Books in brief

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The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth

W. W. Norton 464 pp. £19.99 (2010)

Celebrating the explorers who have scoured the planet for new forms of life, naturalist and writer Richard Conniff highlights how new discoveries generate scientific breakthroughs. He argues that the same spirit of adventurous curiosity that drove Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus to derive his nomenclature of species and that spurred Charles Darwin to unearth evidence for evolution is in scientists today, as they hunt for creatures new to science in remote corners of Earth.

Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories

Harper 512 pp. $27.99 (2010)

Simon Winchester's magisterial biography of the Atlantic Ocean portrays it both as a planetary feature and as a human stage — the “inland sea of Western civilization” along whose coasts humans have settled and traded for millennia. From its early navigation by the Norse and European sailors, to its setting for the slave trade and warfare, he recognizes the ocean's autonomous power. He also notes how its waters are changing as a result of pollution, overfishing and climate change.

A Professor, a President, and a Meteor: The Birth of American Science

Prometheus Books 304 pp. $26 (2010)

A meteor that lit up the sky in Weston, Connecticut, in 1807 sparked more than local consternation. It inspired Benjamin Silliman, a young chemistry professor at nearby Yale College, to analyse the meteorite's minerals. The controversy surrounding his hypothesis that it came from space triggered the rise of rigorous science in the United States. Cathryn Prince describes Silliman's life, his brushes with politics — including a spat with President Thomas Jefferson — and his other discoveries, among them the distillation of petroleum.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: How Medical Imaging Is Changing Health Care

Bruce Hillman and Jeff Goldsmith. Oxford Univ. Press 264 pp. £27.95 (2010)

Medical imaging has transformed health care, but its diagnostic value is balanced by its expense. Hillman and Goldsmith examine how scanning technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging and computed axial tomography are transforming radiology and yet putting pressure on budgets. They raise questions about economic incentives and the role of preventative medicine in promoting the uptake of scanning technology above other clinical necessities.

Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century

Abrams 240 pp. $35 (2010)

The human brain remains maddeningly complex. The intricacy of its structures is revealed by the striking pictures in this collection by neuroscientist Carl Schoonover. From medieval sketches and nineteenth-century drawings to state-of-the art scans, he explains how our depictions of brain regions, neurons, axons and dendrites have developed throughout history. It is a fascinating visual insight into neuroscience.

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Baker, J. Books in brief. Nature 468, 33 (2010) doi:10.1038/468033a

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