Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters from the Malay Archipelago

Edited by:
  • John van Whye &
  • Kees Rookmaaker
(Oxford Univ. Press, 2015)

Alfred Russel Wallace led an adventurous life in science, from insect spotting in a Borneo swamp to exploring Ternate island, Indonesia, where he independently developed a theory of natural selection. This collection of correspondence from 1854 to 1862 covers his fateful travels. The letters (which took six weeks to arrive), to and from Wallace's family and Charles Darwin, shed light on the controversy over precedence of the theory, as well as the malaria and other hardships that Wallace suffered for his work.

The Quantum Moment

Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber. (W. W. Norton, 2015)

Philosopher Robert Crease and physicist Alfred Goldhaber reveal how quantum theory has pervaded popular culture, from quantum poetics to television's Quantum Leap (see Jim Baggott's review: Nature 513, 308–309; 2014).

Adventures in the Anthropocene

  • Gaia Vince
(Milkweed, 2015)

The human epoch is in full swing, with a population of 8 billion looming. In search of sustainability, journalist Gaia Vince travelled to six continents and found much to foster hope — such as the Ugandan farmer who feeds livestock on a by-product of her sunflower crop.

The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names

  • John Wright
(Bloomsbury, 2015)

Ba humbugi is not a curse but a snail, and bananas are a “taxonomic nightmare”. Fungus fanatic John Wright digs into taxonomy's origins, including Carl Linnaeus's overtly sexual plant-ordering system, based on reproductive parts.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

  • Bessel van der Kolk
(Viking, 2015)

Violence, abuse or conflict can burn trauma into memory. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk reveals how severe stress rewires the brain, and suggests therapies from breathing techniques to eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing.

From Eve to Evolution

  • Kimberly A. Hamlin
(Univ. Chicago Press, 2015)

Science historian Kimberly Hamlin shows how nineteenth-century US feminists used Darwinian evolutionary theory to argue for equality. Eliza Gamble, for example, put women's choice at the forefront of male–female attraction (see Sarah S. Richardson's review: Nature 509, 424; 2014).

The Copernicus Complex

  • Caleb Scharf
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)

Are we cosmically insignificant or the centre of the known Universe? Skipping from molecules to Moon landings, astrobiologist Caleb Scharf puts life on Earth under the microscope and concludes that humans are unique but unexceptional (see Mario Livio's review: Nature 512, 368–369; 2014).

Undiluted Hocus-Pocus

  • Martin Gardner
(Princeton Univ. Press, 2015)

Zealously debunking science fads and declaring his bafflement at the human brain, maths writer Martin Gardner was on fine form in this posthumous memoir. As it reveals, his Scientific American column was just a piece of his life's puzzle (see David Singmaster's review: Nature 501, 314–315; 2013).

Junk DNA

  • Nessa Carey
(Icon, 2015)

If only 2% of human DNA is technically 'useful' in coding for proteins, what is the other 98% for? Geneticist Nessa Carey uses Jackson Pollock paintings and baseball bats to explain how 'junk' DNA keeps the body functioning (see Nathaniel Comfort's review: Nature 520, 615–616; 2015).

Faster, Higher, Stronger

  • Mark McClusky
(Plume, 2015)

From the primitive “bag-and-valve” apparatus used to measure runner's oxygen intake in the 1920s to today's Silicon Valley performance labs, Mark McClusky shows how sports science has helped humans to push their physical limits, and why we keep striving to beat the best.

Life Atomic: A History of Radioisotopes in Science and Medicine

  • Angela N. H. Creager
(Univ. Chicago Press, 2015)

Radioisotope by-products of atomic energy are vital to molecular biology. Historian Angela Creager archives atoms, from carbon-14 and its role in studying photosynthesis to slow-decaying iron-59, which traces nutrients metabolizing in the body.

Odd Couples

  • Daphne J. Fairbairn
(Princeton Univ. Press, 2015)

As biologist Daphne Fairbairn observes, males and females of one species can differ greatly in colour, size and shape. Blanket-octopus females, for instance, outgrow males by 2 metres, quashing the dominant-male stereotype (see Suzanne Alonzo's review: Nature 496, 427–428; 2013).

p53: The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code

  • Sue Armstrong
(Bloomsbury Sigma, 2015)

From its discovery in 1979 to its current place in cutting-edge gene therapy, p53 is the most studied gene in history. As Sue Armstrong details in this chronicle of genetics derring-do, its crucial role is to protect us from cancer, and the future of tumour treatment could depend on it.