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Books in brief

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

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World

Knopf (2015) 9780385350662 | ISBN: 978-0-3853-5066-2

Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) electrified fellow polymaths such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, discovered climate zones and grasped the impact of industrialization on nature. In her coruscating account, historian Andrea Wulf reveals an indefatigable adept of close observation with a gift for the long view, as happy running a series of 4,000 experiments on the galvanic response as he was exploring brutal terrain in Latin America. Most presciently, and at a time of fragmenting disciplines, he saw life as a “net-like intricate fabric” and brilliantly synthesized the sciences in his grand treatise Cosmos.

The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club

Beacon (2015) 9780807046579 | ISBN: 978-0-8070-4657-9

In the 1970s, Eileen Pollack was one of the first women to earn a bachelor's degree in physics at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Isolated and unencouraged, she abandoned dreams of a life in cosmology and turned to writing. In this investigative memoir, Pollack uses her own experience and interviews with students and academics as a lens on gender and science. Many will wince in sympathy over the biases and sexism that made Pollack's academic career a salmon run to nowhere, yet despite ongoing inequalities in physics, she senses hopeful shifts in awareness.

Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies

Thames & Hudson (2015) 9780500518113 | ISBN: 978-0-5005-1811-3

This is a gorgeous piece of writing, sure to grip bibliophiles and the meteorologically inclined alike. Scouring English art and literature for references to weatherscapes, Alexandra Harris has magicked them into a subtle meditation on the nation's changeable culture. Snippets of science intersperse discussions of Shakespeare's tempestuous dramas, the “gothic fogs” of Charles Dickens's 1853 Bleak House, the rain-soaked revelations of poet Ted Hughes and more. Harris captures the evanescent interplay of mind and sky, just as climate change could muddy that relationship out of all recognition.

The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History

Princeton University Press (2015) 9780691166391 | ISBN: 978-0-6911-6639-1

The current pressures on libraries give a poignant edge to this chronicle, edited by research librarian Alice Crawford, which offers rarefied glimpses of the institution through time. Historian Andrew Pettegree reveals that printing contributed to the Renaissance library's decline; academic librarian Robert Darnton relates how eighteenth-century booksellers went through hell and high mountain passes to transport their wares; and English-literature professor Laura Marcus surveys libraries in films such as Alain Resnais's 1956 All the Memories of the World and Orson Welles' 1941 Citizen Kane.

Waste to Wealth: The Circular Economy Advantage

Peter Lacy and Jakob Rutqvist. Palgrave Macmillan (2015)


In this crisply lucid primer on the innovative sustainable-business model called the circular economy, Peter Lacy and Jakob Rutqvist make a business case for repurposing wasted resources, life cycles and embedded values such as unrecovered energy. They sketch in the historical background; discuss worked examples of business models such as the circular supply chain; describe the creation of “circular advantage”; and map out strategies for making the shift to full sustainability.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 525, 31 (2015).

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