Shared consciousness, artificial imagination, and the Universe’s first seconds: Books in brief

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

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Galileo’s Error

Philip Goff Pantheon (2019)

In this well-argued, but provocative, study, philosopher Philip Goff asserts that ”nothing is harder to incorporate into our scientific picture of the world” than consciousness. Goff harks back to 1623, when physicist Galileo Galilei adopted a dualist position: consciousness exists completely outside the physical realm. Today, materialists aim to explain it as purely physical. Goff opts instead for the 1920s ‘panpsychism’ view, which claims that all physical matter shares consciousness.

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Jim Davies Pegasus (2019)

Scientific books on creativity abound. But this deeply researched study of imagination — ranging from everyday practicalities such as planning a shopping list, to dreams and hallucinations — is not one of them. Cognitive scientist Jim Davies, who heads a Science of Imagination Laboratory in Canada, researches how to get software to replicate the processes our brains use to create visual scenes in our minds. But, as Davies admits, in psychology the jury is still out on whether “mental imagery exists as its own separate representation”.

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At the Edge of Time

Dan Hooper Princeton University Press (2019)

In 1919, when general relativity was confirmed astronomically, science knew nothing of cosmic origins. Even in the 1950s, Albert Einstein joked that “Every man has his own cosmology and who can say that his own theory is right!” Today, the Big Bang is universally accepted, and evidence suggests that gravity started to behave much as it does now within about 1043 seconds. Yet much remains perplexing, explains astrophysicist Dan Hooper in this informed introduction to “the mysteries of our universe’s first seconds”.

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The Imperiled Ocean

Laura Trethewey Pegasus (2019)

Three million US citizens work on the ocean — in fishing, oil and gas, tourism and other industries and services. The global figure is three billion. Journalist Laura Trethewey set out in 2015 on “an extended listening tour” to hear some of their stories. She describes a teenage Ghanaian refugee who crossed the Mediterranean, a ‘water-squatting’ Pacific Northwest community and a biologist who tracked the accelerating disappearance of the sturgeon. The vivid result — her debut — persuades us that “the ocean’s story is also our own”.

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Republic of Numbers

David Lindsay Roberts Johns Hopkins University Press (2019)

This charming collection of 20 “unexpected stories of mathematical Americans through history” focuses not only on the greatest US mathematical minds, and includes just six career academics. Abraham Lincoln, self-trained as a surveyor, later studied Euclid — as demonstrated in his Gettysburg Address, “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. A pity, however, to exclude Tom Lehrer, mathematician-cum-satirist, who composed the classic 1965 song ‘New Math’.

Nature 575, 281 (2019)

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