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Books in brief

Daniel Cressey reviews five of the week's best science picks.

The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature's Salvation

Beacon (2015) 9781848318342 | ISBN: 978-1-8483-1834-2

Invasive species have an undeserved bad reputation, opines veteran environmental journalist Fred Pearce. Digging deep into famous unintended invasions and deliberate introductions, from jellyfish in the Black Sea to rabbits in Australia, he argues that these cases are rarely as simple as good natives versus evil aliens. Far from being rapacious monsters, animals that thrive when transplanted may be exactly the adaptable chancers that will prosper in a world radically reconfigured by human action. Ecologists must abandon “green xenophobia”, says Pearce, to ensure that ecosystems stay healthy.

The Least Likely Man: Marshall Nirenberg and the Discovery of the Genetic Code

MIT Press (2015) 9780262028479 | ISBN: 978-0-2620-2847-9

Marshall Nirenberg was outside the club of molecular biologists seeking the link between gene and protein in the 1950s and 60s. Yet it was he who, as a researcher at the US National Institutes of Health, obtained the first experimental evidence of an RNA messenger molecule, and first cracked the code of an amino acid. Although its narrative structure is a little confused, biologist Franklin Portugal's biography reminds us that Nirenberg sits in the Nobel pantheon alongside Francis Crick, James Watson and Sydney Brenner.

The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think Alexander Klose, translated by Charles Marcrum. MIT Press (2015)


Unseen by most, the global movement of shipping containers connects us all, maintaining the lives we live and the societies we form. Alexander Klose is fascinating on the technical details of the global swirl of millions of twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) and the agents — from artists to accidents — that bring this mobile infrastructure to light. At other points, Klose's philosophical reading of the phenomenon is laid on thick, but this is a much-needed examination of why the TEU is the defining technological artefact of our age.

Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information

University of Chicago Press (2015) 9780226235844 | ISBN: 978-0-2262-3584-4

Marie Curie remains the most famous of female scientists. In the analysis of how the co-discoverer of radium became uniquely idolized, cultural scholar Eva Hemmungs Wirtén uses the prisms of celebrity and intellectual property — Curie and her husband, Pierre, having famously refused to patent radium. Wirtén's picture of a scientist carefully shaping her own image is less angelic than the traditional view of Curie, but might have much to teach her modern successors.

Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature

Bloomsbury (2015) 9781408856567 | ISBN: 978-1-4088-5656-7

This detective story by behavioural ecologist Nick Davies sets out to solve how “Nature's most notorious cheat” gets away with its “outrageous” behaviour. This is the cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) — that well-known hijacker of other birds' nests. Davies underpins calm and elegant prose with deep knowledge gleaned from years studying the species. By the end of the book, it is hard not to feel the same joy as Davies does when contemplating this remarkable bird, or the same sadness at its apparent UK decline.

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Cressey, D. Books in brief. Nature 519, 413 (2015).

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