disease

Book review – Plagues upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History

7-minute read

It might sound crass to write that the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest in a long line of infectious disease outbreaks, but a little perspective helps. Historian Kyle Harper previously impressed me with his study on the role of climate and disease in the decline of the Roman Empire. In Plagues Upon the Earth, he offers a global, multidisciplinary environmental history of infectious disease, showing that it is a force that has both shaped and been shaped by human history. This magnificent book stood out as much for its nuance and academic rigour as it did for its readability.

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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 – Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined – and Redefined – Nature

7-minute read

Books can be like buses: nothing is written on a topic for ages and then two books appear in quick succession. The subtitle of Life as We Made It resembles that of the recently-reviewed Life Changing. Both books indeed cover the same topic: how humans have shaped the genetics and evolution of plants and animals around them. Despite some inevitable overlap, Beth Shapiro draws on two decades of her career as a geneticist to make Life as We Made It a beast all of its own. I found myself both thoroughly enjoying her fantastic science communication while disagreeing with her outlook.

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Book review – Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape

7-minute read

When humans abandon a place, nature comes rushing back in. Dotted around our planet are numerous areas now devoid of human habitation: ghost towns, conflict zones, pollution hotspots, and areas wrecked by natural forces. Author and journalist Cal Flyn explores thirteen such locations and here reports their sights, sounds, and smells. Surprisingly rich in ecological and biological detail, Islands of Abandonment is a poetic and spellbinding travelogue. A dark howl of decay and human hubris, shot through with the inevitable rebirth of nature, this book haunted me long after I finished it.

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Book review – Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse

8-minute read

I remember, some years ago, the news headlines of an impending insect mass extinction. But I similarly remember pushback against the term “insect apocalypse”. When the publisher Jonathan Cape announced that well-known entomologist Dave Goulson was working on Silent Earth, my interest was naturally piqued. So, how bad is it, really?

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Book review – The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer

7 -minute read

Fifty years ago, US President Richard Nixon declared a “war on cancer” when he signed the National Cancer Act. Despite fantastic progress on some fronts, overall it is clear that we are not winning this battle. Cancer remains one of the leading causes of human mortality. But what if the tired war-metaphor is getting it all wrong? Brimming with thought-provoking questions, The Cheating Cell looks at cancer through an evolutionary lens and forces the reader to radically reconsider cancer; not as a bug, but as a feature of life.

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Book review – Vampirology: The Science of Horror’s Most Famous Fiend

6-minute read

You would think that science and monsters are strange bedfellows. And yet, there are plenty of science geeks, myself included, who get a good giggle out of pondering the science behind mythical beings and worlds. Clearly, somebody at the Royal Society of Chemistry has a similar sense of humour, for they have just published Vampirology. Here, chemist and science communicator Kathryn Harkup trains a scientific lens on the fanged fiend – not so much to ask whether vampires do or do not exist, but whether they could exist given our scientific understanding today.

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Book review – Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live

7-minute read

So far, most of the books I have read on the COVID-19 pandemic have either been of the backwards-looking, how-did-we-get-here type, or have dealt with practical virological, epidemiological, or immunological details. I picked up Apollo’s Arrow as it promised a forward-looking perspective while drawing parallels with past pandemics. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and sociologist directing the Human Nature Lab in Yale, got drafted into working on the pandemic from the start, tracking the spread of the virus, and sat at the bedside of many dying patients while working as a hospice doctor in New York. I believe we need to hear these frontline stories.

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Book review – Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils

6-minute read

Say “dinosaurs”, and most people imagine fossilised bones and spectacular museum displays. But body fossils are not the only remains we have with which to reconstruct dinosaur lives. Nor, and this might sound controversial, are they the most important. Or so argues palaeontologist, geologist, and ichnologist Anthony J. Martin. Ichnology is the study of animal traces, whether modern or fossilised. Most traces are ephemeral and disappear within hours or days, but occasionally some are buried and end up in the fossil record. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, and with more puns than you can shake a T. rex thigh bone at, Martin forays into the rich dinosaur trace fossil record: from footprints, burrows, and nests, to teeth marks and fossil faeces. For all the jokes, and despite having been published in 2014, he raises some really interesting points.

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Book review – Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Extraordinary Fossils

7-minute read

Fossils can tell us what animals living in the distant past looked like. Over the centuries, palaeontologists have made incredible strides in reconstructing extinct life forms, helped along by cumulative experience, technological advances, and a steadily increasing body of rare but truly exceptionally preserved fossils. But reconstructing their behaviour – surely that is all just speculative? In Locked in Time, palaeontologist and science communicator Dean R. Lomax, with the able help of palaeoartist Bob Nicholls, presents fifty of the most exceptional fossils that preserve evidence of past behaviour: from pregnant plesiosaurs to a pterosaur pierced by a predatory fish. I was eagerly awaiting this book from the moment it was announced, but I was still caught off-guard by some of the astonishing fossil discoveries featured here.

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