Books in brief

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

Your Brain Is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time

Dean Buonomano W. W. Norton (2017) ISBN: 9780393247947

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Apparently elastic and possibly illusory, time is a puzzle to physicists and neuroscientists alike. Dean Buonomano straddles the divide, invoking cutting-edge theory and research as he wrestles with the often glaring mismatch between physical and 'felt' time. The result is immensely engaging, exploring why we use spatial metaphors (such as a long day) when talking about time; why presentism (the theory that only the present is real) is upheld in neuroscience but plays underdog in physics; and how not just consciousness and free will, but also space-time and relativity, can be parsed in neuroscience.

Darwin's First Theory: Exploring Darwin's Quest for a Theory of Earth

Rob Wesson Pegasus (2017) ISBN: 9781681773162

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For this adventurous study of Charles Darwin's contribution to geology, seismologist Rob Wesson traded computer screen for trenching shovel to trace the Victorian icon's far-flung fieldwork. Wesson trekked from Wales to Patagonia and journeyed along the watery route of HMS Beagle, interweaving Darwin's observations of lava beds and erratic boulders with vivid accounts of his own research on the sites, and interpolations of science. A wonderful evocation of Darwin's great theory of subsidence and uplift, the substrate of his later, explosive discovery of evolution.

Governing Global Health: Who Runs the World and Why?

Chelsea Clinton and Devi Sridhar Oxford University Press (2017) ISBN: 9780190253271

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Global public-health governance can seem tortuously complex. Specialists in the field Chelsea Clinton and Devi Sridhar pierce the haze, usefully focusing on players old and new, from the World Health Organization to public–private partnerships such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, that involve collaboration between governments and social entrepreneurs. This is smart research with nuanced conclusions, for instance stressing the need for broader on-the-ground change — strong health-care systems, socio-economic equity and climate-change policy — if interventions are to fully root.

An American Sickness

Elisabeth Rosenthal Penguin (2017) ISBN: 9781594206757

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The US health-care system pivots on blatant profiteering, argues journalist (and former physician) Elisabeth Rosenthal in this bold, insightful, well-researched analysis. Brick by brick — from insurance to research — Rosenthal dismantles the edifice to discover where the billions in bills end up, and boils her research down to ten 'rules' that dominate the dysfunction, such as the lack of fixed prices for medical tests. She also outlines a range of suggestions for the fight against unneeded treatments and stratospheric fees, from comparison shopping for drugs to insisting on itemized bills.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut University of Chicago Press (2017) ISBN: 9780226444185

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In 1959, in the frigid depths of a Siberian winter, two Soviet geneticists launched a singular experiment. Dmitri Belyaev and Lyudmila Trut (who co-wrote this account with Lee Alan Dugatkin) set out to replicate wolf domestication by selecting silver foxes from fur farms for 'tameness traits', and breeding them. This compressed evolution has spawned 56 generations of tame foxes — with spotted coats and an affinity for humans — and uncovered findings such as relative disparities in the animals' gene expression.

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