Thinking like a mountain, how we really make decisions, and the power of a button: Books in brief

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

Search for this author in:

Books in Brief 'Timefulness'


Marcia Bjornerud Princeton University Press (2018)

As a geologist, Marcia Bjornerud works in many time frames: the 4.5-billion-year history of Earth, the academic year, the daily grind. That layered perspective has made her aware of the short-term thinking common in a society wedded to political terms of office and the news cycle — all of which has, she argues, contributed to our inadequate, sometimes wrongheaded response to climate change. In this trenchant study, Bjornerud calls for a new geological literacy to instil deeper knowledge of planetary rhythms and processes — “thinking like a mountain”, as ecologist Aldo Leopold put it.

Books in Brief 'Farsighted'


Steven Johnson Riverhead (2018)

Many researchers (notably psychologist Daniel Kahneman) have wrestled with the subtle mechanics of decision-making. Now, science writer Steven Johnson has his decisive moment, looking at the deep deliberations — mapping of variables, predictions of outcomes and balancing of aims and possibilities — that underpin life-changing choices. He draws on research and compelling examples, from George Eliot’s 1871 novel Middlemarch (which examines the “threadlike pressure” on the deciding mind) to the supercomputer-based climate models now influencing climate-relevant decisions across the globe.

Books in Brief 'Birds in the Ancient World'

Birds in the Ancient World

Jeremy Mynott Oxford University Press (2018)

From nightingales trilling in ancient Rome’s suburbs to the migrating cranes minutely observed by Aristotle in his fourth-century-bc History of Animals, birds pervaded early Mediterranean civilizations. Jeremy Mynott’s masterful cultural and scientific history tours their roles as timepieces, soundscapes, pets, messaging services — even intermediaries with the supernatural. The vivid artworks and literary passages give this wings: here is the Greek poet Aratus on finches “chirruping shrilly at dawn” before a storm; there, a surreal Roman recipe for flamingo stewed with coriander.

Books in Brief 'Power Button'

Power Button

Rachel Plotnick MIT Press (2018)

Push buttons pop up on everything from blenders to aeroplanes. Yet, as Rachel Plotnick reveals in this unusual technological history, the mechanism had an explosive impact on culture from its debut in the 1880s to the 1920s and beyond. The idea that huge machines or even bombs could be activated by a finger became a metaphor for human hegemony, and a source of fear and wonder. And, as Plotnick notes, some ‘buttonized’ inventions (such as the electrified tie pin) may be defunct, but in an era of nuclear weaponry and disruptive leadership, one-touch technology still has the power to shock.

Books in Brief 'Bits to Bitcoin'

Bits to Bitcoin

Mark Stuart Day MIT Press (2018)

In this methodical primer, technologist Mark Day examines the computational infrastructure — the elements that underlie the workings of digital devices and networks. He unpicks operating systems, examines processes, explains esoteric defensive techniques such as cryptography and reveals Bitcoin to be an “intriguing combination of self-interest and mathematics”. If you want to know why data streams turn lumpy when compressed, or yearn to get inside the cloud, a handy reference awaits.

Nature 560, 549 (2018)

Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.