Books in brief

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

Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History

Thomas Rid W. W. Norton (2016) ISBN: 9780393286007

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Cybernetics, the science of communication and control in machines and organisms, has had a tangled history. Here, professor of war studies Thomas Rid unravels seven strands of it, starting with mathematician Norbert Wiener's book Cybernetics (1948). Wiener's big idea first gained traction in post-war research on ballistic calculations in airborne warfare. It then popped up in 1950s dreams of automated utopias, the concept of benevolent machines serving humanity in the 1970s and, from the 1980s, applications such as virtual reality, public-key cryptography and, ominously, cyberwar.

Margherita Sarrocchi's Letters to Galileo

Meredith K. Ray Palgrave (2016) ISBN: 9781137597694

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When astronomer Galileo Galilei was a rising star, he corresponded with the formidable Margherita Sarrocchi — a salon host, epic poet and polymath versed in geometry, natural philosophy and logic (J. Rampling Nature 520, 154155; 2015). In this rich analysis of the exchange, Meredith Ray shows how the pair found common ground in assessing each other's work, whether the discovery of Jupiter's satellites or the crafting of poetic nuance. An illuminating explication of the dynamics in early-modern arts and sciences, complemented by the first full English translation of the letters.

Fighting Fit: The Wartime Battle for Britain's Health

Laura Dawes Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2016) ISBN: 9781474601979

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Historian Laura Dawes digs into that other victory of the Second World War: public health in Britain. There had been dire predictions, such as epidemics incubated in air-raid shelters. But by war's end, UK rates of almost all infectious diseases had dropped, thanks to the Medical Research Council, Nobel laureates such as physiologist Andrew Huxley, hordes of researchers and a willing public. Dawes' sparky account demonstrates how that rare teamwork advanced emergency care, preventive medicine, the treatment of insect-borne disease and, ultimately, the formation of the National Health Service.

Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior

Jonah Berger Simon & Schuster (2016) ISBN: 9781476759692

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In his best-seller Contagious (Simon & Schuster, 2013), marketing scholar Jonah Berger explored influence through word of mouth — a territory much probed by social psychologist Robert Cialdini (T. Dietz Nature 479, 176; 2011). Here, Berger turns the tables, examining the hidden social influences that nudge us into choosing everything from jobs to desserts. Neatly compressing findings in ethology, economics and more, he looks at imitation, differentiation, motivation and the see-saw between novelty and familiarity. Crowded with insights — not least, for wary voters.

Peacock and Vine: Fortuny and Morris in Life and at Work

A. S. Byatt Chatto & Windus (2016) ISBN: 9781784740801

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In this faceted gem of a book, novelist A. S. Byatt muses on design revolutionaries Mariano Fortuny and William Morris. Fortuny, galvanized by ancient Minoan fabrics, printed scarves with patterns of murex shells and trilobite fossils, and devised intricate, permanent pleating for his sinuous 'Delphos' gowns. Morris recorded the “geometry of branches and petals and fruits”, bringing hedgerow and copse indoors with motifs and natural dyes that transformed typography, wallpaper and textiles. An ingenious comparison.

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