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Books in brief

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

The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature's Great Connectors

Viking (2017) 9780525427520 | ISBN: 978-0-5254-2752-0

How are forests, “entirely made from strands of relationship”, faring under the human onslaught? Biologist David George Haskell's exquisitely wrought ecological study documents the fate of 12 trees, around the globe and over time. He explores each one 'ears first', attuned to the aural in the arboreal. So an Amazonian ceibo (Erythrina crista-galli) is an instrument 'played' by rain, as well as a seething tower of life, from bromeliads to bacteria; and a sensor on the bark of a Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) in New York City records distinct responses to the urban din. A ravishing journey into biotic community.

The Seasons Alter: How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts

Philip Kitcher and Evelyn Fox Keller. Liveright (2017)


Political rancour, national foot-dragging and poor communication plague progress on climate change. Philosopher Philip Kitcher and science historian Evelyn Fox Keller pierce the fug with a highly unusual thought experiment: Socratic dialogues on the big climate issues between 'Jo' and 'Joe' (the voices, respectively, of climate action and of reasoned resistance to it). Far from arch or odd, the extended fictional debate illuminates key scientific, social and political complexities, and humanizes an issue often perceived as abstract. As Kitcher and Keller note, “We need to talk.”

Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science

W. W. Norton (2017) 9780393353327 | ISBN: 978-0-3933-5332-7

As journalist Dave Levitan reveals in this deliciously mordant critique, a sure sign that a politician is about to fudge facts is the phrase “I'm not a scientist”. Among officials' techniques for belittling science, such as ridicule, cherry-picking and fabrication, is the fiendish “butter-up and undercut”. This was deployed by US presidential hopeful Ted Cruz at a 2015 Senate hearing, when he gushed over NASA — only to call for cuts to its climate-research funding. A key handbook for an era of “alternative facts” and pressures on research.

The Driver in the Driverless Car

Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever. Berrett-Koehler (2017)


Humanity hovers at a momentous technological crossroads, declares engineer Vivek Wadhwa. 'Exponential' advances seeping into every cranny of life could propel us towards utopia or dystopia — Star Trek or Mad Max, as he puts it. Writing with Alex Salkever, Wadhwa ranges over applications from genome editing and the Internet of Things to artificial intelligence, weighing up their potential for risk and the universality of any benefits. Readers may not all share his enthusiasm for autonomous vehicles, but his pointed analyses of the coming transformations add nuance to the debate.

Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth's Waterways

Princeton University Press (2017) 9780691168784 | ISBN: 978-0-6911-6878-4

Rivers, notes geophysicist Sean Fleming in this deft primer, brim with surprises when viewed through a physics lens. There is the chicken-or-egg problem of canyons and rivers, the hydro-ecological links between clouds and fish, the intimate relationship between waterways and groundwater. It is a mind-expanding exercise, Fleming reminds us, to ponder how the shifting levels of these “interstate highways” of the global water cycle are ultimately linked to Earth's wobbling path across the Solar System.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 544, 295 (2017).

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