Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.
This bold, brilliantly argued history of the Anthropocene epoch is a corrective to cosy thinking about humanity's grave disruptions to Earth systems. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz draw on climate science, economics and technological history to reveal how, starting in eighteenth-century France, imperial narratives that saw people and planet as a “totality to be governed” laid the conceptual basis for the crisis. They call for a “new environmental humanities”, and a shift away from market-based approaches that feed the beast.
Following her nifty how-to on honing cognitive ability, Mastermind (Viking, 2013; see Nature 492, 183; 2012), journalist Maria Konnikova adroitly explicates the surprising psychology behind the confidence game — the modus operandi of charismatic swindlers that thrives in upheavals such as today's technological revolution. She unpacks the con-artist's repertoire of cajolery, illustrating it with case studies (such as art dealer Glafira Rosales's large-scale fraud) and research (including psychologist Paul Ekman's, on lying). A mesmerizing glimpse into the trickster's mind.
A Crude Look at the Whole: The Science of Complex Systems in Business, Life, and Society
Reductionism offers few insights into complexity in nature. So argues computational analyst John Miller in this succinct, elegant study of systems thinking, the newish science examining basic principles, such as emergence, that govern physics, biology and economics. Miller reveals compelling echoes between apparently unrelated phenomena, such as “hivemind” behaviour in bee colonies and consumers, or responses to local stimuli in how a cone snail patterns its shell and how a market functions.
The birth of the fossil economy, avers human ecologist Andreas Malm, arrived when steam eclipsed water power in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. Around that, Malm builds a deep, insight-packed history of how society came to be in thrall to the twin engines of combustion and capital. We see, for instance, how at the start, steam was simply more expedient, not more efficient, than hydropower; and how now, decoupling from fossil fuels is stymied when energy companies pull out of investment in renewables on the basis of low returns.
Freediving (making deep dives on one breath) has been having a moment since James Nestor's Deep surfaced (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014; see Nature 510, 339; 2014). Here, Adam Skolnick interlaces the science of the sport with the story of US freediver Nicholas Mevoli, who died in competition in 2013. Pulmonary haemorrhages contributed to his death, Skolnick shows, pointing to a need for more research on this radical self-experimentation.