Allen Lane

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

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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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