The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter

  • Deborah R. Coen
Univ. Chicago Press 360 pp. $35 (2012)

Crowd-sourced science has rarely been so thrilling. As Deborah R. Coen reveals, the rumbustious history of seismology began with roving scientists gathering locals' accounts of shocks, shudders and thumps. Luminaries from Charles Darwin to Alexander von Humboldt reported, too; Charles Dickens likened a quake to a great beast “shaking itself and trying to rise”. Coen argues for a hybridized 'disaster science', factoring in such responses from “human seismographs” with geology and instrumental data.

Truth or Beauty: Science and the Quest for Order

  • David Orrell
Yale Univ. Press 356 pp. $30 (2012)

The philosopher Bertrand Russell averred that mathematics has a beauty “sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection”. But is science inextricably allied to aesthetic beauty? In applied mathematician David Orrell's exploration of the Pythagorean quest to realise the cosmos mathematically, the cracks in that paradigm show. Orrell swings from the ancient preoccupation with musical harmony and numerical ratios to Renaissance nature studies, the mechanistic approach and the physical sciences of today. Imperfect as it is, 'messy' science, he argues, has a novel beauty of its own.

Wild Cultures: A Comparison between Chimpanzee and Human Cultures

  • Christophe Boesch
Cambridge Univ. Press 288 pp. £60 (2012)

For a third of a century, primatologist Christophe Boesch has hiked in the wilds of Côte d'Ivoire and Gabon in Africa to probe the 'culture question' in chimpanzees. Boesch presents systematic evidence for material, social and symbolic culture in wild chimpanzees, drawing too on studies of humans and captive chimps. Comparing the species, he focuses on the teaching and acquisition of cultural traits, and the link between cognition and culture. What makes us human? This book could force a rethink.

Wheel of Fortune: The Battle for Oil and Power in Russia

  • Thane Gustafson
Harvard Univ. Press 672 pp. $39.95 (2012)

Russian oil has had a bumpy ride. The world leader in the 1980s, the industry went into steep decline with the Soviet Union's dismantling in 1991. When the Iron Curtain rose, the state's oilmen — mostly geologists and engineers — were shocked by a global industry rife with lawyers and traders. Now oil and roubles shunt through the pipelines of new Russia, but the relationship between state and industry is often explosive. Energy-policy analyst Thane Gustafson reveals Vladimir Putin's pivotal role, the effects of the 2008 crash, and the complex currents and uncertain future of regional oil.

Serengeti Story: Life and Science in the World's Greatest Wildlife Region

  • Anthony R. E. Sinclair
Oxford Univ. Press 288 pp. £18.99 (2012)

Like some stupendous open-air stage, East Africa's Serengeti ecosystem hosts some of the world's great faunal dramas. Zoologist Anthony Sinclair has been observing them for nearly 50 years. This is a rich interweaving of natural and human history, covering everything from the rinderpest pandemic and ivory exploitation to today's looming threats. Glinting throughout are stories from the field, such as his wife's inadvertent sleep-in with a leopard.