Books in brief


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

Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War

Simon and Schuster (2016) 9781476763255 | ISBN: 978-1-4767-6325-5

Beyond the bombs and drones of on-the-ground warfare, a shadow conflict is playing out in a virtual theatre of war. Covert cyberattacks — the hacking of digital systems that control everything from dams to centrifuges in uranium-enrichment facilities — are a new norm. Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist Fred Kaplan's taut, urgent history traces the dual trajectory of digital surveillance and intervention, and high-level US policy from the 1980s on. In 2014 alone, he reveals, almost 80,000 US security breaches occurred — an artefact of the very network connectivity that enriches the country's economy.

Being a Beast

Profile (2016) 9781781255346 | ISBN: 978-1-7812-5534-6

Humanity's obsession with animals spans shamanic 'possession' by wolves and a hefty tranche of children's literature. Charles Foster's contribution might just stand alone. In his exquisitely strange, often hilarious chronicle, the writer recounts neuroscientific self-experiments centred on immersion in the sensory maelstrom experienced by iconic British species. He gets down and dirty, chomping earthworms and sleeping in a homemade sett (badger); honing his olfaction and attempting to hunt voles (urban fox); and parachuting (swift). A bold, unsettling try at comprehending the rest of life on Earth.


Basic (2016) 9780465036622 | ISBN: 978-0-4650-3662-2

From char siu to boeuf bourguignon, meat has us hooked, proves journalist Marta Zaraska. Starting 1.5 billion years ago, when one bacterium first engulfed another, she zips through the evolution of human carnivory and examines the enduring pull of animal flesh by way of genetics, developmental biology, chemistry and nutrition. Zaraska negotiates the complexities nimbly, from meat's pivotal part in building our big brains to the 1,000 substances that underpin its cooked odour (3-octen-2-one, for instance, smells of “crushed bugs”) and the unpalatable influence of the industry on research.

Raptor: A Journey Through Birds

Fourth Estate (2016) 9780007459872 | ISBN: 978-0-0074-5987-2

Fifteen species of raptor — from hen harrier to red kite — form nuclei for the crystalline narratives of this meditation on the British wild, a winner of the 2011 pre-publication Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction. James Macdonald Lockhart grew up knowing birds through photographs shot by his great-grandfather, Seton Gordon. His own understanding of raptor ethology shines. His journey — intercut with passages by Victorian ornithologist William MacGillivray — flings us into skies where a hobby 'concertinas' the air, or a marsh harrier's ruff give it the air of an Elizabethan grandee.

Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics

Zed (2016) 9781780325316 | ISBN: 978-1-7803-2531-6

We have the science, technology and political will to build eco-housing — as well as to retrofit our not-so-green abodes. What stops us? The greatest hurdle is often cultural adaptation to a new norm, concludes environmental geographer Jenny Pickerill in her cogent sociopolitical work. Focusing on self-build eco-housing, Pickerill looks at more than 30 case studies from a range of countries, along with lessons learned on construction materials, geography and climate, gender, costs and the right policy for rapid rollout.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 531, 33 (2016).

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