Books in brief

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
515,
Page:
35
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/515035a
Published online

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

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology

Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden Bantam (2014) ISBN: 9780593069318

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Quantum biology — where “hot, wet and messy living bodies” meet quantum weirdness — has hit the popular-science shelves. Physicist Jim Al-Khalili and molecular biologist Johnjoe McFadden explore this extraordinary realm with cogency and wit. Starting with the slippery nature of life itself, they canter through recent findings in areas of research such as quantum tunnelling inside enzymes, Einstein's “spooky action at a distance” vis-à-vis organisms' navigational compasses and the wilder shores of synthetic biology. A fine survey of emergent science.

Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble

Marilyn Johnson Harper (2014) ISBN: 9780062127181

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Archaeology is news, as the cave paintings in Indonesia just dated to 40,000 years ago remind us (see Nature http://doi.org/wjh; 2014). In this gem of hands-on reportage, Marilyn Johnson delves into the lives of the pros behind the finds — impossibly dedicated, beset by job insecurity and in love with the hidden and half-decayed. Packed with ace accounts of hard graft featuring the likes of flint-knapping palaeoanthropologist John Shea and forensics specialist Kimberlee Moran, who studies the effects of explosions using pig carcasses.

Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife

John M. Marzluff Yale University Press (2014) ISBN: 9780300197075

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Great horned owls and bald eagles live and hunt in ornithologist John Marzluff's suburban garden in Washington state. As Marzluff shows in this rich account of fieldwork in 'metropolitan wilds' from New Zealand to Costa Rica, such annexed environments — which boast some 75 billion trees in the United States alone — can host an astounding diversity of birds. But, he argues passionately, intelligently and with scientific authority, any land-use change reweaves the ecological web, and may leave it threadbare.

The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures

Christine Kenneally Viking (2014) ISBN: 9780670025558

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A family mystery — a gap where her father's father should be — goaded science writer Christine Kenneally into exploring the phenomenon of identity. Kenneally goes at it full tilt, taking a machete to a jungle of genomics; reassessing the contentious practice of genealogy; unravelling the knotted realities of adoption; and pondering DNA testing. This sparkling, sometimes harrowing read is packed with intriguing interludes, such as still-speculative findings on the dark-skinned Melungeons of Appalachia.

The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names

John Wright Bloomsbury (2014) ISBN: 9781408816981

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Anyone enamoured of binomial nomenclature — the system of Latin names formalized by taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in the eighteenth century — will relish this telling of its long, bumpy evolution. As natural historian John Wright notes, the names are not merely appellative, but have gradually become “things in themselves”. And indeed, his cabinet brims with verbal curiosities, from Senecio squalidus (Oxford ragwort), meaning 'dirty old man', to Upupa epops (the hoopoe), based on a character in Aristophanes's play The Birds.

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