A heliocentric epic, volcanic viniculture, and cartoon chemistry: Books in brief

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

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Heaven on Earth

L. S. Fauber Pegasus (2019)

Four towering sixteenth-century scientists — Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei — discovered heliocentrism at a time of sociopolitical tumult. As L. S. Fauber drives home in this dynamic science history, their intermeshed stories form a mighty “intergenerational epic” sweeping in the likes of Brahe’s sister Sophie and Galileo’s daughter Virginia. A wonderfully wrought explication of how a powerful thesis began its journey to becoming unavoidable fact, and seeded modernity in the process.

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Volcanoes and Wine

Charles Frankel Chicago University Press (2019)

For this intriguing exploration of volcanism and viniculture, Charles Frankel scoured geologically active regions to trace how soils and landforms shape local wines. He begins with the 1620 bc eruption on Santorini that left the Greek island little more than a caldera, yet created ideal conditions for growing Assyrtiko grapes, used in unctuous Vinsanto. No less gripping are Frankel’s descriptions of the deep-time lava flows and flooding that formed Oregon’s Pinot-growing Willamette Valley. A gem for geologists and wine buffs alike.

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Antimony, Gold and Jupiter’s Wolf

Peter Wothers Oxford University Press (2019)

Hydrogen, caesium, silver: how were elements named? In this stimulating chemical chronicle, Peter Wothers unravels tangled etymologies. Eighteenth-century chemist Antoine Lavoisier, for instance, named oxygen to signify ‘acid-former’, only to have the word construed as ‘‘the son of a vinegar merchant”. W, the symbol for tungsten, is a nod to its traditional moniker wolfram (derived from ‘wolf-foam’). From copper to californium, we discover how the sober face of the periodic table hides dramatic backstories.

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Nano Comes to Life

Sonia Contera Princeton University Press (2019)

Nanotechnology researcher Sonia Contera’s succinct study surveys the progress of nano-tools in biological and medical research. As she relates, there is much in development: DNA technology aimed at crafting nanoscale machines to target specific cancer cells; nano-antibiotics for fighting infection; and nano-approaches to tissue engineering. Contera frames this near-future transmaterial science, with its focus on human well-being, as an effort allied to social justice even as it probes existential questions of what it means to be human.

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Eureka! Details to Follow

Sidney Harris Science Cartoons Plus (2019)

After a year of bouts at the bench (and blasts of bad news), you may need relief. Science cartoonist Sidney Harris — whose work has graced the pages of many journals, including Nature, offers an ace antidote in this irreverent look at chemistry. Here is Lewis Carroll’s Alice, thwarted by a looking-glass made of Lexan polycarbonate resin; two chemists absorbing the news that “you can’t both be the ‘father’ of ammonium pentoxide phosphate”; the Institute for Advanced Hindsight; and oodles more.

Nature 576, 207 (2019)

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 18 December 2019: This article originally gave the wrong initials for L. S. Fauber.

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