Books in brief

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

Dangerous Years

Yale University Press (2016) 9780300222814 | ISBN: 978-0-3002-2281-4

How will we survive the damaging impacts of our high-throughput, extractive economy? Environmental thinker David Orr delivers a finely pointed analysis, ranging over sociopolitical norms and the ethical consciousness needed to transform them. Transitioning to a “sustainable democracy” will demand that we up the ante in areas such as community engagement, science and governance. The shift must be holistic because we are losing the race with technological advance — and, as he notes, “Everything has changed but our manner of thinking, which remains tribal, insular and myopic.”

Void: The Strange Physics of Nothing

Yale University Press (2016) 9780300209983 | ISBN: 978-0-3002-0998-3

This exploration of empty space — “much ado about nothing”, as philosopher of science James Owen Weatherall has it — is a model of concision. On his tour of physics's 'greatest hits', Weatherall begins with Isaac Newton's vision of space as nothingness extending in all directions. He then moves through the “aetherial substance” of James Clerk Maxwell, Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity (which posits a rich structure in space-time), quantum theory (which suggests that the vacuum is a state of matter) and string theory (which is riddled with vacuums). An ode to the plenty of nothing.

A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves

W. W. Norton (2016) 9780393292695 | ISBN: 978-0-3932-9269-5

It's likely that a 'big history' tracing the evolution of the Universe and all life sits on a bookshelf near you. Geologist Walter Alvarez joins in with this engaging, yet improbably brief, slalom through the science. Alvarez, who co-originated the impact theory of dinosaur extinction, hinges his primer on contingencies — unpredictable formative cosmic or biological events — and original perspectives. So his discussion of cosmic expansion features Milton Humason rather than co-discoverer Edwin Hubble, whereas his passage on Earth's formation emphasizes how the planet “makes resources useful”.

Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity

Cambridge University Press (2016) 9781107176249 | ISBN: 978-1-1071-7624-9

In this audacious riposte to neo-Darwinism and the 'selfish gene', systems biologist Denis Noble casts life as emerging from biological processes that operate at various scales and levels. Genes, cells, tissues, organs and organ systems 'dance' to the tune of the organism-orchestra. From this he derives his principle of biological relativity: that organisms are “multi-level, open stochastic systems” in which behaviour at all levels is causatively complex. Noble's narrative is sweeping, covering everything from cosmology and Einstein's theories of relativity to symbiogenesis and epigenetics.

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

Ecco (2016) 9780062339331 9781441730053 | ISBN: 978-0-0623-3933-1

Psychologist and seasoned writer Paul Bloom presents a contrarian characterization of empathy — defined as the ability to feel what you believe others feel — as a wolf in sheep's clothing. Bloom argues that although it may be seen by some as a “magic bullet of morality”, empathy is actually biased and short-sighted, and can corrode relationships and spark violence. He argues instead for a rational compassion decoupled from the intense shared emotionality of empathy. A nuanced foray into some fraught grey areas.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 540, 37 (2016).

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