Books in brief

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

The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us

Diane Ackerman W. W. Norton (2014) ISBN: 9780393240740

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The incisive yet optimistic science writer Diane Ackerman slices into the chaotic age of turbocharged technology and environmental crisis that we call the Anthropocene. She zips from deep history to speculative futures to contextualize snapshots of our vivid, frenetic present. We meet an ocean-column farmer and an orang-utan wielding an iPad; consider cross-border wildlife corridors and invasive species; wonder at the human microbiome and printed drugs. As Ackerman deciphers our grave new world, one message reverberates — that we “still and forever remain a part of nature”.

A Buzz in the Meadow

Dave Goulson Jonathan Cape (2014) ISBN: 9780224101745

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In 2003, leading bee researcher Dave Goulson bought a run-down farm in France. His aim was to provide a haven for the insects he has devoted his life to studying, notably the bumblebee. He writes beautifully of the panoply of creatures — from deathwatch beetles to dragonflies — that often pass unnoticed under our noses. But for all its easy charm, Goulson's account is permeated with awareness that biodiversity is now often confined to managed sanctuaries. What begins as a scientific rural idyll becomes a journey into the imperilled territory of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

Benedict Carey Random House (2014) ISBN: 9780812993882

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Learn how to learn, enjoins science journalist Benedict Carey in this tour of past and present research on the process. Hard graft is just part of the package; what is key, Carey argues, is exploiting the brain's quirks. He lays bare the biology, cognitive science and “ways to co-opt the subconscious mind” that ensure mental labour becomes ingrained. Carey is an adroit guide to techniques for comprehension and retention, whether exploring the value of forgetting, distraction and interruption, or examining the power of studying in varied venues.

Virtually Human: The Promise — and the Peril — of Digital Immortality

Martine Rothblatt St Martin's Press (2014) ISBN: 9781250046635

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In this explication of cutting-edge artificial intelligence, technologist Martine Rothblatt argues that software brains will “express the complexities of the human psyche, sentience, and soul” surprisingly soon. Aeroplanes, she notes, lack the complexity of birds but still fly; similarly, cyber-doppelgängers or “mindclones” will emerge when symbol-association software is combined with personal information gathered on social media (“mindfiles”). Rothblatt lays out a serious analysis of the ethical and scientific implications.

The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis

Ruth DeFries Basic Books (2014) ISBN: 9780465044979

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Vastly boosted agricultural production and cheaper food have driven today's human boom — the “big ratchet”, or explosion in population over the past six decades — argues environmental geographer Ruth DeFries. Now, we are embarking on the vast experiment of feeding today's 7-billion-plus people, with no sure outcome. DeFries unpicks the historical patterns to parse the uneasy equation of people and food — our most powerful link with nature.

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