Strange IndiaStrange India

A forgotten Aztec scholar and more: Books in brief 1

In the Shadow of Quetzalcoatl

Merilee Grindle Belknap/Harvard Univ. Press (2023)

Archaeologist and anthropologist Zelia Nuttall focused on the pre-Columbian cultures of Mexico (those that existed before 1492). Born in 1857, she didn’t attend university and struggled to be recognized for her many achievements. Yet she learnt the languages of the Aztecs and their Mixtec predecessors; decoded their calendar; and taught herself to decipher their pictographic histories and legends. This biography of Nuttall, by Latin American political specialist Merilee Grindle, does justice to a remarkable but forgotten scholar.

A forgotten Aztec scholar and more: Books in brief 2

Economics in America

Angus Deaton Princeton Univ. Press (2023)

On his first US visit, British economist Angus Deaton — half believing “the place was infested with gangsters” — thought he saw a man in a restaurant bleeding from a gunshot wound. Later, Deaton understood that he himself had fired the ‘shot’, by stepping on a ketchup packet. This incident chimes with his thought-provoking assessment of US economics. At first glance the field seems driven by politics and “devoid of scientific content”, notes the Nobel laureate. But some economists “do everything that good scientists should do”.

A forgotten Aztec scholar and more: Books in brief 3

Our Ancient Lakes

Jeffrey McKinnon MIT Press (2023)

Most lakes are, at most, a mere 10,000 years old. They formed after the last glacial period. But a few — such as lakes Titicaca in South America, Tanganyika in Africa and Baikal in Asia — are millions of years old, formed by tectonic processes. Ancient lakes contain a lot more biodiversity, some of it unique, than do younger ones. This fascinates biologist Jeffrey McKinnon, whose intriguing book explains how these lakes are altering our understanding of “the formation of new species and how life diversifies”.

A forgotten Aztec scholar and more: Books in brief 4

Ocean Life in the Time of the Dinosaurs

Nathalie Bardet et al. Princeton Univ. Press (2023)

Giant marine reptiles such as ichthyosaurs, which flourished in the Mesozoic era (252 million to 66 million years ago), are often wrongly called dinosaurs. But that’s like calling a whale a pachyderm because both whales and elephants are large mammals, note four palaeontologists. Their fine book about these extinct marine reptiles, illustrated by Alain Bénéteau, was first published in French in 2021. It details the anatomical, physiological and behavioural adaptations that land-dwelling reptiles needed to flourish in the oceans.

A forgotten Aztec scholar and more: Books in brief 5

Women in Science Now

Lisa M. Munoz Columbia Univ. Press (2023)

A project launched in the 1960s asked school children to “draw a scientist”. By 1983, it had collected 5,000 drawings, of which only 28 depicted a female scientist. By 2018, 33% of the more than 20,000 gathered drawings, showed women. In science, too, there has been a shift towards gender equity. But serious obstacles remain, says science writer Lisa Munoz in this practical analysis, complementing it with female scientists’ vivid career stories. “No single intervention, policy, or law is enough,” she rightly notes.

Competing Interests

Table of Contents

The author declares no competing interests.

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