Books in brief

Journal name:
Date published:
Published online

Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves

George M. Church and Ed Regis Basic Books 304 pp. $28 (2012)

The life sciences emerge as the new high-tech in this paean to synthetic biology. Geneticist George Church and science writer Ed Regis show how reprogramming “genetic software” radically skews outputs, from microbes that create plastic by metabolizing maize (corn) sugar to potentially reverse engineering Neanderthals from a human stem cell. Each step in the genome's evolution serves as a springboard for expositions of how synthetic biology will revolutionize renewable energy, multivirus resistance and more.

Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us

Donald K. Yeomans Princeton University Press 192 pp. $24.95 (2012)

As Earth creaks on its course around the Sun, it is exposed to a relentless barrage of asteroids and comets. Donald Yeomans, who manages NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office, offers an introduction to the science of these lethal monsters, one of which may have seen off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and created the Chicxulub crater. Yeomans shows how the threats are balanced by potential boons, such as the theoretical delivery of the building blocks of life on Earth. Can these reeling masses even become interplanetary pitstops on the road to Mars?

Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age

B. Jack Copeland Oxford University Press 320 pp. £14.99 (2012)

A tangle of speculation surrounds Alan Turing's last two years. Jack Copeland takes it on with aplomb in this expertly integrated life and work, based on years of discussion with Turing's colleagues and friends. A well-drawn portrait of the man — moody, humorous, seriously sportif and brimming with momentous ideas — this is also a catalogue of his fundamental achievements in computing and artificial intelligence. Crucially, Copeland's fresh take on the lead-up to Turing's death, from the hormone therapy he endured to his final hours, is based on a sober assessment of compelling evidence.

A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change

John Glassie Riverhead 352 pp. $26.95 (2012)

He thought Earth hollow, influenced Leibniz's ideas on the binary system, predicted germ theory — Baroque Jesuit Athanasius Kircher was doubly endowed with avid curiosity and variable judgement. In an era in which science teetered at the edge of the rational, Kircher's investigation of optics, Egyptian hieroglyphs, magnetism and more led to flashes of brilliance in swathes of murk. And, as John Glassie demonstrates, some of the findings inspired or seeped into the work of later pioneers, from Mesmer to Champollion.

The Science of Consequences: How They Affect Genes, Change the Brain, and Impact Our World

Susan M. Schneider Prometheus 352 pp. £18.99 (2012)

Biopsychologist Susan Schneider, a protégé of twentieth-century behaviourist B. F. Skinner, reveals the effects of actions' consequences on evolution, the genome and the brain. Learning from consequences, she argues, helps to reconfigure the brain across species. And, she avers, such insights can inform real-life applications, from the treatment of depression to solving global issues such as overfishing.

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