Book review – The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning

7-minute read

It is tempting to think of the internet as a revolutionary and transformative tool. But neither is really true, contends professor of history and philosophy of science Justin E.H. Smith. In The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, he argues that the idea has been in the air for centuries and that the lofty aspirations and dreams of its founders—that it would improve society—have died. Some of the observations here are absolute gems, though you will have to follow Smith through some diversions to get to them. Unfortunately, the book leaves the reader hanging at the end and does not deliver on some of its promises.

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Book review – Explorers of Deep Time: Paleontologists and the History of Life

6-minute read

When I ask you to think of a palaeontologist, what comes to mind? Admit it, you likely thought of someone digging up dinosaur fossils. And that someone was probably a white man. Grounded in the past, and endlessly repeated in the present, this is of course a very narrow picture of what palaeontology is like. In Explorers of Deep Time, Roy Plotnick, a palaeontologist and emeritus professor in earth and environmental sciences, challenges this and other stereotypes. Pardon the excruciating pun, but he leaves no rock unturned in the process of showing the many faces of modern palaeontology.

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Book review – The Contamination of the Earth: A History of Pollutions in the Industrial Age

8-minute read

The Industrial Revolution has been a mixed blessing. Although it improved living standards and brought material prosperity to many, humanity and the environment have paid a high price, not least in the form of pollution. The Contamination of the Earth catalogues the many forms of past pollution but also examines the social and political aspects of it. In other words, how people were affected by it and responded to it, and how legislation and politics allowed it to happen, to persist, and to only grow with time. This sprawling and information-dense environmental history work does full justice to this large and serious topic, but be prepared for a read that is neither light nor uplifting.

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Book review – We Know It When We See It: What the Neurobiology of Vision Tells Us About How We Think

6-minute read

Understanding the eye is only the first step to understanding how we see. Vision is as much about perceiving, which means understanding how the brain works. We Know It When We See It is the swansong of neuroscientist and ophthalmologist Richard Masland, who passed away in December 2019. His research career spanned over four decades and he was lauded internationally for his work on retinal neurobiology. In this book, his love for teaching shines through, and it was a pleasure to join him on one last trip through the neurobiology of vision.

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Book review – Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity

6-minute read

What is the price of humanity’s progress? The cover of this book, featuring a dusty landscape of tree stumps, leaves little to the imagination. In the eyes of French journalist and historian Laurent Testot it has been nothing short of cataclysmic. Originally published in French in 2017, The University of Chicago Press published the English translation at the tail-end of 2020.

Early on, Testot makes clear that environmental history as a discipline can take several forms: studying both the impact of humans on the environment, and of the environment on human affairs, as well as putting nature in a historical context. Testot does all of this in this ambitious book as he charts the exploits of Monkey—his metaphor for humanity—through seven revolutions and three million years.

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Book review – Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities

8-minute read

Growth as a process is ubiquitous. It is the hallmark of every living organism. It motivates much of what we as humans do, as often unspoken as it is outspoken. It is the narrative lens through which we examine societies and civilizations past and present. And it is the altar at which economists worship. You would think that nobody in their right mind would write a book that tries to encompass all of the above. Leave it to a deep thinker such as Vaclav Smil to prove to you otherwise.

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Book review – The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation

8-minute read

The robot apocalypse has become a well-worn trope that will elicit laughter more than concern. But there is a far more direct threat from artificial intelligence or AI: economic disruption. Technology can and has taken jobs away from humans. I first started taking this idea more seriously after watching CGP Grey’s short documentary Human Needs Not Apply. If you enjoyed that video, this book is the must-read follow-up. Economist and historian Carl Benedikt Frey provides a soundly argued and clearly written book on the history of technological revolutions and what lessons these hold for future job security.

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Book review – How to Predict Everything: The Formula Transforming What We Know About Life and the Universe

6-minute read

How do you predict something that has never happened before? That is the question heading this book. And as it so happens, there is an app formula for that. Purportedly a book about Bayes’s theorem, author William Poundstone quickly latches onto the doomsday argument and whizzes the reader through a mishmash of thought experiments and philosophical puzzles that try to answer the question how long humans will survive.

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Book review – More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources – And What Happens Next

8-minute read

More from Less makes the optimistic case that our impact on the planet is diminishing. We are past “peak stuff” and thanks to continued technological innovation our economy is dematerializing. That is to say, economic growth has become decoupled from resource consumption. Or, as the title puts it succinctly, we are getting more from less.

I was initially sceptical when I learned of this book. My outlook on the state of the world is not nearly as optimistic. So, from the blurb’s counterintuitive claim that “we’ve stumbled into an unexpected balance with nature”, to Steven Pinker’s triumphant endorsement that those who think we’re doomed by overpopulation and resource depletion are wrong – I was ready to go bananas on this book. But I would be a poor reviewer if I let my prejudices get the better of me.

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Book review – The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – and Why They Stop

6-minute read

With the world in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the questions posed by the subtitle of this book are on everyone’s mind. Associate Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Adam Kucharski here takes the reader through the inner workings of contagion. From violence and idea to financial crises and, of course, disease – some universal rules cut right across disciplines. So, is this the most topical book of the year? Well, yes and no.

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