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Books in brief

Crashes, Crises, and Calamities: How We Can Use Science to Read the Early-Warning Signs

Basic Books 256 pp. £13.99 (2011)

From earthquakes to the collapse of civilizations and economies, why do systems suddenly break down? Physicist and writer Len Fisher gives an accessible explanation of the mathematics of catastrophes in his latest book. Drawing on physics, ecology and biology, he highlights four tools that scientists and engineers use to forecast rapid failure: stability, catastrophe, complexity and game theory. By applying these concepts, he explains, we can predict and manage impending crises.

Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science

Harvard University Press 464 pp. $39.95 (2011)

Since the 1980s, commercial companies have become the largest funders of scientific research in the United States. Economist and historian Philip Mirowski analyses in detail the impact of this shift away from public funding. Owing to the rise of patents and intellectual property, knowledge and discovery are now perceived as a commodity; the fruits of scientific investigations are no longer considered a public good but are seen as products with monetary value. But, the author argues, American science should be more than just a cash cow.

Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT

MIT Press 232 pp. $22.95 (2011)

Every university has its canon of creative pranks, which usually involve a degree of technological know-how. The finest practical jokes played at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge are documented in this illustrated volume (first published in 2003), which has been updated for the institution's 150th anniversary. Recent 'hacks', as they are known, include the cross-country theft of a cannon from the California Institute of Technology in 2006, and the hoisting of a solar-powered subway car and a fire engine onto the roof of the university's Great Dome.

The Reason Why: The Miracle of Life on Earth

Allen Lane 240 pp. £20 (2011)

A series of one-off cosmic events and flukes of physics represent the lucky breaks that made our planet the oasis it is today, argues best-selling writer John Gribbin in his latest book, which examines the origin of life on Earth. From the giant collisions of early Solar System bodies that forged our planet to the geochemical reactions that make it habitable, our world is special. Even though planets are common in the Milky Way, Gribbin argues, intelligent life capable of building technological civilizations will turn out to be rare. So the future of humankind is of universal significance.

The Open Laboratory 2010: The Best of Science Writing on the Web

Edited by:
Lulu 284 pp. £11.91 (2011)

Last year saw the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano, the deep-water oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the announcement of arsenic-based life. It was also, according to Jason Goldman, editor of this collection of 2010 blog posts, the year when blogging went mainstream. Thanks to the extra boost of Twitter, online diarists were sought out to comment on all the big science stories. Their insights are shared in this annual selection of the best of the blogosphere.

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Books in brief. Nature 472, 35 (2011).

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