The Six-Point Inspection: New Books on Genetic Screening, Asteroids, and One Laptop Per Child

A nurse inspects a newborn baby at a nursery in a hospital in Taipei

Photo by PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images

Each month in “The Six-Point Inspection,” Future Tense and Zócalo Public Square take a quick look at new science and technology books that are changing the way we see our world.

Saving Babies? The Consequences of Newborn Genetic Screening by Stefan Timmermans and Mara Buchbinder

The nutshell: Almost every American newborn is screened for more than 50 genetic disorders—most of which you haven’t heard of. UCLA sociologist Timmermans and UNC anthropologist Buchbinder spent three years following doctors and patients in a Southern California clinic specializing in the treatment of children’s metabolic disorders to find out how these tests affect families.

Literary lovechild of: Francis S. Collins’ The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine and Dena S. Davis’ Genetic Dilemmas: Reproductive Technology, Parental Choices, and Children’s Futures.

You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: You wish that the Rosemary’s Baby gene had been detectable a little sooner.

Cocktail party fodder: If you’ve had a baby since 2010, a blood sample from his or her heel was taken and tested for genetic disorders—and that sample and record is likely still somewhere in the health care system, perhaps unbeknownst to you.

For optimal benefit: Don’t read before your amnio.

Snap judgment: Timmermans and Buchbinder are compassionate, careful observers who work hard to be impartial scholars. But it can be frustrating to read about so many false positives and diagnoses of conditions that are impossible to treat.

Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us by Donald K. Yeomans

The nutshell: “Everything you always wanted to know about asteroids and comets but were too afraid to ask” would make a good subtitle for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory research scientist Yeomans’ book, which explains what comets and asteroids are, how they’re discovered and monitored, what they can teach us, and what happens when they hit Earth.

Literary lovechild of: Carl Sagan’s Comet and Paul Halpern’s Countdown to Apocalypse: A Scientific Exploration Of The End Of The World.

You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: All you want for Christmas is the chance to name your own asteroid. But preferably not one that’s forecast to wipe out all human life.

Cocktail party fodder: Volkswagen-size asteroids “strike” Earth’s atmosphere every six months or so.

For optimal benefit: Read before watching 1998 asteroid and comet apocalypse films Armageddon and Deep Impact back-to-back (as they were meant to be viewed).

Snap judgment: Yeomans makes it seem like we’re uncomfortably close to an asteroid-induced apocalypse. Luckily, he has a sense of humor about it, and he has some sensible scientific solutions. (Hint: They involve collisions and explosions.)

Learning To Change the World: The Social Impact of One Laptop Per Child by Walter Bender, Charles Kane, Jody Cornish, and Neal Donahue

The nutshell: In 2005, MIT Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte announced that he would build a $100 laptop for schoolchildren in the developing world. In 2007, One Laptop Per Child began selling the XO, a personal computer that required low power, was extremely durable, and featured software geared toward kids. The authors—Bender and Kane are former presidents of One Laptop Per Child, Cornish and Donahue are social entrepreneurs—explain the roots of the program and how its impact extends beyond the children it reaches.

Literary lovechild of: Millard Fuller and Diane Scott’s No More Shacks!: The Daring Vision of Habitat for Humanity and Michael Dell and Catherine Fredman’s Direct From Dell: Strategies That Revolutionized an Industry.

You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: The Apple II computer you programmed on in elementary school changed your life.

Cocktail party fodder: The president of Uruguay lauded One Laptop Per Child for turning a 12-year-old student into a hacker. (The kid had created six new programs for the computer.)

For optimal benefit: Read before you embark on a Kickstarter to build a $30 smartphone. (Or before you donate to someone else’s $30 smartphone Kickstarter fund.)

Snap judgment: Sometimes Learning To Change the World reads like a biased case study, but it’s hard not to be impressed by One Laptop Per Child’s success and innovation.

Previous Six-Point Inspections:
November: Netflixed, Discord, and Million Death Quake.
October: The Launch Paid, Regenesis, and The Digital Rights Movement.
September: Unfit for the Future, Automate This, and This Machine Kills Secrets.
August: Resilience, Interop, and Green Illusions.