14 great science and tech books to give as presents this Christmas

 

books Christmas tree

CARLO ROVELLI is the man who can spin hard physics into pure gold. The Order of Time is his third book. Like the first (Seven Brief Lessons on Physics), it has been an instant bestseller. In this state-of-the-art survey of what physicists thought and now think about the nature of time, Rovelli is both unsettling (time does not exist) and philosophical (the study of time “does nothing but return us to ourselves”).

IT MAY not be a classic whodunnit, but The Beautiful Cure is a page-turner. Author Daniel Davis explains who did what in the immune system story (poor Ralph Steinman’s co-discovery of dendritic cells won him a Nobel, but he died before he found out). As an immunology professor, Davis has the right cred to claim that we now know enough to start curing diseases such as cancer.

THE feeling that we have an inner life, that our minds have, well, depth is pretty ubiquitous. Brace yourselves then: Nick Chater says this is just plain wrong. There is nothing under the hood, he writes in The Mind Is Flat : “Our flow of momentary conscious experience is not the sparkling surface of a vast sea of thought – it is all there is.” Find out why this isn’t the end of your world.

QUANTUM mechanics is less a theory about particles and waves, uncertainty and fuzziness, than one about what can be known and how. In this, his 23rd book, human whirlwind Philip Ball tracks quantum mechanics from its roots as a rather desperate piece of hand-waving about objects too small to behave to a disturbing, fully worked-out theory about the world.

IN JUNE 2009, Edwin Rist, an American flautist studying at London ’s Royal Academy of Music, smashed a window at an outpost of the Natural History Museum to steal the skins of 299 tropical birds, including some collected by Alfred Russel Wallace. This tale of greed, deception, sabotage and trade in rare feathers ranks among the most bizarre crimes ever.

FIRST published in 1978, this natural history masterpiece was written by David Attenborough to accompany his iconic TV series. It has received a timely makeover, with new pictures and updated text, much of it by zoologist Matthew Cobb. Life On Earth offers a spectacular snapshot of a once-wild planet, where new species are still being discovered.

WHO knew that cells from the fetus can also pass to the mother, and even on to subsequent siblings? Carl Zimmer did. He explains all in a deeply researched book about the complex and rarely less than controversial field of heredity that will arm you with more than enough high-quality information to hold your own at dinner parties or pub quizzes.

MACHINES rule, making important decisions in transport, finance, security and healthcare, even deciding who goes to jail. This is the world we live in right now, a place of wonders ravaged by multiple data-driven disasters. Hannah Fry tours the algorithms surrounding us and wonders what happened to the human values supposedly encoded in this runaway maths.

NEW SCIENTIST‘S Rowan Hooper sought out some of the world’s highest achievers in fields as diverse as novel writing, running and opera singing to get an unusually accurate idea of whether genius is born or made. No one likes the idea their genes control destiny. Then again, no one ever did badly by playing to their strengths. “Accept the evidence,” says Hooper, “and be empowered.”

THE marvellously monikered Helen Scales is out to convince us that the most interesting life is in the sea. Her cast list includes giants that live for centuries and thumb-sized tiddlers that survive weeks. Some shout with colour, others hide in plain sight. Along with citing surprising examples of fish ecology and physiology, Scales asks such complex questions as whether fish feel pain.

THE toughest intellectual question is how do our brains not only produce images of the sights, sounds and smells around us, but also accompany them with private feelings and a sense of us “being there”. Pioneering neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has spent years on the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. Find out what he thinks in his brilliantly clear book.

AFTER the news of a massive lake of water beneath Mars’s south pole and now NASA’s InSight lander, the planet is definitely in the spotlight this year. Sealing the deal, Haynes Publishing has added Mars to its Earth and moon manuals. The guides are a must-have for all who lust after deep details of how, for example, the Viking lander’s biology lab actually worked.

SOCIAL media’s fall from grace continues to sell, er, . The thing about Jaron Lanier’s offering is that he has a plan to outfox the companies selling your life back to you. Delete all your accounts, reconnect to others in person, seek out nuance and real context. This is strong self-help from a Silicon Valley insider and VR guru.

THINKING you are a tiger, being perpetually lost in your own house, remembering every day of your life, or literally feeling someone else’s pain. We knew other people’s brains were strange, but how strange is the subject of Helen Thomson’s Unthinkable. She meets the real people whose brains create these odd experiences. Gripping stuff.

 

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