Books in brief

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

The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

Joseph Henrich Princeton University Press (2015) ISBN: 9780691166858

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The force propelling Homo sapiens down its unique evolutionary pathway is “culture-gene coevolution”, avers anthropologist (and aerospace engineer) Joseph Henrich. Over time, he posits, the need to acquire “adaptive cultural information” expanded the human brain, and societies' “collective brains” in turn shaped human culture. Integrating insights from cognitive psychology, experimental economics, history and ethnography, this limber and lucid study concludes that we face a major transition into a new type of animal.

The Last of the Light: About Twilight

Peter Davidson Reaktion (2015) ISBN: 9781780235103

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Cultural historian Peter Davidson enters the twilight zone, tracing the crepuscular in science, psychology, history and the arts. Considering the 60th parallel north, around which “long evenings and protracted sunsets stretch”, Davidson probes aspects of this transitional state, including visual perception during the stages of twilight (civil, nautical and astronomical); dusk as a metaphor for crisis in Charles Dickens's Bleak House; the proliferation of gilt and mirrors in the murky pre-electric era; and the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins' observations of anti-crepuscular rays, published in Nature.

London Fog: The Biography

Christine L. Corton Belknap (2015) ISBN: 9780674088351

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London's 'pea-soupers' — opaque, yellowish smogs — were an environmental catastrophe, a cloak for nefarious activities and an artistic inspiration. An odiferous wig of soot from coal fires, sulfur dioxide and mist settled regularly over the city from the 1840s to the 1960s. In this richly nuanced history, scholar Christine Corton takes us from polymath Robert Hooke spotting a pall of smoke over London in 1676 through the killer fogs that felled zoo animals, spurred crime and caused traffic accidents, and that ultimately galvanized scientists and the government to craft the 1956 Clean Air Act.

The Secrets of Sand: A Journey into the Amazing Microscopic World of Sand

Gary Greenberg, Carol Kiely and Kate Clover Voyageur (2015) ISBN: 9780760349441

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Beachcombers take heed: the real treasure is stuck to your soles. Sand — as cell biologist Gary Greenberg, microscopist Carol Kiely and science curator Kate Clover show in this delightful coffee-table book — is dazzling, from star-shaped forams to egg-like ooids. To photograph these minuscule jewels rock-polished by wind and surf, Greenberg used 3D microscopes and smart lighting. A stunning extra are images of the lunar dust particles that Kiely studies, including glassy spherules from extinct fire-fountain volcanoes.

The Best American Infographics 2015

Gareth Cook and Maria Popova Mariner (2015) ISBN: 9780544542709

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Another year, another superb volume in this infographics series edited by journalist Gareth Cook; cultural curator Maria Popova (of blog 'Brain Pickings') guest-introduces. 'What Do Americans Speak?' (Slate, 13 May 2014) offers an eye-popping map showing the third most commonly spoken language in each US state — in Michigan, that is Arabic — and Nature's own 'Born Here, Died There' (Nature; 2014) explores dynamic patterns in cultural history through an elegant animation.

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