The best science books for Christmas
Cold comforts for a warming world
Friday 01 December 2006
A rising tide of books about climate change threatened to sweep other subjects off the popular science lists this year. Three stand out. The best written is Tim Flannery's The Weather-Makers (Allen Lane, £20), which covers a large sweep of planetary history, climate science and environmental detail with vividness and urgency. You might say the same about Gaia theorist James Lovelock's earlier books, but his new The Revenge of Gaia (Allen Lane, £16.99)is an extended I-told-you-so. Our civilisation is coming to an end and there's nothing we can do about it. He seemed happy when Newsweek dubbed him Dr Doom. Don't look here for seasonal good cheer. George Monbiot remains optimistic, though. His fine campaigning book Heat (Allen Lane, £17.99) is an impressive compilation of ideas about what we might do to reduce carbon emissions, though his target is so ambitious that it is hard to know whether to be encouraged or disheartened.
Less earthbound concerns can still lift the spirit, and cosmology puts our anxieties in a larger perspective. Patrick Moore has been presenting The Sky at Night since not long after the Big Bang, but has produced a nicely up-to-date, entry-level guide to the evolution of the universe in Bang! (Carlton, £20), with his TV collague Chris Lintott and Queen guitarist and one-time astrophysicist, Brian May. The text is very readable and the images, most often from the Hubble telescope, jaw-droppping.
If Moore and co's visuals evoke a sense of wonder, Paul Davies can do this with words. His latest, The Goldilocks Enigma (Allen Lane, £22), examines why the universe is hospitable to life. It begins as a fairly standard canter through modern physics and cosmology, but ends in the dizzying realm of the multiverse, where physics turns into metaphysics. The heading for the final chapter, "How Come Existence?", would have been an equally good title for the book. This is popular science as home to the really big questions, even if there are no final answers.
The biologists have been quiet this year, as they take stock of the deluge of data from various genome projects. That leaves time to catch up with The Richness of Life, a brilliant selection from the late, great Stephen Jay Gould (Cape, £25). Gould's essays are great ways to start you thinking, or to begin a conversation. Among new biology books, Sean Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful (Weidenfeld, £18.99) is a leading US researcher's impressively skilful first book, and the first clear account of the new science of the evolution of animal body plans, or "evo-devo" to its friends. Having the full catalogue of human genes also allows researchers to say more about where people's ancestors came from, and which tribes they are related to.
One of the leaders of this effort in Britain, Bryan Sykes, tells the history of immigration, invasion and assimilation over the last 10,000 years in Blood of the Isles (Bantam, £17.99). Stephen Oppenheimer's version of the same history in The Origins of the British (Constable & Robinson, £20) differs in detail, but offers a similar story at greater length. Chris Stringer goes even deeper into the local past in his handsome Homo Britannicus (Allen Lane, £25). Stringer is an expert on human origins, and he presents new evidence about all the human, or human-like, primates who have ever lived in Britain.
A story this big is fascinating in its own right, but needs a moral. Stringer concludes that the main factor influencing whether these isles were habitable for our basking or shivering ancestors was changes in climate. There's no getting away from that question this year.
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