prehend the origin of fear, altruism, and ele-
ments of human nature will find this book a
key factor in their increased understanding.
The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects
Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between,
Abigail Marsh, Basic Books, 2017. 320 pp.
Reviewed by Colin McCormick
Curiosity is a beautiful thing, and Kelly and
Zach Weinersmith have it in spades. Their
coauthored Soonish is an unabashed nerd-out of a book, zinging from outer space to
DNA, hardly pausing for breath.
The book is ostensibly divided into 10
technologies that will be here “soonish.” But
the Weinersmiths are far too broad-minded
to consider a technology to be something
specific, such as a new kind of carbon nano-tube or brain-imaging technique. What they
really mean is the capability to do something
that humans could never do before, regardless of the exact engineering details. For example, the chapter on programmable matter
asks what it would take to make physical
objects adaptable into many forms and then
dives into four-dimensional printing, origami robots, and minirobot swarms.
8 SEPTEMBER 2017 • VOL 357 ISSUE 6355 965 SCIENCE sciencemag.org
In each chapter, the authors savor the
weirdest ideas they can find (think rocket
balloons, brick-laying robots, and neurotrophic electrodes) and punctuate them with
corny cartoons. However, they always bring
the discussion back to the essential scientific
facts and engineering constraints that make
some things hard to do. In the chapter on
bioprinting, for example, they point out that
extruding cells is like firing tomatoes from
a cannon—shoot them too quickly and they
burst. In the chapter on what it will take to
enable cheap access to space, they explain
just how much faster orbital velocity is than
even the fastest of supersonic jets.
The gleeful geeking out makes for a great
read—I couldn’t help chuckling or outright
cracking up a number of times—while surreptitiously teaching some really important
science. It’s a winning combination. The
sheer breadth of topics covered is also amazing: Probably no other book in history has
seriously described the science behind both
tentacle construction robots and the human
The authors make sure to address the
concerns and effects of these technologies if
they were to become real. Biohackers could
use synthetic biology to bring back small-
oratory findings. The Fear Factor fills a gap,
bridging popular and technical literature.
Marsh’s dynamic prose brings scientific
studies and technical topics to life. However, her candor with respect to her career
trajectory conveys the joy of scientific discovery, collaboration, mentoring, and international connections and distinguishes this
work from others in the popular science
genre. The combination of thorough investigation and personal research experiences
creates a volume far more engaging than
those typically written by academics.
That said, several sections grow long-winded. Chapter 6, for example, meanders
through 33 pages before revealing the scientific punch line: the critical role of oxytocin
in response to fear. In addition, although a
handful of photographs and illustrations reinforce the narrative, one or two functional
magnetic resonance images would have enhanced some of the author’s main points. The
penultimate chapter, “Can we be better?,”
provides four recommendations for becoming more altruistic, deviating from the book’s
main thesis and teetering on overreach.
But The Fear Factor’s virtues far eclipse
its shortcomings. Those who seek to com-
The reviewer is at Conservation X Labs, Washington, DC
20009, USA. Email: email@example.com
The reviewer is at the McClure Center for Public
Policy Research, University of Idaho, Boise, ID 83702, USA.