BOOKS AND ARTS

Fighting for air, mathematical mayhem, and beguiling bats: Books in brief

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

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Cover of Choked

Choked

Beth Gardiner Granta (2019)

Take a breath. Chances are, you’ve just inhaled a foul airborne soup — the toxic particulates, nitrogen oxides and more emanating from fossil-fuel combustion. Atmospheric pollution now kills 7 million people a year. To pierce the murk around this issue, journalist Beth Gardiner travelled through Delhi (smog’s ‘ground zero’) to hotspots in the United Kingdom, Poland, Malawi and beyond. She met researchers transforming understanding, rickshaw drivers in the firing line and policy experts struggling with the vagaries of regulation in the United States and China. Timely, eloquent and disturbing.

Cover of Humble Pi

Humble Pi

Matt Parker Allen Lane (2019)

We live in a world supersaturated with mathematics — and errors are rife, reveals maths writer and stand-up comic Matt Parker in this zinger of a book. Parker takes us through cases in finance, engineering and information technology. He recounts the moment in 2004 when mayhem hit Californian airspace because of a maths-related computer glitch; explains why a genetics textbook retailed at more than US$23 million on Amazon; and exposes oddities in postcodes, units, lotteries, bridge design, spreadsheets and much more. All in all, a hectic ride ever teetering between horror and hilarity.

Cover of Sprout Lands

Sprout Lands

William Bryant Logan W. W. Norton (2019)

“Live wood just won’t quit” — so declares arborist and writer William Bryant Logan in this vividly insightful exploration of tree regeneration. Logan documents how roots and stems sprout from myriad points on the body of trees; hymns the joys of hedge-laying; and examines the pollarding and coppicing legacies of Neolithic Europeans, sixteenth-century Basques and California’s Indigenous Karuk people. Surveying New York City’s Fresh Kills dump, he shows how the journeywork of red maples and mulberries returns our detritus to nature and offers a metaphor for hope in a changing world.

Cover of The Pandemic Century

The Pandemic Century

Mark Honigsbaum W. W. Norton (2019)

Over the past 100 years, argues medical historian Mark Honigsbaum, scientific paradigms have often blinded researchers to coming pandemics. Thus, in 1918, the bacteriologist Richard Pfeiffer’s belief that influenza was caused by a bacillus misdirected research even as Spanish flu ravaged millions. Honigsbaum’s gripping narrative ranges from the psittacosis pandemic of the late 1920s to the Ebola crisis of 2014. But despite advances in fields such as immunology, we remain poor at predicting outbreaks and often fail to control panic, or to factor in environmental context.

Cover of Bats: An Illustrated Guide to All Species

Bats: An Illustrated Guide to All Species

Marianne Taylor and Merlin D. Tuttle Ivy (2019)

Active in darkness, aflit in a “three-dimensional maze of sound”, bats are both enigmatic and, with more than 1,300 species, astoundingly diverse. This guide by writer Marianne Taylor and bat conservationist Merlin Tuttle shines a light on the order Chiroptera, from the wee Kitti’s hog-nosed bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai, a candidate for world’s smallest mammal) to the ‘megabats’ of the Pteropodidae family. Meshing deft scientific text with Tuttle’s sumptuous images, it’s a superb introduction to the baroque morphologies and flying prowess of these beguiling beasts.

Nature 567, 459 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00899-z

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