Books in brief

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

The Unexpected Truth about Animals

Doubleday (2017) 9780857524119 | ISBN: 978-0-8575-2411-9

Sigmund Freud's first paper involved the dissection of eels in an attempt to locate their testes. To his frustration, Freud failed to find any. The eel's life cycle remains slippery, notes natural-history broadcaster Lucy Cooke in her deeply researched, sassily written history of “the biggest misconceptions, mistakes and myths we've concocted about the animal kingdom”, spread by figures from Aristotle to Walt Disney. Other chapters spotlight the sloth, vulture, hippopotamus, panda, chimpanzee and others, and dismantle anthropocentric clichés with scientific, global evidence.

The Lost Species

University of Chicago Press (2017) 9780226386218 | ISBN: 978-0-2263-8621-8

Only one-fifth of Earth's species are named, observes Christopher Kemp. Our understanding of biodiversity resembles the sound of a symphony in which an orchestra plays every fifth note. A DNA barcode is an isolated note; only a taxonomist can determine whether an unmatched barcode signifies a new species. But taxonomists are a threatened species, too. This book pleads for their preservation with appealing stories of past and present discoveries, such as Charles Darwin's rove beetle: found in Argentina in 1832, lost in a London collection and rediscovered and named Darwinilus sedarisi in 2012.

De/Cipher: The Greatest Codes Ever Invented and How to Break Them

Modern (2017) 9781911130376 | ISBN: 978-1-9111-3037-6

People often use the same password on multiple websites. Such bad habits remain the best hope for the codebreaker as encryption becomes increasingly unbreakable, notes science writer Mark Frary in this eclectic introduction to the mathematics, technology and personalities behind cryptography. It ranges from the baffling ancient Indus script to Alan Turing's crucial Second World War codebreaking and the promise of quantum cryptography. Brief biographies of codebreakers both famous and obscure enliven the challenging codes and compensate for occasional inaccuracies.

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore. University of California Press (2017)


Sociologist-cum-activist Raj Patel and environmental historian Jason Moore have written an informed, sometimes acute, polemic against capitalism's half-millennium of colonial exploitation. They argue that the 'Capitalocene' age has triumphed by “cheapening” seven things: nature, money, work, care, food, energy and lives. They quote Christopher Columbus, who observed the Caribbean's wondrous but unknown vegetation and wrote that many of its herbs and trees might be “worth much in Europe for dyes and for medicines”. To the authors, this unquestionably devalues nature; others might differ.

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire

Princeton University Press (2017) 9780691166834 | ISBN: 978-0-6911-6683-4

Ptolemy, the second-century geographer who lived in Roman-ruled Alexandria, Egypt, said it rained there every month but August. Now, the city has about one day of rain from May to September, says classicist Kyle Harper. He argues that environmental changes were as influential in destroying the Roman empire as human agency. His study mingles bacteria, volcanoes and solar cycles with emperors, barbarians, soldiers and slaves — including the Late Antique Little Ice Age and the first pandemic of bubonic plague.


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Robinson, A. Books in brief. Nature 551, 167 (2017).

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