The Zoomable Universe

Caleb Scharf and Ron Miller. Scientific American (2017) 978-1786494047


In 1977, designers Charles and Ray Eames harnessed camera zoom and graphics to play with cosmic scale. The result: iconic film Powers of Ten. Forty years on, after vast advances in astrophysics, the quantum and the subatomic, physicist Caleb Scharf revisits the territory. Zooming from the observable Universe (29 billion parsecs across) to nearly nothing (10−35 metres), Scharf's vivid writing meets its match in Ron Miller's mind-bending illustrations. A total delight, evoking the Milky Way as “ringmaster” to a Galactic swarm and musing at the jiggling weirdness of quantum foam near the Planck scale.

Leonardo da Vinci

Walter Isaacson Simon & Schuster (2017) 978-1501139154 978-1471166761

Leonardo da Vinci's prowess as a polymath — driven by insatiable curiosity about everything from the human womb to deadly weaponry — still stuns. In this copiously illustrated biography, we feel its force all over again. Walter Isaacson wonderfully conveys how Leonardo's genius unified science and art. His grasp of the skull's structure, for instance, fed the exquisite modelling of his portraits. But the prime focus here is the notebooks — glorious mash-ups mixing to-do lists, bravura drawings of human musculature, oddly random questions and 169 formulae for squaring a circle.

Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity

Sandra Postel Island (2017) 978-1610917902

Dams, levees, canals: humanity's battle with water is age-old. Yet droughts and flooding cost billions, as the planet is lashed by extreme weather and climate change and our lifestyles lap up gargantuan volumes of H2O. Sandra Postel's superb study demonstrates how working with wetlands and watersheds can turn that tide. Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project, cites scores of sustainable wins, from permeable pavements that control storm water in Kansas City, Missouri, to groundwater replenishment in rural Rajasthan, India, kick-started by conservationist Rajendra Singh.

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery

Scott Kelly Knopf (2017) 978-1524731595

Biographies by US astronauts are booming, and what's most notable is how distinct the personalities are under the “right stuff” label. Scott Kelly, who spent almost a year aboard the International Space Station in 2015–16, is a markedly down-to-earth high-flyer. A “blue-collar New Jersey” boy, Kelly grew up with an alcoholic father, discovering the joys of study in time to ensure that he became a pilot and, finally, astronaut. The details grip, from the hideously complex simulated missions to the 400 experiments he conducted on board and the insights he developed in his annus mirabilis.

Animals Strike Curious Poses

Elena Passarello Jonathan Cape (2017) 978-1941411391 978-1787330306

Animals, so often bit players in human history, can gain star status. Thus, the starling whose song reputedly inspired Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; or Arabella, a web-weaving cross spider studied on NASA's space station Skylab. In 16 powerful, impressionistic essays, Elena Passarello gathers a multitude of these close encounters. From the “near-bestiary” roving ancient Europe to the brave new world of rewilding, she brilliantly explores the conflicts and cruelties inherent in our fascination with animal otherness.