Isaac Newton in the round, a migratory road trip and the downside of positive thinking: Books in brief

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

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Book jacket 'A Forest in the Clouds'

A Forest in the Clouds

John Fowler Pegasus (2018)

In the early 1980s, John Fowler — then a zoology undergraduate — worked with mountain gorillas at Karisoke, a research centre in Rwanda founded by primatologist Dian Fossey. His book, the only first-hand account of life inside the camp, is both a visceral ethological record and a disturbing portrait of an anguished and embittered Fossey. Framing her unsolved murder in 1985 as that of a scientist-soldier at the front, Fowler ultimately gives Fossey her due as the researcher who taught the world to love a kindred species, even as she became increasingly estranged from her own.

Book jacket 'The Joy of Sets'

The Joy of Sets

Chris Horrocks Reaktion (2018)

Television, reveals cultural historian Chris Horrocks in this compact chronicle, has tangled roots. The scientific advances of inventor John Logie Baird, broadcast pioneer Paul Nipkow and Karl Braun, inventor of the cathode-ray tube, are only part of the story. A slew of Victorian novels featured visual portals conquering time and space, such as the ‘varzeo’ in Ismar Thiusen’s The Diothas (1883). Along with sets, from Baird’s 1928 ‘Noah’s Ark’ televisor to today’s ultra-thin screens, Horrocks examines the technology’s military uses, the ethical furore over content, and its uses as a symbol in art, film and literature.

Book jacket 'Isaac Newton'

Isaac Newton and Natural Philosophy

Niccolò Guicciardini Reaktion (2018)

This pithy, nuanced biography of Isaac Newton examines the whole man, as a scientist born into the tumultuous seventeenth century and as an icon (and puzzle) through time. Science historian Niccolò Guicciardini reveals how Newton’s theories first received a mixed reception, then became a kind of “cultural fashion” after his death. In the 1930s, his private archive of recondite and theological investigations muddied the picture further. Now, as Guicciardini shows, we are able to see Newton as a brilliant problem-solver eager to crack complexities — in mathematics, metaphysics and alchemy.

Book jacket 'North on the Wing'

North on the Wing: Travels with the Songbird Migration of Spring

Bruce M. Beehler Smithsonian Books (2018)

Many thrill to the spring arrival of avian migrants. Ornithologist Bruce Beehler decided not to wait. Inspired by Edwin Way Teale’s 1951 US natural-history road trip, North with the Spring, Beehler set off in 2015 to follow, by car, canoe and bicycle, the migration of neotropical songbirds from Texas to Canada. Beehler’s 100‑day account is both deeply informed by conservation science and history, and lit by euphoric moments such as seeing roseate spoonbills duelling with “absurd spatulate bills”, or a cerulean tide of blue jays in flight over Wisconsin wolf country.

Book jacket 'Other Side of Happiness'

The Other Side of Happiness

Brock Bastian Allen Lane (2018)

Depressed by positive thinking? Psychologist Brock Bastian concurs. Many theories on the anatomy of happiness have got it wrong, he argues: real well-being involves embracing pain, from the social to the existential. His deft, evidence-based study reveals how avoiding pain backfires; over-protected children become less resilient; and adversity fosters community. If we take calculated risks, stop muffling our sorrow and eschew instant gratification, he avers, our lives will regain clarity of purpose.

Nature 554, 29 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01325-6

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