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Books in brief

One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?

Cornell University Press 456 pp. £46.50 (2012)

Poverty, climate change, booming population, soaring food prices — the obstacles to global food security seem Himalayan. Agricultural ecologist Gordon Conway calls for a “doubly green revolution”, with sustainable intensification of production, research and development, and market creation. He ploughs through the crises, discusses methods, delves into the role of farmers as innovators, and faces up to environmental challenges. An impressive marshalling of case studies, new research and long experience from an expert in the field.

The Logician and the Engineer: How George Boole and Claude Shannon Created the Information Age

Princeton University Press 244 pp. £16.95 (2012)

Meshing logic problems with the stories of two extraordinary men — Victorian philosopher–mathematician George Boole and twentieth-century information theorist Claude Shannon — Paul Nahin fashions a tale of innovation and discovery. Boole's astonishingly advanced ideas seeded Boolean algebra, which underpins the electronic circuits governing today's digitized culture. Alongside a gripping account of how Shannon built on Boole's work, Nahin explores others key to the technological revolution, from Georg Cantor to Alan Turing.

The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 336 pages £16.87 (2012)

Is infinity a number? What is the point of quadratic equations? Whither topology? Steven Strogatz, a mathematician in the field of complex networks, steers the 'maths challenged' through his home territory. Beginning with the usefulness of numbers, Strogatz strolls through, the Pythagorean theorem, probability, solid geometry and more, including the anatomy of that marvellous beast, calculus. The interconnectedness of maths in culture — from art, literature, philosophy and law to medicine — is gracefully unravelled.

Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail

Harvard University Press 366 pp. £22.95 (2012)

Historian and seafarer Jeffrey Bolster “writes the ocean into history”, tracing the currents leading to today's serious fish-stock depletion. Focusing on the North Atlantic from Cape Cod to Newfoundland's Grand Banks, he shows how one species after another — halibut, lobster, cod — has been exploited for centuries, long before industrialization. Bolster braids marine biology into a narrative driven by courageous chancers, such as fifteenth-century explorer John Cabot and unnamed hordes of fishermen, to argue that the precautionary approach is key to heading off collapse.

Orwell's Cough: Diagnosing the Medical Maladies and Last Gasps of the Great Writers

Oneworld Publications 288 pp. £12.95 (2012)

Shakespeare may have had syphilis and mercury-vapour poisoning, speculates medical doctor John Ross in this engrossing look at how great writers have grappled with illness and disease. From the satirist Jonathan Swift's putative descent into frontotemporal dementia to Herman Melville's bipolar disorder (and possible ankylosing spondylitis), a book that compels respect for the subjugation of suffering behind so many enduring works of genius.

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Books in brief. Nature 490, 341 (2012).

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