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Books in brief

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

Books in brief

figure1

A New Map of Wonders: A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels

Caspar Henderson Granta (2017)

In his Book of Barely Imagined Beings (Granta, 2012), Caspar Henderson crafted a recherché bestiary for the twenty-first century. Here he mines the cosmos for other wondrous phenomena, from light to transformative technologies. We veer from Saturn’s moon Enceladus — spraying water into space through cracks in its ice sheath — to the human embryo, which at 18 days resembles “a tiny jam sandwich”. Strung through Henderson’s virtuosic meditations on such marvels is an exploration of felt wonder — those moments when, as Plato put it, “philosophy begins”.

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A Different Kind of Animal: How Culture Transformed Our Species

Robert Boyd Princeton University Press (2017)

By 10,000 years ago, Homo sapiens had surged into almost every corner of Earth, barring Antarctica and a number of islands. What explains that unique dominance? In this lucid, well-argued treatise, anthropologist Robert Boyd avers that we are “culture-saturated creatures”, and that it is culturally transmitted knowledge that sets us apart and explains our dramatic range of behaviours, from rampant violence to great feats of cooperation. Philosopher Kim Sterelny, evolutionary anthropologist Ruth Mace and others provide considered and spirited counter-arguments.

figure3

The Water Will Come

Jeff Goodell Little, Brown (2017)

Humanity’s “fossil fuel party” is ending in tears: damage from sea-level rise alone could cost US$100 trillion by 2100. So notes Jeff Goodell in his cogent reportage on a world going under, from the Maldives to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Goodell visits imperilled communities in hurricane alleys; joins climatologists studying Greenland’s disintegrating Jakobshavn Glacier; and muses over the planned “Big U” wall to protect lower Manhattan in New York City. To adapt, he concludes, two things are needed: a halt to fossil-fuel burning and a mass move to higher ground.

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My House of Sky: The Life of J. A. Baker

Hetty Saunders Little Toller (2017)

J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1967) was a watershed in British nature writing, so it’s astounding that Hetty Saunders is the first to train binoculars on the man himself. This outwardly unassuming amateur, she reveals, was not just a stylist of piercing originality. Baker’s mid-century field observations of raptor populations driven down by pesticide use offer rare insight into both human destructiveness and the power of nature in the liminal estuarine landscapes near London. This beauty of a book is as much paean to those bleak reaches as to the hawk-like mind that explored them.

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Where the Wild Coffee Grows

Jeff Koehler Bloomsbury (2017)

Blearily sipping a morning espresso? Jeff Koehler’s scientific and anthropological chronicle will lend context to your cup. Exploring the origins of Coffea arabica in the rain-drenched highland forests of southern Ethiopia — notably Kafa — Koehler interweaves narratives on botanist Carl Linnaeus, centuries of coffee trading and today’s barista boom. With Latin America’s crops at risk from a lack of genetic diversity, the wild Arabica now protected in Kafa’s biosphere reserve may just, Koehler argues, save our ‘daily grind’.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 551, 439 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-017-07222-8

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  • Culture
  • Palaeontology
  • Zoology
  • Climate change

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