Elegant chemistry, a humane view of robots, and refugee economics: Books in brief

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The Beauty of Chemistry

Philip Ball MIT Press (2021)

When Francis Crick and James Watson discovered DNA’s double helix, they privately called it “beautiful”, says science writer Philip Ball. But in 1953, “such expressions of exuberance were not welcomed in the austere annals of science”. Ball’s scintillating book is a paean to chemical beauty in nature and laboratories, with lavish images created by Wenting Zhu, Yan Liang and the Chinese Chemical Society, using microphotography, time lapse, thermal imaging and more. Would that it had existed when I was an undergraduate chemist.

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The Science of Can and Can’t

Chiara Marletto Viking (2021)

GPS depends on phenomena described in the general theory of relativity, but nothing in the theory predicted it. The possibility of GPS was thus a “counterfactual”, notes theoretical physicist Chiara Marletto, whose engaging book centres on these “facts about what could be”. By restricting itself to statements about initial conditions and laws of motion, she says, physics “is missing something essential”. Similarly, electron–proton attraction underlies our bodies’ chemistry — but there is no trace of biological complexity in the laws of physics.

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A Cure for Darkness

Alex Riley Scribner (2021)

Working at London’s Natural History Museum, Alex Riley published his first academic paper. It didn’t satisfy him. Later, he began to cry in a supervisory meeting, and left academia. Now a science journalist, he has received diverse professional advice and treatment for depression. His first book, a substantial and revealing history of the condition, is thus both subjective and objective, grappling with the opposing psychological and biological therapies of pioneering psychiatrists Sigmund Freud and Emil Kraepelin, and their divided successors.

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The New Breed

Kate Darling Henry Holt (2021)

The word ‘robot’, from the Czech for ‘forced labour’, was coined in a 1920 play by Karel Čapek about artificial people, exploited in factories, who rebel against their makers: a conflict-based, influential vision of artificial intelligence. Technology ethicist Kate Darling pursues a different view in her original, humane book. She compares robots with animals, long used for work, weaponry and companionship. “Like robots, animals can sense, make their own decisions, act on the world, and learn.” But they cannot replace human beings.

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The Wealth of Refugees

Alexander Betts Oxford Univ. Press (2021)

More than 80 million people are currently displaced; at least 25 million are refugees, driven to leave their country. Alexander Betts has studied them for many years, focusing on camps and cities in Africa. The challenging title of his avowedly practical study — considering ethics, economics, politics and policy — was inspired by Adam Smith’s 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, which argued that countries flourish when citizens can pursue their own interests. Such autonomy is also desirable, argues Betts, for today’s refugees.

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