From sci-fi reality to sound, jet stream to light speed: Books in brief

Andrew Robinson reviews five of the week’s best science picks.

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Volume Control

David Owen Riverhead (2019)

“For a deaf child, having hearing parents can be a serious handicap,” notes New Yorker staff writer David Owen in this sensitive study of hearing. (He is personally involved, as someone with tinnitus who saw his grandmother struggle with deafness.) Meshing the science with individual auditory experiences, Owen discusses hearing aids, cochlear implants, genetically deafened mice, sign language, Thomas Edison and noise levels in US cities and towns — all in absorbing, anecdotal detail, although regrettably with no diagrams.

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Reality Ahead of Schedule

Joel Levy Smithsonian (2019)

This picture-packed volume by science journalist Joel Levy tours scientific advances sparked by ideas in science fiction. The title comes from a definition of sci-fi by Syd Mead, an industrial designer behind the look of futuristic movies such as Blade Runner (1982). But how prescient is sci-fi? Levy shows how H. G. Wells’s 1903 story ‘The Land Ironclads’ inspired Winston Churchill to promote the development of the military tank in 1915. But Wells did not envisage its key technical idea: caterpillar tracks, for added grip.

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Jet Stream

Tim Woollings Oxford University Press (2019)

The jet stream — strong high-altitude air currents — was discovered in the 1920s. In this analysis of its complex impact on weather, physicist Tim Woollings relates how in 1944, the Japanese used the jet stream to launch trans-Pacific incendiary balloons. By strange chance, one hit the US plant that provided plutonium for the bomb that devastated Nagasaki in 1945. Today, argues Woollings, the jet stream is “very likely” to be threatened by another product of human activity: rising carbon dioxide emissions.

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Adventures of a Computational Explorer

Stephen Wolfram Wolfram Media (2019)

Computer scientist and businessman Stephen Wolfram, designer of the technical-computing system Mathematica, proffers good stories in this collection of autobiographical essays. In ‘Something I learned in kindergarten’, he recalls himself as a six-year-old spotting a bite taken out of the Sun: a solar eclipse, something unknown to the other children. In ‘My life in technology’, he recalls rejecting the Latin word mathematica, learnt at school, as too long and ponderous. Silicon Valley luminary Steve Jobs convinced him otherwise.

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John C. H. Spence Oxford University Press (2019)

Starting with Albert Einstein, scientific consensus holds that the speed of light is a universal constant. So writes physicist John Spence in his history of attempts to measure the speed of light. Spence considers the implications of its constancy for modern physics and technology. For instance, the aether — a theoretical space-filling medium rejected in Einstein’s relativity — is still “anything but empty”. Despite its appealing vignettes of great physicists, this is a challenging read.

Nature 575, 27 (2019)

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