Books in brief

    Farewell to Reality: How Fairytale Physics Betrays the Search for Scientific Truth

    Constable 352 pp. £12.99 (2013)

    “What evidence do we have for super-symmetric 'squarks'?” asks science writer Jim Baggott, bemoaning the untestable speculative theories of theoretical physics. But this is more than an energetic drubbing of them. Baggott thoroughly analyses the cracks in the authorized version of reality (such as the disjunct between quantum theory and general relativity) and equally problematic explanations, such as superstring theory. The big questions, he argues, demand context-awareness, and the courage to make doubts public.

    Hans Christian Ørsted: Reading Nature's Mind

    Oxford University Press 768 pp. £39.99 (2013)

    Charles Darwin may have found Hans Christian Ørsted's philosophical tract The Soul in Nature “dreadful”, but the nineteenth-century Danish physicist and chemist discovered electromagnetism, kicking open the door for Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, and a sprawling technoscape of invention. In this powerhouse of a biography-cum-science-history, historian Dan Charly Christensen reveals Ørsted as a brilliant, multifaceted figure — scientist, post-Kantian philosopher, educator and physical aesthetician.

    Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction

    Doubleday 320 pp. $26.95 (2013)

    Ever since the 'Snowball Earth' glaciations 2.3 billion years ago, life has squeaked through mass extinctions. Annalee Newitz examines how humans might survive the next one. Skipping through catastrophe research, she then explores how Homo sapiens has survived plagues, famines and more — harnessing everything from basic adaptability to pandemic surveillance and geoengineering. Together these tools and abilities are, notes Newitz, indicators of our phenomenal capacity to survive the unthinkable.

    The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering After the Enlightenment

    Harvard University Press 392 pp. $35 (2013)

    In this treatise on peak bagging and its post-Enlightenment significance, Peter Hansen unearths stories with a crampon-like grip. We meet star summiteers such as Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, who both ascended Mont Blanc in 1786; nineteenth-century 'golden age' alpine mountaineers like physical scientist John Tyndall; and Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Everest. But with today's retreating glaciers, Hansen reminds us that the idea of what it means to 'conquer' nature needs reconfiguring.

    Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga

    (translated by Linda Coverdale) Allen Lane 256 pp. £16.99 (2013)

    Six months in a hut on the shores of Siberian “cauldron of evolution” Lake Baikal spawned Sylvain Tesson's vivid memoir, part meditation on stupendous nature, part psychological experiment. This is total immersion in the seasonal minutiae of an extreme environment. Raw joys abound, from encounters with solitude-crazed meteorologists and foraging bears to the illumination of cracks in the mighty lake's ice and the interiorities of his own musing mind.

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    Books in brief. Nature 497, 437 (2013).

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