Books in brief

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

Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds

W. W. Norton (2016) 9780393089127 | ISBN: 978-0-3930-8912-7

It is key to the Internet's operation, is deployed in seismology and climate-change research — and can lead drivers into seriously tight spots. The multisatellite Global Positioning System (GPS), reveals journalist Greg Milner in this assured technological history, is a risk-laden ubiquity that has profoundly changed society. He traces its conceptual and practical roots from early Polynesian navigational acumen through cold-war US prototypes to today's system, kick-started by Bradford Parkinson. Milner delves, too, into the cognitive impacts of reliance on GPS, and ethical issues around data misuse.

Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s

Hill and Wang (2016) 9780809058471 | ISBN: 978-0-8090-5847-1

In 1973, 'oil shock' engulfed the United States as the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries embargoed exports. Historian Meg Jacobs incisively chronicles the ensuing policy war, as the Nixon administration and free-marketeers called for deregulation of the market, and the left (including Henry 'Scoop' Jackson, Democratic senator for Washington) pushed for alternative energy. That battle, Jacobs argues, reverberates in fracking and climate-change policy today, and offers lessons for the transition to a fossil-free future.

One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2016) 9780544387638 | ISBN: 978-0-5443-8763-8

Biologist Bernd Heinrich's cabin in the Maine woods is a “live-in bird blind” engineered for year-round observation, and his engrossing scientific memoir lets us in on the ornithological action. Here are northern yellow-shafted flickers nesting in a wall cavity (Heinrich estimates it takes 21,600 ants to fledge one nestling); an avian soundtrack veering from the cackling of a barred owl to the “tinkles, whistles, twitters, growls, and squawks” of a common starling; and a woodcock bursting into rocket-like flight. Step by finely attuned step, we learn, with Heinrich, “one wild bird at a time”.

Green Metropolis: The Extraordinary Landscapes of New York City as Nature, History, and Design

Knopf (2016) 9781101875537 | ISBN: 978-1-1018-7553-7

New York may seem the archetypal cityscape, but nature thrums through this concrete jungle. So reports landscape preservationist Elizabeth Barlow Rogers in her erudite study of seven of the city's green spaces. Summoning geology, biology and history, Barlow witnesses stridulating 17-year cicadas at Staten Island's High Rock Nature Center, walks through the 14.5-hectare “self-generating wildwood” of Central Park's Ramble, strolls the evocative garden promenade of reclaimed rail spur the High Line, and more.

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. Henry Holt (2016)



When do you cut short a house search? How do you schedule a day's worth of tasks? Meshing psychology with computational models, writer Brian Christian and cognitive scientist Tom Griffiths argue that algorithms are ace tools for solving the pressing conundrums that litter life. Far from being narrowly prescriptive, their algorithmic fixes (such as the 37% rule, otherwise known as the secretary problem) are forgiving — not least, in showing how messiness can sometimes be an optimal choice.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 532, 439 (2016).

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