Books in brief

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    Secrets of the Ice: Antarctica's Clues to Climate, the Universe, and the Limits of Life

    Yale University Press 232 pp. £29.95 (2012)
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    Bleak and storied wonderland it may be, but Antarctica is also the world's biggest lab, where hundreds of scientists cluster to take the planet's pulse. Science writer Veronika Meduna follows the action in this homage to frontier science. Beginning with geological and glaciological findings on Antarctica's climate history, she segues into marine life, the microbes of the cold deserts and the fugitive 'hum' of the Big Bang chased by physicists and astronomers on the continent. A beautifully illustrated journey through 'Mars on Earth'.

    The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary

    Granta 336 pp. £25 (2012)

    Award-winning writer Caspar Henderson read Jorge Luis Borges's The Book of Imaginary Beings (1967) and realized that nature's creations often trump the fantastical for sheer surreality. Henderson's mainly marine beasts are a dazzling catch. The “genital fingered”, gherkin-sized stomatopod Gonodactylus smithii, for instance, uses specialized limbs for defence — delivering enough force to break a bone. Eels, whales, arachnids and more are examined, with Henderson's central concern the survival of all this glory in the midst of the biodiversity drain. Wittily illustrated by Golbanou Moghaddas.

    Guesstimation 2.0: Solving Today's Problems on the Back of a Napkin

    Princeton University Press 377 pp. £13.95 (2012)

    This follow-up to the popular Guesstimation offers more on the joy of mathematical estimation, and inspiration for the budding analyst. Physicist Lawrence Weinstein trawls questions from the pragmatic to the bizarre. Among them are his probings of energy, transportation and recycling such as gauging the US plastic-bag pile-up on the basis of hydrocarbon use. He also covers the senses, heavenly bodies, radiation — and the amount of urine in public swimming pools.

    Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure

    (Eds Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower) British Library Publishing 368 pp. £25 (2012)

    Who knew that Arctic explorers lauded the creator of fiction's most famous sleuth for his own detective work on routes to the North Pole? Arthur Conan Doyle — author of Sherlock Holmes — published the data in the article 'The Glamour of the Arctic' after a youthful stint as ship's surgeon on a Greenland whaler. His diary of the 1880 voyage is here reproduced in facsimile, with published pieces inspired by the trip. Hair-raising incidents abound, from a sudden on-board death by peritonitis to the young medic's periodic falls into ice-strewn waters.

    The Real Story of Risk: Adventures in a Hazardous World

    Prometheus Books 256 pp. £16.99 (2012)

    Imagine this: you find yourself worrying about shark attacks while crossing a busy road in a daze. Our perception of risk and the reality are frequently at odds, biologist Glenn Croston argues in this jazzily written exploration of the balance between risk and reward. Croston marshals a raft of research on why our view of the phenomenon is so skewed, delving into evolutionary roots, our denial of 'slow' catastrophes, the role of lust in colouring our judgement, our need to belong and much more.

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    Books in brief. Nature 490, 35 (2012) doi:10.1038/490035a

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