Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.
It stands as one of the most astounding feats of twentieth-century cartography. From 1950 to 1990, Soviet spies and satellites surveyed most of the planet to create what may be more than one million military maps, so detailed they show the composition of bridges and species of trees. As John Davies and Alexander Kent reveal in this glorious homage embellished with 350 map extracts, the gargantuan project might have been groundwork for a cold-war coup. Ironically, its near-comprehensive coverage has proved a boon for Western surveyors working in otherwise uncharted territory.
The first faint chirp recorded by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in September 2015 marked the momentous merger of two black holes. And it's to these astrophysical regions of no return that physicists Steven Gubser and Frans Pretorius devote their slim primer. After extolling black holes as theoretical laboratories, they trek through relativity, Schwarzschild black holes and beyond. The thrills come thick and fast, not least when a hypothetical probe nearing a singularity is “squished and stretched into an infinitesimally thin line”.
Starting in May 2016, a huge wildfire devastated Fort McMurray, Canada. Dubbed the Beast, it burnt more than 566,000 hectares and displaced 88,000 people. And it is a sign of heated times: a new wildfire paradigm is emerging in North America's boreal forests, already pressured by fracking, logging and insect infestations. Edward Struzik's deft account interweaves reportage, science and policy to show how fires that are normally key to ecological resilience are growing bigger and faster, thawing permafrost, degrading watersheds and disrupting habitats of species from grizzly bears to fungi.
Collectively, Earth's microbial hordes are its dominant life form. A realm that spans the mammalian gut, the ocean floor and the International Space Station is a rich one, and discoveries in it continue to rattle and revivify biology. Ted Anton's captivating narrative follows the field's evolution through key findings in symbiosis, archaea and the microbiome by inspired scientists such as Lynn Margulis, Carl Woese, Margaret McFall-Ngai and Elaine Hsiao. Anton dips, too, into how the findings are influencing diet, agriculture, medicine and environmental sustainability.
If your nightly snooze lasts less than seven hours, you risk weakening your immune system, messing with your metabolism and depriving yourself of a “consoling neurochemical bath”. So argues neuroscientist Matthew Walker, who draws on current research to demystify sleep, traverse the wild world of dreams and disentangle sleep disorders. From an infant's polyphasic snippets of slumber to the “hyper-associative problem-solving benefits” of REM dreaming, Walker's investigation is anything but soporific.