Allen Lane

‘Freedom’ is a word that slips off the tongue easily. As the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre notes in his essay ‘Freedom and Revolution’: ‘No word has been more cheapened by misuse. No word has experienced more of the tortuous redefinitions of politicians.’ In the essay, MacIntyre turns to Karl Marx to recover the idea that human beings are essentially free. With the same source of inspiration, but through a poignant and often funny memoir of coming to age in state-socialist Albania, Lea Ypi’s Free attempts the same task.

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Paul Davies, the British physicist who brightened up the Australian science scene when he was a professor at the University of Adelaide in the 1990s, is currently director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. Beyond describes itself as ‘a pioneering center devoted to confronting the really big questions of science and philosophy’. It also aims to present science publicly ‘as a key component of our culture and of significance to all humanity’, something Davies has been doing for thirty years, in popular talks, articles, and books such as About Time (1995).

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There really isn’t another biographer like Joseph Frank – nor a biography to place beside his 2,400-page, five-volume life (1976–2002) of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the wildest and most contradictory of the great nineteenth-century Russian novelists. Frank set out in the late 1970s – a time when historically grounded literary scholarship was losing favour in the academy – to fix Dostoevsky (1821–81) in the complex matrices of Russian history, politics, religion, and culture. An author who had been read in the English-speaking world as a hallucinatory thinker, somewhat detached from reality, could now be seen as one fully imbricated in his era and milieu.

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In this accessible contribution to the burgeoning literature on democracy’s travails and what to do about them, Jan-Werner Müller makes a case for hard borders and fundamental principles. These are not the hard borders desired by authoritarian leaders. Instead, Müller asks us to go back to basics (he uses the concept riduzione verso il principo) to establish some hard borders in our understanding – and hence practice – of democracy. Those borders should be drawn around the fundamental democratic principles of uncertainty and equality. At its most basic, this is a call to reimagine and reinvest in the intermediary institutions of representative democracy – particularly parties and autonomous media – to restore the infrastructure of democratic politics in the developed world.

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How will the year 2020 be remembered? No doubt the headline event was the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered schools, factories, and hospitality services, leading to a contraction of per capita income for ninety-five percent of the world’s economies. For Europe, the acrimonious exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union would serve as a stark reminder of how fragile supranational institutions are in the face of popular fury. Following the murder of George Floyd, similar rage at police brutality marked a turning point in the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, which preceded a combative presidential election that denied Donald Trump a second term. And the world endured one of its hottest years on record, with surface temperatures reaching nearly one degree above the 141-year average as fires burned through Australia and the United States.

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In The Aristocracy of Talent, Adrian Wooldridge cites the Chinese civil service exams as a forerunner of the modern world. Early European visitors observed the examination halls scattered across China, with throngs of men young and old cramming as each three-year cycle of exams approached, the glittering careers in government awaiting the lucky few, the consolation prizes as a local scribe or teacher awaiting the many who failed. Children would start studying at the age of six for the chance to pass a local exam and go to the provincial centre for the national papers. Estimates suggest that two and a half million Chinese men sat each round of exams, in carefully invigilated centres across the empire. For the successful, further exams determined promotion through the ranks to the very highest offices.

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By any measure, Amartya Sen’s academic career has been a glittering one. A professor of economics at Harvard University for more than three decades, Sen has also held appointments at Cambridge University, Oxford University, the Delhi School of Economics, and Jadavpur University. In 1998, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his contribution to welfare economics, including work on social choice, welfare measurement, and poverty. The same year, he was appointed as the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge (the first Asian head of an Oxbridge college). He has also written extensively on economics, philosophy, and Indian society and culture.

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At sixty-six years of age and best known for his books on the sociology of food, the American author and journalist Michael Pollan has become an unlikely figurehead for the so-called ‘psychedelic renaissance’. In How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan surveyed the recent revival of psychedelic drugs as adjuncts to psychotherapy, and the emerging evidence that supports their use in the treatment of depression, PTSD, and other mental health disorders. Globally prohibited since the early 1970s and still mostly illegal, these compounds – including the ‘classic’ psychedelics LSD and psilocybin (the main psychoactive alkaloid in magic mushrooms), as well as MDMA (also known as ecstasy) and ketamine – are once again the subject of clinical trials, including in Australia where the federal government has became one of the first in the world to fund research in the field.

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Doom by Niall Ferguson & The Premonition by Michael Lewis

by
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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