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Books in brief

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

The Matter of the Heart: A History of the Heart in Eleven Operations

  • Thomas Morris
Bodley Head (2017) 9781250117168 9781847923912 | ISBN: 978-1-2501-1716-8

With the cut and thrust of cardiac surgery now demystified, we forget that venturing into the thoracic cavity once seemed as daunting as polar exploration. Or more so: as Thomas Morris reveals in this stirring chronicle, even touching a beating heart was long viewed as impossible. Told through 11 pivotal operations, it's a tale of ingenuity, from Henry Dalton, who in 1891 became the first US surgeon to suture a pericardium, to artificial aortic valves implanted by robots. It's rich, too, in alarming details — not least, the injections of strychnine and whisky that featured in early surgery.

Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

  • Erica Wagner
Bloomsbury (2017) 9781408843772 | ISBN: 978-1-4088-4377-2

At its 1883 debut, the Brooklyn Bridge was by far the world's longest suspension bridge — its construction a bravura feat founded on a deep understanding of geology. The life of chief engineer Washington Roebling also has a certain monumental quality, as Erica Wagner proves in this engrossing, exhaustive biography. The project took the lives of at least 20 workers and of its designer, Roebling's truculent father John; Roebling himself was left with decompression sickness. But, as Wagner reveals, the central structure and main cables remain a rock-solid testament to engineering acuity and vaulting ambition.

Atomic Adventures

  • James Mahaffey
Pegasus (2017) 9781681774213 | ISBN: 978-1-6817-7421-3

Nuclear scientist James Mahaffey's gloriously nerdy tour of atomic research ranges over projects from the dead-end to the hare-brained (see also M. Peplow Nature 506, 292–293; 2014). Here, for instance, are “obscure, third-tier scientist” Ronald Richter — who wasted US$300 million of Argentinian government money on a crackpot scheme to build a fusion power plant in the early 1950s — as well as Mahaffey's own serious work on the lost dream of cold fusion. You'll learn, too, how to use a smartphone as a Geiger counter and what to pop in case of atomic attack (phosphorylated aminothiol, apparently).

The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class

  • Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
Princeton University Press (2017) 9780691162737 | ISBN: 978-0-6911-6273-7

US economist Thorstein Veblen's 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class held a mirror up to rich Americans deep-dyed in Gilded Age ostentation. Here, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett updates Veblen's analysis, arguing that the leisure class is now aspirational, and that consumption has become inconspicuous — all heirloom vegetables and electric cars. Yet, 'smart' elites contribute to inequality just as surely as yesterday's luxury addicts. A key companion to Robert Putnam's survey of dwindling US social mobility, Our Kids (Simon and Schuster, 2015; see B. Kiser Nature 520, 155; 2015).

A Hole in the Wind

  • David Goodrich
Pegasus (2017) 9781681774312 | ISBN: 978-1-6817-7431-2

At the end of a high-level career in climate science, David Goodrich cycled from Delaware to Oregon looking for a “hole in the wind” — a human future in the unrelenting march of climate change. Over a rain- and sweat-soaked 6,700 kilometres, he encountered Pennsylvanians at the fracking frontline, forest fires in Wyoming and scores of people in diners, labs and schools profoundly concerned about coming realities. Ultimately, he sees humanity's capacity for economic transformation and reform as up to the job.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 546, 31 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/546031a

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