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Books in brief

Taste Matters: Why We Like the Foods We Do

Reaktion Books 224 pp. £20 (2012)

In Iceland, rotted shark is a delicacy; elsewhere, chocolate-coated marshmallows or fermented bean curd may set pulses racing. Taste is a matter of taste, says psychologist and sensory scientist John Prescott, as he delves into the science behind the pleasure-giving aspects of food. Compellingly and comprehensively, Prescott reveals the cultural, genetic and physiological differences behind gustatory preferences. From the effects of a woman's Kalamata olive habit on her unborn child to the uncoupling of flavour and nutrition, this is a top-notch scientific smorgasbord.

Wild Hope: On the Front Lines of Conservation Success

Univ. Chicago Press 240 pp. $20 (2012)

There seems to be a daily barrage of bad news about the biosphere, from the ongoing 'sixth mass extinction' to tropical deforestation. But conservation scientist Andrew Balmford examines successful conservation efforts, looking for replicable lessons. His case studies range from the total war on rhino poachers in India's Kaziranga National Park to baiting of alien predators in Australia with poisoned kangaroo sausage. Balmford's meta-analysis yields a checklist for success: good research, leadership, money, time, boldness, political savvy and willingness to accept improvement rather than perfection.

Secret Chambers: The Inside Story of Cells and Complex Life

Oxford Univ. Press 320 pp. £16.99 (2012)

Palaeobiologist Martin Brasier traces the history of research into cellular evolution, weaving in recent findings and his own fieldwork. This vivid, charmingly illustrated chronicle takes us through Robert Hooke's 1665 coining of 'cell' to describe the microscopic chambers in cork; Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin and the nineteenth-century meshing of evolution and the geological record; and evidence in the pillow lavas of Lake Superior, the fossil-ridden Sphinx of Egypt and the multicoloured seaweed of the Sargasso Sea. A fascinating follow-up to Brasier's book Darwin's Lost World (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010).

Betrayed by Nature: The War on Cancer

Palgrave Macmillan 272 pp. £16.99 (2012)

It afflicts one in three people globally and kills more than 7 million a year. Yet cancer is, at base, simply an abnormal growth of cells. In this admirably clear overview, biochemist Robin Hesketh gives us the history, basic science and characteristics of cancer cells, charting how tumours spread and detailing genetics, detection, therapies and drugs. There is much to fascinate — from eighteenth-century physician Percivall Pott's deduction that there was a link between soot and scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps, to the challenges of treating the biological “hodgepodge” that is a tumour.

What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses of Your Garden — and Beyond

Oneworld 256 pp. £12.99 (2012)

Plants may be brainless, eyeless and devoid of senses as we know them, but they have a rudimentary 'awareness', says biologist Daniel Chamovitz. In this beautiful reframing of the botanical, he reveals the extent and kind of that awareness through a bumper crop of research. Chamovitz finds no evidence for floral 'hearing', putting the kibosh on the idea that the music of Led Zeppelin stunts their growth — but shows how they sense colours and can tell up from down.

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Books in brief. Nature 485, 579 (2012).

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