experienced the reactivation of latent herpes virus (developed a cold sore) during demanding periods of your own life. In chapter 5, Davis skillfully tethers this phenomenon to the primary underlying factor: cortisol, a hormone that controls expression of >20% of human genes. Here, he describes how overproduction of cortisol during periods of stress effectively dampens innate immune responses, increasing the likelihood that exposure will result in infection rather than containment.

Cortisol is revisited in the subsequent chapter, which delves into Earth’s cycles and circadian rhythms. Davis notes that in a healthy person, cortisol fluctuates predictably throughout the day and that, as a result, the performance of some drugs varies substantially depending on when they are administered. This phenomenon can be exploited for increased vaccine response. Davis estimates, for example, that “giving the [flu] vaccine in the morning would be able to protect over half of elderly people.” One wonders then why drugs, by and large, are not prescribed for dosing at specific times of day, despite the fact that “fifty-six of the top hundred bestselling drugs in the USA… target the product of genes that change their activity with the time of day.”

In his attempt to tell a complete story, Davis makes a heroic effort to include all major discoveries and credit all the giants upon whose shoulders the research community stands. In addition to the impact of stress and timing on immune function, he highlights major immune cells and mediators (such as dendritic cells and cytokines), delves into regulatory T cells and the hygiene hypothesis, and squeezes in a quick aside about the microbiome. However, given the complex, overlapping, and time-shifting nature of these discoveries (the first several pages of chapter 1 bounce the reader from 2008 to 1970 to 1721 to 1926), the narrative is often challenging to follow.

It is also unclear who Davis is writing for. Although he includes simplified descriptions of basic immunology concepts, seemingly to make the material accessible to a lay reader, he also describes complex scenarios without including any sketches or figures, from which such a reader would benefit greatly.

Overall, the book is of greatest value for biological scientists, for whom the relatively brief overview reveals intriguing connections in immunology’s history, helps tie together stove-piped areas of inquiry, and offers fresh perspective on future research strategies.

About the author

The reviewer is at Strategic Analysis, Arlington, VA 22203, USA.

The New Mind Readers

The New Mind Readers: What Neuroimaging Can and Cannot Reveal About Our Thoughts

Russell A. Poldrack
Princeton University Press
214 pp
Purchase this item now

Mind reading is usually thought of as a magician’s party trick. Yet advances in brain imaging have revived interest in this seemingly fictional feat. Can neuroimaging be used in court to show that a person is telling the truth or is in pain? What can neuroimaging tell us about what people think or how a specific person will behave?

In his book The New Mind Readers, Russell Poldrack addresses these and other tantalizing questions, presenting a clear and engaging overview of what neuroimaging can and cannot tell us about a person’s thoughts, perceptions, and intentions. Going beyond basic mechanisms, Poldrack tackles a number of fundamental questions about the research process, data interpretation, and applications for everyday life.

Throughout the book, Poldrack presents the vast possibilities of neuroimaging while clearly articulating its limitations. Although it is possible, for example, to decode activity in the visual cortex in order to identify the general features of an image being viewed by an individual in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, it is not possible to extrapolate an underlying emotion or mental state from brain activity if an individual is not performing a task specifically designed to elicit that emotion. Deducing a person’s mental or emotional state solely on the basis of brain activity, a process called reverse inference, remains an important challenge that will require a more detailed understanding of how complex emotions are processed and represented throughout the brain and how brain activity gets combined across time and space.

A fascinating set of issues emerge when we attempt to extrapolate research results to a single individual. Neuroimaging adds an additional layer of complexity: Each person’s brain is a bit different, and brain activity can change over time. Poldrack outlines these limitations as he explores the implications of using neuroimaging data in a variety of settings, including the justice system, economic analyses, and marketing.


Despite advances in neuroimaging, true mind reading remains, at present, more science fiction than fact.

The reciprocal relationship between advances in neuroimaging and those in other fields is well illustrated in questions of addiction and mental illness. Addiction, as we now understand it, is both a disease that can be understood by imaging brain reward pathways and a highly context-dependent illness, indicating that activation of these pathways can be repressed. Similarly, although we now conceive of mental illness as a brain disease—a realization that has revolutionized our approach to mental illness—this has led some to wonder whether interventions can ever hope to override an individual’s biology.

In the end, Poldrack is optimistic that the development of more specific imaging approaches should eventually enable at least a basic “dictionary” linking specific brain activity patterns to certain thoughts, activities, or emotions. Such insights, however, will likely be akin to the rudimentary comprehension of a newly arrived person in a foreign land, offering only a glimpse at a complex mental landscape.

About the author

The reviewer is at Scientific Planning Consulting, Highland Park, NJ 08904, USA.

Hello World

Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms

Hannah Fry
256 pp.
Purchase this item now

In her opening explanation of the title to her book Hello World, mathematician Hannah Fry sets up a tantalizing question about the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in modern society by evoking the riddle about the chicken and the egg. In this instance, the riddle frames how we should think about the role that algorithms play in our lives. Who is in control? Humans? Or the machines we program to “think” like humans?

Fry explores these questions by discussing real-world applications of AI. Each chapter tackles a theme, such as “Crime” or “Art,” in which she describes specific societal problems, reveals the algorithmic approaches being used to address them, and explains how those algorithms operate.

In this effort, Fry does yeoman’s work by using concise and approachable prose to make the mathematics of AI accessible to a lay reader. Her analogy in the “Medicine” chapter, comparing a neural network with a machine with a series of tuning knobs, effectively conveys why it is not possible for us to interpret how these models work but doesn’t oversimplify their underlying complexity.

After describing an algorithm and its application, Fry discusses its shortcomings. Unfortunately, in contrast to the vivid descriptions of the algorithms themselves, these discussions seem superficial, often leaving the reader without sufficient information to discern whether modifications to the algorithm could address the issues described or whether they are an unavoidable consequence of AI. This gap is most apparent in her section on “Justice.”

Here, she raises the timely but controversial question of whether the use of AI in criminal justice proceedings perpetuates racial inequities. But instead of a concrete explanation of how to assess whether an algorithm is perpetuating biases and whether this can be corrected, she offers generalities about biased data. Citing expert opinion, the section culminates with Fry stating that despite its pitfalls, she considers the use of AI in the justice system preferable to its absence. This pronouncement feels rushed and unsatisfying, especially knowing that she is capable of more substantiated arguments.

Hello World concludes by imagining a world in which AI enhances human capabilities without overriding human judgment. Confusingly, this world is presented as an alternative to our current trajectory, even though—as Fry herself argues in the section “Cars”—it represents reality for the majority of today’s AI applications. Such sweeping conclusions detract from the book’s impact.

For a reader unfamiliar with the technical aspects of AI, this book offers among the best lay explanations of how algorithms work. But Hello World aspires to do more than this. It sets out to help us understand how to approach questions about the value and the unintended consequences of AI in our daily lives. Toward this end, the book, like the algorithms it describes, stops short of its promise. Despite its intriguing premise and broad-ranging subject matter, Hello World ultimately leaves the reader without a well-defined framework with which to evaluate the AI that they will encounter in the future.

About the author

The reviewer is at Cray, San Jose, CA 95112, USA.