BOOKS AND ARTS

The souls of deserts, a gathering of visionary biologists, and an inside view on exoplanets: Books in brief

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

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Book jacket 'Immeasurable World'

The Immeasurable World

William Atkins Faber & Faber (2018)

An “axis where the absolute coexists with the infinite”: so William Atkins sees the quintessence of deserts. He searched for it on seven journeys, from the Arabian Peninsula’s ‘Empty Quarter’ to China’s Gobi Desert, recollecting his arid odyssey in this beautifully observed memoir-cum-natural-history. With him, we tread the grit of old atomic test sites in Australia’s Nullarbor Plain; meet fatalistic migrants at Arizona’s Mexican border; and contemplate the bleak ecodisaster of Central Asia’s disappearing Aral Sea. “The world has been done,” Atkins declares. But he sees it with new eyes.

Book jacket 'Ticker'

Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart

Mimi Swartz Crown (2018)

In this pacy, blow-by-blow account of the search for a viable artificial heart, Texas Monthly executive editor Mimi Swartz offers a vivid gallery of the medical pioneers who have jostled for the prize. Here are heart surgeon O. H. ‘Bud’ Frazier; inventors Robert Jarvik, Billy Cohn and Daniel Timms; and cardiac specialists Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley, whose duel over implanting the first crude devices sparked the crusade. Decades later, that quest remains urgent: more than 25 million US citizens have heart disease, yet only a few thousand hearts are available for transplant in any given year.

Book jacket 'Dreamers, Visionaries and Revolutionaries in the Life Sciences'

Dreamers, Visionaries, and Revolutionaries in the Life Sciences

Oren Harman and Michael R. Dietrich (eds) Univ. Chicago Press (2018)

They may infuriate even as they inspire; destabilize, as well as advance. The visionaries of biology, note science historians Oren Harman and Michael Dietrich, are masters of “dramatically bold, even fantastic” thinking about big problems. This compelling edited volume explores the work of 19 innovators, including Iranian-American cancer researcher Mina Bissell, who studies tumour microenvironments; Canadian John Todd, who engineered solar aquatic sewage treatment; and Peter Kropotkin, the Russian biologist who championed mutualism in nature during the Darwinian revolution.

Book jacket 'One of Ten Billions'

One of Ten Billion Earths

Karel Schrijver Oxford Univ. Press (2018)

Like distant mirrors, exoplanets reveal much about Earth and its habitability even as they relay explosive new insights into planetary formation and extraterrestrial life. Astrophysicist Karel Schrijver’s lucid, fact-packed primer ranges over everything from the Goldilocks zone and stellar nurseries to disrupted exosystems and the vagaries of “living on a pale blue dot”. And more: if you ever wanted to understand nomad planets or catch a glimpse of a volcanic eruption on Jupiter’s moon Io (observed by the New Horizons spacecraft on its way to Pluto), this book delivers the goods.

Book jacket 'The Omega Principle'

The Omega Principle

Paul Greenberg Penguin (2018)

The cacophony of claims about the impact of omega-3 fatty acids on health is drowning out concerns over the associated industry, argues Paul Greenberg in this sobering investigation. He followed the omega-3 trail around the world and into history to reveal the price of a century of industrial reduction — the boiling down of a gargantuan tonnage of marine organisms for products from animal feed to oils for supplements. Notably, the mass harvesting of krill and forage fish such as menhaden looks increasingly unsustainable as overfishing and oceanic warming take their toll.

Nature 559, 475 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05774-x
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