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Why you should love wasps, and what is emotion? Books in brief

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Endless Forms

Seirian Sumner William Collins (2022)

There are more than 100,000 species of wasp, compared with a mere 22,000 for bees. Wasps are crucial pest controllers, pollinators, seed dispersers and decomposers. Yet much less is known about them than about bees, writes entomologist Seirian Sumner, who disliked wasps as a child — but embraced them during her PhD, after an experience lying flat on a jungle floor with a wasp nest above her nose. Her enchanted, engaging study observes that “bees are simply wasps that have forgotten how to hunt”.

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The Nature of the Beast

David J. Anderson Basic (2022)

What are emotions, and what is their role? Neurobiologist David Anderson explains all the ways in which we cannot know. Brain scanning reveals blood flow, not electrical activity — and it’s unclear whether emotion causes brain activity or vice versa. Scientists resemble the blind men in the parable, describing separate parts of an elephant, and “don’t even have the same word for ‘elephant’”, he says. Animals — key to this deep, delightful book — cannot, alas, confirm or deny pet-owners’ emotional readings of their behaviour.

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Beyond Measure

James Vincent Faber (2022)

Journalist James Vincent became engrossed in measurement while interviewing scientists in 2018, when the kilogram was formally redefined in terms of Planck’s constant. His appealing book encompasses much more than science; measurement, he says, is “a mirror to society itself”. Consider warehouse workers whose labours are monitored every second — a complex relationship that Vincent compares to William Blake’s classic satirical portrait of Isaac Newton obsessively measuring minutiae with a compass.

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Nick Lane Profile (2022)

Biology has for too long been dominated by genetic studies, argues biochemist Nick Lane. Genes do not reveal whether a cell is alive or dead, nor how it undergoes one billion metabolic transformations per second. These involve the Krebs cycle, a sequence of reactions by which cells generate energy, and the focus of this analysis. Deeply researched and cogently written, it is sometimes tough going, as Lane admits: “for many people”, biochemistry is “full of runic symbols that suggest a priesthood intent on concealing the path to meaning”.

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Confronting Climate Gridlock

Daniel S. Cohan Yale Univ. Press (2022)

“Faced with the grandest environmental challenge of our times,” observes environmental engineer Daniel Cohan, “the US Congress has repeatedly failed.” In his proposals for how to break this gridlock, he argues that action will come not from one piece of legislation, but from international diplomacy to leverage US actions, policy to stimulate innovation, and investment in infrastructure. Chapters consider technological efficiency, clean fuels, carbon capture and geoengineering.

Nature 608, 30 (2022)


Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.


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