Books in brief

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

Revolutionary Science: Transformation and Turmoil in the Age of the Guillotine

Steve Jones Pegasus (2017) ISBN: 9781681773094

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In 1789, as the French Revolution blew the Ancien Régime to smithereens, Paris seethed with scientific geniuses. Many were later guillotined — including the 'father of modern chemistry', Antoine Lavoisier. But, as geneticist Steve Jones reminds us in this sparkling scientific history, they and those who survived (such as astronomer Joseph-Louis Lagrange) laid down a legacy spanning discoveries from the metric system to nitrogenous fertilizer. A fine homage to the evolution of game-changing science, born in the City of Light.

Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society

Cordelia Fine W. W. Norton (2017) ISBN: 9780393082081

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Fed up with men from Mars and women from Venus? In this witty corrective, psychologist Cordelia Fine examines the fraying “biological big picture” of sexual selection, and corrals findings in evolutionary science, neuroscience and endocrinology to add nuance to it. As she demonstrates, the genetic and hormonal components of sex 'collaborate' in complex ways with societal aspects of the developmental system, such as education. Gendered marketing, men-only expert panels and other sexist norms may seem trivial, but their cumulative impact is ultimately damaging.

Deep Life

Tullis C. Onstott Princeton University Press (2016) ISBN: 9780691096445

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Few collecting trips can be as claustrophobia-inducing as Tullis Onstott's. The geomicrobiologist's “subterranean safaris” can see him plunging more than 3,000 metres below ground to hunt extremophiles — microbes adapted to extreme conditions, which could offer insight into life on Mars. Onstott's dense account of feats in South African mineshafts and Canadian ice caves is leavened by a vast enthusiasm for the biotic fringe. You're swept along, whether he's describing the “Death-o-Meter” (a gauge of microbial activity) or probing SLiMES (subsurface lithoautotrophic microbial ecosystems).

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Peter Godfrey-Smith Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2016) ISBN: 9780374227760

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As a philosopher of science and dedicated scuba diver, Peter Godfrey-Smith is gripped by cephalopods, “an island of mental complexity” in an invertebrate sea. In this insightful study, he weaves their evolutionary history through recent research, his own tales of encounters in the wild and accounts of the idiosyncratic behaviour of lab octopuses, such as drenching visitors in jets of water. From protean bodies to distributed brains, their wondrous otherness leads Godfrey-Smith into fascinating speculations on the alien mind.

The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today's America

Mark Sundeen Riverhead (2017) ISBN: 9781594631580

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This deftly written study of experiments in 'ethical living' shows how US utopianism — a blend of fervent idealism and all-American pragmatism — is re-rooting across the country. Mark Sundeen follows three determined couples pursuing extreme sustainability in Missouri, Montana and Michigan. Their expertise in passive solar technology, closed-loop farming, permaculture, ecobuilding and preserving is inspiring. Less so are the hints of self-righteousness — a reminder that utopias have a habit of imploding.

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