Books in brief

The Lost Art of Finding Our Way

Belknap 544 pp. $35 (2013)

Humanity's lust for exploring terra incognita shaped and tested our prodigious capacity for mental mapping. Now, with the advent of the Global Positioning System, wayfaring skills are on the wane. Physicist John Edward Huth turns explorer in this rich, wide-ranging and lucidly illustrated primer on how to find yourself in the middle of somewhere. Huth's prescription for navigating fog, darkness, open ocean, thick forests or unknown terrain rests first on harnessing compass, Sun and stars; then on the subtleties of weather forecasting and decoding markers such as the wind, waves and tides.

The Burning Question: We Can't Burn Half the World's Oil, Coal and Gas. So How Do We Quit?

Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark. Profile 256 pp. £9.99 (2013)

Flabby political will and corridors of disempowerment have not dented the determination of energy writer Duncan Clark and carbon consultant Mike Berners-Lee. Arguing for a moratorium on fossil-fuel extraction, they explain why, citing the evidence on warming, the lack of an international climate-change deal, false energy 'efficiency' and the plethora of good techno-fixes. They probe the economic, social and psychological blocks to progress, and lay out a six-step solution — from pushing sustainables to capping carbon. Compelling.

Creation: The Origin of Life/The Future of Life

Viking 272 pp. £20 (2013)

Geneticist and Nature editor Adam Rutherford's two-in-one study cleverly twins the quest to understand how life emerged some 4 billion years ago with today's race to bio-engineer new life forms. In The Origin of Life, he marshals science history and groundbreaking recent research to build up a scenario of proto-cells spontaneously generating in the deep ocean, with a little help from RNA, lipids and mineral deposits. The Future of Life focuses on the potential of synthetic biology to create novel, much-needed treatments, fuels and more. Thought-provoking, and double the fun.

My Backyard Jungle: The Adventures of an Urban Wildlife Lover Who Turned His Yard into Habitat and Learned to Live with It

Yale University Press 376 pp. $28 (2013)

The much-probed nexus between humans and the wild gets yet another twist in this engaging chronicle. Environmental writer James Barilla certified his garden in South Carolina as a habitat with the US National Wildlife Federation. When the experiment turned into a feral free-for-all, he sallied forth to study urban wildlife, from the garbage-scoffing macaques of New Delhi to Brazil's urban marmosets. The findings were unsettling. Ultimately, he argues, creating a “culture of coexistence” is as tough as it is necessary.

Odds Against Tomorrow: A Novel

Farrar, Straus & Giroux 320 pp. $26 (2013)

From Fukushima to Hurricane Sandy, catastrophes come at a hideously high price. Victims and governments feel it one way; insurers another. Nathaniel Rich lights the shadier corners of that number-crunching realm in this incisive novel. Quant Mitchell Zukor has mastered the maths of cataclysms, but his assessments are used to corrupt ends — and immersion in paper disasters fails to prepare him for the real thing. Amusing and petrifying by turns, this is near-future fiction with an edge of the real. Barbara Kiser

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 497, 37 (2013).

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