Books in brief

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

Rust: The Longest War

Jonathan Waldman Simon and Schuster (2015) ISBN: 9781451691597

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Corrosion has killed people in nuclear power plants, taken out planes in mid-air and reddened the face of Mars. So notes environmental journalist Jonathan Waldman in this dexterous technological study of this insidious process, which is nibbling away at Western civilization. The science compels, but what leap from the page are Waldman's snapshots of rust geeks — such as the team that rebuilt the hole-ridden metal skin of New York's Statue of Liberty in the 1980s, and Bhaskar Neogi, 'integrity manager' of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, one of the heftiest metal objects in the Western Hemisphere.

Producing Power: The Pre-Chernobyl History of the Soviet Nuclear Industry

Sonja D. Schmid MIT Press (2015) ISBN: 9780262028271

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In the annals of nuclear meltdown, the April 1986 explosion at Chernobyl in Soviet Ukraine remains the most devastating, contaminating thousands of square kilometres of land. This trenchant study by science historian Sonja Schmid digs deep into the catastrophe's tangled prehistory to make nuanced sense of it. She unravels key scientific, social and political factors, from the plant's lack of 'redundant' safety features to rivalries in the Soviet nuclear industry and inefficiencies in the country's economy.

The Chimp and the River: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest

David Quammen W. W. Norton (2015) ISBN: 9780393350845

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This intense study of the origins of AIDS is excerpted and adapted by David Quammen from his book Spillover (W. W. Norton, 2012; see N. Wolfe Nature 490, 33; 2012). With Sherlockian verve, Quammen traces the trail from the first human cases, through labs around the world, and finally to virologist Beatrice Hahn's discovery that simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), from which HIV-1 is derived, can kill wild chimpanzees. Quammen's portrait of the real 'Patient Zero' as a Cameroonian hunter clumsily butchering a chimp is a masterful summing-up of the evidence.

Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain

Melanie Keene Oxford University Press (2015) ISBN: 9780199662654

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The prodigious pace of Victorian research — from the unearthing of dinosaur fossils to the laying of a transatlantic telegraph cable — posed a stiff pedagogical challenge. To deliver the new findings on nature to the public, writers seized on the era's obsession with the supernatural. Science historian Melanie Keene argues here that many “fairy tales of science” were educational gems: by harnessing tropes of the genre to communicate facts, they evoked a scientific wonder that truly came into its own in the age of quantum mechanics and relativity. (See M. Keene Nature 504, 374375; 2013.)

Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet

Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman Princeton University Press (2015) ISBN: 9780691159478

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Economists Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman deliver a high-voltage shock in their analysis of the costs of climate change. With uncurbed emissions predicted to rise steeply by 2100, a radical reframing of the catastrophe as a global risk-management issue is due, they argue. Their blueprint is a three-step response: scream (call for business and policy-makers to snap to it); cope (adapt rapidly to events); and profit (invest in green industry).


  1. Report this comment #65387

    Ronald Schleyer said:

    There was no "explosion" at Chernobyl. It was a FIRE in the graphite moderator that resulted from sabotage, namely, the turning on of the reactor during a maintenance shutdown when the safety systems were disabled. No matter how many times this mistake is corrected, it seems forever to lie beyond the reach of non-Russian sources to imagine that Chernobyl was a Cold War crime and the perpetrators remain at large.

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