The maths behind music, why to quit social media, and a who’s who of trees: Books in brief

Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.

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Book jacket 'Inner Level'

The Inner Level

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett Allen Lane (2018)

In The Spirit Level (2009), epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett probed the powerful correlation between a society’s inequality and indices of well-being such as social mobility. Here, they narrow the focus to individuals. Drawing on wide-ranging research, they examine how inequity unsticks communities, leading to status anxiety, isolation, depression and rampant consumerism. They lay out pragmatic means of democratizing labour and dismantling class distinctions. And they put forth a salient point: that ability is generally a product, rather than a determinant, of social position.

Book jacket 'Music By Numbers'

Music by the Numbers: from Pythagoras to Schoenberg

Eli Maor Princeton University Press (2018)

From precise notation to rhythmic patterns, music and mathematics often chime. In this intriguing study, maths historian Eli Maor traces those echoes, along with the trajectories of the “scientists, inventors, composers, and occasional eccentrics” behind them. We encounter the musical ‘firsts’ of classical philosopher Pythagoras; composer Arnold Schoenberg, whose “relativistic” music might have been influenced by the theories of Albert Einstein; the German musicians who in 2001 launched a 639-year performance of John Cage’s composition ‘As Slow as Possible’; and scores more.

Book jacket 'The Design of Childhood'

The Design of Childhood

Alexandra Lange Bloomsbury (2018)

Millions of children are in digital overdrive, risking limited interaction with the material world (see B. Kiser et al. Nature 523, 286–289; 2015). Alexandra Lange reminds us why that is an issue. Her captivating design history begins with construction toys such as Lego, Tubation and Zoob, and moves through home, school and playground as they morph to accommodate children’s needs and inspire their creativity ever more fluidly and beautifully. She shows, too, how in mixed urban spaces, child-centred elements such as play areas and mental-mapping landmarks are often elbowed out.

Book jacket 'Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now'

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

Jaron Lanier Henry Holt (2018)

Fiercely unequivocal and utterly timely, Jaron Lanier’s manifesto urges those still in thrall to social media to bin their accounts — now. The virtual-reality pioneer (see A. Faisal Nature 551, 298–299; 2017) lays out ten rationales, starting baldly with “You are losing your free will”. His argument, as an insider’s insider, is that these “social modification empires” undermine truth, destroy empathy, promote unhappiness and make a joke of politics through constant surveillance and manipulation. As he puts it, it’s better to be a cat, autonomous and in charge, than a subservient dog — or lab rat.

Book jacket 'Around the World in 80 Trees'

Around the World in 80 Trees

Jonathan Drori and Lucille Clerc Lawrence King (2018)

This tome, gorgeously illustrated by Lucille Clerc, pays homage to the tree as a scientific subject, a cultural mainstay and an exemplar of biological majesty. Educator Jonathan Drori has isolated 80 species for his global survey, each wreathed in intriguing tales. Blossoms of the long-lived lime (Tilia x europaea), for instance, exude the bee-befuddling sugar mannose, and seedpods of the Costa Rican sandbox (Hura crepitans) explode with the sound of a pistol shot, ejecting their load at up to 240 kilometres an hour. From upas to coco de mer, an arboreal odyssey.

Nature 558, 29 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05314-7
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