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Books in brief

Opium: Reality's Dark Dream

Yale University Press 376 pp. $40 (2012)

'Poppy tears' — the sap of the opium poppy — are aptly named: the drug has enslaved multitudes and sparked violence for 6,000 years. Yet opium and derivatives such as morphine and heroin have been stars of medicine and inspired greats such as the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, more arguably, surgeon William Stewart Halsted. Those stories are threaded through medical historian Thomas Dormandy's engrossing chronicle, but we're never far from the shadows — the dosing of infants in Victorian England, the torments of addiction, and wars in Afghanistan and China.

Megachange: The World in 2050

Edited by:
Profile/Wiley 320 pp. £15/$34.95 (2012)

The Economist editors Daniel Franklin and John Andrews give the “helicopter view” of where the world will be by mid-century. Aiming to pin down the trends forcing “megachange”, they offer 20 chapters that make predictions in everything from public health and women's welfare to social networking, climate change and, inevitably, economics. This succinct, pithy resource has surprises: by 2050, China's gross domestic product will be 80% more than the United States's, for instance; and the world's total fertility rate could stabilize.

Circulation: William Harvey's Revolutionary Idea

Chatto & Windus 272 pp. £16.99 (2012)

It is easy to forget that William Harvey's great theory on the circulation of blood was as groundbreaking as Copernicus's on the Solar System. Working mainly from dissections and vivisections, Harvey also drew insight from his observations of networks and systems in transport and technology. Author Thomas Wright's account has a brilliant cast — including John Donne, the great metaphysical poet and dean of St Paul's Cathedral, London, whose interest in anatomy and the human heart drew him to Harvey's work. A classic example of how great science affects culture, language and politics.

Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease

Basic Books 320 pp. $26.99 (2012)

How are tide pools linked to national security? Ecologist Rafe Sagarin says that adaptability in nature — particularly in the octopus — exemplifies key defence principles. For example, the cephalopod has both attack and defence capabilities, with a powerful bite and inky camouflage, and its flair for escapology in the lab shows that it can handle a change in environment. Drawing on life science and evidence from the military and emergency services, Sagarin defines adaptability as the “sweet spot” between reaction and prediction.

Clouds That Look Like Things: From the Cloud Appreciation Society

Sceptre 112 pp. £12.99 (2012)

Anyone who has spent long minutes staring idly into the blue will relish these bingo moments gathered by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, author of The Cloudspotter's Guide and The Wavewatcher's Companion, which won the 2011 Royal Society Winton prize for Science Books. From Alfred Hitchcock to flying saucers and a menagerie of beasts, Pretor-Pinney's gallery of evanescence is a reminder of the simple joy of perception.

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Books in brief. Nature 483, 403 (2012).

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