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Books in brief

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

  • Jordan Ellenberg
Penguin (2014)

Mathematicians from Charles Lutwidge Dodgson to Steven Strogatz have celebrated the power of mathematics in life and the imagination. In this hugely enjoyable exploration of everyday maths as “an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense”, Jordan Ellenberg joins their ranks. Ellenberg, an academic and Slate's 'Do the Math' columnist, explains key principles with erudite gusto — whether poking holes in predictions of a US “obesity apocalypse”, or unpicking an attempt by psychologist B. F. Skinner to prove statistically that Shakespeare was a dud at alliteration.

Starlight Detectives: How Astronomers, Inventors, and Eccentrics Discovered the Modern Universe

  • Alan Hirshfeld
Bellevue Literary Press (2014)

From 1850 to 1930, a handful of technological adepts transformed astronomy. That race to see deep space is told with palpable relish by physicist Alan Hirshfeld. Among the brilliant amateurs whose work he showcases are William Bond, Harvard University's 'astronomical observer', and astrophotographic pioneer Henry Draper. No less rousing is Hirshfeld's rendition of the coda, as Edwin Hubble — using the 2.5-metre reflector telescope at Mount Wilson, California — discovered the expansion of the Universe and opened up the cosmos.

Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves

  • James Nestor
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2014)

Freediving, the sport that harnesses the mammalian dive reflex to survive deep plunges, can be a boon for marine researchers, avers James Nestor. We meet a salty cast of them, such as the “aquanauts” of Aquarius, a marine analogue of the International Space Station submerged off the Florida Keys. Equally mesmeric are Nestor's own adventures, whether spotting bioluminescent species from a submarine in the bathypelagic zone, or freediving himself — and voyaging into humanity's amphibious origins in the process.

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Columbia University Press (2014)

In Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury, 2010), science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway laid out the costs of science denialism. In this trenchant sci-fi novella, they carry the consequences to their illogical conclusion. A future historian in the “Second People's Republic of China” looks back at the last gasp of Western culture in 2093, drowned, burnt and broken by climate change, neoliberal-powered ignorance and market failure. Packed with salient science, smart speculation and flashes of mordant humour.

Is the Planet Full?

  • Ian Goldin
Oxford University Press (2014)

Indefatigable economist Ian Goldin follows up The Butterfly Defect (Princeton University Press, 2014), on the risks of globalization, with this edited volume on the equation of planetary resources and human population. Standouts among the agile analyses are Ian Johnson's reappraisal of the Club of Rome's trailblazing 1972 The Limits to Growth, in which Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers tackled the same overall question; and Goldin's discussion of governance, ever the elephant in this particular room.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 510, 339 (2014).

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