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Books in brief

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

Apollo in the Age of Aquarius

Harvard University Press (2017) 9780674971998 | ISBN: 978-0-6749-7199-8

On 20 July 1969, men landed on the Moon; back on Earth, the United States was gripped by sociopolitical convulsions. NASA and Woodstock may now seem polarized, but in this illuminating, original chronicle, historian Neil Maher traces multiple crosscurrents between them. The impact of the 'Blue Marble' image of Earth on environmental policy is famous (see Less so is how the costs of the Apollo programme enraged inner-city activists — and how NASA duly deployed a crack team of aeronautics experts to solve practical housing issues for poor African Americans.

The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea

Liveright (2017) 9780871408662 | ISBN: 978-0-8714-0866-2

In this assured ecological and human history, Jack Davis aims to rescue the Gulf of Mexico from its “hijacking” by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He argues that this 'sea' — with five US and six Mexican states lining its perimeter — has been more shaper than shaped, its unique biodiversity and geology inspiring currents of human development. It emerges as a beguiling entity, birthplace of the Gulf Stream, crucible of indigenous cultures, fishing mecca. Now, Davis avers, despite harbouring a mammoth hypoxic zone and ongoing petroleum extraction, the Gulf is in partial recovery.

The Ascent of Gravity

Wiedenfeld & Nicolson (2017) 9781681775371 9781474601863 | ISBN: 978-1-6817-7537-1

“Everyone thinks it sucks but in most of the Universe it blows.” That aphoristic introduction hints at the genial wit and scientific flair that await in Marcus Chown's primer on gravity, which traces the historic arc of our understanding of the force. He shows how Isaac Newton's 1687 Principia — which distilled fundamental laws from the complexity of the cosmos — helps to explain phenomena such as tides. He analyses Albert Einstein's reformulation of gravity as warped space-time. And he gazes into the weird realm of quantum theory — and the “undiscovered country” of the next big questions.

Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were

Bloomsbury (2017) 9781408868263 | ISBN: 978-1-4088-6826-3

Half the planet's usable land is given over to agriculture, from crops to the 70 billion farm animals reared each year; meanwhile, an estimated half of all food is wasted. The impact on wildlife can be severe. In this measured analysis, Philip Lymbery — chief executive of the UK-based charity Compassion in World Farming — visits the front lines of industrial farming to gauge degrees of damage. Travelling from Sumatra's oil-palm monoculture, currently eating into elephant territory, to the encroachment of Brazilian soya fields on jaguar habitat, he argues that a transition to sustainable farming is overdue.

Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating

Viking (2017) 9780241270080 | ISBN: 978-0-2412-7008-0

Cognitive psychologist Charles Spence opens his study on the science of gustation with an anecdote about being spoon-fed lime gelée at an acclaimed UK restaurant. As an illustration of how taste resides in the brain, it's faintly outré; but overall, there's much to savour in this detailed research round-up. Looking at sight, sound, touch and eating 'experience', Spence dishes up gems such as 'digital' chocolates, the link between tomato juice and aircraft noise, and the hyper-noisy packaging of Frito-Lay SunChips.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 543, 621 (2017).

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