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Books in brief

Napalm: An American Biography

  • Robert M. Neer
Harvard University Press 352 pp. $29.95 (2013)

In 1942, in a secret lab at Harvard University in Massachusetts, chemist Louis Fieser and his team created napalm — an incendiary gel that sticks to skin and can burn down to the bone. Robert Neer's harrowing story veers from Fieser's tests on 'kamikaze' bats fitted with napalm bombs to the 1944–45 incendiary bombing of Japan that killed 330,000 people. In 1980, the United Nations declared the gel's use on concentrations of civilians a war crime. An interview with Phan Thi Kim Phuc — photographed running naked and napalm-burned during the Vietnam War — underlines the cost of miscast innovation.

Invisible in the Storm: The Role of Mathematics in Understanding Weather

Ian Roulstone and John Norbury. Princeton University Press 346 pp. $35 (2013)

Mathematicians Ian Roulstone and John Norbury demystify the maths behind meteorology. Trailblazers' work is vividly evoked, from eighteenth-century mathematician Leonhard Euler on hydrostatics to physicist Vilhelm Bjerknes's numerical weather prediction. The pace cranks up with twentieth-century advances such as Jule Gregory Charney's harnessing of the gargantuan ENIAC computer for his work in the 1940s and 1950s on forecasting pressure patterns.

Gold Rush in the Jungle: The Race to Discover and Defend the Rarest Animals of Vietnam's “Lost World”

  • Dan Drollette
Crown 336 pp. $25 (2013)

From elusive forest oxen to barking deer, Vietnam has seen a raft of newly discovered species emerge during the past decade. Almost as swiftly, the black market is bringing many close to extinction. Science journalist Dan Drollette Jr reveals the courage and ingenuity of researchers intent on preserving what wildlife they can. Drawing on years of visits to the country, his snapshots of these wildlife warriors — such as langur specialist Tilo Nadler — reveal approaches that could show the way for conservationists in other tight spots.

Project Sunshine: How Science Can Use the Sun to Fuel and Feed the World

Tony Ryan and Steve McKevitt. Icon 320 pp. £16.99 (2013)

Polymer chemist Tony Ryan and consumerism expert Steve McKevitt train a ray of sunshine on the issues of food and energy security. They argue — and are backed by a major research project at the University of Sheffield, UK — that a “solar economy” can sustainably support the world population of 9 billion people predicted for 2050. Cogently analysing business as usual won't work; the authors lay out a science-based, multi-pronged solution incorporating measures such as state-of-the-art photovoltaics.

Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise

  • David Rothenberg
St Martin's Press 288 pp. $26.99 (2013)

Philosopher and musician David Rothenberg asks whether the tapping, clicking, humming leitmotifs of the insect world inspired human rhythm. The result mixes research on insect behaviour and anatomy, sonograms and more with apt artistic digressions. From the deafening 'surround-sound' of the 17-year cicada Magicicada cassini to syncing crickets, vibrating three-humped treehoppers and the “penile music” of water boatmen, this is an enchanting foray into the “polyrhythmic swirls of the entomological soundscape”.

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Books in brief. Nature 496, 29 (2013).

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