Books in brief

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

Will Africa Feed China?

Oxford University Press (2015) 9780199396856 | ISBN: 978-0-1993-9685-6

Starting in 2008, China — with more than 20% of the global population and just 9% of the arable land — was said to be buying up swathes of African farmland. In her cogent analysis, international-development specialist Deborah Brautigam cuts her own swathe through myths about this relationship. She marshals fresh case studies to reveal that Chinese companies own just 250,000 hectares of African land, while the country has no government policy on overseas farming. Far from being the first ripple of an imperial storm, she argues, Chinese interests in Africa largely follow in Western footsteps.

The Heart Goes Last: A Novel

Bloomsbury (2015) 9780385540353 9781408867785 | ISBN: 978-0-3855-4035-3

Stan and Charmaine struggle to survive in a squalid, lawless near future. The Positron Project, a social experiment in which they spend alternating stints in prison and suburbia, seems to offer a way out — at first. Doyenne of speculative fiction Margaret Atwood is on grimly hilarious form here as tour guide to a macabre society given over to unregulated science, social cleansing, identity loss and profiteering. She prods satirically at issues from industrial farming (headless-chicken production aimed at “meat growth efficiencies”) to sexbots, and even fits in a subplot featuring a horde of Elvis impersonators.

Failure: Why Science Is So Successful

Oxford University Press (2015) 9780199390106 | ISBN: 978-0-1993-9010-6

Biologist Stuart Firestein's energetic sequel to Ignorance (Oxford University Press, 2012) explores the centrality of failure in the scientific endeavour. Naturalist Ernst Haeckel's erroneous ideas about ontogeny and phylogeny, for instance, helped to spawn the field of embryology. Firestein ranges widely, looking at failure in contexts ranging from pharma to funding. At base, however, this is a close examination of how repeated failure refines problems, clarifying the way forward — a challenge that in turn sparks the courage and clarity of mind needed for incisive investigation.

Natural Histories: 25 Extraordinary Species That Have Changed our World Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss. John Murray (2015)

9781473617018

Based on an eponymous BBC Radio 4 series, this collaboration with London's Natural History Museum explores the biology and cultural histories of selected flora and fauna. Naturalist Brett Westwood and writer Stephen Moss present an idiosyncratic list, including mandrill, oak, coral, cockroach and whale. Out of myriad gripping stories, their take on the lion resonates: the imposing beast may be a cultural ubiquity, yet African populations have diminished catastrophically from 400,000 in 1950 to fewer than 30,000 today.

Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA

Bloomsbury Sigma (2015) 9781472911179 | ISBN: 978-1-4729-1117-9

In this straightforward chronicle, science journalist Amy Shira Teitel traces NASA's 'prequel'. However familiar, the early discoveries of rocketeers such as Romanian physicist Hermann Oberth still thrill, as does (in a very different way) the crucial input of former Nazi and rocket designer Wernher von Braun. Teitel delivers on detail, such as the exploits of supersonic-flight pioneer Chuck Yeager; but the whole needs more synthesis and never quite soars.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 527, 37 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/527037a

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