Unending expansion, the wonder of beetles and YouTube from the inside: Books in brief

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

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Book jacket 'The Growth Delusion'

The Growth Delusion

David Pilling Bloomsbury (2018)

“Only in economics is endless expansion seen as a virtue. In biology it is called cancer.” Rarely does a study of gross domestic product (GDP) and growth sizzle with such wit and acuity, but Financial Times editor David Pilling manages the feat. He skewers the linked concepts as a statistical neverland that factors in crime and ignores housework. He pulls out absurdities such as the stratospheric US health-care costs that prop up the nation’s economic well-being, yet destroy uninsured families. And he presents a cogent argument for the multi-index ‘dashboard’ superseding mere GDP. Masterful.

Book jacket 'Source'

The Source

Martin Doyle W. W. Norton (2018)

Rivers have shaped the United States geologically, economically and demographically — there are, after all, 250,000 in the country. This history by water-policy expert Martin Doyle nimbly explores that process in tandem with the heroic era of US construction that saw the rise of projects such as the Grand Coulee Dam. In his telling, rivers become a lens on federalism, energy and conservation — a rolling narrative taking us from George Washington’s quest to find a passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ohio River, through decades of levee-building, flood control, water wars and much more.

Book jacket 'Graphene'


Les Johnson and Joseph E. Meany Prometheus (2018)

How can a material one atom thick conduct electricity or filter filthy water? Physicist Les Johnson and chemist Joseph Meany tell all about graphene, that wispy “tessellation of carbon atoms” finally coming into its own. Their primer is fittingly slim, but covers an impressive swathe of the science and its applications. Along with a lucid history of earlier carbon “miracle materials”, they follow the path from lab to production. The potential is vast, from making the material using waste carbon dioxide harvested from astronauts’ breath, to creating graphene-based transistors that detect harmful genes.

Book jacket 'Beetles'


Richard Jones William Collins (2018)

It’s no surprise that Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin were both avid fans of the beetle. The nearly half a million described species of Coleoptera are like animated jewels, from their gaudy wing-casings to their shiny, secateur-like mandibles. Entomologist Richard Jones’s illustrated tome (part of the Collins New Naturalist Library) ranges over their anatomy, natural history and behaviour. Things get really wild with the defensive ‘chemical cannon’ of the bombardier beetle, and the biscuit beetle’s reduction of noodles to “ticker tape and dust”. Watch out — there are wonders underfoot.

Book jacket 'Videocracy'


Kevin Allocca Bloomsbury (2018)YouTube can seem like a parallel universe — a trove of cultural data so huge it would take years to watch the content posted in a day. This ‘biography’ of the web-video behemoth by its trends director, Kevin Allocca, tours the technology and the clips that have trended or gone viral, from astronaut Chris Hadfield singing David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ on board the International Space Station, to Egyptian protests during the Arab Spring. Allocca examines, too, the darker side of mass cultural participation, such as the raising of troll armies.

Nature 553, 403 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-00895-9

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