An evolutionary biologist looks at the future of sex.
According to evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks, the future holds an abundance of artificial intimacy. New sex technologies, from sex robots to virtual reality porn, will anticipate our every desire. So clever will the algorithms mining our personal data be that they will predict our every need. Dating apps will cut out the time wasted swiping and scrolling, express matching us with life partners we never knew we were meant for. Even further, machines could learn fantasies we never knew we had.
If all this sounds daunting, Brooks does weigh the possible negatives. Too much time spent enjoying ArtInt (artificial intimacies) could take time away from real-life relationships. Behemoth tech companies knowing your most private desires wouldn’t be able to resist the financial opportunities. But on balance, Brooks believes, the good will outweigh the bad: the lonely and sex starved will get some relief, and society will benefit from a more contented population.
From primatology to today’s incel culture of sexually frustrated young men, Artificial Intimacy takes an historical survey of human sexuality, employing the disciplines of economics, psychology and evolutionary science. Witty, accessible, always fascinating but surely contentious, this is popular science that will appeal to readers of Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens.
Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers and Algorithmic Matchmakers, by Rob Brooks. Published by New South. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba. First published at Books + Publishing
A genius book that explains big problems and concepts in an easy to grasp manner.
Do you read lots of books and articles about climate change but still find you have only a foggy idea of what it all really means? If so, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster will set you on the right path. Bill Gates brings his considerable analytic skills to the planet's biggest and most complicated challenge, translating it into an accessible explainer. All those facts and figures, graphs and computer models, are boiled down to two simple numbers, 51 and zero. Currently we put 51 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere per year. That figure needs to be brought down to zero. Otherwise the planet's temperature will undoubtedly continue to rise. Babies born today, without effective action, will experience a planet eight degrees hotter than today in their old age.
This task will not be easy. Our economy, dependent on cheap fossil fuels, has been baked in over centuries. To change the world's power grid to renewables will take decades, not years. Emissions from agriculture pose a special problem, as people's diets are cultural and difficult to change. In a world where millions of people need to be lifted out of poverty, more pressure will be put on global emissions, as poor countries improve their standard of living, consuming more energy and meat.
The solution, according to Gates, is a mixture of technology, business and government. Governments can legislate to price carbon, creating a more level playing field. Technology, especially the riskier research and development, when backed with government money, can produce winners that business can capitalise on and improve.
Avoiding a climate disaster will be a huge task, not fixed by merely buying electric bulbs and purchasing an electric car, although all this helps. It will involve huge technological change, government commitment and global co-ordination. Perhaps some changes in our behaviour. To not do anything seems impossible. Leaving today's children with a planet eight degrees hotter – with the chaos and destruction that will cause – can't be an option.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, by Bill Gates. Published by Allen Lane. $39.99
Review by Chris Saliba
What to do when that punishing inner voice takes over?
When Ethan Kross received a threatening letter, he went into meltdown. For three days the voices in his head incessantly replayed one horrifying scenario after another. He couldn’t stop the chatter in his head, which was ironic, as he is an expert on emotion and self-control. The letter had come after a television appearance, causing Kross to chastise himself for putting his family and himself at risk.
Then Kross stumbled across something quite by accident. Instead of his internal monologue repeating “I” all the time, he started to use his own name, Ethan. By addressing himself in a more formal way his anxious inner voice was calmed. Distance and perspective were created, putting a stressful situation into a more rational context.
Put simply, this is the case that Chatter makes. We allow our inner voice to obsess us and run rampant; we get into a loop of negative thoughts, and when we share our concerns with friends and sympathisers, this doesn’t help either, only reinforcing the bad feelings. The best way to tame the voices in our head is to try and create distance and put things in perspective. When we think about our problems and worry about our standing in the world, or how the world perceives us, it’s best to look at the big picture.
Chatter uses a lot of science to prove its point. Interestingly, using your own name when ruminating on negative thoughts has been proven in laboratory settings to make subjects feel better and calmer. The book offers other techniques and suggestions: keeping busy, sticking to routines and ensuring an orderly environment are methods of calming runaway inner voices.
All this sounds very promising, in theory, but how effective these tools are in practice could be another matter for many people. When the mind is in a fully blown panic, it can take days to calm down. Nevertheless, Chatter offers a concise explanation of the psychology of the inner voice. Such self-awareness coupled with the tools he provides could help some troubled souls.
Science we’ve been over before, but worth a look in.
Chatter: The Voice in our Head and How to Harness It, by Ethan Kross. Published by Vermilion. $35
Review by Chris Saliba
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
North Melbourne Books