Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond

  • Jon Agar
Polity 256 pp. £30 (2012)

Global in scope and fresh in approach, this monumental history lays out the evolution of science during a tumultuous century. Philosopher of science Jon Agar casts research as a way of solving problems generated by human activity in arenas such as health, warfare, civil administration and agriculture. Starting with the new physics and the breakthroughs of figures from James Clerk Maxwell to Albert Einstein, he travels through the life sciences, psychology, the maelstrom of science in the two world wars, the atomic age, upheavals of the 1960s and current environmental challenges.

Innovation Generation: How to Produce Creative and Useful Scientific Ideas

  • Roberta Ness
Oxford University Press 272 pp. $29.95 (2012)

Obesity, Alzheimer's disease, cancer and climate change are very much with us, says Roberta Ness, yet innovation that could mitigate them has slowed catastrophically in US science. Ness, vice-president for innovation at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, outlines a method to ignite creativity. Through role models and exercises, she shows how better metaphors and observation can shift paradigms; and how specific issues can be solved with the right questions, the right analogies and group intelligence.

Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships

  • Dario Maestripieri
Basic Books 320 pp. $27.99 (2012)

Evolutionary biologist Dario Maestripieri uncovers the roots of human social behaviour using psychology, behavioural science and economics. Reasoning that social selective pressures are similar in humans and other primates — and roping in 'rational' models such as game theory — he examines everyday situations from multiple perspectives. Whether scoping out the 'elevator dilemma' of sharing a confined space with strangers, the human tendency to nepotism or the “economics of love”, Maestripieri argues his case compellingly.

Net Smart: How to Thrive Online

  • Howard Rheingold
MIT Press 272 pp. $24.95 (2012)

Fragmented attention, aimless dabbling — the pitfalls of Internet misuse are well known. Social-media writer Howard Rheingold argues that the solution to “always on” media is mindfulness and cooperation. His recipe for digital literacy, based on 30 years of Internet immersion, is to hone attention, participation skills, critical approaches to information, collaboration and “network smarts”. Rheingold's observations and solutions — from how tweeting is fuelled by dopamine to how to craft a thoughtful network — are informed by science and illustrated with apt, entertaining anecdotes.

The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane

  • Matthew Hutson
Hudson Street 304 pp. $25.95 (2012)

Irrationality, says science writer Matthew Hutson, is universal, and is essential to the way humans function. Uniting findings from neuroscience, cognitive science and evolution, he argues that magical thinking gives us crucial feelings of connectedness, control and meaning. Hutson analyses the call of the numinous in a range of beliefs: the 'sacred' essence in wedding rings or signed footballs, lucky numbers, an afterlife, fate, psychic powers and more.