The deep past of megafires, big data’s Achilles heel and behind the scenes of the March for Science: Books in brief

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

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Book jacket for Burning Planet

Burning Planet

Andrew C. Scott Oxford University Press (2018)

Megafires regularly crackle through the headlines, yet wildfire management remains largely misguided. Geologist Andrew Scott redresses the balance in this scholarly yet accessible study, drawing on ground and satellite observation as well as his original research into the 400-million-year history of fire on Earth. Through technologies such as scanning electron microscopy, Scott’s study of fossil charcoal has unearthed an astounding deep-past record of botanical riches and shifts in climate and oxygen levels. A timely book in an era of heightened fire risk and threats to water supply.

Book jacket for Rainforest

Rainforest: Dispatches from Earth’s Most Vital Frontlines

Tony Juniper Profile (2018)

The “green oceans” that are tropical rainforests help to regulate Earth’s water, climate and carbon cycles; support 50% of terrestrial flora and fauna; and offer a lifeline to 1.6 billion people. Yet half have been cleared, in large part by consumer-led interests, from cattle ranching to palm-oil production. Environmentalist Tony Juniper surveys the terrain through myriad lenses: the bitter history of exploitation and its impact on indigenous peoples; the stupendous biological riches; and the conservation science and community involvement that, given political and industrial will, could halt the felling.

Book jacket for The Efficiency Paradox

The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can’t Do

Edward Tenner Knopf (2018)

We pursue efficiency through engulfment in the digital. Yet, argues historian of technology Edward Tenner in this perceptive study, the promise of big data and algorithms for information, education, medicine and beyond is dissipating. The Silicon Valley dream of a frictionless existence is failing because ethical, political and social elements were factored in poorly, spawning issues such as flawed algorithms. Sympathetically critiquing the work of others in this arena, including Nicholas Carr and Cathy O’Neill, Tenner calls for a strategy that blends intuition and experience with high technology.

Book jacket for Audubon's Last Wilderness Journey

Audubon’s Last Wilderness Journey

Marilyn Laufer et al. Giles (2018)

Forget birds: otters, bison, armadillos, black bears, elk, beavers and other New World mammals starred in ornithologist John James Audubon’s last great work of natural-history illustration. Published in three volumes between 1845 and 1848, and inspired by Audubon’s 1843 journey up the Missouri River, the original featured 150 hand-coloured illustrations. Curators at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Alabama’s Auburn University have now made them available to all. Accompanying the striking reproductions are fresh essays on hunting, conservation, wilderness, mammalogy and more.

Book jacket for Science not Silence

Science Not Silence

Edited by Stephanie Fine Sasse and Lucky Tran MIT Press (2018)

More than one million researchers, postdocs and science aficionados took to the streets across some 600 cities on 22 April 2017. The March for Science was a riposte to the US administration’s ennui around research; it aimed to reify the fundamental, multidimensional importance of science in tackling global challenges and advancing knowledge. This vibrant photo-essay compilation, edited by science communicators Stephanie Fine Sasse and Lucky Tran, pays homage to the international community and its resilience, creativity and ongoing commitment to speaking truth to power.

Nature 556, 173 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-04160-x

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