by Adam Frank
W. W. Norton, 2018 ($26.95)
Though once an aid for agriculture and navigation, astronomy—the study of the heavens above—is now often seen as disconnected from life on Earth, an academic pastime with scant value for human beings. Frank, an astrophysicist, combines his expertise with findings from planetary science, ecology, and more to show that lessons from distant stars and alien worlds could help humanity grapple with climate change, nuclear war and other existential threats. Studies of Venus, for instance, have revealed how Earth’s climate can and will change in the future, and investigations of Martian dust storms were a major basis for the concept of “nuclear winter.” Future studies of habitable planets beyond our solar system—or even the technological civilizations they might harbor—could offer further untold benefits. Light of the Stars provides a marvelous perspective on how astronomy could make us all better Earthlings. —Lee Billings
Troublesome Science: The Misuse of Genetics and Genomics in Understanding Race
by Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall.
University Press, 2018 ($35)
Genetically, race is a meaningless concept, yet our society seems far from ready to stop dividing people into racial categories. Evolutionary biologist DeSalle and paleoanthropologist Tattersall debunk the idea as a useful scientific classification, explaining how the technique of taxonomy—the grouping of organisms based on shared characteristics—fails to find significant genetic differences among the groups we commonly call races. They bemoan the fact that they have to keep rehashing the debate (this is their second book on the topic). “As science, race may (or should) be a dead issue,” they write, “but it shows zombie-like tenacity on the social and political fronts.” —Clara Moskowitz
The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars: A Neuropsychologist’s Odyssey through Consciousness
by Paul Broks.
Crown, 2018 ($27)
What are we? How should we live? Such questions have occupied humans since the dawn of consciousness. Motivated by the grief of his wife’s death, neuropsychologist and writer Broks weaves a mesmerizing web of memories, his own research, Greek mythology and the writings of famous philosophers to muse on the nature of awareness. The scientific underpinnings of how our brain functions are just the start, he says—for example, several of his clinical cases link specific regions of the brains to certain types of thought; beyond that, the workings of the mind are at once random, staggering and bewildering. “If we are to get anywhere close to understanding consciousness, the first thing to acknowledge is its absurdity,” Broks writes.
American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic
by Victoria Johnson.
Liveright, 2018 ($29.95)
In the fall of 1797 the eldest son of Alexander Hamilton, Philip, fell ill with yellow fever, which was sweeping through New York City. The family doctor, David Hosack, employed an unorthodox treatment of hot baths of Peruvian bark and alcohol and saved the boy’s life. As sociologist Johnson documents, Hosack went on to establish the nation’s first botanical garden—the Elgin Botanic Garden—in the place that is now Rockefeller Center and to launch the American era of botany. He used the Elgin collection to conduct some of the earliest methodical research on the medicinal properties of plants, including poppies from which opiates are derived and the two plants that would later be involved in the development of aspirin.