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Niall Ferguson

Doom by Niall Ferguson & The Premonition by Michael Lewis

August 2021, no. 434

One of the disconcerting aspects of this pandemic is that there was no shortage of warnings. For decades, virologists foresaw the coincidence of urbanisation, human proximity with animals, climate change, and globalisation as ideal conditions for spreading deadly pathogens. Science journalists wrote books with titles such as The Coming Plague (Laurie Garrett) and Spillover (David Quammen), whose conclusions were amplified by TED-talking billionaires. SARS, MERS, Ebola, and swine flu were further clues. Yet come January 2020, authorities worldwide were slow, indecisive, and ill-prepared.

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Occasionally, a television series on history is accompanied by an excellent book. Jacob Bronowski, anchorman for The Ascent of Man (1973), produced a book of the same name, the more remarkable because it lucidly explained complicated topics in the history of science. John Kenneth Galbraith’s challenging and quietly amusing The Age of Uncertainty (1977) came from another BBC series. Now the history of the twentieth century – or essentially the first half of it – is told and interpreted in this fascinating book by Niall Ferguson, a talented British historian who is a professor at Harvard University.

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