Books in brief

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

Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence

Nathan Emery Ivy (2016) ISBN: 9780691165172

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Cognitive biologist Nathan Emery has been on the cutting edge of research into avian intelligence since the 1990s. In this sparkling, superbly illustrated summation of the cognitive science, ethology and hot debates, Emery encapsulates the “feathered ape”. He compares the avian brain to the mammalian to reveal functional similarities in disparate anatomies (likened to fruitcake and layer cake, respectively) and tours spatial memory, migratory sense, tool use and more. From the wattle-bopping of black grouse (Tetrao tetrix) to the dung baiting of burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia), a masterful explication.

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets

Luke Dittrich Random House (2016) ISBN: 9780812992731

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In 1953, experimental surgery left Henry Molaison with severe amnesia; he became 'HM', a star patient studied by neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin for almost 50 years (see D. Draaisma Nature 497, 313314; 2013). Luke Dittrich offers a very different perspective — he is the grandson of William Scoville, the lobotomist who operated on Molaison. Dittrich fleshes out the official account with nuanced biographies of the troubled Scoville and profoundly damaged Molaison, revelatory conversations with Corkin and accounts of behind-the-scenes scientific scuffles. Disturbing and illuminating.

The Book

Keith Houston W. W. Norton (2016) ISBN: 9780393244793

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The physical book has reigned as an agent of culture for 1,500 years. Keith Houston's deft history of the object wraps entire civilizations into the telling, propelling us through the evolution of writing, printing, binding and illustration with gusto. The material innovations dazzle, from papyrus, vellum and paper (dating to second-century AD China) to the spattered path of inks. Equally gripping is the trajectory of production technologies, as the finical skill of scribes gives way to Johannes Gutenberg's printing revolution and, ultimately, the streamlined wonders of modern lithography.

Science and the City: The Mechanics Behind the Metropolis

Laurie Winkless Bloomsbury Sigma (2016) ISBN: 9781472913210

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'Up', 'Switch', 'Wet': physicist Laurie Winkless's chapter headings hint at a briskly bouncy ride ahead in this primer on the science embedded in cities. And so it proves, as she ponders wind-confusing skyscraper design, water-supply technologies such as “fog-sucking nets” and 3D-printed bridges. Perhaps most engrossing is her evocation of how modern subway systems are built — by delicately 'threading the needle' through dense subterranean convolutions. The thickets of subheadings and bolded-up key terms may irk, but the witty Winkless has done her homework.


Christie Wilcox Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2016) ISBN: 9780374283377

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Evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox mines reams of research on venomous fauna, a vast cross-taxa group that ranges from the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), which delivers venom containing 83 toxins, to the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), whose anticoagulant-laced version bleeds victims dry. We may cringe at snakebite necrosis, but Wilcox reminds us that venoms are “complex molecule libraries” with medical potential — so safeguarding their biodiversity also preserves biochemical riches.

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