Scientists' Nightstand, Vol. 2 No. 3

The Scientists’ Nightstand e-newsletter offers news of book reviews published in American Scientist and around the Web, as well as other noteworthy happenings in the world of science books.

As always, we welcome your letters and comments. You’ll find us at Thanks for reading!

Reviews from American Scientist, July–August 2014

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History
by Nicholas Wade
Wade challenges the notion that human evolution largely stopped during prehistory, countering that “human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.” He argues that evolutionary pressures vary according to regional conditions, causing groups of humans to evolve independently over time. He suggests that these differences are associated with race and, further, that they include behavioral differences, which in turn shape social institutions. Anthropologist Greg Laden couldn’t disagree more with Wade’s positions on genetics, race, and behavior, discussing inadequacies he finds in the underlying science and interrogating key points in detail. Review by Greg Laden. (See below for links to more discussion about this controversial book.)

Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism
by Jacob Darwin Hamblin
Following World War II, as the United States prepared for the possibility of World War III, schemes to trigger natural and biological disasters gained ground as defense spending poured into this burgeoning area of research. Meticulously constructed and researched, Arming Mother Nature links Cold War–era military research directly to the emergence of contemporary environmental science. Review by James G. Lewis.

Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record
by Errol Fuller
Showcasing extinct animals in a fascinating collection of photographs spanning from about 1870 to 2004, Errol Fuller leads us through his menagerie like a modern-day Dr. Dolittle—one, it may be said, who evidently pores over Edward Gorey in his downtime. Along the way, Fuller describes each species; discusses its habits, endangerment, and eventual extinction; and elucidates the circumstances under which the photos—some never before published—were taken. Review by Dianne Timblin.

Off the Table

Here we feature a selection of reviews and other science books content from around the Web.

Nicholas Wade’s controversial book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, reviewed for American Scientist by Greg Laden, has been generating much discussion. Reviews disputing his claims have appeared in the New York Review of Books; the Huffington Post; Scientific American blog the Primate Diaries; In These Times; and the Los Angeles Review of Books. The latter review, by Jeremy B. Yoder, includes a discussion about Wade’s use of clustering algorithms; Yoder provides more detail, along with some helpful figures, in his blog Molecular Ecologist. Jennifer Raff, a biological anthropologist specializing in genetics and ancient DNA, published an especially interesting reaction to the book on her blog, Violent Metaphors. Wade’s work has also found support, perhaps most notably in the Wall Street Journal; reviewer Charles Murray considers “the academic reception of A Troublesome Inheritance a matter of historic interest.” Support for the scientific direction of Wade’s theories arose on the Unz Review blog Gene Expression. Wade has defended his own claims in the Huffington Post.

The opening chapters of E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth, a digital textbook aimed at high school students, have just been released and are available for free on iTunes. Nine chapters may be downloaded now, with 32 more to be released later this year to complete the work. An accompanying course is also available for free through iTunes University. If you just can’t get enough E. O. Wilson, check out “War and Redemption in Gorongosa,” our exclusive excerpt from his recent book A Window on Eternity; Katie L. Burke’s review of last year’s Letters to a Young Scientist; and his 2008 American Scientist article, coauthored with David Sloan Wilson, “Evolution ‘for the Good of the Group.’"

Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to al-Qaeda, by Kristie Macrakis (whose article “The Hidden Past of Invisible Ink” appeared in our May–June issue), was recently named book of the week by the Daily Mail, which also ran an article about it. A lecture by Macrakis about Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies was featured on C-SPAN last month; you can watch the video here.

The New York Times reviews Nathalia Holt’s Cured: How the Berlin Patients Defeated HIV and Forever Changed Medical Science, about the two most famous cases in which HIV patients have achieved what physicians term a “functional cure,” freeing them of ongoing treatment.

The story told in Andreas Bernard’s Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator is one, it must be said, of significant ups and downs. The London Review of Books considers the tale.

The spring issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal includes an essay by Massimo Mazzotti that unspools the story—centuries in the making—of events ultimately leading to the publication A Galileo Forgery: Unmasking the New York Sidereus Nuncius. Mazzotti goes on to describe the science and technology used to determine that this artifact, originally authenticated as a proof copy of Galileo’s Sidereaus Nuncius containing watercolors painted by Galileo himself, was in fact a fake. (Incidentally, A Galileo Forgery is the third volume of Galileo's O. The first two volumes, both of which appeared in 2011, discussed the history and construction of the artifact as understood at the time of publication, and served to authenticate it.) A Galileo Forgery is open access; full text of the book may be found here.

The New York Times review of Madness and Memory: The Discovery of Prions—A New Biological Principle of Disease, by Nobel laureate Stanley B. Prusiner, calls the book an “immensely readable victory lap.”

The New Arabs: How the Wired and Global Youth of the Middle East Is Transforming It, by Juan Cole, has earned a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly.

Those looking for an economics reading fix may find reviews of the following two texts in the London Review of Books of particular interest. Flash Boys: Cracking the Money Code, by Michael Lewis, focuses on high-frequency trading and the Dow Jones’s so-called Flash Crash of May 6, 2010. Capital in the 21st Century, by Thomas Piketty and translated by Arthur Goldhammer, takes a broader look at the subject of political economics.

For the Washington Post Marcia Bartusiak offers a thoughtful review of Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space, by Lynn Sherr.

Slate contextualizes issues taken up in sociologist Liberty Walther Barnes’s book Conceiving Masculinity: Male Infertility, Medicine, and Identity. Read an excerpt of the book here.

In a brief review, Publisher’s Weekly praises The Chemistry of Alchemy: From Dragon’s Blood to Donkey Dung, How Chemistry Was Forged, by chemists Cathy Cobb, Monty Fetterolf, and Harold Goldwhite.

Raphael Calel’s recent essay, “Fooled by Climate Change: Climate Change Science vs. Climate Change Debate,” for the Los Angeles Review of Books concludes with a reading list useful for individual and collective thinking on climate change. The list features books on such topics as cognition, geology, and the history of the climate change debate itself, as well as one text that examines collapsed civilizations, comparing them with ones that reached the brink and achieved renewal.

Publishing News

News from the world of science books publishing, including book review venues, presses, new technologies for books and more.

According to the New York Times list of best-selling science books, Susan Cain’s book about introverts, Quiet, remains number one. Meanwhile, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, first published in 2010 (read our review here), itself appears immortal, rising to number six from the number ten position.

The PEN American Center has announced its 2014 Literary Award shortlists, including the one for its PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.

Publisher’s Weekly has released its annual ranking of the world's largest publishers.

Bibliophiles may be interested in “This Is Your Brain on Writing,” Carl Zimmer’s account of research under way on the brain activity of writers as they work and how it may differ for novices and experts.

Ebook Friendly reports on connected books that create a new experience for readers called sensory fiction, which involves a connected book that, based on the reader's place in the text, illuminates and provides haptic feedback. Although the prototype uses a fictional text, one can easily imagine applications for nonfiction. (Tesla biography, anyone?)

Could an app featuring Watson, IBM’s storied artificially intelligent computer system, replace the cookbook? Megan Giller looks into IBM’s cognitive cooking collaboration in "Someone's in the Kitchen with Watson: How IBM Is Creating Connected Cuisine."


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