We’ve had some highly interesting new science books cross our desk in the last month. Here are our picks of the best of the best:
Inside the centre : the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer / Ray Monk.
“Robert J. Oppenheimer is among the most contentious and important figures of the twentieth century. As head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, he oversaw the successful effort to beat the Nazis to develop the first atomic bomb – a breakthrough which was to have eternal ramifications for mankind, and made Oppenheimer the ‘father of the Bomb’.” (Syndetics)
Symmetry and the monster : one of the greatest quests of mathematics / Mark Ronan.
“This is the story of a mathematical quest which began with a pistol duel two hundred years ago in revolutionary France, and may yet end with a deep new insight into the very fabric of our Universe. It is a story that introduces the ‘Monster’ – not monstrous at all, but a vast structure of exquisite beauty and complexity – and whose discovery involved determined characters, breakthroughs in mathematics, and curious number ‘coincidences’. And even today, it seems, the tale of the Monster is not yet over: for in its extraordinary structure we are just beginning to glimpse tantalizing hints of connections with the deep physical nature of the Universe.” (Syndetics summary)
My beloved Brontosaurus : on the road with old bones, new science, and our favorite dinosaurs / Brian Switek.
“In this revealing work of pop paleontology, Switek (Written in Stone) travels across America to visit dinosaur fossils, but don’t let the subtitle and descriptions of stunning scenery and trips down gravel roads mislead you-this isn’t really a travelogue: each stop serves as but a jumping-off point for an examination of our changing understanding of dinosaurs. As a child, Switek learned that his beloved Brontosaurus had been denounced as a distinct species and relabeled Apatosaurus; in the course of his travels, he learns that other dinosaurs have met a similar fate-but he doesn’t see this as something to be mourned. In fact, it’s proof of the great strides being made in the science of dinos. Along the way, Switek describes a host of colorful characters, including Heinrich Mallison, who uses digital modeling software to figure out how certain dinosaurs-particularly the troublingly spiky-tailed Kentrosaurus-had sex. He also demonstrates that contrary to the relatively dowdy dinos of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, new science suggests many were feathered, and colorfully at that” (Publisher Weekly)
Near-Earth objects : finding them before they find us / Donald K. Yeomans.
“Humans may fret over earthquakes, nuclear meltdown, and heart attacks, but only collision with a near-Earth object has ‘the capacity to wipe out an entire civilization with a single blow.’ Balancing the wonders of astronomy with the looming potential for an epic, planetwide disaster, Yeomans, a fellow and research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explores the origins of near-Earth objects-asteroids, comets, meteors, and meteoroids-and the threat they can pose to our planet.” (Publisher Weekly)
Paleofantasy : what evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live / Marlene Zuk.
“In thoroughly engaging and witty prose, Zuk (Sex on Six Legs), a biologist from the University of California at Riverside, dismantles the pseudoscience behind nostalgic yearnings for our caveman days. As she so well notes, “Paleofantasies call to mind a time when everything about us-body, mind, and behavior-was in sync with the environment.” Zuk makes it clear that no such time ever existed – that’s simply not how evolution works. Whether she’s shredding the underlying premises of the paleo diet, the paleo exercise regimen, or the structure of the paleo family, she does so via cogent discussions of the nature of evolution and accessible elucidations of cutting-edge science.” (Publisher Weekly)
Earthquake / Andrew Robinson.
“Despite advances in both science and engineering, and improved disaster preparedness, earthquakes continue to cause immese loss of life and damage. The Haiti earthquake of 2010 took some quarter of a million lives. No one will ever forget the catastrophic tsunami unleashed in 2011 by a magnitude-9 earthquake off the east coast of Japan – a crisis described by Japans’ prime minsiter as the most disastrous nationa l event since the atomic bomb strikes in 1945. Tokyo was largely unaffected in 2011, unlike in 1703, 1855 and 1923 when earthquakes ravaged the capital. How ling will it be bfoe the next big Tokyo earthquake? Written by a highly experienced science writer, journalist and scholar, Earthquake will appeal as much to general readers of popular science as it will to experts in many fields ” (Syndetics)
Islands beyond the horizon : the life of twenty of the world’s most remote places / Roger Lovegrove.
“A bit of a geography nut, Lovegrove (former director, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; Silent Fields), has an affinity for obscure islands. For his latest book, he chose 20 of them to write about, spread across five oceans and spanning pole to pole. Some names (e.g., Guam, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha, the San Blas) will be recognizable to most readers, but many more will leave them without a clue. Who among us can easily pick out Wrangel, Mykines, St. Kilda, Halfmoon, and Great Skellig on a map? In each easy-to-digest chapter, Lovegrove paints a geological and historical picture of the island then provides a thorough description of its flora and fauna, both current and extinct. (Remember the dodo?) One island is so herpetologically beset that it makes Snakes on a Plane seem like a Disney movie.” (Library Journal)
Before Galileo : the birth of modern science in medieval Europe / John Freely.
“Freely writes here of the people who sought explanations of happenings in the natural world, as well as the works they wrote about what they found, from roughly 400 BCE to CE 1700. He charts the path of scientific movements among cultures (primarily Christian Europe and the Muslim Mediterranean and Middle East) depending on extant information of historical events and individuals, and the translations thereof. Among the small but significant events Freely discusses is how something as relatively simple as understanding and explaining the shape, angle, and colors of rainbows could prompt European science to leap radically forward.” (Library Journal)
The cosmic tourist : vist the 100 most awe-inspiring destinations in the universe! / [Brian May, Patrick Moore, Chris Lintott].
“This tour of the universe takes in 100 sights. The authors explain each one, what it is, and how it fits into the astronomical zoo of familar and curious objects and phenomena.” (Syndetics)