Books in brief

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

Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World

Andrew Ervin Basic (2017) ISBN: 9780465039708

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Whether sparked by Pong in the 1970s or Minecraft in the 2010s, humanity's love affair with video games is enduring; US consumers alone spent US$23.5 billion on them in 2015. Andrew Ervin slaloms through their cultural and technological history, from physicist William Higinbotham's 1958 analog simulation Tennis for Two to Atari classics, arcade stalwart Pac-Man and the Warcraft franchise. Ervin even plays the original games, research that involves the installation of vintage computer drives and an “obscenely loud” Donkey Kong machine. A vivid foray into alternative worlds.

Kin: How We Came to Know Our Microbe Relatives

John L. Ingraham Harvard University Press (2017) ISBN: 9780674660403

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Charles Darwin knew microbes as “infusoria”, and left them off his partial tree of life — little dreaming of how they dominate it, or of their intimate relationship with humanity. That kinship, reveals microbiologist John Ingraham in this succinct scientific chronicle, began to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s with revolutionary findings such as Carl Woese's discovery of archaea. Ingraham deftly traces the rise of relevant fields, and highlights landmark research on the gut microbiome, the putative origins of life in oceanic hydrothermal vents and more.

The Long Shadows

Eds Simo Laakkonen, Richard P. Tucker and Timo Vuorisalo Oregon State University Press (2017) ISBN: 9780870718793

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The tens of millions who died in the Second World War were not its sole casualties. Unprecedented militarization of land, sea and air by war industries and powerful new arms devastated ecosystems around the world. Simo Laakkonen, Richard Tucker and Timo Vuorisalo helm a revelatory collection of essays on the conflict's “long shadows”, from toxic-waste dumping in the Soviet Union to Nazi environmental policy and the “lunar” landscapes of what is now Guyana, a brutal legacy of bauxite mining triggered by the aluminium boom.

Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life

David R. Montgomery W. W. Norton (2017) ISBN: 9780393608328

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How can humanity feed its burgeoning billions when one-third of agricultural soil is degraded? Pondering that question propelled geologist David Montgomery on a three-decade, six-continent survey of farmland. The insights gleaned add nuance to his pointed critiques of agrotechnology and organic farming, but it's the findings on rapid soil restoration that compel. Montgomery shows how precision fertilization, no-till regimes and complex crop rotation benefit soil ecology and nutrient cycling — and bring biology back into the soil-fertility picture along with physics and chemistry.

Transmaterial Next

Blaine Brownell Princeton Architectural Press (2017) ISBN: 9781616895600

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Sustainable materials must satisfy multiple cross-cutting criteria, from low or no environmental impact to design applicability and high performance. Those that made the cut in architect Blaine Brownell's eye-popping catalogue possess that magical mix of green credibility and sleek aesthetic: BlingCrete (light-reflecting concrete), pollution-filtering bricks, energy-harvesting walls, foamed-wood insulation, touch-responsive surfaces. A foretaste of how near-future science could transform engineering and design.

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