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Books in brief

The Physics of Wall Street: A Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 304 pp. $27 (2013)
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Wall Street's 2008 meltdown is often pinned on 'quants', the physicists and mathematicians who invented financial instruments such as derivatives. Physicist James Owen Weatherall argues that it was less about the models than a catastrophic misuse of them. He bolsters his view with a concise history of scientific bravehearts out to tame the market, from Louis Bachelier, pioneer of the maths of financial markets, to recent risk-wranglers such as Didier Sornette.

What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? How Money Really Does Grow On Trees

Profile Books 256 pp. £9.99 (2013)

Microbes restore soils, trees oxygenate the atmosphere, vultures act as sanitation crews. And, says Tony Juniper in this crisp call to action, such 'ecosystem services' could back the currency of a new economics. The concept is hardly new, but Juniper — former head of Friends of the Earth — declares its time has come. As he trawls the biosphere and its rich array of services, his insights on environmental threats and solutions, backed by robust findings, form a pragmatic argument for a return to 'gardening the Earth'.

What's Wrong with Fat?

Oxford University Press 272 pp. $29.95 (2013)

Obesity is an international epidemic. Or is it? Sociologist Abigail C. Saguy weighs in with an investigation of fatness that looks provocative, yet is thoughtful and thorough. By examining heft through many lenses, from the ethical to the scientific, Saguy traces how labelling fat as a disease or as an indicator of immorality seeps into society. She argues that public-health diktats are issued despite scientific debate over the condition; and that factors in fatness, such as poverty, are often ignored. Ultimately, she avers, stigmatizing the condition serves to embed it further.

Visions of a Vanished World: The Extraordinary Fossils of the Hunsrück Slate

Gabriele Kühl, Christoph Bartels, Derek E. G. Briggs and Jes Rust. Yale University Press 128 pp. $40 (2012)

Some 400 million years ago, catastrophic storms and seismic shifts may have triggered the release of a vast slick of sediment that buried thousands of soft-bodied marine organisms on the ocean floor. Germany's Hunsrück Slate is the result: a frozen slice of the Devonian, capturing trilobites, ammonites and more in their last second of life. Pyritization has left exquisitely detailed, golden-hued fossils, hauntingly displayed in this coffee-table volume.

Saltpeter: The Mother of Gunpowder

Oxford University Press 356 pp. £16.99 (2013)

Gunpowder obsessed early-modern Europe and Islamic Asia. But its key ingredient — potassium nitrate, or saltpetre — had either to be extracted from excrement- and urine-drenched soils, or imported. The scramble to get enough is the focus for this science-tinged history of a Britain building up to empire and enlightenment. David Cressy tells the tale of this “crucial link in the chain of chemistry and power” with panache, from the unravelling of saltpetre's chemistry to the warmongering that fostered dependence on it.

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Books in brief. Nature 493, 479 (2013).

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