Books in brief

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

The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski Random House (2015) ISBN: 9781400067473

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How do we cope with the knowledge of mortality? In this considered treatise, psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski present their “terror management theory”, positing that we hold off existential fear through our cultural world view and sense of personal significance. Drawing on several disciplines and many experimental-psychology studies, they conclude that embracing ambiguity and cultivating meaning in life create the basis for the finely calibrated courage that we need to face our inevitable end.

Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf That Conquered the World

Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton and Matthew Mauger Reaktion (2015) ISBN: 9781780234403

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'Tea' has at least five meanings: the shrub Camellia sinensis; its leaf; the dried commodity; the infusion made from it; and the occasion for consuming the infusion. As Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton and Matthew Mauger show in this stimulating volume, history is steeped in the stuff. In eighteenth-century Britain, tea smugglers murdered customs officers; across the Atlantic, excise duty provoked the Boston Tea Party. In 1920, say the authors, John Maynard Keynes “imagined tea at the centre of the modern mercantile world”. With 290 billion litres of tea imbibed in 2013, the taste for it seems set to grow.

The House of Owls

Tony Angell Yale University Press (2015) ISBN: 9780300203448

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Wildlife artist and naturalist Tony Angell, who memorably explored corvid behaviour with John Marzluff (see N. Clayton Nature 484, 453454; 2012), here turns to the owl. A self-confessed strigiphile, Angell has had western screech owls (Megascops kennicottii) nesting outside his home in Washington state for 25 years, and his exquisite monochrome illustrations testify to that intimate coexistence. Angell delves, too, into the owl in culture, and the ranges and habitats of the 19 species found in North America. A treat for fans of these strangely remote, inquisitive, astonishingly sharp-eared and -eyed raptors.

Move: Putting America's Infrastructure Back in the Lead

Rosabeth Moss Kanter W. W. Norton (2015) ISBN: 9780393246803

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The US transport infrastructure is riddled with “pain points and bottlenecks”, from delayed flights to crumbling bridges. So notes Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter in this propulsive study, which argues for an overhaul of US transport to boost the economy, ease commuting and curb emissions. Kanter delivers a number-crunched analysis of the state of road, rail and air transport, and details progress on intelligent transportation and smart cities. But with government and industry preventing advances, the prime hurdle, she notes, is a lack of political will at the top.

Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells

Helen Scales Bloomsbury Sigma (2015) ISBN: 9781472911360

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Structurally elegant and often stunningly marked, seashells have obsessed scientists for centuries — as attested by the millions housed in London's Natural History Museum alone. In this engaging study of molluscs, marine biologist Helen Scales covers a wealth of research on this vast phylum, from findings on shell shape and colour (rococo formations may deter predators, whereas pigmented patterns could be a mollusc's way of tracking its own construction process), to the ecosystem services performed by oyster beds.

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