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Life after Gravity

Patricia Fara Oxford Univ. Press (2021)

Isaac Newton’s physics famously flourished in self-isolation. But after leaving Cambridge in 1696 to run the British Royal Mint, he became ‘a metropolitan manipulator’. Historian of science Patricia Fara’s fresh, fascinating study of his London career, based on a painting by William Hogarth, argues that his ideas “came to underpin a world view characterized by central control, uniformity and mathematization — Newtonian imperialism”. Fara probes something seldom discussed: how Newton profited from Britain’s trade in enslaved people.

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Useful Delusions

Shankar Vedantam & Bill Mesler W. W. Norton (2021)

Science writer Shankar Vedantam encountered silence from biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins when he asked whether someone comforted in great suffering by belief in an afterlife should be stripped of this delusion. “Life, like evolution and natural selection… cares about what works,” says Vedantam. In this scientifically informed, provocative and stylish study of self-deception, written with journalist Bill Mesler, he explores the risks and benefits of the lies we tell ourselves to preserve self-worth, relationships and social structures.

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This Is Not Normal

Cass R. Sunstein Yale Univ. Press (2021)

In 2020, wearing face masks while shopping went from abnormal in most countries to the new normal. Legal scholar Cass Sunstein asks: how does normality relate to past and present behaviour, society and government? Its power, he argues cogently, stems mostly from our responsiveness to others’ words and actions, influenced by our own “preference falsification, diverse thresholds and interdependencies” — that is, how far we conceal our true beliefs, the level of support we need to reject the status quo, and the visibility of others’ behaviour.

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Carlo Rovelli Allen Lane (2021)

Heligoland in Germany saw possibly the biggest ever conventional explosion in 1947, when Britain detonated abandoned wartime dynamite. Perhaps, muses physicist Carlo Rovelli, humanity wanted to erase the “rip in reality” opened there in 1925 by physicist Werner Heisenberg, with the mathematics of quantum mechanics. This views the physical world as a “net of relations” between “nodes”, rather than a group of objects with set properties. Rovelli draws out the physics and philosophy for general readers, with technical references for specialists.

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Moving Water

Amy Green Johns Hopkins Univ. Press (2021)

The Everglades Agricultural Area in Florida is the most significant region in the United States for growing sugar cane. But fertilizer run-off is ruining the water. In 1994, property developer George Barley, founder of the campaign group Save Our Everglades, said that they were “at a crossroads”. After he was killed in a plane crash, his widow, Mary, took up the struggle. This impassioned book by environmental journalist Amy Green narrates the Barleys’ political battle — based on scientific evidence — against Big Sugar.

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