The best science books to read in 2021

Deepol By Plainpicture/Vasily Pindyurin

save the earth

For good reason, this year has been billed as the year we must come together to save human civilization.

Fortunately, the technology needed to achieve a zero-carbon economy is surprisingly simple. Getting the roughly 8 billion grumpy primates to agree on a single course of action isn’t easy.

A variety of books can help. The first comes from Mike Berners-Lee of the Institute for the Future of Society, Lancaster University, UK. He finds himself already having to update his 2019 bestseller, No Planet B: The Make-or-break Manual. He re-emphasized what we as individuals can do to combat climate change, from eating less meat to preserving biodiversity in our own backyards.

Fair enough, though, as Michael Mann says in The New Climate War: The Struggle to Take Back the Planet, we should be skeptical of trying to push the onus of change on citizens, away from the industries that are doing the most harm to our planet.

Elizabeth Colbert’s “Under a White Sky” points out that many of our interventions with nature are devastating and asks if we are too late to turn things around.

“Artificial intelligence research sees information as an extractive industry, leading us towards rising inequality”

There’s a balance here, and Bill Gates’ “How to Avoid a Climate Catastrophe” finds that balance. The new economy can create wealth, but only if there are the right incentives—and those incentives will need political support if they are to succeed.

We need to educate ourselves if we are to hold our governments, our employers and ourselves accountable in this vital enterprise.

think big

2021 is also expected to be the year we begin to reshape our place in the world, seeing it as a system to be explored, not an object to be developed.

There are many clues here, from Oxford University theoretical physicist Chiara Marletto’s revolutionary reinvention of physics, “The Science of Can and Can’t,” to neuroscientist Anil Seth’s new theory of consciousness, “Being You: The Inside Story of Your Inner Universe “. Seth encourages us to isolate ourselves from the rest of nature. Marletto’s contribution to “constructor theory” reconciles what we think of as the laws of physics with the open-ended possibilities presented by biology and information theory. It is a paradigm that, despite its rigor, has re-engaged the world and enriched our place in it.

Alas, a lot of recent thinking is leading us in the opposite direction. Microsoft Research’s Kate Crawford in her Atlas of Artificial Intelligence uncovers a field that, despite its millennial promises, sees information as just another extractive industry, so we’re slipping further into undemocratic Governance and exacerbated inequalities.

For a positive vision of free intelligence, turn to Italian theoretical physicist and best-selling author Carlo Rovelli. His latest book, Heligoland, begins with 23-year-old Werner Heisenberg’s visit to the treeless island of the same name in the North Sea and his construction of one of the most transformative concepts in physics : The days of quantum theory. In Rovelli’s final pages, we find ourselves tearing apart a universe not made of particles, but of the relationships between them. A real headache.

Everyday Science

The more we learn about the world, the more magical it becomes, and that’s a good reason to join chemist and YouTuber Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim and enjoy breakfast chemistry The clock disrupts your fine-tuned biological clock for the physiology of end-of-day booze effect.

Several books this year explore the evolutionary basis of these everyday moments. For example, we know that cooking was essential to our evolution. Now, in Delicious, biologists Rob Dunn and Monica Sanchez ask what the earliest foods tasted like, and whether fruit’s deliciousness is causing some giant mammals to go extinct even as they evolve to become tastier and fatter.

Those seeking a deeper understanding of human physiology will learn how their lives are affected by brain chemistry in radio presenter Ginny Smith’s overload. Then there’s Ouch by sociologist Margee Kerr and journalist Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a very light-hearted foray into the world of pain: why it hurts, why it doesn’t always have to be, and why we sometimes crave it.

This year, our social behavior has also been under the magnifying glass, with forensic criminologist Jane Monckton Smith’s “In Control,” analyzing domestic violence and murder more closely than ever. Smith has set a timeline for how the behavior escalates until the “crime of passion” occurs, and her work is already saving lives.

On a more delightful but equally profound note, paleoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi’s “Handshake” reintroduces us to the oldest social signal after a year of social distancing. The handshake is a gesture we share with chimpanzees; no wonder it feels so alienating without it.

find another world

If humans on Earth proved too much in the last year, maybe it’s time to look elsewhere. Starting outside the planets, Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb proposes extraterrestrials, who he thinks the strange interstellar object — now named “Oumuamua” — first appeared to us in 2017 The inner solar system was run by an alien civilization. Here, he outlines his arguments, urging us to keep our minds open. Some scientists are skeptical; others, like physicist Sean Carroll, think it’s crucial to be open to “bold possibilities.”

Another exciting option closer to home is to follow marine biologist Helen Scales into The Brilliant Abyss. The deep ocean is a remarkable world, where glowing creatures swim, copious amounts of carbon are trapped that would otherwise poison our atmosphere, and strange bacteria could become potent drugs.

But it’s also a looming battleground because of vast mineral resources and the growing impact of pollutants and overfishing. Her book is both a revelation and a wake-up call.

inner track

Four new books for 2021 from new scientist Consultants, staff and columnists offer bold explorations of the future, past and present.

First a thought experiment: How would you spend $1 trillion on science in a year? Will you eradicate malaria, end global poverty, go to the moon, solve climate change? In How to Spend a Trillion Dollars, Rowan Hooper, new scientistA podcast editor that helps readers splurge for global good. Remember, $1 trillion is less than Apple’s current valuation.

Equally challenging is The Disordered Cosmos by New Scientist columnist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. Sharing a love for particle physics and dark matter, which comes with a strong political context, requires us to recognize that science, like most fields, is riddled with racism, sexism, and other dehumanizing institutions. It also encourages us to dream of a world based on our fundamental right to experience and understand the wonders of the universe.

The stories behind four lost cities, told by New Scientist columnist Annalee Newitz, demonstrate how important the deep history of urban life is to our near future. Newitz explores the rise and fall of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey, the Roman city of Pompeii on Italy’s southern coast, the medieval megacity of Angkor in Cambodia, and Cahokia near modern St. Louis in Missouri.

Will mathematics become a forgotten ingredient in the construction of human civilization? more art go through new scientist Consultant Michael Brooks reveals how we learned to imagine what we now call numbers and invented arithmetic, which gave rise to money, trade and the vast majority of civilization.

In school, many of us wondered what geometry, calculus, and algebra meant. Brooks shows that the childhood question “What’s the point of it?” can be reframed: esoteric concepts like imaginary numbers, cryptography, and the semi-cryptic number pi are revealed as fundamental components of the 21st century.

Rethinking Medicine

What does it mean to rebuild humans through gene editing or other medical interventions? The CRISPR Personality of Henry T. Greely, a professor of ethics and law at Stanford University in California, delves into the story of fraternal twin girls born in China in 2018 whose DNA was edited into embryos.

For Gree, Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s experiments are reckless and illegal, and the technology used has no additional benefit to existing technology, which deserves our deep consideration.

Jennifer Doudna and collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier have been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of CRISPR-mediated gene editing, and few are better than Jennifer Doudna. Jennifer Doudna is more concerned with ethical issues in this area.

Doudna’s story is told in Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker. It’s a gripping tale of how our new ability to hack evolution will soon start throwing curveballs at us. For example, should we use it to reduce susceptibility to viruses? This kind of stuff is likely to keep Doudna up at night.

Leana Wen, an emergency physician and health commissioner in Baltimore, Maryland, faced a different type of ethical issue, and she was named timeof the 100 most influential people.

“Will mathematics become a forgotten ingredient in the construction of human civilization?”

In Public Health Saves Your Life Today, Wen describes the critical role of public health in everyday medicine, from opioid addiction to the covid-19 pandemic. Her title comes from a phrase she uses frequently: “Public health today saves your life—you just don’t know it.”

Wen shows how public health combines advocacy, medicine, and politics to successfully create programs that treat gun violence as a contagion or racism as a health problem. Public health means citizens don’t die prematurely, and zip codes don’t determine whether they’re alive, she wrote.

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