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Books in brief

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

Willy Ley: Prophet of the Space Age

University Press of Florida (2017). 9780813054438 | ISBN: 978-0-8130-5443-8

Among the scientists who fled Europe for the United States in the 1930s and 1940s was Willy Ley, first historian of spaceflight. In Jared Buss's nuanced biography, the German-born rocket expert emerges as a spirited science educator whose promotion of space exploration paved the way for NASA's triumphs. By 1960, Ley's romanticized vision of science had been occluded by the harder-edged approach of his fellow émigré and collaborator, aerospace wizard Wernher von Braun — but only partly. As Buss reveals, Ley's “reenchantment” of big science with a sense of wonder has held.

Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence

Princeton University Press (2017). 9780691165509 | ISBN: 978-0-6911-6550-9

There have been many cogent analyses of US income inequality. Sociologist Rachel Sherman's welcome addition probes the psychology and socio-economics of affluence. Sherman interviewed 50 New Yorkers, from academics to financiers, with incomes between US$250,000 and more than $10 million. She found complex adaptations to privilege, from ethical acrobatics normalizing extreme consumption to defensive assertions that wealth is “earned”. Most of her interviewees focus on crafting a self-legitimizing moral universe rather than addressing the structural inequalities that trigger their unease.

What It's Like to be a Dog

Basic (2017). 9780465096244 | ISBN: 978-0-4650-9624-4

The hyper-curiosity of a pet terrier spurred neuroscientist Gregory Berns to probe the dog's brain — an experiment demanding that she stay awake and unrestrained in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. Many more dogs and trials later, the project has generated numerous findings on canine brain function, such as how owners' smells alone activate the reward response. This is just one “adventure in animal neuroscience” that Berns pursues, as he investigates beat synchronization in sea lions, auditory pathways in dolphins and the putative behaviour of the extinct thylacine.

Frankenstein Dreams

Bloomsbury (2017). 9781632860415 | ISBN: 978-1-6328-6041-5

Victorian upheavals in science and technology jolted the era, and the imaginations of its speculative-fiction writers. This nightshade nosegay of vintage sci-fi tales and excerpts, plucked by writer Michael Sims, richly reflects the shifts. Along with miniature masterworks by the likes of Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells and Ambrose Bierce are unexpected gems. William Henry Rhodes's 'The Telescopic Eye', for instance, features chariot-wheel-shaped aliens called Lunarians; and Mary Wilkins Freeman's 'The Hall Bedroom' is a hallucinatory journey into the fifth dimension.

DNA: The Story of the Genetic Revolution

James D. Watson, with Andrew Berry and Kevin Davies. Knopf (2017).


In this update of DNA: The Secret of Life (Knopf, 2003), James Watson — the controversially outspoken co-discoverer of DNA's structure — remaps the genetic landscape. There are new chapters on personal genetics and cancer treatment; key discoveries, such as the CRISPR revolution kick-started by Emmanuelle Charpentier, Jennifer Doudna and Feng Zhang; and findings in epigenetics and agricultural chemistry. Backing nature over nurture, Watson ends by arguing (with caveats) in favour of future germline gene editing.

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  1. Barbara Kiser is Nature's books and arts editor.

    • Barbara Kiser

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 548, 521 (2017).

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