Books in brief

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew

Pantheon (2014)

Theoretical physicist Alan Lightman's meditation on how recent findings in science shape our concept of self and Universe unfolds with the mesmeric calm of a vessel in space. That is, until he treats us to some split-second encounter with a sliver of the totality — such as the eye of a flying osprey. In seven elegant essays on aspects of the Universe, Lightman takes us from the idea of an accidental cosmos, prompted by multiverse theory, to the Higgs boson, digital disembodiment and the cosmic evanescence that fits so poorly with our longing for permanence.

The Science of Cheese

Oxford University Press (2013)

From “smear-ripened” Swiss tilsit to the maggot-riddled casu marzu of Italy, cheese can carry a whiff of the surreal. Chemist Michael Tunick tours a sample of the 2,000 known varieties, mingling science (biology, chemistry, physics, nutrition and climatology) and cultural lore to make an accessible whole. If you have ever wondered what links Limburger with foot perspiration (answer: short-chain fatty acids), or how to make mozzarella at home, Tunick is your man. And the world's most expensive cheese? Made from moose milk on a Swedish farm, it will set you back US$1,000 a kilogram.

Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power

Hudson Street Press (2013)

Is “fluid” intelligence — the ability to think on your feet and discern patterns — teachable? In this trip through the findings on and controversies around brain training, science journalist Dan Hurley proves an able, often caustically humorous guide. He starts with 2008 research on working-memory training by psychologists Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, then trawls research in areas such as gaming and visual attention processing. After taking the pulse at science conferences and turning guinea pig to test a range of techniques, Hurley admits to cautious optimism.

Walden's Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science

Harvard University Press (2013)

In his 1854 masterpiece Walden, the US writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau invites us to “wedge our feet downward ... till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality”. Geologist Robert Thorson obliges, focusing on Thoreau as a flinty amateur geologist to reinject science into his literary legacy. Thoreau, Thorson persuasively argues, was as grounded in rock as he was in the elemental understanding of the cosmos sought by the Transcendentalist movement.

The Monkey's Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life

Basic Books (2014)

Biogeography is undergoing a sea change, argues Alan de Queiroz. The dominant theory of global species dispersal previously centred on the break-up of the supercontinent Gondwana, starting some 160 million years ago. Now, the idea of species traversing oceans is gaining ground. Perhaps the most compelling scenario is the 'monkey transfer' from Africa to South America, envisioned as a simian troop hitching a ride on an uprooted, floating tree.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 505, 25 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/505025a

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