Books & Arts | Published:

Books in brief

Nature volume 524, page 159 (13 August 2015) | Download Citation

Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.

Applied Minds: How Engineers Think


W. W. Norton (2015) 9780393239874

Engineers are titans of real-world problem-solving, yet are strangely invisible, notes biomedical engineer Guru Madhavan. In this riveting study of how they think, he puts behind-the-scenes geniuses such as Margaret Hutchinson, who designed the first penicillin-production plant, centre stage. And, in a feat of reverse engineering, he shows how engineers' methodology — rigorous analysis, testing and orientation towards solutions — is bedded in modular systems thinking, a mindset strong on visualizing structure, designing under constraints and weeding out weak goals in trade-offs.

A River Runs Again: India's Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka


PublicAffairs (2015) 9781610395304

In the middle of India's boom, malnutrition among Indian children is rife. Journalist Meera Subramanian, in search of sustainable solutions for the subcontinent's 1.2 billion people, criss-crossed it to meet scientists and citizens grappling with familiar dilemmas such as child marriage and polluting cooking stoves. Subramanian's analysis is fresher when she takes on the inefficiencies and worse of 'big aid', and her mapping of the micro solutions — such as village rainwater collection — suited to a country of small enterprises.

Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking


Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2015) 9780374112677

How do we decide whether theories are sound or knowledge is only conjectural? Social psychologist Richard Nisbett has drilled into decision-making to produce this “cognitive tool kit” of principles and ideas to aid the process. Inspired by the “seamless web” of science — the interdisciplinary seepage of methods and facts — he draws on economics, psychology and logic for a rich haul. Expect insights in areas ranging from the role of conformism in energy use to the differences in Eastern and Western thinking, and tools from basic statistics to the multipurpose heuristic KISS (keep it simple, stupid).

Inside the Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age


W. W. Norton (2015) 9780393083590

When electronics took off in the 1930s, US technology companies were suddenly forced to convey 'invisible science' visually. A bold brigade of commercial artists began to tackle the physics and components with creative brio — but this flowering withered in the 1960s, when the workings of electronics had been absorbed into the culture. For this unusual and compelling study, cultural historian Megan Prelinger has gathered a trove of superb examples. Some are patently influenced by abstract artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, others by surrealism, concrete poetry and science-fiction illustration.

Mess: One Man's Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act


W. W. Norton (2015) 9780393241778

Nineteenth-century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Things are in the saddle, / And ride mankind”. A thought resonant in a consumerist era, it might also be seen as a comment on hoarding, a condition now associated with obsessive–compulsive disorder. In a memoir mixing sorrow and hilarity, self-confessed clutterer Barry Yourgrau records how he jettisoned junk and traumatic memories by joining Clutterers Anonymous, poking at relevant neuroscience and working his way towards a rapprochement with things.

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