New and noteworthy – 7 June 2018

A population primer; opening the brainbox; Japan’s first modern novelist; and a travel guide to Mars

June 7, 2018
Women in Guinea-Bissau gather for a wedding ceremony
Source: iStock

Demography: A Very Short Introduction
Sarah Harper
Oxford University Press

Although few people would subscribe to the extreme view that “demography is destiny”, it is equally clear that the discipline touches on many vital issues. It matters to us all whether fertility levels fall in sub-Saharan Africa, how we manage the relationship between environment, population and consumption, and how we face the many challenges of ageing populations. Sarah Harper’s incisive overview explores how human numbers have climbed from 55,000 to 7 billion; the fathers of demographic thought; mathematical models; population projections; and how we now understand the crucial demographic transition from high to low birth and death rates.

The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars: A Neuropsychologist’s Odyssey
Paul Broks
Allen Lane

In 2003, clinician and researcher Paul Broks – long based at the University of Portsmouth – published his prize-winning Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuro­psychology. Drawing on philosophy, personal experience, case histories and even fiction, he shed vivid new light on the vexed mind-brain problem: just how the “wetware” and neural circuits inside our heads can create our subjective feelings of consciousness. His new book ranges even wider, reflecting on life after the death of his beloved wife Sonja and patients such as “women plagued by the foul-mouthed monsters of the dream-world” while often returning to the biggest questions of all: “What are we?” and “How should we live?”

Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist
John Nathan
Columbia University Press

Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916), says John Nathan, can be “properly viewed as Japan’s first modern novelist, certainly in the Western sense” – something all the more remarkable because his realist fiction had no obvious predecessors in Japanese literature. Yet while the 14 remarkable novels he produced in 11 years are “largely grim”, they are widely read in schools and remain immensely popular in Japan. (An android Sōseki was unveiled in 2016 to mark the centenary of his death.) This biography and literary study describes a difficult, demanding man, plagued by poor physical and mental health, yet one who was also a master stylist with an extraordinary gift for “creat[ing] individuals who are true to life”.

Life on Mars: What to Know before We Go
David A. Weintraub
Princeton University Press

Finding life on Mars, writes David Weintraub, “would rank among the most profound and important discoveries in the history of science”. Given that we have no clear evidence for it, it’s hardly surprising that there are many plans to take a look. Nasa hopes to send humans to Mars and bring them back safely by the 2030s, while tech entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have similar dreams. Surveying “the many attempts to identify life on Mars” since the 17th century, the book urges caution about “chasing Martians” in light of the risk that we might inadvertently destroy any life there “before we have a chance to fully explore the red planet”.

The National Debt: A Short History
Martin Slater

In the decade to the end of 2017, the British national debt more than tripled. Since the end of 2016, it has grown by close to £2,000 a second. It now represents about £65,000 for every household. Yet despite these startling figures, Martin Slater suggests, “there is little real understanding of what [the national debt] is…how it really affects the economy; or whether it is good, bad, or dangerous”. Even more significant, are governments right to pursue “austerity” policies designed mainly to keep the debt down? Some of the answers are revealed in this lively history, taking in wars, empires, constitutional change and slavery, of the national debt from medieval times to the 2008 crash and beyond.

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