The mortality revolution, and the myth of the market: Books in brief

The mortality revolution, and the myth of the market: Books in brief

Ending Epidemics

Richard Conniff MIT Press (2023)

In 1900, one in three people died before the age of five. By 2000, this death rate was down to one in 27, and one in 100 in wealthy countries. This astonishing revolution has attracted surprisingly little attention, notes Richard Conniff. Instead, there is a “stubborn, stupid sense that we have somehow become invulnerable” — epitomized by opposition to vaccines. Conniff’s highly readable history of epidemic diseases and vaccinologists, from the first description of bacteria in 1676 to the eradication of smallpox in 1978, combats this worrying vulnerability.

The Big Myth

Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway Bloomsbury (2023)

Free enterprise is not in the US Constitution. The government was deeply involved in the US economy in the nineteenth century; its success led many to be suspicious of ‘big business’ and support government intervention. But commerce later came to dominate, as advocated by Ronald Reagan, through manipulation by businesses and some economists and scientists. In this hard-hitting, persuasive book, historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway tell “the true history of a false idea” — that of “the magic of the marketplace”.

Moving Crops and the Scales of History

Francesca Bray et al. Yale Univ. Press (2023)

Movement of crops by humans is “a key driving force in history”, notes this global academic study by an anthropologist and three historians in Europe, India and the United States. In the 1830s, British merchants smuggled tea plants from China to set up plantations in India — but then replaced them in the 1870s with indigenous bushes. Indian competition prompted the Chinese industry to reorient to other markets. The book therefore focuses on “cropscapes”: the people, creatures, technologies, ideas and places surrounding a crop.

Ghost Particle

Alan Chodos & James Riordan MIT Press (2023)

Proposed by Wolfgang Pauli in 1930, detected by Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines in 1956 and dubbed the “nothing-particle” by Isaac Asimov in 1966, neutrinos — first created in the Big Bang — are still highly mysterious, despite endless experimental investigation. Hence their current nickname of ‘ghost particle’ — the title of physicist Alan Chodos and journalist James Riordan’s enjoyable, non-mathematical portrait. “You have over 300 Big Bang neutrinos in the tip of your pinky at this moment,” they write.

Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions 3.3

Eds Asko Parpola & Petteri Koskikallio Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia (2022)

The Indus civilization of around 2500–1900 bc was huge, with sophisticated cities, long-distance trade and no known internal warfare. But perhaps most remarkable is its exquisite system of writing on stone and terracotta, undeciphered by modern scholars despite more than a century of effort. In 1987, Indologist Asko Parpola launched a fascinating series of catalogues of Indus seals and inscriptions. The latest shows discoveries in the “Indo-Iranian Borderlands”: western Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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