The Book of Humans by Adam Rutherford review – a pithy homage to our species

A crisp appraisal of human nature is a welcome addition to an often laboured genre

In 2017, scientists in Australia observed some striking avian behaviour. A handful of kites and falcons in the outback were seen picking up burning sticks from bush fires. The birds would then carry these smoking embers in their beaks to areas of dry grass and drop them. New fires were set off, triggering frenzied evacuations by small animals – which were promptly snatched from above by the waiting raptors.

Such actions are extraordinary, says Adam Rutherford, a science writer and broadcaster. “It is, as far as I am aware, the only documented account of deliberate fire-starting by an animal other than a human. These birds are using fire as a tool.”

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When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing review – timely guide

Daniel H Pink’s engaging book reveals the best times of day to make optimum decisions

In 2011, two Cornell researchers, Michael Macy and Scott Golder, began an unusual project. They gathered approximately 500m tweets that had been posted by more than 2 million users in 84 countries over the previous two years. Then they subjected these tweets to careful analysis.

The sociologists’ aim was straightforward. The pair wanted to measure how people’s feelings varied from morning until night and, by using an analysis program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), they attempted to measure the emotional states revealed by individuals in the electronic texts they sent. The patterns that were uncovered were striking.

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Robin McKie’s best science books of 2017

Why good health requires good sleep, the role our senses play in what we choose to consume, and some mind-boggling maths about the air that we breathe

Think of anything that ever breathed – from bacteria to blue whales to Roman emperors – and some of his, her or its last breath is either circulating inside you now or will be shortly. Thus, with this startling claim, Sam Kean begins his examination of all things gaseous, Caesar’s Last Breath (Doubleday £20), in which he attempts to make stories about gases visible “so you can see them as clearly as you can see your breath on a crisp November morning.”

By and large, Kean succeeds in this hugely enjoyable, slightly rambling account of our atmosphere and the remarkable men and women who transformed our knowledge about the air we breathe. I am not quite convinced by the arithmetic used to ...

Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography review – portrait of an easily distracted genius

Walter Isaacson’s illuminating study explains why the original Renaissance man left so many paintings unfinished…

In 1482, Leonardo da Vinci left his homeland of Tuscany and moved to Milan. He had written to Ludovico Sforza, the city’s ruler, listing his impressive qualifications, hoping to be offered employment. He could design bridges, make new types of cannons, dig “secret winding passages”, create waterways and plan cities. To these accomplishments the 30-year-old Leonardo added: “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible.”

Thus the creator of The Mona Lisa only mentioned his artistic abilities as an afterthought. “What he mainly pitched was a pretence of military engineering expertise,” states Isaacson in this lavish, loving biography of the great Renaissance polymath. “These boasts were aspirational. He had never been to a battle nor actually built any of the weapons he described.”

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Caesar’s Last Breath: The Epic Story of the Air Around Us – review

Sam Kean’s history of Earth’s atmospheric gases is provocative and entertainingThe Scottish physician Joseph Black was responsible, in 1764, for one of science’s more unusual chemical experiments. He had already achieved fame by becoming the first scientist to isolate a pure gas: carbon dioxide, known as “fixed air” at the time. Now Black was anxious to further his work by demonstrating that the gas was exhaled by human beings. So he looked for a place where respirations would be at their most intense and accessible – and decided that the kirk best fitted the bill. Presbyterianism in 18th-century Scotland was, if nothing else, a source of plentiful hot air. So Black, who was then Glasgow University’s professor of anatomy and chemistry, placed a solution of limewater inside an air duct in a church where it was said that more than 1,500 people would remain at their devotions for 10 hours on ...

Caesar’s Last Breath: The Epic Story of the Air Around Us – review

Sam Kean’s history of Earth’s atmospheric gases is provocative and entertainingThe Scottish physician Joseph Black was responsible, in 1764, for one of science’s more unusual chemical experiments. He had already achieved fame by becoming the first scientist to isolate a pure gas: carbon dioxide, known as “fixed air” at the time. Now Black was anxious to further his work by demonstrating that the gas was exhaled by human beings. So he looked for a place where respirations would be at their most intense and accessible – and decided that the kirk best fitted the bill. Presbyterianism in 18th-century Scotland was, if nothing else, a source of plentiful hot air. So Black, who was then Glasgow University’s professor of anatomy and chemistry, placed a solution of limewater inside an air duct in a church where it was said that more than 1,500 people would remain at their devotions for 10 hours on ...

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition by Paul Watson – review

The story of the mission to find the wrecks of two long-lost ships from Sir John Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition is timely and compellingThe fate of Sir John Franklin and his lost crew has had a remarkable hold on the public imagination for more than 170 years. The 59-year-old mariner set sail in May 1845 in the best-equipped expedition ever launched to find the North-West Passage to the Pacific. His ships, Erebus and Terror, with their 128 crewmen, were last seen – by whalers in Baffin Bay – in July. Then they disappeared into the Arctic’s mist and ice. The expedition’s failure to reappear triggered what Watson describes as the “longest, broadest and most expensive search for two lost ships in maritime history”. Or as the US writer Alfred Friendly called it: “one of the most extensive, expensive, perverse, ill-starred and abundantly written-about manhunts in history”. From 1847 to 1859, ...

Robin McKie’s best science books of 2016

The pick of this year’s science books put our health – and other obsessions – under the microscopeSeventy years ago, doctors began an experiment that would revolutionise our understanding of human development. For a week, in March 1946, they recorded the births of almost every baby born in the UK. Thousands were then tracked through later life, creating the world’s longest-running birth cohort study. Thanks to that study, and to four follow-ups, many inescapable truths have been learned: the grim impact on infants of poor health service provision, smoking during pregnancy and air pollution. We also know now that reading regularly to children has clear educational benefits; that babies are safe sleeping on their backs; and that breast-fed children tend to have better health. The influence on social services and daily lives has been immeasurable. Have we all gone nuts, asks Garfield. To judge by this hugely enjoyable romp, ...

The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee review – intriguing and entertaining

Despite flaws, this lively and accessible history of the gene and its implications for the future is bursting with complex ideasIn 2010, researchers launched a study, the Strong African American Families project, in one of the bleakest, most impoverished areas of rural Georgia, a place overrun by alcoholism, violence, mental illness and drug use. “Abandoned clapboard houses with broken windows dot the landscape,” Siddhartha Mukherjee tells us. “Crime abounds. Vacant parking lots are strewn with hypodermic needles. Half the adults lack a high school education and nearly half the families have single mothers.” You get the picture. The scientists wanted to know how an individual’s genetic makeup might help or hinder their chances of surviving this grim background, and so began testing local families to determine which variant of a gene known as 5-HTTLRP they possessed. One, known as the short variant, had previously been linked to individuals ...

Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O Wilson – review

A chilling warning that we’re in danger of wiping out all wildlife on Earth

In 2000, workers finished construction of a hydropower plant in Tanzania’s Udzungwa mountains. A giant reservoir was created by damming 90% of the water that had previously poured into nearby Kihansi gorge. The consequences for indigenous species were disastrous, in particular for the tiny, golden-hued Kihansi spray toad. The little amphibian once thrived, in its thousands, in a single two-hectare patch of forest watered with spray from the gorge’s falls. Those waters dried up, as did the little homeland of the toad, which became extinct in the wild within a couple of years. Thus the end product of a million years of evolution was removed from nature by a single act of thoughtless habitat intrusion.

We’re extinguishing Earth’s biodiversity as though species are no better than weeds and kitchen vermin

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Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O Wilson – review

A chilling warning that we’re in danger of wiping out all wildlife on Earth

In 2000, workers finished construction of a hydropower plant in Tanzania’s Udzungwa mountains. A giant reservoir was created by damming 90% of the water that had previously poured into nearby Kihansi gorge. The consequences for indigenous species were disastrous, in particular for the tiny, golden-hued Kihansi spray toad. The little amphibian once thrived, in its thousands, in a single two-hectare patch of forest watered with spray from the gorge’s falls. Those waters dried up, as did the little homeland of the toad, which became extinct in the wild within a couple of years. Thus the end product of a million years of evolution was removed from nature by a single act of thoughtless habitat intrusion.

We’re extinguishing Earth’s biodiversity as though species are no better than weeds and kitchen vermin

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The best science books of 2015

Going feet first into evolutionary theory, the race to crack the genetic code and a memorable journey around the coast of Britain

Gavin Francis has a remarkable pedigree as a medical writer. He has been a paediatrician, an obstetrician and a doctor in a geriatric ward. He has also been a medic on Arctic and Antarctic expeditions and worked in community clinics in Africa and India, before ending up in a family doctor’s clinic in Edinburgh. For good measure, he is also an award-winning travel writer.

This, in short, is a man who knows his way around the world, and the human body, and also knows how to write about it. The end result is the admirable Adventures in Human Being (Wellcome Collection), my choice for science book of the year.

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Atmosphere of Hope: Solutions to the Climate Crisis by Tim Flannery; The Planet Remade by Oliver Morton review

In the run-up to the Paris climate talks, two books argue for drastic action to be taken to avoid a global calamity

In a few weeks, world leaders will gather in Paris in an attempt to reach a deal that will have critical implications for our species. At the COP21 climate talks, they will try to find a formula for reducing the world’s carbon emissions and give humanity an evens chance of holding global warming to a 2C rise above pre-industrial levels.

Past efforts to negotiate such deals have been riddled with frustration and failures, in particular the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, which ended in disarray. However, there is a sense of guarded optimism in the air these days. Australian and Canadian premiers Tony Abbott and Stephen Harper – who led two of the planet’s worst fossil-fuel burning administrations – have recently been replaced by leaders who seem to ...

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley review – first-class

A beautifully crafted study on the profound impact the railways had on Britain’s industry and society

The Water of Ayr, near Mauchline, is rarely rated a major tourist magnet. Ayrshire is scarcely peppered with beauty spots, after all. Yet the river has a remarkable claim to fame: at Mauchline, it is spanned by the Ballochmyle bridge, the nation’s highest rail viaduct.

Ballochmyle’s vast stone arch soars 175 feet over the Water of Ayr and has provided support for hundreds of thousands of trains that have thundered between Carlisle and Glasgow over the past 160 years. It is a striking, elegant edifice, whose construction – from 1846 to 1848 – involved considerable ingenuity by workers led by engineer John Miller, though the result of their endeavours is hardly ever visited today or mentioned in tourist guides.

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Adventures in Human Being review – a fascinating journey around the body

Doctor and writer Gavin Francis’s essays on the human body, illness and injury are informative, eloquent and often very moving

John Wirvell was a taxi driver, divorcee and an intermittent heavy drinker when he was struck down, in his late 50s, by severe bouts of nausea and vertigo. The attacks were so incapacitating, he could hardly stand, let alone work. Gavin Francis, then his doctor, diagnosed benign paroxysmal positional vertigo or BPPV. The condition, although not fatal, is highly debilitating and well recorded. Hippocrates said it was the fault of a southerly wind.

More recently doctors have blamed the chalky grains that are embedded in jelly in the semicircular canals of the inner ear. Their positions there help to maintain our balance but sometimes these particles become attached to the wrong membranes in the ear. In this way, a patient’s sense of balance was disrupted, it was thought. Treatments involved repeating the movements ...