Books in brief

Journal name:
Date published:
Published online

Life in the World's Oceans: Diversity, Distribution, and Abundance

Edited by Alasdair McIntyre Wiley-Blackwell 384 pp. £120 (2010)

This collection of review papers synthesizes the findings of the Census of Marine Life, a decade-long international programme to document species within the seas. The ambitious project involved thousands of scientists and led to the discovery of novel creatures such as the hairy yeti crab. The volume addresses the biodiversity of oceans past, present and future, including microorganisms and zooplankton. Regions from the fishing grounds of the Gulf of Maine to mid-ocean ridges, seamounts and polar waters are examined, and the Census database is explained.

How to Catch a Robot Rat: When Biology Inspires Innovation

Agnès Guillot & Jean-Arcady Meyer MIT Press 232 pp. £29.95 (2010)

Nature inspires much technology: from Velcro, which mimics the sticky burrs of burdock seeds, to self-sharpening blades modelled on rats' teeth. In a wide overview of biology-influenced design, Guillot and Meyer describe how natural structures, materials and behaviours are being adapted for nanotechnology and electronics. From an aerial drone that flies like an albatross to a robot salamander, they examine machines with animal traits and look ahead to hybrid systems, such as neuroprostheses that translate the thoughts of people with quadriplegia into mechanical motion.

Designer Genes: A New Era in the Evolution of Man

Steven Potter Random House 208 pp. $25 (2010).

How will humans evolve when we can select the genes of our offspring? In his examination of the science and ethics of genetic modification, stem cells, DNA sequencing and embryo manipulation, biologist Steven Potter suggests that we will diversify as a species. Future parents will choose their childrens' genes, defining intelligence, appearance, athletic ability and health. The choices are not simple — the mutant haemoglobin gene that causes sickle-cell trait, for example, confers some protection against malaria — but the ramifications for future generations will be huge.

Much Ado About (Practically) Nothing: A History of the Noble Gases

David E. Fisher Oxford Univ. Press 288 pp. $24.95, £15.99 (2010).

Noble gases are so called because, like nobility, they do no work. Helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon are colourless, odourless and unreactive. But they are crucial in unravelling the history of the Universe, the Sun's power and our planet's origin. In the first popular book to focus solely on these elements, chemist David Fisher interweaves his own research with historical accounts, from the nineteenth-century discovery of helium to determinations of the age of the Earth and Solar System from noble-gas isotopes.

The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future

Laurence C. Smith Dutton Adult 336 pp. $26.95 (2010)

In 40 years' time, many cities will look a lot like those in Nevada, argues geographer Laurence Smith. He identifies four trends that together will push civilization north into ecologically fragile lands in regions such as Canada and Siberia: rising population, competition for natural resources, the interdependent global economy and a warming climate. His model-based predictions offer few surprises, but he reminds us that we have the choice to shape our future.

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