Books in brief

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

Climate Change and the Health of Nations

Anthony J. McMichael Oxford University Press (2017) ISBN: 9780190262952

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The magnum opus of the late epidemiologist Anthony McMichael, this study lucidly, and at times lyrically, chronicles 200,000 years of human history through a climate lens. McMichael unpicks the intricate choreography of climatic shifts, disease outbreaks and resource conflict to show how climate change has become ingrained in our biology and culture. He shows how anthropogenic climate change is the ultimate Faustian pact, trading material advance for environmental degradation; yet he hopes that the “integration of eight billion networked cerebral cortexes” may yet find a way through.

The Telomere Effect

Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel Grand Central (2017) ISBN: 9781455587971

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Nobel-prizewinning biologist Elizabeth Blackburn and health psychologist Elissa Epel distil reams of research for this smart, invigorating how-to book on maintaining cell longevity. Meshing Blackburn's work on telomeres — the chromosomal 'caps' that are biological indicators of life experience — with Epel's research on stress, the volume outlines a regime designed to boost telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes telomeres. Much will be familiar, from aerobic fitness to emotional balance. But as a clear, detailed line-up of key lifestyle changes and their biological implications, this is a winner.

Radicalization: Why Some People Choose the Path of Violence

Farhad Khosrokhavar (transl. Jane Marie Todd) The New Press (2017) ISBN: 9781620972687

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With security high on national agendas, the debate over radicalization and its roots rages on. Drawing on economics, anthropology and political science, sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar examines historical examples such as Italy's Red Brigades of the 1970s and 1980s, but focuses mainly on radical Islamism today, tracing paths to conversion step by step. Some European-born terrorists, he shows, are poverty-stricken victims of racism with a “narcissistic attachment to their own pain”, vulnerable to the sanctification of victimhood and groupthink; others are self-radicalized lone wolves. Cogent and timely.

Quantum Fuzz: The Strange True Makeup of Everything Around Us

Michael S. Walker Prometheus (2017) ISBN: 9781633882393

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Physicist Michael Walker's foray into 'quantum weirdness' is firmly grounded in physics history — notably the 1927 Solvay Conference in Brussels, at which Paul Dirac, Niels Bohr and others fomented a revolution. Walker attacks his subject with energy, examining experimental and theoretical results; implications such as entanglement; and the apparent disjunction between general relativity and quantum mechanics. The passages on applications, from quantum computing and encryption to nanotubes and graphene, are gripping, but the whole is a bit too episodic.

Call of Nature: The Secret Life of Dung

Richard Jones Pelagic (2017) ISBN: 9781784271053

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A hyena's is white; an otter's smells of violets. Dung, reveals entomologist Richard Jones in this deft treatise, is a wonder of the biosphere. Jones is a witty guide to the mammalian digestive tract, animal waste as an ecological resource and the scores of insects that live in or on excrement, including the hulking Pride of Kent (rare rove beetle Emus hirtus). Jones's dung identification guide is another delight for the amateur naturalist: we learn, for instance, that wombat excrement resembles “miniature bread loaves”.

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