It’s been 30 years since Barry Lopez, the master wilderness writer, won the National book award with Arctic Dreams, his glorious examination of life and landscape in the far north. The Arctic was under pressure back then, but the deepest scars from mining and oil extraction, and the full impact of the climate crisis, were nightmares still to come. In Horizon (Bodley Head), Lopez returns to the Arctic and travels onwards to five other spots: the Galápagos, Botany Bay, the Kenyan desert, the ice shelves of Antarctica, and Cape Foulweather on the Oregon coast. What he finds is a broken world, but as with other key environmental titles this year, such as Naomi Klein’s On Fire (Penguin) and Greta Thunberg’s pamphlet No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference (Penguin), he discovers space for hope, too.
This year saw a flurry of books on one of the greatest scandals of our time: a public health failing so blatant that future generations will read about it in baffled astonishment. In Choked (Granta), Beth Gardiner, a US journalist in London, embarks on a global investigation into filthy air. In rural India and parts of Africa the main culprits are household fires for cooking, and because women and girls make most of the meals, they bear the brunt of the lifelong health problems. In Europe, where particulate-spewing diesel was embraced over petrol, she retells how Volkswagen and other manufacturers shamefully flouted emissions limits. In Britain, rather than bothering to clean the air, successive governments did nothing. If it makes you angry, it should. Polluted air cuts short more than 7 million lives a year around the world. Each breath we take need not be toxic: we know how to fix it.
It took the writer and campaigner Caroline Criado Perez to reveal the true extent of the man’s world we live in. What makes Invisible Women (Chatto) so compelling is the mountain of data she draws on. Data, it turns out, matters. Look what happened when the BBC published its gender pay gap figures: the impact was immediate. The pervasiveness of the problem is staggering. While female drivers have fewer accidents, crashes leave them more seriously hurt, because car safety relies on “Reference man”, a standard male crash test dummy. And women do worse after heart attacks because they don’t experience the same symptoms as men. From the implications of blind auditions on orchestra hires to big tech culture and its “one size fits men”, this is a brilliant exposé that deservedly won the Royal Society science book prize.
Robert Macfarlane launched his career from on top of the world. Mountains of the Mind (2003) became an instant classic and the starting point for a trilogy on the connection between landscapes and the human heart. In Underland (Hamish Hamilton), he descends into the “awful darkness inside our world”. It’s a place of myths, burial chambers, deep chasms for dumping nuclear waste, and halls carved out by buried rivers and filled with black sand dunes. Underland is a beautiful if unsettling book through which run familiar themes: fascination, the transience of life and the human impact on the planet. Beyond the thrill of dark, enclosed spaces, far underground, is the shift in perspective forced on us by deep time, the chronology of the underland. “When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert,” he writes. “The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.” It’s fabulous stuff.
Following on from her acclaimed investigation into sexism (Inferior, 2017), Angela Saini’s Superior (4th Estate) turns to the abuse of science to further racist agendas, and the racism inherent in science itself. The message is how race, a social construction, is biologically meaningless: far more genetic variation exists within populations than between them. As Saini points out, she may have more in common, genetically speaking, with her white neighbour than with the woman downstairs, who like Saini’s parents was born in India. In short, movement and mating have done a grand job of shuffling DNA throughout the billions of humans on the planet. Skin colour and other superficial characteristics, then, are lousy predictors of other traits. There are subtleties, though. Some modern populations are sufficiently isolated for modest genetic variations to have arisen between them. What differences exist, what they amount to, and whether any of those populations overlap with distinct “races”, are questions geneticists are poised to answer.
Of the many excellent books on our vexed relationship with tech published this year, the standout title has to be Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile), which details how the Silicon Valley behemoths are mining our private experiences to make a profit. Comparable in scope is Stuart Russell’s Human Compatible (Allen Lane): it’s asking a lot of a book about the potential end of civilisation to be strewn with humour and wry asides, but this is what Russell manages. He tackles what he believes to be a fundamental flaw at the heart of artificial intelligence, one that could spell disaster if left unfixed. The bottom line is that AIs are terrible at grasping what we really want, because humans are terrible at expressing it. Tell a superintelligent AI to reduce human suffering, and it might manipulate us to have fewer children, hook us up to an opioid drip, or bump us off altogether. It sounds absurd, but he’s got a point. The book gets technical towards the end but it’s worth sticking with, for the sake of the species.
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- Substantial undocumented infection facilitates the rapid dissemination of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) – Science Magazine
- England coronavirus testing has not risen fast enough – science chief – The Guardian
- Coronavirus Tests Science’s Need for Speed Limits – The New York Times
- Trump Falsely Distorts New York Times COVID-19 Science Story – FactCheck.org
- This is the brightest supernova ever seen – Science Magazine
- Coronavirus Today: Science will save us – Los Angeles Times
- Italians stuck at home are measuring light pollution for ‘science on the balcony’ – TechCrunch
- ‘Oumuamua might be a shard of a broken planet – Science News
- College of Arts and Science converts thriving academic programs to departments – Vanderbilt University News