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Books in brief

Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent

Princeton University Press (2014)

Is US science and engineering really plagued by workforce shortages? It is not that simple, argues demographer Michael S. Teitelbaum in this analysis of US science policy. The evidence reveals a complex dynamic: since the 1950s, alarmism over 'falling behind' has driven five rounds of destabilizing boom and bust. The modi operandi of research universities and funding agencies are also problematic, as research funding, not market demand, controls supplies of young scientists and engineers. Lucid and convincing.

The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism

Palgrave Macmillan (2014)

“The capitalist era is passing,” proclaims social theorist Jeremy Rifkin in this manifesto for the collaborative commons, a new economic paradigm. “Ubiquitous computing” is spawning an Internet of Things, a digitized global infrastructure that will, he argues, pare marginal costs of production and distribution down to near zero and topple big profits. The thesis is admirable, but the ebullience can feel somewhat relentless as Rifkin rolls out a future of sustainable abundance, massive open online courses and crowd-funding.

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch

Bodley Head (2014)

Astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell offers the ultimate do-it-yourself guide to 'rebooting' human civilization after an asteroid impact, pandemic or nuclear war. With scientific nous, Dartnell depicts probable environmental scenarios on a stricken Earth and offers putative survivors instruction in the technologies needed to craft a culture from the ground up. Whether learning the basics on how to sow and grow a field of barley, melt and cast salvaged aluminium, build a windmill or craft a basic stethoscope, many will thrill to this reminder of our species' prodigious resilience.

How to Make a Human Being: A Body of Evidence

Fourth Estate (2014)

In this follow-up to his much-vaunted You Are Here (HarperCollins, 2009), Christopher Potter illuminates the human in all its manifestations — from single cell to creator of culture. Finely judged quotes from scientific and literary luminaries such as John Archibald Wheeler and Marcel Proust alternate with erudite musings on our compatibility with the cosmos (backed by clear expositions of theoretical physics), human biology, neurology, culture, morality and religion. The scattershot narrative somehow coalesces into a brilliant whole — and a compelling case for anti-reductionism.

Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture

Stephen Cairns and Jane M. Jacobs. The MIT Press (2014)

From the passage of time to the wrecking ball, the forces limiting a building's 'lifespan' are rife: all cities are potential ghost towns. Into this rubble-strewn terrain venture Stephen Cairns and Jane M. Jacobs, whose philosophical meditation on architectural death is enriched with materials science and thinking from the likes of architect Eero Saarinen. The evocative case studies range from the “ruin porn” of derelict Detroit in Michigan, to the weird morphology of Bangkok and its unfinished skyscrapers.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 508, 43 (2014).

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