Robin McKie’s best science books of 2017

Why good health requires good sleep, the role our senses play in what we choose to consume, and some mind-boggling maths about the air that we breathe

Think of anything that ever breathed – from bacteria to blue whales to Roman emperors – and some of his, her or its last breath is either circulating inside you now or will be shortly. Thus, with this startling claim, Sam Kean begins his examination of all things gaseous, Caesar’s Last Breath (Doubleday £20), in which he attempts to make stories about gases visible “so you can see them as clearly as you can see your breath on a crisp November morning.”

By and large, Kean succeeds in this hugely enjoyable, slightly rambling account of our atmosphere and the remarkable men and women who transformed our knowledge about the air we breathe. I am not quite convinced by the arithmetic used to ...

Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography review – portrait of an easily distracted genius

Walter Isaacson’s illuminating study explains why the original Renaissance man left so many paintings unfinished…

In 1482, Leonardo da Vinci left his homeland of Tuscany and moved to Milan. He had written to Ludovico Sforza, the city’s ruler, listing his impressive qualifications, hoping to be offered employment. He could design bridges, make new types of cannons, dig “secret winding passages”, create waterways and plan cities. To these accomplishments the 30-year-old Leonardo added: “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible.”

Thus the creator of The Mona Lisa only mentioned his artistic abilities as an afterthought. “What he mainly pitched was a pretence of military engineering expertise,” states Isaacson in this lavish, loving biography of the great Renaissance polymath. “These boasts were aspirational. He had never been to a battle nor actually built any of the weapons he described.”

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Caesar’s Last Breath: The Epic Story of the Air Around Us – review

Sam Kean’s history of Earth’s atmospheric gases is provocative and entertainingThe Scottish physician Joseph Black was responsible, in 1764, for one of science’s more unusual chemical experiments. He had already achieved fame by becoming the first scientist to isolate a pure gas: carbon dioxide, known as “fixed air” at the time. Now Black was anxious to further his work by demonstrating that the gas was exhaled by human beings. So he looked for a place where respirations would be at their most intense and accessible – and decided that the kirk best fitted the bill. Presbyterianism in 18th-century Scotland was, if nothing else, a source of plentiful hot air. So Black, who was then Glasgow University’s professor of anatomy and chemistry, placed a solution of limewater inside an air duct in a church where it was said that more than 1,500 people would remain at their devotions for 10 hours on ...

Caesar’s Last Breath: The Epic Story of the Air Around Us – review

Sam Kean’s history of Earth’s atmospheric gases is provocative and entertainingThe Scottish physician Joseph Black was responsible, in 1764, for one of science’s more unusual chemical experiments. He had already achieved fame by becoming the first scientist to isolate a pure gas: carbon dioxide, known as “fixed air” at the time. Now Black was anxious to further his work by demonstrating that the gas was exhaled by human beings. So he looked for a place where respirations would be at their most intense and accessible – and decided that the kirk best fitted the bill. Presbyterianism in 18th-century Scotland was, if nothing else, a source of plentiful hot air. So Black, who was then Glasgow University’s professor of anatomy and chemistry, placed a solution of limewater inside an air duct in a church where it was said that more than 1,500 people would remain at their devotions for 10 hours on ...

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition by Paul Watson – review

The story of the mission to find the wrecks of two long-lost ships from Sir John Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition is timely and compellingThe fate of Sir John Franklin and his lost crew has had a remarkable hold on the public imagination for more than 170 years. The 59-year-old mariner set sail in May 1845 in the best-equipped expedition ever launched to find the North-West Passage to the Pacific. His ships, Erebus and Terror, with their 128 crewmen, were last seen – by whalers in Baffin Bay – in July. Then they disappeared into the Arctic’s mist and ice. The expedition’s failure to reappear triggered what Watson describes as the “longest, broadest and most expensive search for two lost ships in maritime history”. Or as the US writer Alfred Friendly called it: “one of the most extensive, expensive, perverse, ill-starred and abundantly written-about manhunts in history”. From 1847 to 1859, ...

Robin McKie’s best science books of 2016

The pick of this year’s science books put our health – and other obsessions – under the microscopeSeventy years ago, doctors began an experiment that would revolutionise our understanding of human development. For a week, in March 1946, they recorded the births of almost every baby born in the UK. Thousands were then tracked through later life, creating the world’s longest-running birth cohort study. Thanks to that study, and to four follow-ups, many inescapable truths have been learned: the grim impact on infants of poor health service provision, smoking during pregnancy and air pollution. We also know now that reading regularly to children has clear educational benefits; that babies are safe sleeping on their backs; and that breast-fed children tend to have better health. The influence on social services and daily lives has been immeasurable. Have we all gone nuts, asks Garfield. To judge by this hugely enjoyable romp, ...

The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee review – intriguing and entertaining

Despite flaws, this lively and accessible history of the gene and its implications for the future is bursting with complex ideasIn 2010, researchers launched a study, the Strong African American Families project, in one of the bleakest, most impoverished areas of rural Georgia, a place overrun by alcoholism, violence, mental illness and drug use. “Abandoned clapboard houses with broken windows dot the landscape,” Siddhartha Mukherjee tells us. “Crime abounds. Vacant parking lots are strewn with hypodermic needles. Half the adults lack a high school education and nearly half the families have single mothers.” You get the picture. The scientists wanted to know how an individual’s genetic makeup might help or hinder their chances of surviving this grim background, and so began testing local families to determine which variant of a gene known as 5-HTTLRP they possessed. One, known as the short variant, had previously been linked to individuals ...