Seaweed Chronicles: A World at the Water’s Edge
by Susan Hand Shetterly.
Algonquin Books, 2018 ($24.95).
With the word “weed” in its name, seaweed certainly seems like a resource as unnecessary as it is inexhaustible. But nature writer Shetterly details why this hardy alga deserves safeguarding. In evocative prose, she describes seaweed’s role in the environment, especially in her coastal home of “Downeast Maine,” and the people who study, harvest, sell, eat and protect it. She profiles fishers who because their fishery has been depleted have switched to gathering a variety known as rockweed for industrial and culinary uses, as well as activists fighting to regulate the harvest to prevent rockweed from disappearing as the fish did. Shetterly also takes a seaweed cooking class, visits a factory for “Kelp Krunch bars” and travels with a biologist who studies how baby eider ducks depend on seaweed to survive. —Clara Moskowitz
Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart
by Mimi Swartz.
Crown, 2018 ($27).
It was 1963, and O. H. “Bud” Frazier, then a medical student, had his hands wrapped around a patient’s heart—his forceful massage the sole act keeping the man alive. Journalist Swartz chronicles the decades-long evolution of top U.S. cardiac surgery programs through intimate profiles of the field’s most prominent practitioners as they race to build an artificial heart. She captures details of the profession with panache: a split-second decision to put a sheep’s heart into a human body, the challenge of engineering a device that can maintain blood temperature for hours. Ultimately, she contends, cardiology was at the mercy of outside forces. When the Challenger shuttle exploded in 1986, Swartz writes, that failure translated into more skepticism toward all technology-based fields and a long-term dip in funding for heart surgery programs. Even matters of the heart do not unfold in isolation. —Maya Miller
Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance between Astrophysics and the Military
by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang.
W. W. Norton, 2018 ($30)
“The roster of nations that have wielded the most power on the world stage... are precisely those nations whose scientists knew the most about the universe at any given time,” assert astrophysicist Tyson and writer Lang in this comprehensive exploration of the long-standing synergy between astronomy and warfare. The stars guided prophesying seers and bloodthirsty raiders in remote antiquity; telescopes were beloved tools in the academies and battlefields of Renaissance Europe; rockets and satellites are now vital for both generals and Nobel Prize–winning academics. Understanding how and why “the soft power of cosmic discovery” promotes military might, the authors contend, is crucial for stimulating further progress in space science—and perhaps even lasting peace on Earth. —Lee Billings
Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car—And How It Will Reshape Our World
by Lawrence D. Burns, with Christopher Shulgan.
Ecco, 2018 ($27.99)
Self-driving cars, once heroic engineering prototypes confined to desert race courses, are now being tested around the Phoenix, Ariz., metropolitan area—arguably, the greatest transition in mobility since the automobile began. Burns, who led R&D at General Motors for years and consulted on Google’s autonomous car project, is an unabashed booster for the technology. But he and writer Shulgan vividly recount the painful birth of the first robotic racers and highlight the missteps, egos and legal battles that have hampered its progress. Insider drama aside, they present a compelling vision of a future with many fewer cars, less pollution, less congestion—and more freedom to move than ever before. —W. Wayt Gibbs