BOOKS AND ARTS

The Wright brothers’ real story, cosmic chronology, and what happened to the megafauna: Books in brief

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

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Book jacket 'Wright Brothers Wrong Story'

Wright Brothers, Wrong Story

William Hazelgrove Prometheus (2018)

In December 1903, the first 12 seconds of controlled, human-powered flight took place near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. That triumph is engraved in history; less so, the story of Wilbur and Orville Wright, the uber-geeks behind it. In this gripping dual biography, William Hazelgrove argues that theirs was no partnership of equals, as Orville claimed: it was Wilbur who rewrote the science of aeronautics. Hazelgrove delves into their experimental tinkering and family dynamics, but the real story here is that, as he eloquently puts it, one brother was a poet, and the other a scribe.

Book jacket 'The Beginning and the End of Everything'

The Beginning and the End of Everything

Paul Parsons Michael O’Mara (2018)

If a soup-to-nuts natural history of the Universe appeals, this one is a winner. Paul Parsons, a theoretical cosmologist turned science writer, delivers the oft-told tale with engaging lucidity, from the birth of the Universe 13.8 billion years ago to its putative end in a bang or a whimper aeons hence. As he traverses the phenomena, he interweaves stories of the researchers who discovered them, such as sixth-century Indian astronomer Varahamihira, who first conceptualized a force something like gravity, and the doughty researchers who found gravitational waves in 2015.

Book jacket 'End of the Megafauna'

End of the Megafauna

Ross D. E. MacPhee W. W. Norton (2018)

Just a few thousand years ago, gargantuan fauna roamed the planet, from the gorilla-sized sloth lemur Archaeoindris fontoynontii to the elephant bird Aepyornis maximus. What drove the extinction of these species “lost in near time”? Palaeomammalogist Ross MacPhee examines the theories, such as human over-hunting, climate change, emergent infections and food-web disruption; articulates the ongoing debate around them and what that might tell us about today’s biodiversity crisis; and takes a look at de-extinction. Packed with evocative artwork by Peter Schouten.

Book jacket 'Mercury'

Mercury

William Sheehan Reaktion (2018)

Mercury, the Solar System’s innermost planet, was spotted in antiquity but remained an enigma until the 1960s. Science historian William Sheehan’s portrait of the body (known in ancient Greece as the “scintillating one” for its flicker) reveals it as an airless iron world with an eccentric orbit. He interleaves discoveries, from Johannes Kepler’s prediction of a transit of Mercury in the seventeenth century to NASA’s MESSENGER probe, which relayed gorgeous images and data (such as the presence of a wealth of volatile compounds on the surface) before crashing on the planet in 2015.

Book jacket 'Light in the Dark'

The Light in the Dark

Horatio Clare Elliott & Thompson (2018)

The leafless gloom of British winters can evoke powerful emotions. Beset by depression during one, nature writer Horatio Clare vowed to track his psychological shifts during the next. His lyrical memoir mines dark realities, from rural crime to seasonal affective disorder and the rising incidence of anxiety among university students. Yet running through all is the understanding that immersion in nature — the “turbulent, colloquial cries of geese”, silvered fields and sunlit birches — can help in overcoming the condition, as a growing body of Western and Japanese research suggests.

Nature 564, 187 (2018)

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