Books in brief

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

The Tale of the Axe: How the Neolithic Revolution Transformed Britain

David Miles Thames & Hudson (2016) ISBN: 9780500051863

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This illuminating treatise on the Neolithic era in Britain treats the polished-stone axe that gives the age its name as a portal into prehistory — a revelation of material, manufacture and function. Drawing on research riches from Turkey's Çatalhöyük site to Britain's Stonehenge, archaeologist David Miles contextualizes his core chronicle of how tools, farming and metallurgy arrived in the British Isles. As layered as the strata of an archaeological dig, this is a moving portrait of a people at a cultural and technological tipping point.

Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future

Harini Nagendra Oxford University Press India (2016) ISBN: 9780199465927

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With 10 million people and pell-mell development, Bengaluru (India's Silicon Valley, also known as Bangalore) is an old city in thoroughly modern flux. Urban ecologist Harini Nagendra's study looks at its deep ecological history, colonial role as India's garden city and current struggle with pollution, social exclusion and residents' increasing detachment from nature. Marshalling research from satellite imaging to interviews with slum dwellers, she concludes that “cities need to be ecologically as well as socially smart”, and sees solutions in cross-city engagement of governance and civil society.

Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World

Judith D. Schwartz St Martin's (2016) ISBN: 9781250069917

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Water security demands holistic, ecosystem-oriented solutions, argues Judith Schwartz in this stellar global tour of innovative soil and biodiversity restoration and water harvesting. In Zimbabwe, ecologist Allan Savory reveals how intensified grazing by wild ruminants is enabling 95% of rainfall to soak into the soil, and rivers to recover. In Brazil, researcher Antonio Nobre exposes how deforestation damages the Amazon's unparallelled “forest-rain dynamics” and promotes drought. And in the Texas desert, permaculturalist Markus Ottmers unveils a built “ecosystem fuelled by variants of dew”. Inspiring.

The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future

Gretchen Bakke Bloomsbury (2016) ISBN: 9781608196104

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The US electricity grid, cultural anthropologist Gretchen Bakke reminds us in this cogent study, dominates US energy but is extremely vulnerable — and not just to gnawing squirrels. Nationalized and predicated on power plants, it's a poor fit with the variable, localized output of renewables. Bakke traces it inception by pioneers such as business magnate Samuel Insull through its technological, political and industrial evolution. Working towards a “self-healing, processor-dense 'intelligent' grid”, she argues, is the key to energy resilience.

And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind: A Natural History of Moving Air

Bill Streever Little, Brown (2016) ISBN: 9780316410601

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As his 2009 Cold and 2013 Heat (both Little, Brown) attest, biologist and nature writer Bill Streever is drawn to extremes. He now tackles strong winds, from cyclones to Santa Anas, for a scientific history of storms, meteorology and wind power, studded with pioneers such as seventeenth-century astronomer and trade-wind mapper Edmond Halley. A chronicle of Streever's voyage under sail from Texas to Guatemala is threaded through, giving a breezy immediacy to the story of how we learned to decode “moving air”.

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