Books in brief

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

The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World

W. W. Norton (2016) 9780393078015 | ISBN: 978-0-3930-7801-5

As many as 58 million Europeans seeking “bread and freedom” poured into the Americas from 1846 to 1940. Millions returned — worn down by the punishing, ill-paid labour driving the New World's booms. Historian Tara Zahra's timely, myth-busting chronicle shows how, early on, European states attempted to “scientifically” manage masses of people to serve their own and international goals. The impacts ranged all the way from the Holocaust to a shift in the concept of freedom, to the right to stay or leave.

15 Million Degrees: A Journey to the Centre of the Sun

Viking (2016) 9780670922185 | ISBN: 978-0-6709-2218-5

Earth may be 150 million kilometres from the Sun, but few relationships are as intimate. Aside from the star's centrality to life, our planet is embraced by the magnetic bubble of the heliosphere. Solar physicist Lucie Green's engrossing primer clearly explicates the science and its star-studded history. That stretches from Galileo's work on sunspots to astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's 1925 discovery that helium is the most abundant element in the Sun — and physicist Sami Solanki's 2004 finding that the past 70 years of grand-maximum solar activity may be a rare blip.

Show Me the Bone: Reconstructing Prehistoric Monsters in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America

University of Chicago Press (2016) 9780226332734 | ISBN: 978-0-2263-3273-4

A putative knack for mentally constructing a beast entire from a scattering of fossilized remains lent early palaeontologists a sorcerer-like glamour. As the field's founder, Georges Cuvier, put it: “Give me the bone, and I will show you the animal.” Science historian Gowan Dawson lucidly traces the afterlife of Cuvier's incorrect “law of correlation” in Victorian Britain and the United States. The idea seeped into science, irking biologist T. H. Huxley and, argues Dawson, subtly influencing Charles Darwin's thinking on natural variation.

The Future of the Suburban City: Lessons from Sustaining Phoenix

Island (2016) 9781610916226 | ISBN: 978-1-6109-1622-6

The car, the shopping centre and the single-family home, reveals urban specialist Grady Gammage Jr, created the “suburban city” — sprawls clustered in the US southwest and associated with rampant development. In his study of their potential for sustainable transition, Gammage focuses on Phoenix, Arizona — vast, traffic-ridden and caught between aridity and a per capita water consumption more than twice that of New York. He argues that its historic reliance on renewable surface water rather than groundwater, and openness to low-carbon light transport, point to a potential for future resilience.

Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening

Spiegel & Grau (2016) 9780812996890 | ISBN: 978-0-8129-9689-0

In 2007, John Elder Robison published Look Me in the Eye (Crown), a raw memoir about growing up with Asperger's syndrome. The following year, cognitive neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone invited him to participate in a study involving transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Here, Robison chronicles the “powerful mojo” that ensued as his emotions, empathy and perceptions deepened, colouring work and intimate relationships unexpectedly, even after the TMS effects faded. The science and ethical quandaries are deftly interlaced.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 532, 175 (2016).

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