The mysteries of growth
HOW did we get to be who we are? From what did we emerge? And what are we becoming? This year sees the publication of some fascinating books about how animals develop.
The Black Box of Biology: A history of the molecular revolution (Harvard University Press) by historian Michel Morange weaves together the science of cellular life, from charming early chemical explanations of how life works to the dizzying complexities of computational biology.
There is more to discover about this fascinating story, says Alexander Levine, whose Living Matter: Seeking new physics in the biological world (Princeton University Press) argues that life’s complexity and capacity for self-organisation may require a new branch of physics.
What amazing force puts 40 trillion cells (more cells than there are stars in the galaxy) into the right order to make a human? In The Dance of Life: Symmetry, cells and how we become human (W. H. Allen), Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz at the University of Cambridge and former New Scientist editor Roger Highfield reveal answers, some with profound implications for the future of pregnancy.
A few decades ago, there were no effective ways to care for very premature babies. Now even infants born weighing less than half a kilogram have gone on to have full, healthy lives. In Early: An intimate history of premature birth and what it teaches us about being human (Fourth Estate), Sarah DiGregorio tells the complete story of this new, life-saving science.
Yet it is by no means obvious why a species as complex and distractable as ours should love our children. Strange Situation: A mother’s journey into the science of attachment (Ballantine) describes Bethany Saltman’s decade-long journey through labs, archives and training sessions to reveal surprising and sometimes awkward truths about our supposed “instinct” for attachment.
Not that such questions are unique to our species. In Wildhood: The epic journey from adolescence to adulthood in humans and other animals (Scribe), Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers trace teen angst through the animal kingdom, and discover that young humans aren’t the only animals who have trouble getting along in a group, or in their search for status and that special someone.
Making sense of everything
The world is too big for us to get our heads around it all, but these books will help us attempt the impossible.
To understand anything, we first need to put it in some sort of order. A sense of direction is essential to the development of intelligence. Does this mean our world of automated travel and route-dictating apps is making us stupid? Michael Bond investigates in Wayfinding: The art and science of how we find and lose our way (Picador).
Why do we sneer at astrologers, but lap up the pronouncements of economists? Both draw unprovable stories from intractably huge data sets, and, as Alexander Boxer’s A Scheme of Heaven: Astrology and the birth of science (Profile) reveals, they may have more in common than you ever suspected.
Once upon a time, it was just about possible to know everything (you still had to be a genius, though). In The Polymath: A cultural history from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag (Yale University Press), Peter Burke traces the rise and fall of these intellectual giants, and explains why we will probably never see their like again.
The Alchemy of Us: How humans and matter transformed one another (MIT Press) makes hay with the idea that we are inveterate tinkerers, explaining the things around us by comparing them with the things we make. Physicist Ainissa Ramirez tells how clocks, steel rails, photographic film, light bulbs and silicon chips ended up shaping how we look at the world.
The Matter of Facts: Skepticism, persuasion, and evidence in science (MIT Press) by father and son writing team Gareth and Rhodri Leng combines their research in science and politics to explain why science is such a delicate and difficult business. They also have ideas on how best to defend it against complacency, corruption and cheap shots from outsiders.
When famous scientists get to a certain age, they invariably start wondering what their work has been about. Bestselling physicist Brian Greene is no exception. In Until the End of Time: Mind, matter, and our search for meaning in an evolving universe (Allen Lane), he explores how life and mind emerged from chaos, and how science, stories, myth, religion and creative expression all contribute to our ideas of truth.
Gaming in 2020
CD Projekt Red (out in April)
This game promises to let you live the Blade Runner dream.
The latest in a great series, and possibly the definitive VR game.
343 Industries (end of 2020)
This continues the sci-fi adventures of Master Chief on the new Xbox console.
The Last Of Us Part II
Naughty Dog (May)
Returns players to a stunning post-apocalyptic world.
Watch Dogs: Legion
Brings high-tech hacking to a post-Brexit London.
London Games Festival
From 26 March
More than 100,000 people are expected at its events.
Understanding ourselves is even more difficult than wrapping our heads around the universe.
In The Future of Feeling: Building empathy in a tech-obsessed world (Little A), journalist Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips wonders what social media, artificial intelligence, robot technology and the digital world are doing to her relationships. Doctors, entrepreneurs, teachers, journalists and scientists suggest how we can enjoy technology without ruining our lives.
Ruination is a real possibility, according to Rose A. Dyson, whose Mind Abuse: Media violence and its threat to democracy (University of Chicago Press) blows the whistle on an industry that she claims is profiting from a public crisis in mental health.
There is a lot of money to be made in media, and graphic violence, so why should we take on trust reassurances that media violence doesn’t do us any harm?
Julia Ebner, who works at a counter-extremism think tank, discovered the terrifyingly violent assumptions underpinning some very ordinary lives when she went undercover to discover how extremists live. She tells her story in Going Dark: The secret social lives of extremists (Bloomsbury).
Maybe pills are the answer. No, really. After all, if disappointment is too much for you, or if your long-term partner is rubbing you up the wrong way, you can already cure the problem with a pill, say ethicists Brian D. Earp and Julian Savulescu in Love is the Drug: The chemical future of our relationships (Manchester University Press).
Such is the state of today’s pharmaceutical art, we had all better start asking questions about the value of love, before we end up medicating it.
Food: a new relationship
The list of what we don’t know about food looks terrifyingly long. At the personal level, there is Ingredients: The strange chemistry of what we put in us and on us (Dutton) by science communicator George Zaidan. He is big on everything from how bad processed food really is and the question mark over coffee, to what happens if you overdose on fentanyl in the sun, and asking if cassava plants and Soviet spies have anything in common.
Food Adulteration and Food Fraud (Reaktion) by Jonathan Rees also shows what we should watch out for. His account of the journeys of some food to the shop encompasses horsemeat in the UK, honey-laundering in the US and 40-year-old zombie meat in China. It speaks of hidden crimes by large food processors and small-time criminals. Rees warns us against our willingness to ignore such deception if products are cheap enough.
That cheapness gets even more worrying when you factor in climate change and population growth. Explanatory guides are badly needed, so welcome The Future of Food: How digital technology will change the way we feed the planet (Allen Lane) by Caleb Harper. Harper recounts his work at the MIT Media Lab, where as a principal research scientist he monitors variables affecting plant health, including water, light, carbon dioxide and temperature. He is still optimistic that we can feed 10 billion mouths (and counting) by 2050.
Tim Lang’s Feeding Britain: Our food problems and what to do about them (Pelican) pulls no punches as he assesses the strengths and fragilities of UK food production. Lang, a professor of food policy at City, University of London, reckons it is time to set a new course for UK food – especially with Brexit.
We may end up having to mimic what animals do, to play with the message of Eat Like the Animals: What nature teaches us about the science of healthy eating (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by David Raubenheimer and Stephen Simpson. It is true we have trouble doing what a blob of slime mould and baboon do instinctively – eat for optimal health. Fortunately, the authors say our appetite can be hacked for our own good.
Living with climate change
The best we can do about climate change is to get smart with mitigation and adaptation while keeping optimistic.
Flying the flag for realpolitik are former UN climate secretary (and architect of the Paris agreement in 2015) Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, her UN political strategist. In The Future We Choose: Surviving the climate crisis (Manilla Press), they outline life in 2050 if we fail to meet the Paris targets – and life in a carbon neutral world. Act now, and it could yet be our finest hour.
Danny Dorling‘s Slowdown: The end of the great acceleration – and why it’s good for the planet, the economy, and our lives (Yale University Press) offers a different kind of optimism. Dorling welcomes the current slowdown of population growth, economies and tech innovation because it moves towards stability.
Environmental justice is another paradoxical reason to be cautiously cheerful, with Julie Sze’s Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger (University of California Press) laying out the precarious environmental and political moment in a primer packed with hopeful stories.
Getting dirty with the detail, though, may yet prove the safest place to look for hope, so try The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success: Overcoming myths that hinder progress (Cambridge University Press) by Mark Jaccard, and Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to prepare for the coming climate disruption (Oxford University Press) by Alice C. Hill and Leonardo Martinez-Diaz.
If you actually want to give in to despair, it is hard to beat Bunker (Allen Lane) by Bradley Garrett. Its subtitles, Prepping for the collapse of civilization (US) and Building for the end times (UK), say it all.
Don’t miss these events
Museum of Natural History, Oxford, until 24 February
Go back 600 million years to meet our earliest ancestors.
Leonardo da Vinci
Louvre, Paris, until 24 February
Europe’s largest and most comprehensive exhibition of the polymath’s work.
Making Marvels: Science and splendor at the courts of Europe
Metropolitan Museum, New York, until 1 March
Revisit the days when scientific devices were also lavish status symbols, coveted by royalty.
Mushrooms: The art, design and future of fungi
Somerset House, London, from 31 January
Artists, musicians and designers celebrate fungi’s potential to transform our world, from the inside out.
Alice in Typhoidland
History of Science Museum and other Oxford sites, from 21 January
Join Alice Liddell – Alice in Wonderland – on a murky tour of Oxford, and discover the secrets of a gruesome and dank disease.
Nirin: 22nd Biennale of Sydney
Sites in New South Wales, Australia, from 14 March
Indigenous Australian activists and artists from around the world explore sovereignty on a fast-changing planet.
Tracking the future
As ever, predicting the future is a mug’s game. So smarter books go for caution. Take A World Without Work: Technology, automation and how we should respond (Allen Lane) by Daniel Susskind, a former policy adviser to the UK Cabinet. When he says jobs are really going this time, he is careful to add that the challenges will be to fairly distribute wealth generated by automation, constrain the powers of big tech firms and provide meaning for people used to work.
Then there is economics, now a rather wonky discipline – as shown in What’s Wrong with Economics?: A primer for the perplexed (Yale University Press) by economic thinker Robert Skidelsky.
Why economics really matters is illustrated in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton) by Anne Case and Angus Deaton. Life expectancy in the US fell for three years in a row recently, and in the past two decades, deaths from suicide, drug overdose and alcoholism rose dramatically, and are still rising.
The authors argue that the capitalism that lifted countless people out of poverty is now destroying blue-collar America. They have solutions to make it work for all. They had better be right.
Elsewhere, enjoy some left-field offerings, with Uncanny Valley: A memoir (Fourth Estate) by Anna Wiener taking us back to Silicon Valley circa 2012, when casual sexism and excess were the hallmarks of Valley start-ups.
Then there is Coding Democracy: How hackers are disrupting power, surveillance, and authoritarianism (MIT Press) by Maureen Webb, which says hurrah for the hackers who are inspiring activism that may let ordinary citizens take back democracy.
Back with work, Erin Hatton’s Coerced: Work under threat of punishment (University of California Press) asks what prison labourers, graduate students, welfare workers and college athletes have in common. Hatton says they are all part of a growing workforce of coerced labour. For them, employment means workplaces without protections like unions, where employers wield punitive power far beyond the ability to hire and fire. Because this is commonplace, Hatton says that coercion – as well as precarity – is a defining feature of work in the US. Strong stuff for a new decade.
A look at the science fiction of 2020
Michael deForge (Drawn & Quarterly)
This graphic novel, reminiscent of the work of Lisa Frank and Keith Haring, constructs a Kafkaesque plot around how familiar things can become unrecognisable in a heartbeat.
Marc-Uwe Kling (Orion)
An amusing skewering of the logical consequences of the world’s increasing efficiency and optimisation.
William Gibson (Viking)
“The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” Gibson’s new time travel series – this is the second book – is an entertainingly literal take on his famous futurist throwaway remark.
Max Barry (Hodder & Stoughton)
A Starship Troopers set-up with extragalactic aliens and a scrappy band of space-force kids sent to fight them. Barry’s 2013 book Lexikon was a blast, so fingers crossed this one will be too.
Martin MacInnes (Atlantic Books)
This book is mooted to be one of the best of 2020, featuring bonobo crime and one man’s head trauma in an extinguishing world.
Exercises in Control
Annabel Banks (Influx Press)
A debut collection about the human obsession with control. No matter how normal the opening scenario, each of these stories ends in the strangest place.
Martha Wells (Tor)
At last, there is a book-length Murderbot tale! This socially anxious biohybrid killer robot with a heart of gold serves up kick-ass soup for the introverted soul.
Michael Christie (Scribe UK)
A lyrical, meditative take on a world in which forests have become such rare commodities that they are turned into therapeutic retreats for the very wealthy.
The Hidden Girl and Other Stories
Ken Liu (Head of Zeus)
The award-winning author’s new collection of short stories features a mix of science fiction and fantasy and a new novelette.
Film highlights for 2020
Kristen Stewart finds herself in (very) deep water in this superior Alien homage by The Signal director William Eubank.
Austrian newcomer Jessica Hausner directs Ben Whishaw and Emily Beecham in this splendidly unsettling tale of a plant geneticist who says it with flowers – and not in a good way.
The Invisible Man
Director Leigh Whannell turns H. G. Wells’s existential horror story into a #metoo-flavoured nightmare. Elisabeth Moss plays a woman being hunted by an abuser that nobody else can see.
Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots look for the perfect home and find themselves trapped in a mysterious, labyrinthine suburb – a tip of the hat to The Twilight Zone, perhaps?
The lone woman on a team of astronauts agonises over the care of her 7-year-old daughter. The premise to Alice Winocour’s film may sound over-worthy, but industry buzz suggests a gripping, intelligent attempt to redefine “the right stuff”. Eva Green and Matt Dillon star.
There is an irresistible aura of nostalgia around this post-apocalyptic tale of an ailing inventor (Tom Hanks) who creates a robot to look after his dog, and gets more than he bargained for.
Denis Villeneuve, who directed Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, tackles Frank Herbert’s celebrated and notoriously hard-to-film novel Dune (or the first half of it, at any rate).
And later this year…
Joe Penna directs Anna Kendrick and Toni Collette in a cautionary tale of what happens to your rocket when you find yourself carrying a whole extra person.
Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) pens this adaptation of Patrick Ness’s young adult series about telepathy run amok. Doug Liman directs.
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