• BOOKS AND ARTS

A world history of imagination, mapping our cosmic context, and India’s urban forests: Books in brief

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Out of Our Minds

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto Oneworld (2019)

“The history of ideas is patched with crazy paving,” writes historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in this big, bold homage to the human imagination in all its warped and fiercely inspired glory. Beginning with cognitive science, his global survey sweeps through leaps of thought from prehistory to today — a journey from unification to uncertainty, lit by minds such as China’s fourth-century-bc master of paradox Hui Shi and paradigm-smashing mathematician Henri Poincaré. Today, Fernandez-Armesto argues, the trend is shifting as our homogenized ‘global culture’ threatens the very exchanges that spark heroic ideas.

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Finding Our Place in the Universe

Hélène Courtois (transl. Nikki Kopelman) MIT Press (2019)

On 3 September 2014, Earth got a new ‘cosmic address’. Laniakea (Hawaiian for ‘immense heaven’) is a gargantuan supercluster folding in more than one million galaxies along with our own. This English-language edition of the award-winning primer by astrophysicist Hélène Courtois, a member of the team that described Laniakea, interweaves cosmographical challenges with backstory (and groundbreakers such as Vera Rubin) and engaging glimpses of Courtois’ own career. She nods, too, to post-Laniakea finds such as the cosmic velocity web. A luminous behind-the-scenes record of a two-decade astrophysical feat.

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Mind in Motion

Barbara Tversky Basic (2019)

Is thinking language-based and ‘all in the head’, or do our physical actions shape it? Cognitive psychologist Barbara Tversky makes a clear case for the latter in this fascinating, many-faceted, research-based study. Moving from the ‘world in the mind’ to the ‘mind in the world’, Tversky explores myriad aspects of embodied cognition and spatial thinking: how we experience the ‘bubble around us’, express thought through gesture, perceive ideas as concrete realities in the mind’s eye and represent aspects of the world (space, time, causality) through objects as varied as sundials and diagrams.

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Here Comes the Sun

Steve Jones Little, Brown (2019)

With wry wit and real clarity, geneticist Steve Jones examines the Sun and our relationship to it. It’s a nimble narrative, from the physics of the “hydrogen bomb in the sky” to its impact on the biosphere, water cycle, food chain, human health and climate change. Jones braids in gripping storylines — on conditions linked to lack of sunlight (such as the bone disease rickets) and the interplay between night, day and sleep — and many throwaway gems, from primates urinating on themselves to stay cool, to the boiling-porridge turbulence of convection on the solar surface.

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Cities and Canopies

Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli Penguin India (2019)

Urban ecologists Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli turn tour guides to the sentinels of India’s cities — the street, park and garden trees thronging Bengaluru, Chennai and Mumbai. Meshing science with cultural history, they explore species such as the majestic ‘shaggy-headed’ banyan (Ficus benghalensis) and golden-blossomed amaltas (Cassia fistula), and delve into arboreal eco-services such as passive cooling and carbon sequestration. With thousands of trees being felled in New Delhi, this is a key reminder of what the urban canopy does for the environment and for us.

Nature 570, 35 (2019)

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