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Books in brief

Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World

  • John Broome
Norton 224 pp. £14.99 (2012)

With climate-change policy looking increasingly toothless, we need fresh ways of grappling with this environmental catastrophe. Philosopher and “lapsed economist” John Broome vaults in where policy-makers fear to tread, exploring the moral aspects of climate choices. In the latest instalment in the Amnesty International Global Ethics Series, Broome argues that countries and individuals are ethically obliged to curb emissions. With penetrating clarity, he uses science and economics as a springboard to cover big issues, from the need for action despite uncertainty to the value of human life.

Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans

  • Brian Fagan
Bloomsbury 336 pp. £20 (2012)

What motivated the first seafarers to take to uncharted open water — land grabs, a thirst for trade, conflicts at home or restlessness? Anthropologist Brian Fagan sails far back, beyond explorers such as Magellan and Cook, to when those intrepid pioneers travelled in rafts, coracles and longboats. Starting 50,000 years ago with the southeast Asian exodus to the Pacific Islands, he also examines early sailors in the Aegean Sea, monsoon winds, Norse voyages and the complexities of marine exploration in the ancient Americas.

The Universe: In 100 Key Discoveries

  • Giles Sparrow
Quercus 416 pp. £19.99 (2012)

If you hanker for a compact compendium of cosmological breakthroughs, this is it. Astronomy writer Giles Sparrow is an able guide through 100 discoveries that have shaped understanding of the Universe and its workings. Trawling the eons, we explore the scientific revolution that unseated Earth from the centre of the Universe, the bombardment of Earth 4 billion years ago, flare stars and much more, finishing with speculation about the cosmological endgame. Essays and stunning images are framed by a definition and description of each breakthrough and its relative importance.

A Field Guide to Radiation

  • Wayne Biddle
Penguin 288 pp. £10.23 (2012)

Pulitzer prizewinning writer Wayne Biddle, author of the award-winning A Field Guide to Germs (Henry Holt, 1995), here tackles another ubiquitous aspect of daily life: radiation. He briefly covers the history — pioneering researcher Marie Curie, to whom the “glowing tubes looked like fairy lights”, the stockpiling of nuclear warheads and the spread of nuclear power — before moving on to radioactive elements and related phenomena, from critical mass and decay products to fallout and occupational radiation. Witty, succinct and handily organized in an A–Z format.

When Can You Trust the Experts?: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education

  • Daniel T. Willingham
Jossey Bass 272 pp. £16.99 (2012)

Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham offers a cautionary tale about poor science in education. With some teaching tools backed by research that is far from robust, Willingham calls for a four-step process for selecting the best of them: 'strip it' (look at the claim and decipher the promised outcome); 'trace it' (find the source of the idea and how others view it); 'analyse it' (determine whether the evidence is sound); and ask, 'should I do it?' (factor in the urgency of the need).

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Books in brief. Nature 487, 299 (2012).

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