This year brought no shortage of great science-themed books. Spurred by rapid advances in biotech, the writer Carl Zimmer spun a personal tale around the emerging science of heredity. Investigative reporter John Carreyrou exposed the rotten business at the heart of Theranos, the blood-testing startup built on air. Our past also proved bountiful, with books on that time we made teenage girls glow until their bones rotted (The Radium Girls), and when competing visionaries dueled over how to steward our one and only world (The Wizard and the Profit). If that all seems a bit much, we’ve got an escape hatch: psychedelics. Lots of them, as recounted by Michael Pollan.
Kate Moore, The Radium Girls
In the early part of the 20th century, radium was all the rage. The glowing, radioactive substance could be used to fight tumors and was thus treated as a sort of miracle product. People drank it, they bought jockstraps infused with it, you could get it in toothpaste and makeup. It also made an excellent paint with which to trace the dials of watches and other instruments (including gun sights and such for the war raging in Europe) so they would glow in the dark. And the girls who worked with the stuff in American factories shone. Literally. When the lights were out, the dust-and-paint-covered girls “looked glorious, like otherworldly angels,” writes Kate Moore, author of The Radium Girls. They also used a technique called lip-pointing to keep the tips of their brushes sharp as they traced the paint over the dials.
Pierre and Marie Curie knew radium was dangerous of course, so did the doctor who founded the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation where some of the girls worked. (He once told a girl to stop lip-pointing because, he said, “You will get sick.”) But the girls were nevertheless reassured by their supervisors that the radium was fine, perfectly fine. Lab workers there had lead aprons and forceps, but the girls painting the dials had no such protections. The tiny amounts they worked with were nothing to worry about.
But then they started to fall ill. They got sores, their bones ached, their teeth started rotting in their sockets, their jawbones practically melted away. Doctors wondered if it was syphilis, or maybe phosphorus poisoning. It certainly wasn’t radium, though. “Radium was such an established medical boon that it was almost beyond reproach,” writes Moore. One researcher, Martin Szamatolski, did try to raise the alarm, but there was so much industry research contradicting him that few listened. Szamatolski was just one guy “set against the flamboyant roar of a well-funded campaign of pro-radium literature.”
Everyone knows radioactive substances are dangerous now, of course, though few probably know why we know it. It’s partially because of the radium girls and the eventual legal scandal that surrounded them. The cheerful hopes and wrecked lives of these earnest teenagers is set against a backdrop of cold capitalism, scientific elision, and willful ignorance—a story as enchanting as it is enraging. [Amazon]—Sarah Fallon
Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind
Having thoroughly mined the everyday ethics of eating in previous books, what is an earnest, endlessly inquisitive journalist with a sizeable advance to do? In Michael Pollan’s case, it’s to travel around America tripping balls for science. Sure, he also does his homework and goes deep into the research on the healing power of hallucinogenic drugs. But in this elegantly orchestrated new work, it’s his personal experiences that offer readers a fresh look inside the controversial and stigmatized world of psychedelics.
Is it a risk to describe in written form basic bodily functions while high on mushrooms? Sure. We may not need to know that his pee looks like “a waterfall of diamonds cascading into a pool, breaking its surface into a billion clattering fractals of light.” But by seeing things through his halo-filled eyes, readers are pulled in by the same consciousness-deepening forces that are now fueling a resurgence in therapeutic psychedelic drug use. Pollan’s stories, told in first-person and through interviews with patients and researchers, offer compelling evidence for these drugs’ ability to reorganize the brain, treat mental illness, and make room for personal growth. While he doesn’t advocate for anyone to use or abuse them recreationally, it’s clear Pollan’s a convert to psychedelic-aided therapies. If you’re keen to experiment yourself, this book is a good place to start. [Amazon] —Megan Molteni
Charles Graeber, The Breakthrough
A book on cancer can sound like a real bummer. The topic doesn’t often lend itself to rollicking good tales or zippy, upbeat anecdotes. But whatever fun can be found in cancer, Charles Graeber has dug it up, polished it off, and turned it into sprightly prose in The Breakthrough. There’s nothing magical about his technique: He follows a trail of astonishing recoveries that, over the course of more than a century, led to the rise of the most exciting thing going in cancer research, the field of immunotherapy. Positive stuff, more often than not.
Even on the surface, immunotherapy is an appealing idea. Rather than subjecting a person to the scorched-Earth tactics of chemotherapy, immunotherapy seeks to boost a person’s immune system to kill off cancer cells. It now represents one of the most promising avenues in cancer treatment, so much so that this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine went to a few of the researchers who pioneered it.
The story of immunotherapy began when a late 19th century surgeon came across a cancer patient who had made a seemingly miraculous recovery. The only obvious difference between him and patients who succumbed to similar cancers was that he also contracted a life-threatening infection. As his fever raged, his tumors receded. That observation and others like it spurred decades of fruitless research. Only in recent years did our growing understanding of the immune system allow scientists to ask better questions—and then to design effective therapies. You won’t come away from this light treatment ready to jump into a lab, but you might emerge with something much better: the sense that we can yet triumph over our species’ greatest scourge. [Amazon] —Sandra Upson
Read an excerpt here.
Carl Zimmer, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh
Acclaimed science writer Carl Zimmer has made a career of decoding the stories that genes tell. But it wasn’t until he and his wife set out to start a family that he began exploring the ones hidden inside his own DNA. His latest book, an expansive, engrossing, enlightening jaunt through time and technology, explores the concept of heredity in both personal and universal terms. Though large portions of it are devoted to the biological mechanisms that underpin inheritance, Zimmer says you’d be mistaken to think it’s a book about genetics. Rather, it’s about the question genetics was invented to address: how did the past become the present, and how will the present shape the future?
Humans have never been more eager for the answer, as the the millions of people who’ve sent their saliva away to DNA-testing companies can attest. Such tests sell insights into the roots and branches of your family tree stretching back generations. Increasingly they’re making predictions about how healthy you can expect to be as time marches forward. But Zimmer cautions that misunderstanding the role DNA does or doesn’t play in determining one’s fate can have calamitous consequences. At a time when society is grappling with the world’s first gene-edited humans, Zimmer’s clear-eyed prose on the nature of and history of heredity couldn’t be more necessary. [Amazon] —Megan Molteni
Charles Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet
How will a warming world bedeviled by food, water, and energy shortages sustain the 10 billion people projected to live on Earth by 2050? That’s the driving question of Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet. But Mann (1491, 1493) provides no easy answers. Rather, he presents two compelling yet contradictory philosophical lenses through which to view our mounting predicament.
Mann names proponents of the first worldview “Wizards”; they regard humanity as endlessly resourceful, capable of leveraging whatever the planet provides to not only survive but, through ceaseless innovation, thrive. Adherents of the second philosophy, whom he calls “Prophets,” see human prosperity as an unsustainable drain on Earth’s finite resources, and prudent stewardship of those resources as our species’ only hope for survival.
In an impressive writerly flourish, Mann explores the present-day implications of these dueling visions through the biographies of two little-known 20th century scientists: Nobel-prize-winning agronomist Neal Bourlaug, father of the Green Revolution, serves as Mann’s ur-Wizard; ecologist William Vogt, an architect of the modern environmentalist movement, is his proto-Prophet. Though their respective lives are recounted mostly in parallel (the two met only once, and briefly at that), they provide an eminently readable framework for understanding the work and ideas of other, modern-day wizards and prophets working to address climate change. An expert storyteller, Mann’s recounting of their stories guides readers through the thicket of knotty social, ecological, and economic challenges that will dictate the fate our planet and its people. [Amazon] —Robbie Gonzales
John Carreyrou, Bad Blood
The astonishing thing about Elizabeth Holmes, the Stanford dropout who raised $1.4 billion to start the blood-testing company Theranos, was how badly the people in her orbit wanted to believe her story.
She had a few things working in her favor. Before leaving Stanford, she dazzled a famous professor who should have asked tougher questions. She happened to have a family connection to not one but two prominent investors, who both gave her money. She’s handsome and smart, which of course doesn’t hurt. But she leveraged these initial victories to stack Theranos’s advisory board and executive team with Silicon Valley heavyweights. Bonafides secured, she proceeded to plunder the trust of her business partners and allies.
Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou unearthed detail after damning detail on the ways in which Holmes misled her employees, investors, and customers in blindered pursuit of a multi-purpose test that could be run on one paltry drop of blood. Time and again she rejected technical compromises that might have saved her company. Worst of all, she allowed the company to send out incorrect test results that endangered patients. Carreyrou’s account of the company’s litany of lies, its toxic internal culture, and its technical insufficiency makes it hard to fathom how Theranos lasted as long as it did. The reality is that her business partners didn’t just buy a technology, they bought a chance to bask in the starshine of a youthful visionary.
Bad Blood should be essential reading for any student of Silicon Valley, exposing the lie behind “fake it til you make it” culture. Theranos won’t be the last startup to implode in spectacular fashion, but perhaps its story will steer some entrepreneurs down a more enlightened path. [Amazon] —Sandra Upson
Read an excerpt here.
Kate Devlin, Turned On
If eggplant emoji make you blush, this title may not be for you. But if you’re curious how the rise of artificially intelligent agents will shape the next chapter of human sexuality, Kate Devlin’s first book is a timely, vital treatise. A human-computer interaction researcher, Devlin uses a long, lurid history of humans fornicating with foreign objects to set the stage for a thoughtful meditation on the increasingly complicated ethics of animatronic intimacy.
In her wide-ranging look at the past, present, and future of sex robots, Devlin brings academic research to life through personal tales from the frontiers of mechanical love and lust. She takes readers inside the Second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots, on a tour of California’s sex doll factories, and into the online iDollator forums where men who love life-sized synthetic women congregate.
She filters it all through a pro-sex feminist lens, asking important questions along the way about who the $15-billion sex tech business of tomorrow is being built for, and who is being left out. With charm and wit she tackles thorny issues like computer-programmed consent, nascent bot consciousness, and whether sex robots could lead to more sexual violence against flesh-and-blood humans. “If it exists,” she writes, “people will try to corrupt it.” Deus sex machina indeed. [Amazon] —Megan Molteni
Seth Fletcher, Einstein’s Shadow
Black holes are the goth kids of the universe. They don’t just stare unblinking into the void, they are the void, swallowing up matter and destroying it. “Viewed a certain way, black holes are nature’s way of telling us there’s no hope: they will trap you, erase all record of your existence, and then vanish,” writes journalist Seth Fletcher in Einstein’s Shadow. That’s dark. But in the paradoxical nihilism of black holes, we might discover the biggest, grandest truths about the universe.
We’ve got a ways to go, though. For all that the existence of black holes is common knowledge, strikingly little is known about them. We’ve never so much as glimpsed one. So a group of astronomers set out to try to snap a picture of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Called Sagittarius A*, it is about as wide as Mercury’s orbit around the sun, Fletcher writes. To properly glimpse it, we’d need to build a telescope that spans the Earth. That means forging an alliance between several existing radio telescopes, upgrading them with new instruments, and uniting them using a technique called very long baseline interferometry.
Einstein’s Shadow is the story of this quest, following the astronomer Shep Doeleman in his struggles against the limits of astrophysics and the boundlessness of human bureaucracy. It’s not easy to get people to work together, especially when the personalities involved are all worrying about whose name will eventually be selected for a Nobel Prize. Perhaps this urge to make history is why astrophysicists can’t quite accept that a black hole destroys information; that lovely medal wouldn’t even register as a black hole’s afternoon snack. So they keep searching for hints that somewhere, somehow, everything that falls in finds a way to sneak back out. Even around black holes, hope springs eternal. [Amazon] —Sandra Upson
Merve Emre, The Personality Brokers
Regardless of how you feel personally about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the self-report questionnaire that translates Jungian psychological models into 16 permutations of human personality, there is no denying its enduring influence on modern life. Millions of people a year undergo the MBTI—or the Myers Briggs test, as you probably know it. They do so out of personal interest, but also for things like work and school, to assess their tendency toward extraversion (E) or introversion (I), sensing (S) or intuiting (N), thinking (T) or feeling (F), and judging (J) or perceiving (P).
In the Personality Brokers, Oxford English professor Merve Emre recounts the MBTI’s history, which is as curious as its four-dimensional personality profiles are controversial. She describes with exquisite attentiveness the lives of its creators: children’s educational theorist Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Myers. It was Briggs, we learn, who developed the indicator’s outlines, but it was Myers who filled it in, championed it, named it, and marketed it to companies as a way to recruit, screen, and manage employees.
That corporate practice, and the indicator itself, have been widely criticized as reductionist and ineffective (a criticism, we learn, that was shared in part by Briggs). This has not, however, kept the MBTI industry from flourishing. Neither does it prevent Emre’s own skepticism from softening in the course of her research. An equitable critic, her characterization of the test’s legacy as at once practical and pernicious reflects her clear-eyed view of history, her reliability as a narrator, and her skills as a storyteller. [Amazon] —Robbie Gonzales
FROM WIRED AUTHORS:
Matt Simon, Plight of the Living Dead
Truth is stranger than fiction, the old cliche goes. Just look at modern American politics. But for my money, the strangest fiction that’s actually truth is that of the zombie. We’re all familiar with the zombie’s stumbling, its bitey-ness, its yearning for human flesh. But out in nature, parasites are actually zombifying their hosts in far more horrifying and complex ways. In Plight of the Living Dead, I explore the strange new science of zombification, which turns out to be extremely common across the tree of life.
Take, for instance, the jewel wasp, which can tackle a cockroach and drive her stinger through its neck and into its brain. She feels around for two specific regions that govern locomotion and loads them with venom. When she pulls her stinger out, the roach stands there stupefied, creating a perfect opportunity for the wasp to lead it into a burrow. The insanity doesn’t end there. Next she lays an egg on the cockroach’s leg, which hatches into a larvae that begins sucking the roach’s juices. Eventually it drills into the body cavity and hollows it out, organ by organ, before pupating and emerging as an adult wasp.
It’s just one of many astounding acts of mind control to be found out in the wild, techniques that have evolved independently in fungi, worms, microbes, and other groups. But we humans are safe, right? Nope, not in the slightest. [Amazon] —Matt Simon
Peter Rubin, Future Presence
It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than six years since virtual reality clawed its way out of the ’90s Visions graveyard, where it had lain alongside such paleofuturist fatalities as Crystal Pepsi and Vanilla Ice’s rap career. But just because VR was upright didn’t mean it was alive and well; since the 2012 emergence of the term “Oculus Rift,” VR has been in a state of perma-almostness, dismissed by naysayers as often as it was embraced by believers. It was in the midst of that debate that I wrote Future Presence, which seeks to establish that people are missing the very point of VR. The technology isn’t about games, or escape—it’s about connection.
It’s true that VR can, and is already being used to, transform what’s possible in medicine, education, and manufacturing (among other fields). But VR’s secret sauce, presence—a phenomenon wherein your brain truly believes that you exist within the virtual environment, eliciting all the physical and emotional reactions consistent with that experience—unlocks a host of social and psychological dynamics that are unlike anything we’ve ever seen in digitally mediated communication. Things like eye contact. Embodiment, and a sense of physical proximity. Couple those with the fact that the brain stores and accesses memories of VR experiences like they’re real-world experiences, and you’re looking at a very new thing in our digital lives: intimacy.
For all its industrial relevance, VR admittedly has a few more years until it’s a meaningful part of people’s online social lives. But as more and more people build more and more spaces where we can come together in unprecedented ways, they don’t need to wonder about what VR can deliver when the time is right—because its power is already there. [Amazon] —Peter Rubin
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