Books in brief

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

A Tale of Seven Scientists and a New Philosophy of Science

Eric Scerri Oxford University Press (2016) ISBN: 9780190232993

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Is scientific discovery all about starry intellects and eureka moments? Philosopher of science Eric Scerri asserts otherwise in this thoughtful treatise on research as evolution, not revolution — collective, piecemeal endeavour rather than heroic act. Scerri spotlights seven 'unknowns' who, pivoting around the work of Niels Bohr and Dmitri Mendeleev, helped to unravel atomic structure. So physicist John Nicholson's concept of the quantization of angular momentum informed Bohr's quantum theory of the atom, and the amateur Anton van den Broek pioneered the idea of atomic number.

The European Research Council

Thomas König Polity (2016) ISBN: 9780745691244

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A beacon of science policy and research funding, the European Research Council (ERC) is about to celebrate its first decade. In this first comprehensive history, Thomas König — former scientific adviser to ERC president Helga Nowotny — offers a multifaceted perspective. Behind the ERC's success in maintaining excellence in 'frontier' research, he reveals, a welter of complex negotiations have played out in the politicized current of its framework funding programme, Horizon 2020. A story of big scientific personalities and struggles for autonomy and accountability in the charged space between policy and science.

Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior

Robin Dunbar Oxford University Press (2016) ISBN: 9780190616786

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“Stones and bones” dominate the human-evolution story, notes evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar. In this exemplary study, he plunges instead into the “murky, unseen social world” during the 6 million to 8 million years since the hominin lineage diverged from that of other African great apes. Drawing on research from the British Academy's From Lucy to Language project (H. Gintis Nature 509, 284285; 2014), Dunbar traces shifts in biology, genetics and neurology over that key period. It's a compelling journey into human nature, from the roots of our sociality to the rise of storytelling.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

Michael Lewis W. W. Norton (2016) ISBN: 9780393254594

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Soon after Michael Lewis published Moneyball (W. W. Norton, 2003), his best-seller on the metrics of sports recruitment, he found that the concepts were not original. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky got there decades before, codifying the systematic bias in our decision-making when faced with uncertainty. Lewis tells the story of this rare scientific collaboration and its impact on behavioural economics with novelistic brio, tracing the dual evolution of Kahneman and Tversky's intense relationship and their research all the way to a denouement of human sorrow and Nobel glory.

The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium: An Essay in Natural History

Juan Pimentel; transl. Peter Mason Harvard University Press (2017) ISBN: 9780674737129

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In this subtly discursive study, historian of science Juan Pimentel looks at two animals that profoundly marked science, yet were “imagined without being seen”. One was the rhinoceros famously hypothesized by Albrecht Dürer in a 1515 woodcut. The other was a Megatherium fossil discovered in 1788 that, rendered in an engraving, allowed comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier to identify it as a giant sloth. Pimentel's inspired pairing limns how image and imagination shape our understanding of nature.

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