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Our autumn reading list


What can a lowly lichen reveal about a grisly murder case? Which common clothing item requires 5000 gallons of water to create? Where is the best place for a pilot to crash a malfunctioning airplane? Chockful of interesting trivia and thoughtful scholarship, the books on this year’s fall reading list—reviewed by alumni of the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program—tackle topics ranging from the future of food to the nature of reality. Consider a careful analysis of why we ought to trust science or join a harrowing expedition to the most extreme environments on Earth. Dive into a fascinating quest to identify new elements or crack open an eye-opening history of color science. –Valerie Thompson


Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes

Dana Thomas
Penguin Press
318 pp.
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How did your blue jeans come into existence? Perhaps they are one of the 6 billion pairs produced annually that are made with a depleting store of natural cotton, dyed with a synthetic indigo that has tainted rivers and workers’ hands an unnatural blue, and distressed by workers denied basic human rights. Or perhaps they are a bit too tight, and in the interest of ridding yourself of items that do not bring you joy, you—like millions of others—throw them away, where they are destined to persist in landfills.

The sobering truth is that very few of us know how our clothes are created, with what materials, and under what conditions. Likewise, few of us fully comprehend the enormous impact that fashion excess is having on our planet and on our society. Dana Thomas’s Fashionopolis takes readers through the dark history of the clothing industry, offering a detailed accounting of exactly what goes into the production of the 80 billion garments that are produced, purchased, discarded, and repurchased each year.

The first part of the book reveals the history, economics, policies, and science behind so-called “fast fashion”—the mass production of trendy clothing at breakneck speed—and details the price (both human and environmental) of this growing phenomenon. Here, Thomas provides sobering evidence that we are on an unsustainable path.

Requiring 5000 gallons of water and some of the World Health Organization’s most hazardous and polluting pesticides, your blue jeans, for example, cost more than their price tag might indicate. After tracing the path of denim production from the loom to the elaborate and environmentally destructive dyeing and finishing processes, Thomas discusses the history of trade agreements, revealing how most clothing purchased today in the United States is produced internationally under unsafe conditions.

The second part of the book takes the reader through a range of cutting edge, science-based solutions for a more sustainable fashion future. Here, Thomas introduces the reader to natural dyes and new engineered materials that are less harmful to the world’s natural resources and discusses alternative economic models, including thrifting, rent-to-wear, purchasing on demand, and zero-waste circularity solutions.

The book ends with a whirlwind tour through diverse technologies such as chemical material engineering and 3D printing, hinting at how they could change the fashion world and create a more sustainable path to having both a stylish pair of jeans and a thriving world in which to enjoy them. In the end, however, it is ultimately our collective responsibility—as textile makers, fashion designers, production facility managers, and consumers—to rein in the garment industry’s negative impact on the world.

About the author

The reviewer is at Nation of Makers, Silver Spring, MD 20918, USA.


Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table

Kit Chapman
Bloomsbury Sigma
304 pp.
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Nuclear physicist Georgy Flyorov did not like his team deviating from the research program he had set and would often punish such behavior. So it is perhaps not surprising that when Yuri Oganessian went rogue and discovered cold fusion in the 1970s, the young scientist received an indifferent expression from Flyorov and a gruff order to return to the agenda that had been agreed on: traditional experiments firing particles at high energy. Such tales are common in stories of the early hunt for so-called “superheavy” elements—the chemical elements with atomic numbers 104 to 120. As Kit Chapman reveals in his new book, Superheavy, it is the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of science, as much as grit and drive, that leads to the greatest breakthroughs.

Chapman begins his story with Enrico Fermi, the scrappy Italian physicist who claimed, erroneously, to have discovered elements 93 and 94. As the first scientist to develop a technique for a phenomenon called “neutron capture,” Fermi paved the way for a number of element discoveries to come. From Rome, we travel to Berlin for the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938, and then on to Berkeley, California, where scientists began the hunt for the transuranic elements (elements heavier than uranium) in 1939.

Chapman does an admirable job of bringing to the forefront the incredible contributions of women scientists to this endeavor. One such story is that of nuclear chemist Darleane Hoffman, who was told repeatedly as a young university student in the 1940s that she should set her sights on becoming a chemistry teacher. Instead, she would go on to hold appointments at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Los Alamos, and University of California, Berkeley, and earned her place in history by confirming the existence of Seaborgium (element 106). Hoffman achieved this despite being denied a part in the discovery of einsteinium and fermium—her security clearance was “delayed”—and having another discovery retracted when a collaborator fabricated data.

In the final third, Chapman takes readers on a tour of the modern element discovery world. Tales from RIKEN in Japan, GSI in Germany, and other international laboratories complement stories from the early post–Cold War period, including anecdotes about collaborations between researchers at Berkeley and those in Dubna, Russia.

Chapman and the scientists he interviews acknowledge that at this point, the elements being investigated are unlikely to have obvious applications. Although some transuranic elements have proven useful in medical science and other applications, the elements beyond 118 are very unstable. Practical use of these materials, then, is not the point. But then, it has never been the point for many scientists in this field. Even the honor of choosing the names of new elements—a topic into which Chapman dives perhaps too deeply—is not the point. It is the acquisition of knowledge, the drive to expand and enrich our understanding of the world, that many would say is the purpose of such an endeavor.

About the author

The reviewer is at Accenture Federal Services, Arlington, VA 22203, USA.

Why Trust Science?

Why Trust Science?

Naomi Oreskes
Princeton University Press
374 pp.
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Starting with a rich overview of the history of scientific thought, in Why Trust Science? Naomi Oreskes forwards a case that trust in science is derived not from the use of a singular “scientific method” but from the particular social processes by which scientific ideas are considered and then adopted or dismissed to form a consensus view. These processes include the act of subjecting scientific work to critiques at conferences and through the peer review of publications, as well as other evaluative processes, including the faculty tenure and review process.

Oreskes provides several case studies that appear to demonstrate instances when scientists got it wrong. Take flossing, for example. Most dentists recommend regular flossing. Yet in 2016, several leading news outlets reported that there was little to no scientific evidence to support this claim, asking if scientists were wrong about this, what else might they be wrong about? Oreskes carefully deconstructs the origin of the story and the evidence, revealing that the meta-analysis of clinical studies on flossing that was cited by the newspapers did not actually refute the purported benefits of flossing. Although this may seem like a trivial example, it demonstrates how a perceived lack of consensus can be perpetuated by organizations that are not interested in generating knowledge but in telling a certain kind of story.

Equally important and timely is the emphasis that Oreskes places on the need for diversity of methods and, importantly, diversity of voices in the social processes of science. She argues, for example, that the “limited energy theory”—a 19th-century belief that was used to justify the exclusion of women from higher learning institutions owing to fears that excess energy expenditure might cause reproductive harm—may not have found such prominence if more female voices had been in authoritative positions in the scientific community at the time. Issues of underrepresentativeness and exclusion, however, persist, and many of the social processes that Oreskes emphasizes, such as academic tenure, are still subject to societal biases [for example, (1)]. But by highlighting the importance of diversity in generating trust in science, Oreskes gives weight to efforts to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Although Oreskes also successfully counters the idea that intentional biases and retractions are not the dire concerns some make them out to be, Fanelli and colleagues have shown that the risk of bias and errors increases for younger scholars and those who are isolated (2). Efforts such as offering childcare at academic conferences (3), mentoring of young scholars, and international cooperation (4) may further reduce these instances by enhancing participation in the scientific community. Additional mechanisms of accountability such as preregistration of studies (5) combined with the recent call to reconsider the use of “statistical significance” to prove or disprove a hypothesis (6) should likewise be viewed as evidence—not of a crisis in science but the strength of its social processes.

Ultimately, Why Trust Science? is an optimistic analysis of the opportunities that exist for enhancing public trust in science. This book should be mandatory reading for anyone who is part of the scientific endeavor.

References and Notes
1. M. Gay-Antaki, D. Liverman, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 115, 2060 (2018).
2. D. Fanelli, R. Costas, J. P. Ioannidis, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 114, 3714 (2017).
3. R. M. Calisi, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 115, 2845 (2018).
4. J. P. Holdren, “How International Cooperation in Research Advances Both Science and Diplomacy” (2017);
5. B. A. Nosek, C. R. Ebersole, A. C. DeHaven, D. T. Mellor,
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 115, 2600 (2018).
6. V. Amrhein, S. Greenland, B. McShane, Nature 567, 305 (2019).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of International Development, Community, and Environment, Clark University, Worcester, MA 01610, USA

The Republic of Color

The Republic of Color: Science, Perception, and the Making of Modern America

Michael Rossi
University of Chicago Press
330 pp.
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The Republic of Color by Michael Rossi is an intriguing look at the history of and current way we conceive of color. Rossi, a historian at the University of Chicago, reveals how the concept of color entered human consciousness, the scientific rigor and competition that was part of defining it, how it is used to define culture, and how it has been used as a tool to determine the suitability of individuals for a variety of pursuits, from employment to entertainment.

The book begins in the late 1800s, when people from New York to Paris were discussing color after the publication of Modern Chromatics. In that book, physicist Ogden Rood highlighted a fundamental unknown at the time, questioning whether colors “belong to their objects, to their visual subject, or more truly to the concurrence of both.” Experts across a variety of fields—from physicians to photographers, psychologists to philosophers— were debating this very question, and the healthy competition and cross-fertilization brought new ideas and discoveries.

In 1913, an International Commission on Illumination (CIE) was established and charged with defining standards of lighting. The CIE defined what it termed the “standard observer”—a color-mapping function, based on experiments with several observers—that is the basis for all instrumental color measurement and made it freely available. The groundbreaking method of color standardization is still used today.

Rossi reveals how the complexities around color perception can be used to limit access to professions, leading the reader into a discussion about organizations and policies that use color to restrict or grant access. Before the science of color blindness was even fully understood, for example, color blindness testing was used in the transportation industry, in medicine, and even in accounting.

As policy-makers funded work to standardize color, researchers approached it from a variety of perspectives. “Does color evoke sensations or feelings?” some asked. “Do people experience color the same?” wondered others. How do language and culture affect color perception? Rossi carefully describes how such questions were posed and how the theories that arose from them were tested.

Ultimately, this book does a beautiful job of weaving together the way the different color sciences have made a cultural impact throughout history.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Neurology, UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA.

How To

How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems

Randall Munroe
Riverhead Books
320 pp.
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How To, by webcomic artist and former NASA roboticist Randall Munroe, tackles various problems with uncommon solutions and, in the process, takes readers through an exploration of scientific and engineering problem-solving. This collection follows on Munroe’s previous book, Thing Explainer, which uses illustrations and the 1000 most commonly used words to explain complicated science topics. The new book tackles problems from the mundane—such as how to move to a new house—to those that may trouble a mad scientist building her first lava moat. The solutions are often hilariously, and purposefully, absurd. Embedded in these solutions, however, is solid scientific, engineering, and experimental understanding.

A great example of Munroe’s approach can be found in the section “How to make an emergency landing.” To help answer the question, he recruits Canadian astronaut, engineer, and ex–test pilot Colonel Chris Hadfield. Munroe ramps up from (relatively) easy questions, quickly escalating to increasingly absurd situations—pondering, for example, how to sell off bits of the plane before it lands. Hadfield, ever the good sport, tackles each new situation seriously, deftly applying his decades of experience to Munroe’s questions. Although your chances of walking away unscathed from such a landing are still minimal, you will gain a better understanding of the control mechanisms of planes, how the space shuttle works and lands, and which crops provide the best surface to land on (freshly planted corn up until June).

Fans of Munroe’s long-running comic strip XKCD will be familiar with his artistic style of simple stick figures immersed in elaborate technical illustrations and will find plenty to love in this new book. Readers new to Munroe’s work will enjoy the comics that help to demonstrate or occasionally exaggerate the scientific principles behind his solutions.

Although it is rare to go more than a page without a comic or illustration, the accompanying text in How To is not filler but approachable explanations that detail the scientific concepts that underlie each problem. This occasionally leads to phrasing that underestimates the reader—for example, when Munroe explains the children’s game “tag” or how the various forms of football work—but it does make the concepts more digestible for a wider audience and is sometimes useful for comedic affect. Although a lighter read than many others reviewed in these pages, How To would make an excellent gift to help spark a student’s interest in science and engineering and would likely be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates science-based, but Rube Goldberg–esque, solutions to life’s problems.

About the author

The reviewer is an immunologist based in Washington, DC, USA.

Something Deeply Hidden

Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime

Sean Carroll
362 pp.
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Quantum mechanics is not for the faint of heart. The calculations are daunting, and concepts such as superpositions, uncertainty, and entanglement can be perplexing. But the most difficult aspect to grasp is what it means about the nature of reality.

At the heart of the conundrum is the “measurement problem.” Niels Bohr’s “Copenhagen interpretation,” developed almost a century ago, says that physical systems exist as quantum wave functions that can simultaneously occupy mutually exclusive states (a superposition). The famous, if macabre, example of Schrödinger’s cat posits a quantum superposition leading to the eponymous cat being both alive and dead at the same time, until observed. This seems to imply that reality does not come into being until the system is measured, whereupon the wave function collapses, with some probability distribution, into one and only one “real” state.

This view is quietly accepted by most physicists, who often consider “quantum foundations” issues, such as what constitutes a measurement, out of bounds for serious physics. Sean Carroll, however, has decided to tackle the issue head on. Something Deeply Hidden is Carroll’s ambitious and engaging foray into what quantum mechanics really means and what it tells us about physical reality.

He begins by taking the reader though a crash course in basic quantum physics, underscoring his “irritation” with the idea of the wave function collapse, which mars the simplicity of quantum theory and introduces unexplained randomness. There is plenty of humor in this section and no serious math, but prior knowledge of the subject will help.

Carroll then lays out his manifesto: There is no collapse, he insists, and no single true state after a measurement. Rather, the interaction of a measuring device and a quantum system (such as an electron) leads to “multiple worlds, each of which contains a single person with a very definite idea about where the electron was seen.” This “many worlds” interpretation, first developed by Hugh Everett in the 1950s, is predicated on the idea that copies of the entire world split off from one another every time quantum events occur. Carroll emphasizes that as strange as it sounds, “the other possible measurement outcomes still exist and are perfectly real, just as separate worlds.”

As Carroll admits, there is no clear experimental test for this or other interpretations of quantum mechanics. In the final chapters, he dangles tantalizing hints from the study of quantum gravity that suggest that the many worlds hypothesis may help us resolve long-standing puzzles about apparent contradictions between quantum mechanics and general relativity. If we have the “courage” to discard classical thinking and embrace the reality of quantum mechanics, he argues, we may someday “learn how to extract our universe from the wave function.”

As is unavoidable in such discussions, the book takes a philosophical turn, delving into questions of ethics, consciousness, and the nature of reality itself. Many physicists avoid such subjects because they just do not feel like physics. Ultimately, Carroll’s goal is to convince both the public and his fellow physicists that these questions are worth asking. Does he succeed? Like so much in quantum mechanics, it depends on your point of view.

About the author

The reviewer is at Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057, USA.

Higher and Colder

Higher and Colder: A History of Extreme Physiology and Exploration

Vanessa Heggie
University of Chicago Press
264 pp.
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Imagine enduring a cold shower and then exercising in the sodden clothes of a man who died of exposure. In 1966, British physiologist and mountaineer L. G. C. E. Pugh reported the results of such an experiment, having recruited volunteers to exercise in a climate chamber while wearing the outfits of three young men who perished during a hike in 1964. He determined that windy conditions can reduce the “insulation value” of nonwaterproof clothing by 85% or more. Stories such as this figure prominently in Vanessa Heggie’s short book, Higher and Colder, a thematic exploration of extreme physiologists during the 20th century that takes readers from the Himalaya to Antarctica and beyond.

One theme Heggie explores is the remarkable connectedness between places and the historical actors who carried out early studies on the limits of human survival. Take mountaineer and explorer Sir Edmund Hillary, who led expeditions in both Antarctica and the Himalaya. Hillary led the third group to ever reach the South Pole as part of the 1955–1958 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (CTAE). As part of this trek, medical officer Allan Rogers designed an experiment involving participants’ clothing in an attempt to assess how well humans adapt to cold environments. (He concluded that there was no evidence that humans could adapt to the cold.) Later, Hillary collaborated with Pugh on the 1960–1961 Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition, which was organized to study the physiology of high-altitude acclimatization, facilitate an oxygen-less ascent of Mount Makalu, and hunt for a yeti. Although they did not succeed in the last endeavor, a number of important contributions sprang from this expedition, including the general observation that there may be a limit to human acclimatization to altitude.

Early extreme physiological studies relied on explorers and athletes, Heggie notes, because “they were willing to run 20 miles, to swim in cold water while ‘wearing’ rectal thermometers, to expose themselves to extremes of heat and cold, [and] to climb to high altitude with and without oxygen.” Indeed, the high cost of entry to embark in field-based extreme physiological studies essentially created an exclusive club of practitioners and scientist-explorers.

Here, Heggie shines a light on racialized assumptions in early physiological studies, noting, for example, that some early physiology experiments were conducted to support ideas of environmental determinism—that different groups of people are biologically adapted to the environment of their ancestors—with the pretext that Europeans were the “normal” human form. (Women, too, were notably absent from extreme physiological studies until the end of the 20th century.)

Heggie proposes expanding the definition of “bioprospecting,” which has traditionally been used to refer to the commercialization of new products based on pharmacology or genetics, to include cultural and technological practices of survival that recognize the contribution of indigenous peoples in early physiological studies. She also discusses the barriers to entry that women who sought to work in these spaces faced during the past century, reminding the reader of institutional challenges that persist in science today.

Extreme physiology remains an important aspect of study as we set our sights ever outward (to polar regions), upward (to the Moon and Mars), and downward (to the deep ocean). With Higher and Colder, Heggie reminds us that such work can offer extraordinary stories about how science is practiced while challenging the scientific community to consider adopting institutional changes that ensure everyone can participate and is recognized for their contributions.

About the author

The reviewer is at IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute, Washington, DC 20006, USA

The Nature of Life and Death

The Nature of Life and Death: Every Body Leaves a Trace

Patricia Wiltshire
G.P. Putnam's Sons
304 pp.
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Pollen on the clothing of a murder victim can tell investigators quite a bit about the location where he died. Spores in a suspect’s vehicle can provide information about where she walked before entering the vehicle during the commission of a crime. A body can provide evidence for law enforcement beyond DNA. To unlock the puzzle, forensic ecologists use a combination of science, statistics, field expertise, and deductive reasoning.

In The Nature of Life and Death, Patricia Wiltshire shares stories about how she extracts clues that nature leaves behind at crime scenes, recounting her experiences developing processes and procedures that are not only new to her but new to the field itself. Written from her perspective as a scientist, Wiltshire explains her approach to data collection and analysis and reveals how she uses intuition to sort essential clues from random background noise.

The lowly lichen, for example, offered Wiltshire clues about a grisly dismemberment, nicknamed “the jigsaw case” by investigators. The color of some lichen is dependent on the amount of sun it receives: It appears yellow in the sun but green in the shade. When a victim’s dismembered appendage was discovered, a lichen-encrusted stick that lay underneath it was still mostly yellow, indicating that the body part had not been laying there long. Wiltshire walks readers through a simple set of experiments she conducted in her backyard to prove that the dump was not more than 5 days old.

Ranging beyond trace evidence and forensics, Wiltshire tells the story of her life growing up in a small coal-mining village in the Welsh countryside. Just like nature leaves a trace, she argues, we all leave a trace of ourselves on the people with whom we interact and are, in turn, influenced by people who leave traces on our lives. She describes, for example, the impact that her grandmother, who introduced her to the wonders of the natural world, had on her own personal and professional tapestry, writing “She knew which plants were edible and which ones were poisonous; she knew about mushrooms and toadstools; she knew the taste of young hawthorn leaves, the hedgerow plants and berries that made the whole of the world a natural larder.” “I soon realized that the soil was infinitely variable over short distances, and that it was a place rather than just brown stuff.”

In today’s world of scientific specialization, Wiltshire laments the movement away from the traditional fields of science, biology, chemistry, physics, and math. Experiences as a generalist in biology served her well as she developed her expertise in the complex field of forensic ecology. But it is ultimately her scientific mind and inquisitiveness that have been most beneficial to her forensic career.

Enjoy this book. It will leave its trace on you.

About the author

The reviewer is at Nerac, Tolland, CT 06084, USA.

Meat Planet

Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft
University of California Press
264 pp.
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Benjamin Wurgaft’s Meat Planet meanders along a reflective continuum, exploring the promise of cultured meat as well as the philosophical underpinnings used to rationalize the cost of such a creation. It is described as an “anthropological ethnography,” so I prepared myself for a holistic and comparative immersion into “meat culture.”

The book begins by introducing some of the players involved. There is Mark Post, a Dutch medical doctor and physiologist, who is responsible for culturing the bovine stem cells that would become the first laboratory-grown burger. Google cofounder Sergey Brin, we learn, has backed the research that could be pivotal to the food future. We also hear from biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham, who shares a “radicalized” perspective on our evolutionary relationship with meat. According to Wrangham, “We are a species designed to love meat.”
Wurgaft’s ethnographic account of meat culture does not have a key informant to interpret “meat culture.” Instead, he takes on this role himself, informing the reader that there was almost no laboratory science to observe but much public discussion, which comprises the bulk of his participant-observation.

In the book’s introductory chapter, Wurgaft offers some facts and figures about animal muscle—from its basic structure to its nutritional value—and describes the associated environmental impact of its production. His perspective is a decidedly Western one, with historical and policy discussions centered on systems in place in the United States, England, and France. There are no comparative discussions about worldwide food systems or perspectives from the many international institutions and scholars who have been sounding alarms for decades about the impact of meat consumption in developed nations (1–4).

Wurgaft also struggles with the scientific ruminations of anthropology. He misrepresents, for example, what biological anthropologists such as Wrangham say about the human evolutionary history of meat. Yes, these researchers tussle with concepts related to the evolution of food systems. However, none use ethnographic accounts to definitively state that a specific diet was consumed at a particular time in a given environment.

At times, Wurgaft seems disquieted by his own patterns of meat consumption, proclaiming at the end of chapter three, for example, “I am the one out of joint, still eating animals.” Clearly, the author is grappling with his subject, one he says was designed to locate the “lineaments of my larger society in the concepts of its speculative biotechnology.” But are the lineaments of Wurgaft’s larger society the best way to understand the culture of food futurists and the reasons for their labor to generate meat from bovine stem cells?

Wurgaft tells readers to think of his book as a “biotechnological nature walk,” an “assemblage of detours through the history of the future of food.” Unfortunately, Meat Planet does not provide the tools to make this complex journey, let alone communicate effectively about the space that meat culture occupies around the world.

References and Notes
1. F. Carus, Guardian 2 June 2010.
2. L. C. Hoffman, D. M. Cawthorn, Animal Front. 2, 40 (2012).
3. H. Ritchie, M. Roser Meat and seafood production & consumption (2019);
4. B. Winders, D. Nibert, Int. J. Sociol. Soc. Pol. 24, 76 (2004).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Nutrition and Health Sciences, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, NE 68588, USA.