Books & Arts | Published:

Books in brief

Nature volume 539, page 355 (17 November 2016) | Download Citation


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

Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets

Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix. Pantheon (2016) 9780804197977

“They will go boating on lakes of liquid methane and fly like birds in the cold, dense atmosphere.” Life on Saturn's moon Titan could prove exhilarating, suggest writer Charles Wohlforth and planetary scientist Amanda Hendrix in this synthesis of space-colonization science. Their thought experiment balances possible futures with a raft of facts on advances in spacecraft technology, robotics and space medicine. Crucially, they parse the push and pull between cautious governments and gung-ho entrepreneurs, concluding that the two may ultimately add up to a propulsive combination.

A Wretched and Precarious Situation


W. W. Norton (2016) 9780393254419

In 1906, polar explorer Robert Peary sighted a mysterious region northwest of Canada's Arctic Archipelago. Dubbing it Crocker Land, he enlisted anthropologist Donald MacMillan and geologist Elmer Ekblaw as part of a US–Inuit team to explore the landmass under the aegis of New York's American Museum of Natural History. What happened next, historian David Welky reveals in this engrossing account of the five-year effort (1913–17), involved not only the classic litany of illness, privation and howling blizzards, but a singularly bizarre finding about Peary's original sighting.

The Unnatural World


Scribner (2016) 9781476743905

Forget the Anthropocene epoch, argues journalist David Biello. What we need is a broader “Anthropozoic” era, a lasting future anchored in inspired planetary stewardship and intelligent optimism. His lucid survey of researchers straining to contain today's global environmental shifts (from climate change to dwindling marine biodiversity) mixes their personal scientific journeys with contextualizing discoveries. Among them are marine biologist Victor Smetacek, experimenting with iron fertilization to draw carbon dioxide into the oceans, and ecologist Erle Ellis, monitoring forestation with drones.

Where Poppies Blow: The British Soldier, Nature, the Great War


W&N (2016) 9780297869269

For traumatized, trench-bound British soldiers caught up in the carnage of the First World War, birdwatching and botany offered solace. So reveals John Lewis-Stempel in this riveting study drawing on verse, letters and field notes by men who served, from zoologist Dene Fry to poet Edward Thomas. He shows how observing the nesting larks that twittered above 'no man's land' and natural cycles such as the seasons gave a sense of renewal, and how animal 'troops' were inspirationally loyal. A remarkable picture of a human bloodbath that took place amid phenomenally rich biodiversity.

The Secret Lives of Colour


John Murray (2016) 9781473630819

Heliotrope, gamboge, umber: the names of colours are as luscious as the hues themselves. Kassia St Clair serves up a chromatic buffet of the chemistry, history and cultural associations of 75 dyes, pigments and shades, including encapsulations of optics and colour theory. The gorgeous, malodorous Turkey red, for instance, was made in a “tortuous process involving rancid castor oil, ox blood and dung”, and the Roman emperor Nero used a large emerald as “proto-sunglasses” while watching gladiatorial combat.

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