Science: The year's best books reviewed

From runaway genes to the missing lynx

Fears about the future preoccupied many science writers this year. Bill McKibben, author of the 1989 eco-classic The End of Nature, continued his crusade against the "techno-utopians" with Enough (Bloomsbury, £17.99). In a genetically-engineered brave new world he predicts that we will lose the "meaning of being human". McKibben asks, "whom would you worship as your creator if your genes came from Pfizer?"

The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield is also worried about the impact of "biotech, infotech and nanotech" on human nature. In Tomorrow's People (Allen Lane, £20), she describes a future in which people live in a "hedonistic, passive state", pampered by technologies that fulfil every fantasy: "no values, no prizes, no goals - no identity". Like McKibben, Greenfield thinks the time has come to say "enough is enough". Both writers raise legitimate concerns, but to slam the door on new sciences is to deny a part of human nature that is as old as Eve: the thirst for knowledge.

Matt Ridley knows a thing or two about human nature. His excellent Nature via Nurture (Fourth Estate, £18.99) challenges the age-old dichotomy between genetic and cultural determinism. He argues that genes are "exquisitely sensitive" to the environment and are "both cause and consequence of our actions". As Ridley memorably puts it, "genes are cogs in the machine, not gods in the sky". That fundamental organ of human nature, the brain, was the subject of Robert Winston's richly informative The Human Mind (Bantam, £18.99). "We all have the capacity to boost our intelligence", says Winston reassuringly, but it turns out that doing a crossword in 10 minutes does less to tickle neurons than playing bingo.

The temptation to condense the wisdom of science into a single volume proved irresistible. Travel writer Bill Bryson embarked on a three-year scientific voyage of discovery after realising that "I didn't know the first thing about the only planet I was ever going to live on". A Short History of Nearly Everything (Doubleday, £20) was the result: an immensely entertaining whistle-stop tour of life, the universe and almost everything. Equally hubristic was veteran science writer Nigel Calder's Magic Universe (Oxford, £25). According to Calder, "the magic of the universe reveals itself in the interconnections". His 756-page compendium of linked scientific "stories" is like a vast and wonderfully eccentric Gothic museum in which you could happily lose yourself. More conventional was Galileo's Finger by Peter Atkins (Oxford, £20), an authoritative if textbook-ish survey of his top scientific ideas.

The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, said Galileo, and this year publishers vied to disprove the mantra that a book's readership is halved with each equation. Barry Mazur's love letter to maths, Imagining Numbers (Allen Lane, £9.99), takes the bull by the horns by suggesting readers arm themselves with a pencil and paper. Since Andrew Wiles unveiled his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, the public has been fascinated by mathematical mysteries. Marcus du Sautoy's The Music of the Primes (Fourth Estate, £18.99), about the Riemann Hypothesis, was an intriguing addition to this genre.

Newton "computed as most people daydream", says James Gleick in his modest yet muscular biography. Isaac Newton (Fourth Estate, £15) captures the achievement and complexity of a man who was the "world's paramount mathematician", but also "peerless alchemist of Europe". Gleick's admiration for this Faustian genius is clear and his enthusiasm makes a gripping read.

My favourite book of the year brings alive the scientific culture of Galileo's Italy. David Freedberg's The Eye of the Lynx (University of Chicago PressChicago, £21) takes us on "an extraordinary journey through the histories of science and art". He tells the story of the first scientific academy, the Linceans, named after the keen-sighted lynx. They commissioned thousands of exquisite natural history drawings, many rediscovered by Freedberg in a cupboard in Windsor Castle. Child-like in their curiosity, these studies range from phallic fungi to "the most spectacular representation of a broccoli in the history of art". In their fervent desire to describe and understand nature, the Linceans represent science at its purest and most enlightening.

PD Smith's illustrated biography of Einstein is published by Haus

Comments