Books of the year 2014: Science, from Brian Cox to The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code

Authors tackle evolution, extinction and the future of cancer treatments

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The Independent Culture

These are heroic days for science and bold syntheses are in the air. Brian Cox, far from resting on his laurels as media-master of the physical universe, has now added Life and Everything to his explorations of the cosmos. Human Universe (William Collins, £25) sees Homo sapiens emerging from the 10,000 lucky years since the birth of agriculture into a more challenging era. Cox gives us the real thing, not science lite, doing a chemical experiment to show how the leopard got its spots (it's more Turing than Kipling). This latest book takes Cox's evangelising for science to a new level: a passionate vision that the world needs.

In Arrival of the Fittest (One World Publications, £18.99), the evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner explains why the secrets of life are so hard to unravel – on some measures its complexity exceeds that of the entire physical universe – and then proceeds to unravel them. He has an answer to the problem that plagued Darwin and every biologist since: how can organisms stay viable, reproducing and evading predation, whilst their organs are slowly changing into something else (for example, the fish fins that have become our own arms and legs). A truly revolutionary book.

The idea that quantum phenomena play a role in living systems has been a fringe notion for some time. But Jim Al Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden's Life on the Edge (Bantam Press, £20) convinces that we must start to take it seriously. The humble robin is one good reason: the secret of its uncanny magnetic location technique is a quantum process. The book elegantly opens up a new way of looking at nature.

If the scientists are delving deep into the heart of life's mysteries, its incredible diversity here on earth is withering at a terrifying rate. In The Sixth Extinction (Bloomsbury, £8.99), Elizabeth Kolbert, one of our sagest environmental observers, shows how, although we notice only a few species dropping off the twig during our lifetime, in geological terms, this sixth great extinction matches the pace of any in the deep past.

P53 might one day be as famous as penicillin. For now, it is Sue Armstrong's task in p53: The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code (Bloomsbury Sigma, £16.99) to show us why it is so revolutionary. Cancer is the most insidious disease because it is so bound up with the core mechanism of life – the replication of DNA; it is a wonder it doesn't strike more often. P53 is the reason it doesn't: a gene present in all animals that corrects errors in DNA and, if intact, can stop most cancers in their tracks, hence its tag "the Guardian of the Genome". Armstrong tells the story of how its powers were revealed and what it could mean for future cancer treatments.