Invisible Women is not without hope. After Karlskoga amended its snow-clearing policy, hospital admissions (the majority of which were women) declined. A study of nearby towns found that the policy change saved about four million dollars in a single winter. Change is possible, but first must come data. —Megan Molteni
Fun fact: Because muscle contains more potassium-40 than other tissue, men tend to be more radioactive than women. Another fun/grisly fact: If you get blasted by radiation, different parts of your body will absorb different radioisotopes. Strontium-90 tends to accumulate in the bones; ruthenium in the intestines.
Such details scald the senses as you read Adam Higginbotham’s hyper-researched history of the catastrophic explosion at Chernobyl 33 years ago. Nuclear meltdowns tend to be called ‘accidents,’ but Higginbotham shows the Chernobyl tragedy was anything but. In the preceding years, reactors across the Soviet Union failed one after another. The disasters released radioactive plumes and killed workers, as when one plant’s valve burst and superheated steam boiled 14 men alive. But Soviet authorities suppressed the news and responded with obfuscated design updates that nuclear engineers largely ignored.
By conflating nuclear power with national dominance, the Soviet leadership sealed Chernobyl’s fate well before its builders broke ground. Poor manufacturing practices mixed with impossible deadlines. A culture of secrecy kept known design flaws from getting fixed. Chernobyl was going to blow; the only question was when. —Sandra Upson
Jim Simons is arguably the world’s most unlikely billionaire. For most of his young adult life, Simons embraced his role as a math prodigy, uncovering entirely new areas of mathematics and applying his skills as a government code breaker. But Simons also liked money, so in the 1980s he left a promising mathematical career to pursue a goal everyone told him was impossible: He was going to beat Wall Street.
In The Man Who Solved the Market, veteran Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman tells the story of how Simons became the wealthiest, most powerful investor you’ve never heard of. Simons launched Wall Street’s “quant” revolution, the use of advanced algorithms to trade stocks. Today, he is known for helming the most successful investing firm in history. Along the way, he amassed a personal fortune of $23 billion, a significant portion of which he uses to fund research into the biggest questions in science.
Simons’ influence is not limited to the sciences. His success also made Bob Mercer, whom he plucked from an obscure machine learning research group at IBM. Mercer is perhaps best known for his role as the biggest Republican donor in the 2016 elections and the man responsible for turning the far-right provocateur Steve Bannon into a White House advisor. In tracing the personal history of Jim Simons, Zuckerman shows how a renegade band of mathematicians and scientists invented quantitative finance and profoundly shaped the modern world—for better or worse. —Daniel Oberhaus
Now for some fizzier fare. Who wouldn’t want to toast a long space journey with a sip of champagne or a pint of IPA? As long as humans have grown grains and fruits, they have fermented them into various forms of booze. That’s unlikely to change just because we’re living on some other planet. Chris Carberry, CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group Explore Mars, has compiled a history of astronauts’ attempts to imbibe, Hollywood’s portrayals of outer space cantinas, and current research on how humans might grow the plants they’ll need to destress off-planet. So far, success has been elusive. Lunar and Martian soils lack nutrients. Recent efforts to grow barley, wheat, and grapes on the International Space Station or with simulated lunar soils have produced mixed results, but space-based moonshiners haven’t given up yet. If NASA scientists can figure out how to send people to Mars, it’s likely they will also figure out how to make a bit of hooch to celebrate. —Eric Niiler