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Books in brief

Is American Science in Decline?

Yu Xie and Alexandra A. Killewald. Harvard University Press 240 pp. £33.95 (2012)

In the heated debate over the state of US science, alarmists say there are too few young high-flyers; others, too many. Enter sociologists Yu Xie and Alexandra Killewald, whose nuanced view is backed up by able number-crunching. The United States, they found, is still a scientific superpower: the workforce has grown, and numbers of new graduates at all levels of higher education are rising. But the future is less certain: the number of US doctorate holders taking up academic posts is in decline and earnings are stagnant, for instance.

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus

Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Viking 240 pp. £16.59 (2012)

The raw liver from a drowned puppy, pounded cocks' combs: Pliny the Elder's 'cures' for the bite of a dog with rabies are risible. But this fearsome, bullet-shaped lyssavirus — nearly 100% fatal in untreated cases — remains as real to us as to the ancients. In their intriguing cultural history, journalist Bill Wasik and veterinary surgeon Monica Murphy tear through the history, science and legends surrounding rabies to reveal how it has inspired artists from the Brontës to Goya, and flummoxed generations of physicians — until Louis Pasteur, who worked with live rabid dogs, finally conquered the monster.

The Nature of Nutrition: A Unifying Framework from Animal Adaptation to Human Obesity

Stephen J. Simpson and David Raubenheimer. Princeton University Press 260 pp. £34.95 (2012)

Nutrition has a central and complex role in biology, yet the science is patchy. Obesity specialist Stephen J. Simpson and nutritional ecologist David Raubenheimer present a theoretical approach to understanding nutrition through the lens of ecology and evolution. Viewing nutritional behaviour in that context, they say, enriches our take on health and lifespan. Their approach could inform practical applications such as treating disease or optimizing livestock feed.

Our Kind of People: Thoughts on the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

  • Uzodinma Iweala
John Murray 240 pp. £17.99 (2012)

Medical doctor and novelist Uzodinma Iweala reports from the AIDS frontline in Nigeria — home to the world's third-largest population of people with HIV. But this mix of history, Iweala's own work and interviews is no trawl through abject suffering; instead, it depicts Africa as a continent where people don't just “slow-dance with adversity”. Through the testaments of survivors and movers-and-shakers — medical staff, sex workers and 'ordinary' people — Iweala challenges the Eurocentric association of Africa with disease and disaster, which, he says, harms Africans' sense of identity.

Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature

  • David P. Barash
Oxford University Press 344 pp. £18.99 (2012)

Evolutionary psychologist David Barash takes a crack at the enduring enigmas of human evolution. Starting with what we don't know, he strides boldly into a jungle of hypotheses. It is an entertaining exploration through sexual phenomena such as concealed ovulation, breasts and the menopause; art, where explanations such as Steven Pinker's “cheesecake for the mind” feature; the roots of religion, from the “God gene” to feel-good neurochemicals; and, finally, our big brains and the vast reach of human intelligence.

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Books in brief. Nature 487, 169 (2012).

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