We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer's

  • D. F. Swaab
(translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle) Spiegel & Grau (2014)

In this tour of the human brain's often bumpy terrain, neuroscientist Dick Swaab argues that most of what shapes us happens in the womb. His survey is comprehensive, covering fetal development, sexual differentiation and disorders, birth, early childhood, consciousness, morality, memory and conditions from autism to Alzheimer's disease. The vast scope of this Dutch best-seller demands concision, but Swaab manages to rope each topic and wrestle it to the ground without breaking into a sweat.

Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing and the Beginning of Everything

  • Amanda Gefter
Bantam (2014)

Something can come from nothing. So found Amanda Gefter: a question from her father about the nature of nothing propelled her into science journalism. In this mix of memoir and science, Gefter chronicles her quest to understand the big conundrums through study of the physics literature and meetings with remarkable theoreticians from John Archibald Wheeler to Lisa Randall. Her journey to the insight that reality is in the eye of the beholder is wittily told, but the reverential tone of her starry encounters may jar.

Andrew's Brain: A Novel

  • E. L. Doctorow
Random House (2014)

A cognitive neuroscientist is talking to a psychotherapist — or is it a prison warden? In this spiralling, scientifically savvy narrative on the interplay of brain and mind, distinguished novelist E. L. Doctorow gives us Andrew, an academic recounting his doom-ridden life in snapshots. Doctorow tackles consciousness, free will and memory with elan. The wondrous, sometimes terrifying twists of the human imagination are shot through with gallows humour, thought experiments and even political commentary — and set to a shifting, propulsive rhythm reminiscent of a Philip Glass symphony.

Piero's Light: In Search of Piero della Francesca: A Renaissance Painter and the Revolution in Art, Science and Religion

  • Larry Witham
Pegasus (2014)

The unearthly power of Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca's works is attributable as much to skill in spatial illusion and complex perspective as to artistic brilliance, Larry Witham shows. This study of Piero's impact reveals a mathematician and geometer who helped to bridge the way to Galileo. Along with paintings such as The Flagellation of Christ — which fuse maths, classical Platonic science and innovative handling of light — Piero authored influential treatises such the Little Book on Five Regular Solids.

Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture

Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel. Riverhead Books (2013)

Thanks to Google Books' digitization of millions of texts dating back centuries, big data is now long data. Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel mine the riches using “culturomics”, quantifying history by graphing the occurrence of concepts and words in texts over time. In this lively overview, the authors reveal how the robotic historian that they created — the Google Ngram Viewer — has since 2010 been churning out analyses of everything from the efficacy of government censorship to the speed at which society learns.