A universe of biodiversity and saved by migration: Books in brief

The Hidden Universe

Alexandre Antonelli Ebury (2022)

As a boy growing up near the Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil, Alexandre Antonelli, Scientific Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in the UK, Kew, was fascinated by both astronomy and biology. But, he notes in his absorbing and haunting first book, aimed at all readers, the stars he observed then are essentially the same today, while the forests have all disappeared. Hence his preoccupation with biodiversity, a ‘hidden universe’: how to define it scientifically – including the number of species – and how to protect it from human destruction.

century of the nomads

Gaia Vince Iron (2022)

“Migration will save us” because it “made us who we are,” states science writer Gaia Vince in her powerful, provocative argument that climate change will radically transform humanity. Traveling shaped her as a child of refugees and migrants. Now she is analyzing how parts of the planet are being rendered uninhabitable by the “Four Horsemen of the Anthropocene”: fire, heat, drought and flood. She even posits that forced long-distance migration is easier to imagine than the travel restrictions that COVID-19 brings.

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Existential Physics

Sabine Hoessenfelder viking (2022)

Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder has built a parallel career explaining physics to non-physicists with flair and humor, perhaps inspired by Albert Einstein. Her latest entertaining book is for “those who haven’t forgotten to ask the big questions and aren’t afraid of the answers.” For example, the chapters deal with whether the past still exists, how the universe came into being, whether knowledge is predictable, and whether physics has ruled out free will. They are interspersed with their interviews with researchers including Roger Penrose.

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Zero until birth

WA Harris Princeton Univ. Press (2022)

The evolutionary history of the human brain is written in our genome, but each mind is characterized by its “unique and ever-changing synaptic circuits.” So the organ that makes us all human is also the one that makes us all different, because after birth its synapses respond to our individual experiences. Thus observes neuroscientist William Harris at the end of his most insightful chronicle of developmental neurobiology, which has uncovered how the brain is constructed in the womb – much of which was unknown when he began research in the 1970s.

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planting instructions

David J Gibson Oxford Univ. Press (2022)

Crime writers plant clues for readers, but plants themselves have rarely been critical to solving real crimes. Police officers “seldom have much botanical training,” writes plant biologist David Gibson. But there are times when botany has proven crucial. The wood from a ladder used in the 1932 abduction of baby Charles Lindbergh Jr. held the key to convicting the perpetrator. Other clues come from diatoms, fungi, orchids, pollen and plant toxins as expertly presented in this fascinating book.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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