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Books in brief


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

The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick

  • Jessica Riskin
University of Chicago Press (2016) 9780226302928 | ISBN: 978-0-2263-0292-8

At the heart of this scientific and cultural history is the concept of agency — the capacity to act — in nature. Jessica Riskin reveals how two distinct interpretations emerged from the mechanical Universe of the Enlightenment: Isaac Newton's passive version, reliant on a divine tinkerer; and Gottfried Leibniz's, which saw life as purposeful and “self-transforming”. Riskin's investigation of this duality, by way of Renaissance automatons, the gestation of evolutionary theory and quantum mechanics, is engrossing and illuminating.

Herding Hemingway's Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work

  • Kat Arney
Bloomsbury Sigma (2016) 9781472910042 | ISBN: 978-1-4729-1004-2

In this witty, clued-up report from the front lines of genetics, science communicator and broadcaster Kat Arney unravels the intricacies of the discipline with a romp through 'thumbed' cats, hipped fish and frank interviews with scientists such as evolutionary biologist Dan Graur. As she synthesizes key findings, she deploys a host of droll, yet apt, metaphors (including the human genome as a grim cable-television channel featuring tedious repeats), and pulls no punches in laying out the vast gaps in our understanding and the rancorous debates within the field.

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp

  • Ben Rawlence
Picador (2016) 9781250067630 | ISBN: 978-1-2500-6763-0

Dadaab in the Kenyan desert is the world's largest refugee camp, a last-ditch home to some half a million people fleeing violence in the Horn of Africa. In this trenchant, densely layered sociopolitical study, investigative journalist Ben Rawlence reveals Dadaab's complexities through the lives of nine residents, impossibly courageous survivors of derailed cultures, imploded cities and sundered families. A reminder that although there are thousands of refugees at Europe's borders, millions more languish in camps — as Rawlence puts it, between “impossible dreams and a nightmarish reality”.

The Lucky Years: How to Thrive in the Brave New World of Health

  • David B. Agus
Simon & Schuster (2016) 9781476712109 | ISBN: 978-1-4767-1210-9

Oncologist and biomedical researcher David Agus's bestselling The End of Illness (Simon & Schuster, 2012; see Nature 480, 177; 2011) argued persuasively for personalized health care. In this clear-cut follow-up, he details health interventions including monitoring technologies, analysable aggregate data sets and, more controversially, smartphone apps that detect signs of depression. What is strongest here is Agus's deft marshalling of research old and new, and his common-sense guidance on preventives such as sleep hygiene and the optimal level of exercise (450 minutes per week).

The Sacred Combe: A Search for Humanity's Heartland

  • Simon Barnes
Bloomsbury Natural History (2016) 9781472914026 | ISBN: 978-1-4729-1402-6

The moment a herd of elephants ripped into his thatched hut did it for natural-history writer Simon Barnes: he suddenly realized that Zambia's Luangwa Valley had claimed him for its own. This episodic journey into the wilds of Devonshire, Africa and memory — the edenic spaces where species fleetingly coexist — is studded with descriptive jewels. Here, for instance, are eland antelopes, “one-tonners drifting back like pale wisps of smoke”, and an otter with “elegant bum briefly sky-pointing” as it dives in for the hunt.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 529, 153 (2016).

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