Allen Lane

Doom by Niall Ferguson & The Premonition by Michael Lewis

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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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If you have ever wondered about the imaginative, wondrous side of science – for instance, how Einstein used maths to predict the existence of gravitational waves, or how a metaphor led to the astonishing discovery that the spinning earth drags space-time around it like molasses around a spoon, this is not the book for you. But if you want to know why scientists had the patience to keep refining their experiments until they detected this barely perceptible rippling of space-time, or why they have the kind of grit made legendary by Marie and Pierre Curie, sifting through tonnes of pitchblende for a speck of radium, you will find an intriguing, bold, and controversial answer in The Knowledge Machine.

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There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell

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March 2021, no. 429

In a recent interview, Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli confessed that the book he would most like to be remembered for is The Order of Time (2018), a work in which time, as it is commonly understood, ‘melts [like a snowflake] between your fingers and vanishes’. The Order of Time, Rovelli admits, only pretends to be about physics. Ultimately, it’s a book about the meaning of life and the complexity of being human.

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Edward Gibbon’s great narrative of the fall of Rome still troubles the imagination. We see parallels between Rome’s decline and the eclipse of Western powers today, our fears intensified by a global pandemic, a failure of internationalism, and an increasingly fragmented public sphere. Our values and territories, we are told, are under threat, principally from China and the Islamic world, agents of disruption in our Western order. For Gibbon, the fall of Rome heralded a ‘tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery’ without even the intrigue of ‘memorable crimes’. Our future, then, is to be both bleak and boring.

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Philosophers attending a conference in the Swiss resort of Davos in 1929 eagerly anticipated a debate between Ernst Cassirer, a celebrated member of the academic establishment and a supporter of progressive liberalism, and Martin Heidegger, whose radical break from tradition had impressed younger philosophers. For those who expected a clash of titans, the result was disappointing. There were no denunciations, no rhetorical bolts of lightning. The true parting of their ways came later, in 1933, when Cassirer, a Jewish supporter of the Weimar Republic, was forced out of his position and into exile, and Heidegger, now a member of the National Socialist Party, told students of Freiburg University to be guided by the Führer.

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This is a book in the expansive American tradition of long, well-researched historical works on political topics with broad appeal, written in an accessible style for a popular audience. David Nasaw has not previously worked on displaced persons, but he is the author of several big biographies, most recently of political patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy.

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The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J. Sandel & Philanthropy by Paul Vallely

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December 2020, no. 427

Save the Children in Stockholm wanted to highlight the unfair distribution of global wealth, so it invented an online game called The Lottery of Life. This invited Swedes to a website to spin the wheel of chance. If you were born again tomorrow, where would you appear?

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Modern mega-farms are like nothing on earth. Imagine a vast black field stretching from horizon to horizon. A driverless tractor glides across the skyline spreading synthetic fertiliser. A cluster of grain towers looms over an empty asphalt parking lot. A row of pig sheds gleams in the distance. The square blot of the manure lagoon simmers in the hot sun. There are no trees. No birds. No mess. Everything is orderly, unpeopled, and entirely alien.

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‘Our age,’ begins the epigraph to Anne Applebaum’s book Twilight of Democracy, ‘is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds.’ This disarming quote from French writer Julien Benda dates back to 1927; how little has changed in a century. Just one generation after the triumphant ‘end of history’ – and notwithstanding the impact of Covid-19, fleetingly referenced here – Western democratic societies are prey to institutional decline, increasing distrust, violence, and hatred.

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A survey conducted in the UK in 2017 asked people whether they trusted the opinions of a variety of experts, such as doctors, scientists, and nutritionists. Economists came second last in a big field, beaten to the bottom only by politicians. How can it be that practitioners of an academic discipline that traces its intellectual history back at least 250 years have sunk so low in popular esteem? It seems that the blame rests not with economists themselves, most of whom are honest and well-intentioned individuals whose main handicap, at least among the males of the species, is their legendary boringness and appalling taste in ties.

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