by Christopher Lane. Yale University Press, 2007

Would Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson be given drugs today? In the 1980s a small group of leading psychiatrists revised the profession’s diagnostic manual, called the DSM for short, adding social anxiety disorder—aka shyness—and dozens of other new conditions. Christopher Lane, Miller Research Professor at Northwestern University, uses previously secret documents, many from the American Psychiatric Association archives, to support his argument that these decisions were marked by carelessness, pervasive influence from the pharmaceutical industry, academic politics and personal ambition. Lane shows how drug companies seized on the newly minted disorders to sell millions of dollars’ worth of psychotropic drugs. Some have dangerous side effects; some were already developed—treatments looking for a disease. The next revision of the DSM is already under way, and Lane warns that without drastic reform many more common behaviors—excessive shopping, poorly controlled anger, defiance—can become pathologies for which drugs are already on tap.

by Richard Rhodes. Alfred A. Knopf, 2007

As much about the unmaking as the making of the superpower arms race, Richard Rhodes’s latest book alludes in its subtitle to his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb. He begins by tracing the convictions that shaped two men’s determination to end the threat of nuclear annihilation. Mikhail Gorbachev, born into a peasant family in 1931, lived through Stalin’s “Great Terror,” when the dictator deliberately starved millions of farmers to force them onto collective farms. The destruction at Chernobyl—on the order of one-third the power of the smallest nuclear explosive—crystallized his mission. “Global nuclear war can no longer be the continuation of rational politics, as it would bring the end of all life,” Gorbachev told the Politburo in 1986.

Ronald Reagan was molded into the unlikely opposite side of this equation by religion and movies. He connected nuclear war with Armageddon and believed he was predestined to do away with nuclear weapons. After seeing the 1983 film The Day After, in which Lawrence, Kan., is wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia, Reagan wrote in his diary that it “left me greatly depressed.... we have to do all we can ... to see that there is never a nuclear war.” The book culminates in a highly detailed and gripping account of the meeting of the two leaders in Reykjavik in 1986, where, against all odds, they managed to halt the buildup of nuclear arsenals. “Leaders who make history are often provincials. Provincials attempt what sophisticates consider naïve,” Rhodes writes, before turning to the world of the present—and a chilling conclusion.

by Richard Corfield. Basic Books, 2007

In his wonderfully written exploration of the solar system, Richard Corfield, a planetary scientist at the Open University in England, describes the fascination with Venus, “the greenhouse in the sky,” in the early days of space probes:

“On December 14, 1962, [the U.S. spacecraft] Mariner 2 grazed Venus, skimming past the planet at a distance of only 21,000 miles.... The results were unequivocal.... The surface of Venus is ... as hot as the interior of a self-cleaning oven ... no global oceans, no swamps, no giant tree ferns, no enormous insects, and no amphibian-like creatures crawling their way toward sentience.

“One immediate effect of the news from Mariner 2 was that America lost all interest in Venus.... In startling contrast, the Soviet focus on Venus intensified ... the message from the Central Committee was clear: the Soviet space establishment was to focus the attention of its nascent unmanned space program on this nearby, bright planet that glimmers so temptingly in the evening sky, with the goal of landing a probe on it. Such an order was nothing if not audacious for, at this time in the early 1960s, no one had even landed a probe on the moon.”