Books in brief

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

Our Shrinking Planet

Massimo Livi Bacci (Translated by David Broder) Polity (2017) ISBN: 9781509515837

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In this authoritative, beautifully synthesized analysis of global population, demographer Massimo Livi Bacci pinpoints a planet-sized problem. When the “demographic timebomb” announced decades ago failed to detonate, complacency set in over creeping population growth. Now, 10 billion people are set to cram Earth by 2050, yet population is off most national agendas and has a secondary place in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Bacci traces population patterns over ten millennia to reveal a squeezed present in which per capita living space has shrunk by a factor of 1,000.

The Influential Mind

Tali Sharot Little, Brown (2017) ISBN: 9781627792653

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Advertising, politics, education — any juxtaposition of human and message involves influence. But why might a patently ill-informed demagogue sway more people than a scientist? In this perceptive study, cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot isolates seven factors central to influence. She shows how US President John F. Kennedy framed the space race emotionally as risk and opportunity, boosting neural synchronization and encouraging adherence to his view; and how “taming the amygdala” (the brain structure key to processing emotions) can reduce stress and susceptibility to fear-mongering.

The Planet Factory: Exoplanets and the Search for a Second Earth

Elizabeth Tasker Bloomsbury Sigma (2017) ISBN: 9781472917720

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Astrophysicist Elizabeth Tasker expertly lassoes the fast-moving field of extrasolar-planetary science for this crisp, witty primer-plus. After a dip into planet formation and habitability, she launches into a tour of the exoplanetary zoo. Here are uninhabitable monsters such as 'lava world' 55 Cancri e and the bloated gas giant WASP-17b (with a density not far off that of expanded polystyrene). And here, too, are promising 'exo-Earths' such as Proxima Centauri b, a mere 40 trillion kilometres away. Neatly woven through are tales of discovery by the likes of planet hunter Michel Mayor. Masterful.

How Language Began: The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention

Daniel Everett Profile (2017) ISBN: 9781781253922

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Did language begin with Homo sapiens? Daniel Everett theorizes an earlier progenitor: Homo erectus, the globe-trotting hominin that lived between 2 million and 143,000 years ago. Drawing on archaeology, anthropology and neuroscience, he asserts that language is not innate, but a cultural creation that emerged synergistically through a system of invented symbols, gestures, ordering and intonation. Everett, an expert on the Amazon basin's Pirahã people, delves energetically into biological adaptations for language, the evolution of grammar and puzzles such as cross-clan communication.

Bloomsbury Scientists

Michael Boulter UCL Press (2017) ISBN: 9781787350069

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Bloomsbury was famously the stomping ground of Virginia Woolf and her early-twentieth-century coterie. But that square mile centred on University College London was also a locus for science. Palaeobiologist Michael Boulter paints a group picture of biologists energized by Darwinism, including Ray Lankester and Marie Stopes, rubbing shoulders with cross-disciplinary intellects such as Roger Fry and H. G. Wells. Although marred by the intrusion of eugenics, this heady era saw the rise of fields from ecology to genetics.

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