Book Review: Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium by Lucy Jane Santos

Cover of the book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium By Lucy Jane Santos
Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium
by Lucy Jane Santos
Pegasus, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on June 1, 2021.

Given the known dangers of radiation, it’s difficult to comprehend how anyone could have thought it was healthy. But for nearly half a century after the discovery of radium, radiation was touted by scientists and medical experts as a cure-all for a whole range of maladies, from cancer to tuberculosis to various skin conditions. Radium was used in spas, steam treatments, salves and poultices, face creams, hair tonics, toothpaste, and more. People were even encouraged to drink radioactive water. Scientists recommended a range of radiation-based medical treatments and worried about unscrupulous businesses selling patent medicines that falsely claimed to contain radium. It was only over time that the dangers of radiation became clear. The development of the atomic bomb marked the end of radium’s golden age. In telling this history, Santos is careful not to judge from the perspective of hindsight: the use of radiation in medicine wasn’t quackery, it was supported by the best current scientific understanding. It’s an entertaining and eye-opening tale of a strange time in the early history of modern science.

Book Review: Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman

Cover of the book Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman
Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars
by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman
St. Martin’s, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on June 1, 2021.

Gross and Altman continue their series of deep-dive oral histories with their latest entry, which is on the beloved and influential Star Wars universe. They present interviews with cast members, creative staff, production crews, and executives from all three film trilogies and the television shows, detailing back stories about the development of the franchise: script writing, production design, filming, scoring, promotion, and merchandising. Lucas didn’t just create beloved movies, he used his success to invent new technologies that revolutionized the film industry more than once. Also featured is analysis of the cultural context and impact of Star Wars, along with critical perspectives. While the bulk of the content focuses on the movies and television shows, the books, comics, and games of the Expanded Universe are also covered. By presenting quotes in the format of a group interview, the authors juxtapose different perspectives. The work is comprehensive, although occasionally repetitive. It doesn’t break any new ground; rather, the value lies in gathering so much information in one place. It’s sure to be in demand with Star Wars fans.

Book Review: The Science of Jurassic World: The Dinosaur Facts Behind the Films by Mark Brake and Jon Chase

Cover of the book The Science of Jurassic World: The Dinosaur Facts Behind the Films by Mark Brake and Jon Chase
The Science of Jurassic World: The Dinosaur Facts Behind the Films
by Mark Brake and Jon Chase
Skyhorse, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on May 15, 2021.

The original Jurassic Park movie attempted to be as scientifically plausible as possible; subsequent entries in the franchise have been less so. But just how accurate is the science behind the series? Brake uses the films as a framework to explore the current state of what we know about dinosaurs, as well as what we don’t. This is a broad overview, covering everything from the Bone Wars to the latest discoveries. He explores how dinosaurs evolved and spread across the earth, what they were like, how they behaved, how they went extinct, and how new evidence is continually reshaping our understanding. He even considers what dinosaurs can teach us about our current world and the challenges we face today. Brake’s stated goal is to create a dinosaur book for adults that’s as engaging as books on the subject for children. He mostly succeeds, although some of the connections to the movie franchise feel a bit forced. It’s a good introduction and overview of the field and our current understanding of dinosaurs. Recommended for any library collection.

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/S – special interest: An excellent selection for teens interested in paleontology.

Book Review: Forged in War: How a Century of War Created Today’s Information Society by R. David Lankes

Cover of the book Forged in War: How a Century of War Created Today’s Information Society by R. David Lankes
Forged in War: How a Century of War Created Today’s Information Society
by R. David Lankes
Rowman & Littlefield, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on May 1, 2021.

Modern knowledge infrastructure is a fractured complex of filter bubbles, tracking our every move across platforms, websites, and apps, gathering our personal data to sell to the highest bidders. To understand how this came to be, Lankes studied the origins of knowledge systems from the time of the world wars through the twentieth century. Most of our communication systems and technology were designed to be weaponized in response to wartime threats. Propaganda, manipulation, and ubiquitous surveillance are built in as data analysis is optimized for the cold calculations of war. These tools weren’t intended for commerce or entertainment, and certainly not to protect the privacy of users. But these are precisely the features businesses and designers use to capture attention and increase profits. Lankes argues for more humanist values to redesign our knowledge infrastructure: policies and systems that prioritize privacy and give users control of personal data, intellectual property rights that better serve the common good, and nuanced data analysis instead of algorithmic dataism. Lankes’ historical perspective is compelling and his arguments convincing.

Book Review: Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World’s Most Successful Insects by Jonathan Balcombe

Cover of the book Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World's Most Successful Insects by Jonathan Balcombe
Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World’s Most Successful Insects
by Jonathan Balcombe
Penguin, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on May 1, 2021.

Flies, two-winged flying insects that include everything from houseflies to mosquitoes to midges, are some of the least studied insects on the planet, which is surprising given that they’re among the most populous and varied. But associations with filth and blight, biting and pestilence, and crop destruction don’t make them very appealing. Balcombe wants to change that. Flies are fascinating, vital, and beautiful creatures. Flies are essential to the food chain, among the most common plant pollinators, and clean up rot and decay. They help solve crimes and heal wounds, and even unlock the possibility of insect sentience. Most famous for helping scientists study genetic inheritance via fruit flies, Diptera, it turns out, have far more to teach us. Balcombe also warns of the potential catastrophic effects of human actions on fly populations. Monoculture and pesticides are greatly reducing their numbers, but without flies, ecosystems will collapse. They may be pests, but flies deserve our respect and admiration. This is an excellent overview of what we know and what we’re discovering about flies.

Book Review: Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement by Faith Kearns

Cover of the book Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement by Faith Kearns
Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement
by Faith Kearns
Island, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on April 30, 2021.

With more than 25 years of experience as a science communicator, Kearns has a persuasive vision for how to improve the relationship between science and the public. She covers the history of science communication and offers guidance to make it more effective, illustrated by the experiences of a range of science communicators at work today. Science communication can’t be an objective authority handing down information to the public. Communicators must connect with people in the context of lived experience and the trauma that accompanies the natural and human-made disasters science seeks to solve. Science communicators aren’t separate from the public, instead often living in the communities they serve and affected by the same traumas. Science communication must engage with empathy, negotiate interpersonal and structural conflicts, interrogate the privilege and lack of diversity in the field, and embrace the emotional landscape of science. This book is written for professional science communicators but will appeal to anyone interested in a growing field, and it offers good advice about communication that applies far beyond the confines of science.

Book Review: Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim

Cover of the book Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim
Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life
by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim
Greystone, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on April 1, 2021.

Nguyen-Kim is a chemist and a science communicator who runs a popular German-language YouTube channel. Her first book takes readers on a journey through her typical day, from waking up and having her first cup of coffee through visiting a friend to charging her smartphone to an evening dinner party, showing how chemistry defines the world along the way in terms understandable to science newbies. Chemistry is central to food and nutrition, cosmetics and cleaning products, technology, even moods and how we fall in love. (The nutrition labels examined are German, not American.) Nguyen-Kim uses everyday examples to teach the basics of chemistry, and illustrates (aided by illustrations by claire Lenkova) that scientists are cool and interesting people, far from the stodgy stereotype. The more we know about how chemistry works, the better choices we can make about the things we use and consume. Ultimately, she wants to inspire a passion for science, which makes the world more fascinating, more beautiful, and more complex. Altogether, this is an impassioned, quirky, fun, and engaging read.

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/Curriculum Support: Teens needing a rudimentary breakdown of chemistry will find this engaging book helpful. —Susan Maguire

Book Review: Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX by Eric Berger

Cover of the book Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX by Eric Berger
Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX
by Eric Berger
Morrow, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on February 15, 2021.

Tech billionaire Elon Musk set out to revolutionize the space industry, and founded aerospace company SpaceX in the hope of one day landing humans on Mars. Berger, senior space editor at Ars Technica, was granted unprecedented access to interview Musk, as well as current and former employees of SpaceX, and here shares first-hand accounts of their experiences. The main focus isn’t Musk himself, but the engineers, technicians, vice presidents, and lieutenants: passionate and driven people bold enough to take on Musk’s ambitious vision. Berger shares how they came to work for Musk, their experiences of toil and sweat, uncertainty and victory. There’s very little technical detail in this book; instead, it’s a story about people and their faith in one man’s compelling mission. What stands out most is the author’s command of pacing. He depicts race-against-the-clock crises as fast-paced as a thriller, with moments reminiscent of Apollo 13 or The Martian (albeit with slightly lower stakes). An exciting and insightful read for anyone interested in the story behind the early days of SpaceX.

Book Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm: The Adrenaline-Fueled Adventures of an Accidental Scientist by Robert Lefkowitz and Randy Hall

Cover of the book A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm: The Adrenaline-Fueled Adventures of an Accidental Scientist by Robert Lefkowitz and Randy Hall
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm: The Adrenaline-Fueled Adventures of an Accidental Scientist
by Robert Lefkowitz and Randy Hall
Pegasus, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on January 1, 2021.

Lefkowitz grew up wanting to be a doctor, not a scientist. But life took him down some unexpected paths and his pioneering research identifying the nature and structure of beta receptors won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012. An avid and inveterate storyteller, he chronicles his life in medicine and science. Well on his way to becoming a cardiologist, he found himself drawn to the world of medical research, where he contributed to groundbreaking discoveries for more than 40 years, and became one of the field’s great mentors. Told with humor and humility, what shines through most is his love of stories. This book came about because of his penchant for sharing tales about his life, but he also argues for the central importance of storytelling in both patient care and scientific research: knowing a patient’s story is essential to understanding their ailments, and research data doesn’t mean anything without a story to make sense of it. His passion for science and discovery, for helping people, and for celebrating stories is infectious.

Book Review: Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life beyond Earth by Avi Loeb

Cover of the book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life beyond Earth by Avi Loeb
Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life beyond Earth
by Avi Loeb
HMH, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on December 1, 2020.

On October 19, 2017, astronomers discovered ‘Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object to pass through our solar system. But its behavior was strange. While many hypotheses have been presented to explain its anomalies, Loeb, the longest-serving chair of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy and founder of the Black Hole Initiative, postulates the most likely explanation is that ‘Oumuamua is evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. He offers strong evidence to support this conclusion, but perhaps more valuable is how he uses this as a jumping-off point for much broader musings on the state of science. He critiques the tendency of science to be too conservative and the pernicious effects of scientific elitism toward the public. He considers the larger implications of what it would mean if we do obtain proof of other intelligent life in the universe, including the need for humanity to overcome our shortsightedness and invest in further exploration. Some of his digressions are a bit of a leap, but whether or not readers agree with him, his vision and curiosity are compelling.