Books in brief

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A Strange Wilderness: The Lives of the Great Mathematicians

Amir D. Aczel Sterling 304 pp. $24.95 (2011)

A poet–mystic; a swordsman clad in green taffeta; a 12-year-old who mastered ancient Greek. Omar Khayyam, René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz are just three of the mathematical greats in Amir Aczel's trot through theorems and the lives behind them. Aczel, author of Fermat's Last Theorem (1996), begins with the Greeks; ponders the geniuses of India, Arabia and China; frolics in the hotbed of the Italian Renaissance; examines the founders of calculus and the wunderkinder of the Napoleonic age; and skids to a halt with Alexander Grothendieck, who learnt maths in a Nazi internment camp.

Death and Oil: A True Story of the Piper Alpha Disaster on the North Sea

Brad Matsen Pantheon 224 pp. $25.95 (2011)

More than two decades before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Piper Alpha oil rig exploded in the North Sea, killing 162 men. Writer Brad Matsen has packed in two years of research, during which he has interviewed survivors, managers, rescue teams and government officials. Matsen is thorough in laying out the scientific, technological, industrial and political context. This is a deftly told tale of human error, technological glitches and corporate reluctance that highlights the high cost of our thirst for crude.

How We See the Sky: A Naked-Eye Tour of Day and Night

Thomas Hockey University of Chicago Press 224 pp. $60 (2011)

Images of the Horsehead Nebula from the Hubble Space Telescope are more familiar to most of us than the sight of the sky above our heads. So argues astronomer Thomas Hockey, who urges us to gaze unaided at the Universe. Starting with a scan of the horizon, Hockey takes us through the science as well as a host of cultural references, from Pink Floyd to the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. He explores the astronomical sky, the 88 constellations and the Milky Way; orientation through azimuth to zenith; lunar and solar motion, solstices and eclipses. A heavenly and often humorous journey.

The Physics Book: From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics

Clifford A. Pickover Sterling 528 pp. $29.95 (2011)

Molecular biophysicist and inventor Clifford Pickover follows his 2009 volume The Math Book with this energizing look at 250 discoveries in physics. Bookended by the Big Bang and the 'quantum resurrection', the landmark events run from Archimedes' burning mirrors, Isaac Newton's prism, the Higgs boson and the Doppler effect to dark energy, Wolfgang Pauli's exclusion principle and rogue waves. Luminaries from Archimedes to Fritz Zwicky get their due, and it is gorgeously illustrated throughout.

Great Discoveries in Medicine

Edited by William Bynum and Helen Bynum Thames & Hudson 304 pp. £24.95 (2011)

Dazzling images adorn this crisply written chronicle of 'eureka' moments in medicine, covering our emergent knowledge of the body, diseases, drugs and surgery. A drawing of a Caesarean section in Hermann Friedrich Kilian's nineteenth-century Geburtschülflicher Atlas has the delicacy of Flemish Renaissance art. Other marvels include the first X-ray (of Mrs Röntgen's ringed hand), a photograph of serotonin crystals and computer-generated images of viruses.

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