Saying that the COVID-19 pandemic should not have happened will likely elicit one of two responses. Blaming China for initially trying to cover it up, or saying: “shit happens, this is speaking with the benefit of hindsight”. Appealing as these may sound, they are missing the bigger picture. The awful truth is that we have had this one coming for a long time.
With the COVID-19 pandemic shaping up to be one of the most influential public health crises in living memory, it was only a matter of time before books would be written about it. One of the first to make it to press is Understanding Coronavirus by systems biologist and bioinformatician Raul Rabadan. Amidst the swirl of dubious and outright false information that is circulating, there is desperate need for a book that clears up misconceptions and gives a concise introduction to what we know about the virus so far. Given that he spearheaded research in 2009 that confirmed the animal origin of swine flu, Rabadan seems like the right man for the job. Is this the primer that everybody should have on their bedside table?
Did life arise merely by accident? Many scientists feel uncomfortable with talk of goal-directedness and greater plans, as it reeks more of religion and theology than rational explanation. And with creationists lurking, the risk of “smuggling God in through the back door” under scientific pretences (as Richard Dawkins put it) is something to be wary of. Without descending into this territory, Universe in Creation might skirt dangerously close to it for some. In turns lyrical, unsettling, and, yes, speculative, this book argues that life may be written into the most basic laws of nature.
Some books, it seems, sit on your shelf just waiting for the right moment. David Quammen’s Spillover may have been published back in 2012, but it eerily foreshadows the 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic that currently keeps the world in its grip, and provides many insights. Right now, most people are of course concerned with the direct impact on public health and their jobs. While we try to slow down the spread of this disease, the global economy is taking a nosedive as country after country goes into lockdown. Once we come out on the other side though, there will be deeper questions to be asked. Could this happen again? How do we prevent that? And what the actual fuck just happened? Let Quammen be your guide, for, as he will show, everything comes from somewhere…
Most people will at least be mildly familiar with the story of how the structure of DNA was discovered. Francis Crick and James D. Watson are household names in this story as they went on to win a Nobel Prize. But can you name the third person to share it with them? Most people will also have heard of Rosalind Franklin, but as Gareth Williams shows, so many other people were relevant to this story. Watson and Crick only put the finishing cherry on the cake. Unravelling the Double Helix covers the preceding 85 years of breakthroughs, blind alleys, near-misses, and “beautifully executed bellyflops” by some of the greatest scientists of their time.
Many works of popular science claim to be histories of almost everything or everyone, but earth scientist Robert M. Hazen might actually be in the position to stake that claim. Whether you are talking stellar evolution, the origin of life, organic chemistry, synthetic materials, or hydrocarbon fuels – the multifaceted atom carbon is ubiquitous and pervasive. Symphony in C is a whirlwind tour through geology, biochemistry, and evolutionary biology that is an incredibly absorbing read, although in places it almost comes apart at the seams under the intensity of its enthusiasm.
Back in 2014, evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner blew my mind. His book Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle gave fascinating answers to the question of where evolutionary innovations come from. I will say more about it below, but in short, there are many ways to solve a problem. But, as Life Finds a Way shows, not all solutions are equally good. To evolve from a suboptimal solution to a superior one usually involves several steps through intermediary solutions that are even worse, something that natural selection acts against. So how does evolution overcome such obstacles? And what does the answer have to do with human creativity? Can we apply these ideas further afield in education or economics? And is this book going to be as good as his last one? So many questions…
In the already unusual world of viruses, retroviruses stand out for being even more so. Called “retro” because they reverse the flow of genetic information from RNA to DNA, rather than the normal DNA to RNA, they have turned out to be ancient, omnipresent, and incredibly influential. They are also important as they cause diseases such as AIDS. With Discovering Retroviruses, Anna Marie Skalka delivers a book dedicated to this particular group that is as technical as it is fascinating.
Beware the virus. If there is one message physician and evolutionary biologist Frank Ryan is hammering home with this book, it is this. Viruses are absolutely everywhere and more numerous even than microbes. So much so that Ryan speaks of the virosphere rather than the biosphere. But more than harbingers of disease, they are also agents of evolutionary invention. Now why does that sound familiar?
Communicating the complexities and abstractions of scientific findings is not easy. Anyone who has ever slogged through yet another dense paper or muddled presentation will acknowledge this. Our universe, it seems, cares not for the human quest of understanding it. One of the things, then, that makes popular science books such a treat is that they infuse scientific findings and speculation with a certain lyricism and good storytelling. This is why we flock to authors such as Nick Lane, Richard Dawkins, Richard Fortey, and many others besides. This is why Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan remain household names decades after their death. The latter’s Pale Blue Dot segment still gives me goosebumps. With Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World, science historian Oren Harman boldly turns the concept on its head: rather than bringing poetic flair to a pop-science book, he brings scientific flair to an epic poem.