Books in brief

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

Earth-Shattering Events: Earthquakes, Nations and Civilization

Thames and Hudson (2016) 9780500518595 | ISBN: 978-0-5005-1859-5

A “fatal attraction”: geophysicist James Jackson's description of humanity's penchant for living in earthquake zones is all too apt, notes science writer Andrew Robinson in this compelling history of seismicity and society. Robinson traces more than 2 millennia of cataclysms, vividly evoking events such as the magnitude-8.8 quake-cum-tsunami that largely flattened Lisbon in 1755. Woven through is a history of seismology from its first glimmerings in ancient China, through geologist John Milne's groundbreaking work in the nineteenth century to today's hurdle-ridden drive to predict seismic risk.

Engineering Eden

Crown (2016) 9780307454263 | ISBN: 978-0-3074-5426-3

In 1972, a grizzly bear eviscerated tourist Harry Walker in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. His family's lawsuit against the US National Park Service ignited a vastly broader debate about 'managed nature'. In this beautifully synthesized study, writer (and former ranger) Jordan Fisher Smith argues for symbiotic balance in our interaction with the wild, because “the ties that bind, bind in all directions”. As he shows, expert witnesses such as zoologist Starker Leopold helped to shift Yellowstone's mismanagement of bears — notably the deliberate feeding that predisposed them to attack.

Blue Skies over Beijing: Economic Growth and the Environment in China

Matthew E. Kahn and Siqi Zheng. Princeton University Press (2016)


Beijing's atmospheric pollution in 2013 reached 40 times the safe level set by the World Health Organization. To gauge progress on the country's urban sustainability, economists Matthew Kahn and Siqi Zheng apply microeconomics to industry, pollution dynamics, and local and central government efficacy. They see that analysis — along with factors such as growing environmental awareness in China, and evidence of sharply improved air quality in some post-industrial US cities — as potentially heralding a turnaround.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Scribner (2016) 9781501111105 9781785040184 | ISBN: 978-1-5011-1110-5

When psychologist Angela Duckworth received a MacArthur Fellowship, or 'genius grant', in 2013, the irony was not lost on her; for years, her father had said she was “no genius”. But Duckworth saw sheer dogged effort as brilliance of a different sort, and ultimately more important to achievement than talent. She lucidly anatomizes the nature of grit, drawing on her own and others' research (such as psychiatrist George Vaillant's 'treadmill test'), and explicating the passion, purpose, practice and optimism that feed perseverance and resilience. A deft corrective to IQ culture.

A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschkas' Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk

University of California Press (2016) 9780520285682 | ISBN: 978-0-5202-8568-2

In nineteenth-century Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), master glassblowers Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka spun supremely lifelike replicas of organisms as teaching tools. Ecologist Drew Harvell, finding more than 500 models of marine invertebrates at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, set out to restore them. Stunning photos of a number of them contextualize the dramatic taxonomic and ecological shifts in ocean life over the past 150 years.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 534, 35 (2016).

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