With the annual exodus from labs and lecture theatres on the horizon, Nature's regular reviewers and editors share some gripping holiday reads.
Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution
- David Rothenberg
What to do about beauty? Charles Darwin worried about the excess of the peacock's tail, but he invoked “endless forms most beautiful” to affirm the truth of his evolutionary theory.
Beauty is integral, not incidental, to the evolutionary process, says philosopher David Rothenberg in his rich account of the ways in which creatures make art. Evolution produces beauty as well as practicality. Moths, squid, elephants, proteins and birds produce individual as well as generic patterns.
Look at the variety of structures made by bowerbirds. Satin bowerbirds decorate their designs with blue items (plastic spoons will do). Golden bowerbirds use “two kinds of flowers: fresh olive-green ones and dried cream-coloured blossoms”.
The resultant artwork is an end in itself, as well as a medium for reproductive behaviour, Rothenberg argues. Sexual selection requires flaunting, display, theatre, extravagance, scents and song. It demands excess, beyond what is necessary for survival.
Yet Rothenberg seeks laws that underlie performance in art and in science. He argues that human exposure to abstract art has helped us to find new patterns in scientific domains. Gillian Beer
Everyday Information: The Evolution of Information Seeking in AmericaEdited by:
- William Aspray &
- Barbara M. Hayes
Everyday Information is an important book for anyone who has wondered how we got through life before the Internet. Without a web browser or smart phone, how did we find information? Why did we trust it? And what have global information networks altered?
For transactions such as purchasing a car or buying aeroplane tickets, the authors explain, we have switched from relying on local, trusted networks (such as travel agents) to depending on distant information networks (such as magazines and websites). But not all local networks are trusted: no one likes used-car salesmen.
We increasingly consume and create online information, sharing our interests in fantasy sports or comic books. Vibrant subcultures can result, and the Internet is changing who takes part. Online ecologies have restored female comic-book readership, for example, outside the male enclaves of specialist shops. So the demise of the corner shop has a silver lining. The book's US focus invites comparative studies. Thomas Misa
Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn
- Joel Isaac
Unlike physics, chemistry and biology, which took on their modern forms in the nineteenth century, the social sciences coalesced only during the twentieth. The tale of their consolidation, rise and subsequent slide is often narrated as a clash of ideologies: scientific versus humanistic. In Working Knowledge, historian Joel Isaac reveals how institutional circumstances shaped the field.
He does so by putting its pioneers, including sociologist Robert K. Merton, psychologist B. F. Skinner and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn back into the contexts in which they learned their crafts. He explores Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where each spent formative periods.
Isaac documents brilliantly how they made their ways on the margins of departments. Elders of the university aimed to restrict specialization, so rising fields such as psychology and sociology were pursued in informal, interdisciplinary groups.
Isaac's elegant study shows how debates over method spring from efforts to embed new types of inquiry in the classroom. David Kaiser
1493: How Europe's Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth
- Charles C. Mann.
European exploration and exploitation of the new world in the fifteenth century changed the world. Journalist Charles Mann relates how the 'Columbian Exchange' altered cultures and transformed much of the Americas, Asia and Africa into ecological copies of Europe.
The book's scope is vast. It ranges from US tobacco to Bolivian silver, the collapse of the Chinese and Spanish economies as a result of commodity-exchange feedback loops, and malaria's role in the creation of the United States.
When humans move, they take food and drugs with them. Plants form the matrix in which the rest of life operates, so their exchange has profound and often unanticipated consequences. The introduction of the potato to Europe, for example, led to over-dependence on it, resulting in famine, mass emigration and political and economic consequences that seem far from the humble spud.
Mann demonstrates the paradoxical nature of the ecological effects linking the world. Globalization is nothing new. Sanda Knapp
Biomedical Computing: Digitizing Life in the United States
- Joseph November
Computers changed research in the life sciences in the 1950s and 1960s. Historian Joseph November engagingly relates how. The shift was far from inevitable, but was partly a result of a deliberate effort by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The effort was inspired by Robert Ledley, a dentist turned operations researcher turned computer specialist whom James Shannon, then director of the NIH, brought in to overcome hostility to computing.
The life sciences also changed computers. November argues that the Laboratory Instrument Computer (LINC) was the first personal computer. This was developed for biomedical research by Wesley Clark and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. In 1963, the NIH funded researchers to take LINCs back to their labs, provided that they spent six weeks that summer at MIT. Participants helped to assemble their LINCs, which were behind schedule in production.
November is now working on a biography of Ledley. That is good news: November's style is convincing and compelling. Paula Stephan
Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah
- Tim Mackintosh-Smith
The Tangerine in the title is Ibn Battutah, who was born in Tangier, Morocco, in 1304. Between 1325 and 1354, he travelled three times as far as Marco Polo, following the Silk Road across central Asia and visiting India, Indonesia, the Philippines, China and Zanzibar. He also crossed the Sahara Desert to Timbuktu, an oasis city emerging as a centre of scholarship that would rival Paris and Oxford.
Arabist Tim Mackintosh-Smith was so enthralled by those journeys that, 650 years later, he retraced Ibn Battutah's first great trip to Mecca. This book is a delightful account of his experiences. Two further volumes span Ibn Battutah's later journeys.
Ibn Battutah was insatiably curious and wrote extensively on ethnography, geography and botany. In 1348, he provided one of the best contemporary accounts of the Black Death.
I first 'met' him 50 years ago on the Malabar Coast of India, which he described, including mention of black sand (containing ilmenite and monazite ores). This was helpful to my research on the effects of exposure to high local background radiation.
I highly recommend Mackintosh-Smith's trilogy. Robin Weiss
- Peter Atkins
In 1981, chemist Peter Atkins summed up evolution by natural selection: “Once molecules have learnt to compete, and to create other molecules in their own image, elephants, and things resembling elephants, will in due course be found roaming through the countryside.”
That is one of the more verbose moments in Atkins's elegant, laconic and consequently short book, The Creation. In it, he relates how a creator who produced the world's infinite variety of life forms could have been “infinitely lazy” — so the act of creation itself needs no explanation. The accumulation of changes arising from unguided movements within the space of possible forms can produce objects whose complexity baffles the best scientists.
But it gets even better. To update Atkins, once evolution creates a human mind in which ideas compete, tools such as spear throwers, computers and space shuttles will also, in due course, appear. Humans conduct tournaments of natural selection among ideas, so cumulative cultural adaptation will produce objects of ever-greater complexity. No light bulbs need switch on in our minds.
We could have been as 'lazy' as Atkins's creator, and still iPads and things resembling iPads would have been destined to be part of our future. Mark Pagel
The Copernican Revolution
- Thomas S. Kuhn
Before philosopher Thomas Kuhn debuted the idea of paradigm shifts in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he wrote The Copernican Revolution, published in 1957, the year when Sputnik went into orbit. Reading this book in the current age of extrasolar planets, genetics and string theory is eye-opening.
More than 500 years ago, Nicolaus Copernicus displaced Earth from the centre of the Universe, beginning profound changes in scientific thought. After following the thread of astronomical minutiae that led to that bold move, Kuhn argues that Copernicus didn't foment a revolution himself, but rather hit on a way to mesh the world view of the past with the astronomy of the future. The true revolution swelled slowly, bursting onto the world centuries later.
Kuhn's tale resonates with modern discoveries about planetary systems other than our own. The book opens our minds to how differently the history of astronomy could have played out had we lived on a world with twin suns, on a moon around a Jupiter-like planet or in a system packed with gas giants looping inside our planet's orbit.
As we learn about other worlds, Kuhn's analysis reminds us that we are poised for our own scientific revolution. Caleb Scharf
The Psychopath Test
- Jon Ronson
Several years ago, I interviewed a psychologist who studied people who believed that they had been abducted by aliens. She argued that, although deluded, they were not crazy.
I found myself wondering about the science behind labels of madness, as journalist Jon Ronson does in The Psychopath Test. Ronson delves into the madness industry to explore this question, travelling from a UK criminal psychiatric facility to New York, where he meets a former death-squad leader who says he just wants to be liked.
The Psychopath Test's main subject is a checklist for psychopathy that is widely used by the criminal-justice system. It was developed by Canadian criminal psychologist Robert Hare. It has been attacked for leading to imprisonment of people who are deemed psychopaths, a label that is not included in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Ronson finds that the checklist criteria, such as 'grandiose sense of self-worth', can be applied flexibly.
Ronson's gift is his ability to illuminate impenetrable worlds. Hare's checklist is already the subject of criticism, but Ronson details many studies showing how bad psychiatry has been at diagnosing mental illness. Sharon Weinberger
- Kathleen Jamie
All too often, whatever our discipline, we are prone to tunnel vision. It takes a poet to stand back and show us the world as it is. Sightlines, Kathleen Jamie's astounding series of essays, makes us look anew at the familiar and the strange.
From the whirling madness of a Scottish gannetry, Jamie narrows her focus to a pod of orca whales, circling silently below the cliffs where she is perched. In a hospital pathology lab, she surprises the clinical consultant with her desire to see other species — not dolphins, but “the bacteria that can pull the rug from under us” as she peers through an electron microscope.
Jamie visits Bergen, Norway, to see the Whale Hall museum under restoration. She joins the team scrubbing the leviathans' bones with toothbrushes. Sitting in the ribcage of a blue whale is “like being in a very strange taxi, caught in traffic”.
Hers is a vital sense of being. She takes us from a teenage stint as an archaeologist digging up the long dead, to her triumph as she makes it to the abandoned Scottish archipelago of St Kilda and tells of its vanished inhabitants, who built “small dark closets, just to get some seclusion, some corrective to the sky, the sea and wind and each other”. Rejoicing in Jamie's economy of words, we are never less than alive, bursting out of our cells and into the light. Philip Hoare
- Robert Guest
Humans have been spreading around the globe for economic reasons for 50,000 years, since the earliest people in Africa chased animals for food. Now, movement across borders is more restricted than ever, yet this basic economic pursuit continues because disparity among nations is at a historical peak.
When individuals migrate to pursue opportunity, the places they leave behind and those they reach all gain. Mobile people bring cheap labour, consumers and dynamism. They send back money and information; some return physically.
In Borderless Economics, journalist Robert Guest has written — with data, anecdotes, and humour — an optimistic account of the state of this age-old pursuit, adapted to the political, economic and technological possibilities of today.
He travels from the United States to closed North Korea to explore immigrants' economic adaptation. Guest sheds light on concepts such as micro-multinationals: small-scale collaborations that span the globe, perhaps starting with a few university friends who source technologies in one country, serve markets in another and manufacture products in a third.
This is splendid book, but could have given more attention to diasporic low-skilled workers. Iqbal Quadir
Victorian Science and Literature Part 1: Negotiating BoundariesEdited by:
- Piers J. Hale &
- Jonathan Smith
How does scientific knowledge affect poetry? This question preoccupied many Victorian writers. Negotiating Boundaries, the first in an eight-volume edition of writings on Victorian science and literature, shows scientists, poets, novelists and critics in collaboration and passionate competition.
Poetry, wrote priest John Henry Newman in 1858, “is always the antagonist to science”. As science advances, poetry recedes. Nonsense, riposted geologist Hugh Miller: only feeble poets are put off by knowledge. For a “great poet”, science is not an enemy, but a “devoted friend”.
The Victorians used poetry to grapple with science. Scientific and literary writers tried to broker a relationship between fact and emotion. Photochemist and statistician Robert Hunt, for example, wrote in The Poetry of Science (1848) that “to rest content with the bare enunciation of a truth, is to perform but one half of a task”. The other half is to communicate that truth, surrounding it with impulses of feeling that “pass from soul to soul”. Science needs poetry, just as much as poetry needs science. Alice Jenkins
Bird Sense: What It's Like to be a Bird
- Tim Birkhead
Tim Birkhead is more than your average twitcher. His fascinating book attempts to put us inside birds' eyes, ears, minds and even hearts, in seven chapters covering sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, magnetic sense and emotions.
A behavioural ecologist, he specializes in sperm studies and avian infidelity; his chapter on touch focuses almost indecently on bird sex. He takes us on adventures to find his subjects in the wild and rehabilitates little-known but prescient nineteenth-century naturalists.
Birkhead offers irresistible snippets. In addition to the conventional visible spectrum, many birds see the world in ultraviolet; wading birds can taste the presence of worms in wet sand; robins can 'see' Earth's magnetic field through their right eyes but not their left.
Birkhead generally avoids anthropomorphizing birds, although he comes close to crossing this line in the chapter on emotions. I know the feeling, having watched penguins in Antarctica hug their mates.
And although we will never really know how it feels to be a bird, Birkhead still leaves us with astonishing insight into how they sense their own ways through the world. Gabrielle Walker
The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present
Eric R. Kandel (Random House, 2012)
In turn-of-the-century Vienna, an intellectual revolution was fomenting. Sigmund Freud intuited that we are not rational creatures — we have unconscious erotic and aggressive drives. That concept inspired Viennese artists to delve below the glittering surface of our civilized behaviour. Writer Arthur Schnitzler published stream-of-consciousness novellas, while artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele used colour and form to display the pleasures or torments of their subjects’ inner minds.
In The Age of Insight, Eric Kandel uses this avant-garde Viennese movement as a springboard to describe how neuroscientists are getting a toe-hold on the biology of the unconscious mind and our responses to art. There is also pathos. The Nazi regime put an end to the avant-garde movement. Like Freud, Kandel had to flee. In 1939, when he was nine, his family moved to the United States, where his research into memory won him a share of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Alison Abbott, Senior European Correspondent
The New North: The World in 2050
Laurence C. Smith (Profile Books, 2011)
With advances in climate modelling, predicting the future has moved from science fiction to the scientific mainstream. To be accurate, predictions must integrate biophysical and socioeconomic data, and that is where Laurence Smith’s book succeeds. Starting with a précis of the factors that are forcing change — population, consumption, globalization and climate change — Smith conducts a thought experiment on how they will shape the world in 2050.
His focus moves northwards as it becomes clear that climate change, resource availability and political structures around the Arctic Circle could shift the global balance of power in that direction. In this compelling book, Smith highlights the differences between infrastructure-rich Scandinavia, less-developed regions of northern North America and the unpredictable reawakening bear that is Russia. Patrick Goymer, Senior Biology Editor
Brian Aldiss (Gollancz, 2010)
Imagine a world similar to our own, but with glacial–interglacial cycles spanning centuries rather than millennia. How would life respond? Such an interplay between ecology and climate lies at the heart of the Helliconia trilogy, Brian Aldiss’s epic on the rise and fall of a humanoid civilization.
On the surface, it is a rip-roaring tale of warring clans and feuding royals, very much the stock-in-trade of fantastical literature. But driving the plot is the idea that the biosphere is part of complex, planet-wide, self-regulating system that is striving towards homeostasis: Aldiss is exploring James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. The result is an impressive exercise in scientifically motivated world-building. Karl Ziemelis, Chief Physical Sciences Editor, London
Sensitive Matter: Foams, Gels, Liquid Crystals and Other Miracles
Michel Mitov; translated by Giselle Weiss (Harvard University Press, 2012)
Champagne bubbles, mayonnaise, rubber, blood and sand are part of the eclectic mix of materials explored in Sensitive Matter by the physicist Michel Mitov, now translated from the original French. Mitov applies his vivid imagination to explaining how soft materials respond to disturbances. A molecule experiencing surface tension entreats us to “Put yourself in my place ... I have nearly half the number of friends as my colleagues which makes me very tense”.
Mitov describes percolation as the infiltration of a terrorist organization into a country, and nematic liquid crystals as a school of fish. We meet an Egyptian scribe trying to improve the performance of his ink, a Renaissance painter waiting for his masterpiece to dry (or rather polymerize) and a penniless inventor hoping to gain a fortune from improving the properties of rubber. It is a quirky and fun introduction to this practical, complex field. Rosamund Daw, Senior Physical Sciences Editor
Tom Bullough (Viking, 2012)
Konstantin, a novel based on the life of the Russian rocketry pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, ends with a Soviet space flight. But its real subject is an intellectual launch: that of a self-taught boy from the Russian hinterlands, rendered deaf at ten by scarlet fever, into the mathematical realms of propulsion and orbital dynamics. Tom Bullough immerses the reader in nineteenth-century Russia, where wolves prowl the forests and the winters are epic. Steam and motion, in the form of the birch-log-fuelled locomotives that were just then reaching distant villages, capture the boy’s imagination. But in his mind he is riding a space railway to his own private planet.
As a teenager, Tsiolkovsky ventures to Moscow, where he sleeps on a flea-ridden mattress and spends his days studying in the venerable Chertkovsky Library. Mathematics soon disciplines his romantic visions of space travel, and he is on the road to the innovations for which he is known: the equations of rocketry, which he published in 1903; multi-stage rockets; and a space elevator. Tsiolkovsky was never more than a rural schoolteacher, but in Bullough’s telling he becomes a cosmonaut of the imagination. From the Moon, Tsiolkovsky tells his wife, the stars look “like silver nails hammered into the heavens” and Earth “like a picture behind the pale blue glass of the ether”. Tim Appenzeller, Chief Magazine Editor
Turn of Mind
Alice LaPlante (Harvill Secker/Atlantic Monthly, 2011)
Turn of Mind is a convincing and moving account of a woman coping with Alzheimer’s disease; it earned its author last year’s Wellcome Trust Book Prize. Jennifer White is a 64-year-old orthopaedic surgeon. She is suffering from dementia, and has taken early retirement. She lives with her carer, Magdalena, and has two grown-up children: Mark, a lawyer, and Fiona, a financial analyst. The story is told from Jennifer’s point of view, as her mind decays and she struggles to stay in control of her life.
Jennifer uses aids to keep track — labelled photographs and a diary in which she and others can write. Her relationships with her adult children are particularly well-drawn, as Mark and Fiona cope with their mother’s erratic mental state while still reacting emotionally to her as the parent they knew before the illness. There is a discipline to the fractured prose and a lack of sentimentality or self-pity that makes the account gripping and easy to follow. Maxine Clarke, Publishing Executive Editor
Herculaneum: Past and Future
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (Frances Lincoln, 2011)
Often overlooked in favour of neighbouring Pompeii, Herculaneum is a jewel. Buried first by the explosive volcanic eruption of AD 79 and then by the clogged streets of modern-day Ercolano, Italy, the ruined city offers a glimpse into the lives of ancient Romans. Its remains are unique — multi-storey buildings and a hoard of organic material that fared less well at other sites in the area.
From wooden beds and tables to more than 750 sacks of excrement extracted from one of the sewers, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill marshals the evidence into a compelling description of life within the city walls. But he also tackles the thorny problem of how to look after the ruins, which are decaying at an alarming rate. Herculaneum: Past and Future is a comprehensive look at the ancient city, packed with evocative photography and discussion. Colin Sullivan, Chief Subeditor
The Emperor of All Maladies
Siddhartha Mukherjee (Fourth Estate, 2011)
“The story of cancer isn’t the story of doctors who struggle and survive, moving from one institution to another. It is the story of patients who struggle and survive, moving from one embankment of illness to another.”
Given the lack of progress medicine has made towards beating cancer over millennia, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s history might sound a depressing story, and in some senses The Emperor of All Maladies is a depressing read. But the patients’ stories — of hope, of patience, of small miracles and of triumph over disease — linger. Although no light undertaking, Mukherjee’s Pulitzer prizewinning book is riveting. Ruth Francis, Head of Press, Nature Publishing Group
Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway (Bloomsbury Press, 2010)
In 1984, three eminent physicists founded a think tank, the George C. Marshall Institute in Washington DC, to promote Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ missile-defence initiative. But the institute quickly turned to challenging the scientific consensus on the risks of smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion and global warming. The founders — Frederick Seitz, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow — along with Fred Singer, another prominent physicist, lent their prestige to give the institute’s efforts a patina of scientific credibility. Their motivation, according to science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, was a right-wing revulsion for government regulation and what Singer dubbed the “coercive utopians” in the environmental movement.
Through their story, Oreskes and Conway chronicle how the techniques of doubt have evolved over the past three decades. Far from a series of isolated movements, the doubt machine has been a highly coordinated enterprise, financed by one industry after another, with lessons learned in the fight against cigarette regulations being applied to the fight again acid rain, and so on. The assault against climate science is only the latest episode. It is a disturbing and eye-opening book. Mitch Waldrop, News Features Editor
Alan M. Turing — Centenary Edition
Sara Turing (Cambridge University Press, 2012)
What is it like for a family to experience the landing of a genius whose magnitude is that of Einstein and Edison combined? You’ll get a feel for it when you read the short but gripping biography that Sara Turing wrote in 1959 about her eccentric son, Alan, wartime code-breaker and father of the computer age. Exposing the originality of the polymath’s mind from the earliest days, her account teems with hilarious anecdotes — such as Alan wearing a gas mask to ward off hay fever when biking to Bletchley Park, UK, in the summer, causing others on the road to search the skies for war planes.
But Alan Turing’s life was also marred by early abandonment, misunderstanding and persecution — from being placed in foster homes while his parents lived in India to his later dealings with the police. And in that respect, this year’s re-edition produces an interesting tension, by including a new essay written by his older brother, John, as a counterpoint to his mother’s hagiography. That text is a poignant mixture of bitterness and admiration, with indirect praise for Alan’s selflessness and generosity. Tanguy Chouard, Senior Biology Editor
Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind
Richard Fortey (HarperPress, 2011)
Horseshoe crabs are creatures of substance. I know because, aged four, I lifted one up on a Florida beach. I can still feel my toes — and mind — bracing at the weight and weirdness of that helmet-shaped alien. Palaeontologist Richard Fortey gives due weight to Limulus polyphemus and other biological relics in Survivors. This is a global journey in which the pit stops are habitats of some of the toughest and oldest species on Earth, from the slime-capped stromatolite to ice-age bruisers such as the musk ox.
Fortey is as enthused describing the glutinous brachiopod Lingula anatina as he is hellbender salamanders or tarsiers. Traversing continents and epochs with him, I got a visceral sense of how, by laying waste to such resilience, we are rapidly tearing out entire chapters in the book of evolution. My close encounter with the Cambrian at four was a glimpse of past worlds. Like Fortey, I hope that wondrous otherness survives. Barb Kiser, Acting Books and Arts Editor
The Great Animal Orchestra
Bernie Krause (Profile Books, 2012)
A whole dimension of the world — sound — usually gets short shrift. Bernie Krause, a bioacoustics expert and musician, asks us in his evocative book to listen to the environments around us, natural and man-made. From the differing hiss of waves on various sorts of beach to the heat-dependent chirrup of crickets, he relates in The Great Animal Orchestra how reverberations make a place. The characteristic rustlings of grasses in the wind, for example, were enough for naturalist John Muir to orient himself in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Krause’s recordings of ecosystems also reveal a darker sign — of declining biodiversity. He documents how the calls of woodpeckers, sparrows and insects deserted a woodland after it was logged, and he charts the diminuendo of clacking crustaceans on a dying Fijian reef. A healthy ecosystem has a sound of its own. Each creature finds its register and beat, and the ensemble performs like an orchestra. Throw in a noisy disruption, such as a low-flying jet, and the animals fall silent. Krause cautions us that the planet’s music is dying along with its species. Joanne Baker, Senior Comment Editor
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Beer, G., Misa, T., Kaiser, D. et al. Summer books. Nature 487, 34–37 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/487034a