Summer books of 2020: Science

Jim Al-Khalili, Princeton University Press, RRP$16.95/£12.99

Many distinguished physicists have set out to explain their weird and wonderful world to lay readers but few have done so with the simple elegance of Al-Khalili, a physics professor at the University of Surrey best known for his radio and television programmes about science. He calls this book “an ode to physics”; it is also an ode to joy in science.

Adam Kucharski, Profile Books, RRP£16.99

Kucharski, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, completed The Rules of Contagion just before Covid-19 emerged in China but his timing could not have been better. The book prepares the ground perfectly for readers to make sense of the world’s worst pandemic since 1918, by distilling more than a century of scientific wisdom about the spread of disease.

Jack Price, MIT Press, RRP$29.95/£25

Stem cells have long been promoted as an almost miraculous way to repair the damage caused by disease or injury to the human brain and nervous system. Price, a neurobiologist at King’s College London, maintains the hope while deflating the hype. His book lives up to its subtitle as a readably realistic guide to the potential for biotechnology to improve the treatment of brain disorders.

The Bilingual Brain (And What It Tells Us about the Science of Language)

Albert Costa, translated by John W. Schwieter, Allen Lane, RRP£20

This posthumous translation of the last work by Costa, the great Spanish expert on neurolinguistics, is a delightful exploration of the biological effects of bilingualism. He shows that people who grow up speaking at least two languages do have distinctly different brains to those of us who are monolingual — but refrains from claiming cognitive superiority for either camp.

The Covid-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop it Happening Again

Richard Horton, Polity, RRP£12.99

Horton, editor of The Lancet, roars with rage as he describes the failure of the world’s governments — and particularly the UK and US — to employ the most effective means available to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Writing with angry panache, he argues that tens of thousands of lives could have been saved if the politicians in power had really “followed the science”.

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