Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.
How did our understanding of mass evolve from the geometric atoms of ancient Greece to the quantum ghostliness of today? Jim Baggott ingeniously contextualizes that eventful science history. He evokes successive world views as crucibles for the evolving theories of geniuses, from atomist Leucippus through Enlightenment revolutionaries such as Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein, John Wheeler and fellow architects of the twentieth-century watershed. Today, the fundamental structure of physical reality remains elusive — but that, Baggott argues, is what the thrill of the chase is all about.
From testing a theory to playing bebop, improvisation is the fount of creativity — it's even the primal driver in our natural history. So argues philosopher and jazz musician Stephen Asma, who draws on neuroscience and animal behaviour for this intriguing, if occasionally chewy, foray into human evolution. Looking at improvisation from pre-linguistic expression (such as dance) to storytelling, Asma explores how we actively engage the imagination to create our own 'virtual realities' and to build just societies, as well as to foster the adaptability we need to negotiate life's changes.
In the middle of Earth's 'sixth mass extinction', we might recall that the other five were no picnic, science journalist Peter Brannen reminds us. He goes on the road and into deep time with geologists and palaeontologists to examine what we know of these cataclysms, which played out from 444 million to 65 million years ago. That long, piecemeal goodbye to creatures such as the killer placoderm Dunkleosteus and the giant sloth — wiped out by ice, lava flows or asteroid impacts — drives home how thin the “glaze of interesting chemistry” on the third rock from the Sun really is.
Albatross, kittiwake, gannet: the extraordinary physiology and navigational capacity of seabirds have inspired scientists and poets for centuries. Yet their numbers have crashed by 70% over the past 60 years. In this lyrical and assured scientific study, Adam Nicolson captures the worlds of 10 species on the wing, from a fulmar's 6,280-kilometre ocean journey — an astounding feat of memory and fine-tuned adaptation — to a shearwater sniffing out krill by the dimethyl sulfide they emit. A hymn to the great edge-dwellers that are also “the barometer of whole oceans”.
This full-throttle memoir by tropical horticulturalist Carlos Magdalena is a window on the exploits that underpin the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew — overseer of the largest wild-plant seed bank in the world. Magdalena specializes in plants on the brink of extinction, and his quests for (and repatriation of) species such as the café marron (Ramosmania rodriguesii), native to the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues, reveal the rare mix of zeal and patience needed to hunt vanishing plants and coax their seeds into germinating.