COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One, by debora mackenzie
An urgently written explainer on COVID-19 and viral diseases.
Debora Mackenzie has worked as a journalist with New Scientist for 36 years. Having followed viruses and pandemics for decades, she was approached to write a “crash” book on the subject of COVID-19. The result is a punchy and arresting short history of zoonotic pathogens – diseases that have jumped from animals to humans. The scientific community has been on high alert since 2013, when coronaviruses were first discovered. Meanwhile, the human race went about its business blissfully unaware.
What do we know about COVID-19? That it is almost certain we got it from bats. As human populations expand and move into areas rich in wildlife, the risk of transmission increases. Indeed, the history of agriculture is the history of zoonotic disease.
How do we avert further catastrophe? Essentially, money is needed for research and resources (many governments were caught short when it came to medical supplies). Intergovernmental co-operation is also essential. In a globalised world, a pandemic is everyone’s problem. Most importantly, the US and China need to work together, pooling their scientific knowledge.
With better planning and preparedness, Mackenzie maintains this pandemic could have been stopped in its tracks. That costs money. But as the global economy nosedives, prevention would be cheaper than cure. A pithy primer on pandemics.
COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One, by Debora Mackenzie. Bridge Street Press. $32.99
A surprising journey into the mouth and nasal passages.
Science writer James Nestor has long suffered breathing related health problems. To try and sort out what was wrong with him, he took a decade long investigation into all things to do with breathing, focusing on the mouth, nasal passages and inhaling and exhaling techniques. Volunteering as a guinea pig in a series of scientific experiments, Nestor found some astonishing results.
The main takeaway from the book is that we need to breathe in a more controlled manner (5.5 seconds in, 5.5 seconds out is optimal) and through our noses. Our nasal passages filter and pressurise air, which has a beneficial effect, helping to us overcome allergies and congestion. Nose breathing also helps fight bacteria. Too much mouth breathing, especially during sleep, results in snoring and sleep apnea.
One of the more fascinating results of Nestor’s research is the development of our mouths. The advent of agriculture has resulted in softer, more processed foods, and as a result, less chewing. Mouth sizes have actually gotten smaller since our hunter-gatherer forbears, resulting in breathing problems. After a year of having endured a mouth brace that forced his jaw to work more, x-ray imaging found Nestor’s air passages had opened more and he’d developed extra bone density on his face. All a result of extra chewing.
This is a fascinating work of science, offering many surprises as to how the respiratory system works. Highly recommended, especially for those with breathing difficulties and ailments.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. Published by Penguin Life. $35
Review by Chris Saliba
Energy industry insider Ketan Joshi gives a bracing history of Australia's climate wars.
In Windfall: Unlocking a Fossil Free Future, renewable industry insider Ketan Joshi gives a teeth gnashing account of Australia's interminable climate debates. Working as a data analyst and communicator at Infigen Energy, Joshi sometimes wound up as collateral damage himself. He was hit with a defamation lawsuit from an anti wind turbine group for live tweeting the innocuous details of a senate inquiry. It was vexatious litigation, designed to suppress and scare.
The minutiae of climate science can often make the eyes glaze over. Ketan Joshi does a superb job of explaining the complex and arcane in a manner that is often riveting. Windfall is informative, but also enjoyable and stimulating. What we learn is that the decades wasted in pointless 'debate' have done Australians a great economic disservice. While renewable prices have dipped, greater savings could have been made had not the scare campaigns worked so effectively. The renewable energy industry gets some of the blame, too: they failed to effectively engage at a grass roots level with suspicious communities who felt railroaded into accepting new technologies.
Windfall is perfect for the lay reader and non-specialist wanting to know how climate policy went so terribly wrong, and offers hope that a decarbonised future is within reach.
Windfall: Unlocking a Fossil Free Future, by Ketan Joshi. Published by New South Books. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
This review first published at Books + Publishing. Click here.
In this fascinating study, women are proven to be the stronger sex.
It’s a well-known fact that women outlive men. Look at the statistics for any country and women live longer. This is generally put down to the riskier behaviour men are more likely to indulge in. Doctor and scientist Sharon Moalem says this is not the case. Even when comparing nun and monks living in cloistered circumstances, with little to no environmental risks, it’s the nuns who live longer. What can be going on?
According to Dr Moalem, it’s all in the chromosomes. Men have XY chromosomes, whereas women have XX chromosomes. Having the two X chromosomes gives women greater immunity to disease. Moalem writes, “…the genetic advantage that women possess results from every cell within a female having the option of using one of their two X chromosomes, each of which contains around a thousand genes.” Not only that, women have greater resilience, stamina, cognitive advantages and even better visual sensitivity.
The Better Half draws on much of the author’s professional research and scientific interests. Compelling case histories are used throughout the text to show how women have the genetic advantage over men in fighting disease and physical adversity. This is popular science at its best: lively, always interesting and a pleasure to read.
The Better Half: On the Genetic Superiority of Women, by Sharon Moalem. Allen Lane. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Hop, Skip, Go: How the Mobility revolution will transform our lives and our planet: John Rossant and Stephen Baker
Two experts explain how we will travel in the future.
Cars are great, as long as everyone doesn't drive. When everyone does, congestion and dangerous emission levels are the result. Commuting by car in some major cities, such as Los Angeles, has become almost impossible. Traffic barely moves, resulting in lost hours better spent elsewhere. What to do?
Mobility expert John Rossant and business journalist Stephen Baker team up to present transport solutions from the future. They visit cities and tech start-ups that are pushing ahead with new, better ways to do travel. There are businesses trying to build cars with less of a carbon footprint, cutting edge ride-share services and apps galore to more efficiently marshal travel services. The authors even look at the possibilities of drones – either to carry online ordered packages or humans.
Most of the future's mobility revolution will be run not on fossil fuels, but on data. Our mobile phones will allow technologists to figure out the most efficient ways for us to get around. The downside, or course, will be the loss of privacy and surrendering so much of our personal data to big business and government.
Hop, Skip, Go is one of those technology books that likes to repeatedly predict how we will live in the future. At best, we're given an array of nascent technologies. Which ones take off, if any, is anyone's guess. Also, there are bound to be “black swans”, those unpredictable events that turn all received wisdom upside down. Having said that, Rossant and Baker have written a valuable book that explains why car travel has become untenable and the possible ways it might be wound back to some degree.
Hop, Skip, Go: How the Mobility Revolution Will Transform Our Lives and Our Planet, by John Rossant & Stephen Baker. Published by HarperCollins. $32.99
Brain researcher Shane O'Mara gives a new twist to the literature on walking.
Walking is something we all take for granted, little thinking how this unique ability is actually a complex feat. Author Shane O'Mara is a neuroscientist at Trinity College, Dublin, and the first half of In Praise of Walking concentrates on how the brain and body works together to take those seemingly easy steps.
The second half of O'Mara's book devotes itself to the physical, social, health and even creative aspects of walking. It's no surprise that walking provides health benefits galore, what may surprise are its cognitive benefits. Research has shown that the part of the brain used for memory and learning actually grows extra cells when we exercise. O'Mara also includes research that demonstrates how walking can help with depression and foster creating thinking (he cites famous literary walkers who thought up their greatest ideas while walking).
In Praise of Walking is a convincing primer on all the benefits of walking and will inspire the reader to drop all they are doing, put on some walking shoes and get out the door.
In Praise of Walking, by Shane O'Mara. Published by Jonathan Cape $35
Review by Chris Saliba
Chef, writer and farmer Matthew Evans tackles the thorniest of ethical issues concerning our food choices.
On Eating Meat investigates every aspect of meat production – ethical, economic, practical and environmental. In essence, argues Matthew Evans, Australians eat too much meat (three times the global average). Not only that, Australians want to eat cheap meat. And therein lies the problem. Cheap meat is ruinous to the environment, of questionable value to human health, especially when consumed in large quantities, and lastly, is terrible for animal welfare. The sections describing attempts to inspect intensive farming operations – piggeries and chicken factories, most notably – are worrying. Evans was blocked and frustrated at every step. Big corporate producers are secretive and defensive, not wanting the general public to see how they operate.
What is the solution to this problem? More consumer activism for a start, whether it be at the checkout or simply demanding better welfare standards. Evans believes the debate has been set solely by animal welfare activists, especially vegans, whereas meat eaters should be taking a leading role. Ideally, he would like to see vegans and carnivores come together to advocate for better animal welfare standards. While this seems unlikely, there are good arguments made in its favour. Evans shows that whether your diet is vegetarian or vegan, animals still die as a consequence. Orchards cull animals to protect their fruit, seasonal crops kill small animals, such as rodents, egg production involves feeding unwanted male chicks into mulchers and the dairy industry produces unwanted male calves, either killed on site or sent to market.
This is a book that always strives for honesty and balance, in what is often an ethical minefield. Matthew Evans leaves no stone unturned as he looks at food production and its impacts from all possible angles. Every reader will find some new fact to surprise and shock: commercial bees employed to pollinate food crops, the amount of bugs that end up in food, the rampant use of antibiotics to promote animal growth, the impact of feral cats on Australia's native wildlife, etc.
A book perhaps as important as Peter Singer's Animal Liberation for its thoughtfulness and intellectual rigour.
On Eating Meat: The Truth About Its Production and the Ethics of Eating It, by Matthew Evans. Published by Murdoch Books. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Energy expert Matthew Warren explains the politics, economics and science of our power grid. Non-partisan, accessible and illuminating, Blackout is a breath of fresh air.
Who can make sense of Australia's energy policy over the past decade? It's been a time of time of hot, often over-the-top political debate. In such a noisy atmosphere the average punter has little hope of sorting fact from fiction. Into this breach steps Matthew Warren, an energy insider with fifteen years experience.
As Warren explains in Blackout, his guide for the perplexed, in the past none of us had to pay much attention to how energy was produced, transmitted and marketed. The grid was run (mostly) on coal, and that was that. Then came climate change, a scientific theory we are reminded, not a proven fact, and everything started to change. Insurance companies, who were key stakeholders when it came to climate variation, started to price in climate change. While politicians on the right and left bickered, business started moving, accepting that climate change was most likely real and entering it into their decision making. Soon enough it was no longer viable to invest in new coal generation. As coal plants have continued to close, with more slated to wind down in the coming years, Australia's electricity grid has become more fragile.
On top of this there has been a mammoth uptake of rooftop solar, the result of a shambolic series of government policies giving subsidies to middle-class home owners. Prices for solar have dropped, making it a cheaper source of power generation than coal. The problem now for the grid is to integrate intermittent renewable power with traditional thermal power, such as coal and gas. This is not as easy as it seems, there being many technical problems that need to be overcome. The process is not helped by the ad hoc policy making of politicians, most of whom don't understand energy or climate change.
Matthew Warren has done us all a service by writing this lucid explainer on how Australia's energy grid works. It's a complex, sometimes messy story where science, technology and politics clash. Despite this, Blackout offers a clear narrative that is often fascinating. Read this non-partisan book and feel better informed.
Blackout: How Is Energy Rich Australia Running out of Electricity, by Mattew Warren. Published by Affirm Press. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
How to manage stress in a busy world.
Stan Rodski is a cognitive neuroscientist based in Melbourne. He created the colouring book stress management technique that, for a period, took the publishing world by storm. (Yes, he’s responsible for that craze.)
The Neuroscience of Mindfulness is a multi-faceted book. It explains in very simple language the basic principles of neuroscience, with updates of the latest findings on how the brain works. Research has revealed that basic, repetitive tasks have a powerfully calming effect. The brain is most relaxed when it experiences pattern, repetition and control. Happily, we learn that mindfulness can be incorporated into our everyday activities: walking, driving, brushing your hair. The book includes useful sidebars and practical exercises, guiding the reader through the thought processes required to live mindfully.
Some of the more fascinating research Rodski discusses concerns what is known as the mind-body connection, or MBC. Science has discovered that when we experience stress, a harmful protein known as amyloid protein builds up in the brain, affecting the immune system. Negative thoughts can physically damage the body.
Part practical workbook, part scientific digest, The Neuroscience of Mindfulness offers real help in managing stress in our busy modern world.
The Neuroscience of Mindfulness, by Stan Rodski. HarperCollins. $34.99
Staff review by Chris Saliba
Social scientist and professor of psychology, Jennifer Eberhardt, examines how we hold racial biases.
The brain, it turns out, likes to categorise information, putting things into simple groupings, allowing us to navigate busy, complicated daily life. Instinctively, before we even think, we apply this to the faces we meet. Whole races get lumped together in our minds. Fascinatingly, the latest neuroscience reveals that from a very young age we are better equipped at differentiating the faces belonging to our own race. We can see the individual, whereas when asked to identify people of other races, we struggle. White people see black people as a vaguely homogenous group, all looking the same. Jennifer Eberhardt tells of her own struggle differentiating white faces when she first went to a majority white school, having grown up in a predominantly black community.
Bias is hardwired in us and must be managed. From this scientific launching pad Eberhardt takes the reader on a fascinating and disturbing history of racial bias in America. So much has been written on the topic, and one may be tempted to think they already know the subject inside and out, but Biased proves that to be wrong.
Racial biases against African-Americans work at just about every social and economic level, creating entrenched disadvantage. Eberhardt quotes one dispiriting study, where researchers sent off dummy job applications. One set of applications had typically African-American names, such as DeShawn and Shanice, while the other had typically white names. The white names got the bigger response. These results have been replicated in other studies.
Another study, this time examining bias against women, tested job applications for professional orchestra musicians. Applicants were asked to audition “blind”, behind a curtain. Carpet was even laid out to mask the sound of women's heels. The results showed that women were hired at a much greater rate if the examiner didn't know they were women. An ingrained bias exists that men are better musicians.
Is there a way out of bias? We can manage it better by slowing down our reactions. It's when we make lighting quick decisions that our biased, reptilian brain takes over. Employers, institutions, even websites, need to implement tools that help us think twice. Some online platforms are trying to weed out racial bias by making users read and agree to relevant terms and conditions. Research has found this has a positive effect.
Jennifer Eberhardt's Biased is a cracking good read, sure to completely change the way we think about bias. Its mixture of science, research, history and personal story makes it endlessly fascinating. A game-changing, enlightening book that will make you re-examine your own behaviour.
Biased: The New Science of Race and Inequality, by Jennifer Eberhardt. Published by William Heinemann. RRP: $35
Release date 16th April
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books