Loop quantum gravity redux, ancient automatons, and the weirdness of tropical flora: Books in brief

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

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Book jacket 'Quantum Space'

Quantum Space

Jim Baggott Oxford Univ. Press (2018)

Prolific physics writer Jim Baggott is back with a terrific page-turner on loop quantum gravity (LQG) — the theory posited as a solution to that chasm in physics between quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity. Baggott digs into the how and why of what LQG might reveal about “space, time and the universe”, tracing its evolution through the work of Abhay Ashtekar, Lee Smolin, Carlo Rovelli and others, to its current implications for, say, the physics of black holes. Baggott masterfully tenderizes the scientific chewiness and is careful not to over-egg what is, after all, a work in progress.

Book jacket 'Republican Reversal'

The Republican Reversal

James Morton Turner and Andrew C. Isenberg Harvard Univ. Press (2018)

In the 1960s and 1970s, the US Republican Party — pressured by the era’s environmental movement — created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and extended the Clean Air Act. Today, it busily eviscerates the EPA while denouncing climate change as a hoax. Environmental historians James Turner and Andrew Isenberg follow this reversal from Ronald Reagan’s presidency on, revealing how conservative ideologues hostile to science and bent on deregulation have gradually bolted US exceptionalism to anti‑environmentalism. Searingly timely and cautiously hopeful.

Book jacket 'Gods and Robots'

Gods and Robots

Adrienne Mayor Princeton Univ. Press (2018)

More than two millennia before today’s explosion in robot manufacture, bards and philosophers toyed with the concept of imitating life. Classics scholar Adrienne Mayor’s astonishing chronicle harks back to mythic automata, such as “evil fembot” Pandora and bronze giant Talos. And she examines real mechanical devices — flying doves, bellowing statues and gliding Buddhas — devised by virtuosic technicians from the Mediterranean to China. A third-century bc colossus crafted for Egyptian monarch Ptolemy II Philadelphus, for instance, could stand up, sit down and pour milk.

Book jacket 'Dark Commerce'

Dark Commerce

Louise I. Shelley Princeton Univ. Press (2018)

Illicit trade in human organs, wildlife, arms and rare woods has vastly expanded over the past three decades as communications and digitization have improved apace. Here, Louise Shelley, a leading researcher in the field, examines organized crime over four millennia. She unpeels its disturbing dynamics today through case studies such as Silk Road, a vastly lucrative cybersupermarket, and the much-documented illegal market in rhino horn (currently priced at US$60,000 per kilo). And she lucidly lays out the dark economy’s planetary costs, as it escalates biodiversity loss and deforestation.

Book jacket 'Atlas of poetic Botany'

Atlas of Poetic Botany

Francis Hallé with Éliane Patriarca, transl. Erik Butler MIT Press (2018)

From the epiphytic ‘hanging’ plant Guzmania lingulata to the mushroom mimic Helosis cayennensis, compelling oddities crowd equatorial forests. Botanist Francis Hallé celebrates their spectacular weirdness in this sprightly homage, translated from French by Erik Butler. Alongside descriptions of clonal forests, underground trees and ‘dancing’ plants, Hallé sets playful stylized drawings explicating the strange behaviours, adaptations and coevolution of each species. It’s a vegetal parade that reminds us, yet again, how some chunks of Earth’s biosphere still smack of terra incognita.

Nature 563, 625 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07525-4
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