pandemics

Book review – How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future

8-minute read

The complexity of modern civilization is somewhat of a double-edged sword. It has brought great advances in human health and well-being, yet a full understanding of the sum-total of our knowledge of how the world works is now far beyond any single person. Consequently, getting people to agree on how to tackle complex problems becomes this much harder. In How The World Really Works, energy expert and policy analyst Vaclav Smil provides the big picture of the material and energetic basis undergirding human civilization, and what this means for attempts at addressing climate change. Rich in eye-opening facts and not a little bit opinionated, this is a much-needed reality check that purposefully avoids extreme views of both the techno-optimist and catastrophist kind.

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Book review – Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus

9-minute read

Back in March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic first swept around the world, I reviewed David Quammen’s 2012 book Spillover for background reading. It looked at the risk of zoonosis: the spilling over of an infectious disease from animal into human populations. Quammen warned, and gave voice to many others who similarly warned, that the next big disease outbreak might very well be viral, in particular RNA viruses such as coronaviruses. Other authors quickly wrote books within the first year of the pandemic (I reviewed some of them), but not yet Quammen: “early in 2021 I decided to keep quiet for a while and listen” (p. 282). Finally, in October 2022, his book Breathless provided us with his insights into COVID-19 and the virus SARS-CoV-2.

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Book review – The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe

8-minute read

The medieval bubonic plague pandemic was a major historical event. But what happened next? To give myself some grounding on this topic, I previously reviewed The Complete History of the Black Death. This provided detailed insights into the spread and mortality caused by the Black Death, which was only the first strike of the Second Plague Pandemic. With that month-long homework exercise in my pocket, I was ready to turn back to the book that send me down this plague-infested rabbit hole in the first place: The World the Plague Made by historian James Belich. One way to characterise this book is that it retells the history of Europe from 1350 onwards as if the plague mattered.

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Book review – The Complete History of the Black Death (Second Edition)

11-minute read

Earlier this year, Princeton University Press published The World the Plague Made. Since I do not know all that much about the medieval plague pandemic known as the Black Death, I innocently said to myself: “let’s do some homework”. Coincidentally, Boydell Press recently published The Complete History of the Black Death by Norwegian emeritus professor of history Ole J. Benedictow, which is a substantially updated version of his 2004 book The Black Death 1346–1353: The Complete History. Just a little bit of homework… Little did I know that I would spend the next 38(!) days soldiering my way through this tome, which is an unprecedentedly long time for me. Did this exercise result in a deeper understanding of the plague? On many levels, yes, but with some caveats, and a note that this book is not light reading.

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Book review – Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us

7-minute read

We often think of tropical forests as pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands. In Jungle, archaeologist Patrick Roberts shows otherwise. A wealth of research reveals a long and entwined history that saw cities and agriculture flourish in this habitat, while later brutal colonial exploitation underlies many of today’s inequalities and environmental problems. Though revisionist and confrontational in tone, Jungle is a breath of fresh air by not falling for simple narratives. Instead, it retains a welcome dose of nuance and willingness to acknowledge complexity.

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Book review – A Series of Fortunate Events: Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You

7-minute read

Every one of us is here through a long string of happy accidents that might just as well not have happened. That is the contention behind A Series of Fortunate Events, a short and snappy book by evolutionary biologist Sean B. Carroll. Examining planetary events, evolution, and our personal lives and deaths—and introducing one remarkable French biologist—it read like an appetizer that left me wanting to explore this topic further.

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Book review – Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19

10-minute read

From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been one of the big questions. The default assumption for many has been zoonosis: a natural spillover event where an infectious disease jumps from an animal host into the human population. But could it have escaped from one of the several virology laboratories in Wuhan? Initially cast aside as a conspiracy theory, the idea has slowly been gaining credibility. Viral is a disconcerting book that considers what we know so far. Though the smoking gun remains missing, the circumstantial evidence raises several red flags. Given the increasingly heated and polarised discussion around this topic, I started reviewing this book with some trepidation.

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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 – London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City

6-minute read

We walk on layered history. The ground beneath our feet is shot through with traces of our past, some in plain sight, many buried and badly eroded. Writer and artist Tom Chivers will concur that nowhere is this more true than in cities. London Clay is the result of a decade of exploration on foot, tracing vanished rivers, lost islands, and geological strata hiding under the concrete bedlam of modern London. The city’s untidy edges, its brownfields and derelict buildings, the very lay of the land—in Chivers’s hands all of these become cracks through which the past oozes back in. An unlikely chimaera of nature writing and urban exploration, this lyrical book offers a fresh way of looking at the built environment.

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Book review – The World for Sale: Money, Power and the Traders Who Barter the Earth’s Resources

8-minute read

From the food we eat and the fuel we burn to the materials that make up our everyday objects—we live in a material world. The traders who get these commodities from producers to consumers are key players in the world economy, yet also some of the most secretive and least scrutinised. Javier Blas and Jack Farchy are two journalists who report on energy and natural resources for Bloomberg News. In The World for Sale, they rip the veil off this sector, exposing the often dubious and amoral ways in which some trading houses have amassed staggering fortunes. I expect that this eye-popping exposé, which sometimes reads more like a crime novel, will be warmly welcomed by both seasoned readers of business books and inquisitive passers-by.

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