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Think international to end climate change, the wonder of flies, and the fourth wave of globalization: Books in brief

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Net Zero

Dieter Helm William Collins (2020)

Climate-change economist Dieter Helm was frustrated by a widely repeated claim from the UK Committee on Climate Change: “By reducing emissions produced in the UK to zero, we also end our contribution to rising global temperatures.” Not so, he objects: consumers also import goods and services from countries with high emissions, notably China. As Helm bluntly argues in international detail, reaching ‘net zero’ emissions will require unpopular unilateral changes in individual lifestyles and national infrastructures.

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The Human Cosmos

Jo Marchant Dutton (2020)

Galileo composed horoscopes for his illegitimate daughters, notes science journalist Jo Marchant in her multifaceted meditation on humanity’s relationship with the cosmos. From possibly celestial Palaeolithic cave art at Lascaux in France to awestruck astronauts in space, she considers how patterns in the sky have governed lives on Earth, “shaping ideas about time and place; power and truth; life and death”. Although science is right to debunk astrology, she argues, the significance of the heavens has been eclipsed by modern astronomy.

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The Inside Out of Flies

Erica McAlister Natural History Museum (2020)

“Flies are not filthy … they are always cleaning themselves,” notes entomologist Erica McAlister’s caption for a photo of a fly maintaining its antennae — one of many eye-popping images in her erudite, irresistible natural history of the insects. She agrees with naturalist Pliny, who wrote two millennia ago that insects display nature’s “exhaustless ingenuity”. Consider Ephydra hians, which “scuba-dives” in alkaline lakes — using hydrophobic hairs that trap an air bubble like an external lung — to lay its eggs on the lake bottom.

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Outside the Box

Marc Levinson Princeton Univ. Press (2020)

This history of globalization evokes economist Marc Levinson’s 2006 book The Box, about container ships. These were key to the ‘third globalization’, starting in the 1980s: products were manufactured in places with low wages, then shipped to the advanced economies where they had been designed. In today’s ‘fourth globalization’, research, engineering and design are moving, and manufacturing can be done anywhere. Much of the process involves ideas, such as software, rather than ‘stuff’ in a box. But how can it be politically regulated?

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The Polymath

Peter Burke Yale Univ. Press (2020)

From the mid-nineteenth century, science has abounded in specialists, yet polymaths such as Alan Turing and Linus Pauling have remained crucial. In a mind-stretching history, Peter Burke describes “500 western polymaths” from the half-millennium since Leonardo da Vinci. He discusses their curiosity, concentration, memory, speed, imagination, restlessness, hard work and horror of wasting time. But he overlooks specialists with polymathic tendencies, such as Albert Einstein, Florence Nightingale and Ronald Ross.

Nature 585, 501 (2020)



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