BOOKS AND ARTS

Ethics at the cutting edge, beastly movers and shakers, and teeth as time machines: Books in brief.

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

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Book jacket 'Can science make sense of life'

Can Science Make Sense of Life?

Sheila Jasanoff Polity (2018)

From gene drives to synthetic organoids, every rapid advance in the life sciences opens up a hot-button issue. This incisive study by sociologist of science Sheila Jasanoff examines ethics at that cutting edge. She argues that the view of the human genome as a ‘book of life’, read primarily by biologists, is partial; alongside it belong fields such as ecology, which explore what life is, rather than what it is for. Interweaving cultural touchstones, science history and trenchant insight, Jasanoff calls for a biology that reintegrates humanistic concerns to prevent a reductionist scientific hegemony.

Book jacket 'Chronicles of Evolution'

Sydney Brenner’s 10-on-10: The Chronicles of Evolution

Edited by Shuzhen Sim and Benjamin Seet Wildtype (2018)

Spanning 14 billion years and 10 timescales, this scientific chronicle (brainchild of Nobel-prizewinning geneticist Sydney Brenner) addresses the monumental question of how humanity has come to dominate Earth. Among the 24 prominent scientists and thinkers who contribute are mathematician John Barrow on the habitable zone, biotechnologists Giulia Rancati and Norman Pavelka on cellular complexity, neuroscientist Atsushi Iriki on the evolution of human higher cognition and social scientist Helga Nowotny on our “radically open future”. A lavishly illustrated, thought-provoking ride.

Book jacket 'How to Walk on Water'

How to Walk on Water and Climb Up Walls

David L. Hu Princeton University Press (2018)

Animals are the ultimate movers and shakers, proves biomechanical engineer David Hu in this engrossing tour of faunal motion. Hu reveals propulsive genius in myriad beasts: a mako shark’s 6-metre leap from the sea; a skink that swims in sand; the sinuous ‘flight’ of a Chrysopelea gliding snake. Even the Periplaneta americana cockroach does more than scuttle at lightning speed: its structural similarity to a stress ball allows it to withstand severe pressures. And the physical principles unveiled, Hu shows, offer as much to fluid dynamics and robotics as they do to evolution and zoology.

Book jacket 'The Tales Teeth Tell'

The Tales Teeth Tell

Tanya M. Smith MIT Press (2018)

Biological anthropologist Tanya Smith drills into what disinterred teeth, as “sophisticated time machines”, can tell us about individuals, our species and the deep past. Her study — technically chewy yet thoroughly engaging — examines the human story through dental development, evolution and related behaviour, interlacing vivid anecdotes from her scientific career. The result is a mix of fascinating findings at all scales, from scanning electron microscopy displaying the exquisite geometry of enamel prisms, to toothpick use among hominins some 2 million years ago.

Book jacket 'Continent of Antarctica'

The Continent of Antarctica

Julian Dowdeswell and Michael Hambrey Papadakis (2018)

Part-paean, part-study, this many-faceted portrait of Antarctica meshes crisp scientific writing with luminous images. Julian Dowdeswell — director of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, UK — and glaciologist Michael Hambrey examine the continent through lenses from the geographical to the biological, touching, too, on its role as home to a shifting population of researchers. Drawn from years of fieldwork, this is a book sparking renewed awe over this stupendous landmass, outpost of the climate system and — with the sea bed — Earth’s final frontier.

Nature 563, 323 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07354-5
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