Books in brief

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Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.

Making Space: How the Brain Knows Where Things Are

Jennifer M. Groh Belknap (2014) ISBN: 9780674863217

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The timing is spot-on for this study of the brain's navigational system, with a Nobel prize awarded to John O'Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser this month for their research in the field (see Nature 514, 154157; 2014). Neuroscientist Jennifer Groh deftly elucidates the mental computations that allow understanding of location and boundaries, interweaving well-judged snippets of history. The mechanisms, such as the brain's updates on eye movements, are fascinating — as is Groh's revelation that neurons can “do double duty” in tasks such as spatial navigation and memory.

The Peripheral: A Novel

William Gibson Putnam Adult (2014) ISBN: 9780399158445

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With Neuromancer (Ace, 1984), which predicted the rise of the Internet, science-fiction writer William Gibson revealed his nose for near-future science and for seeing, as he puts it, a future already here but not “evenly distributed”. He harnesses that ability anew for this techno-thriller. From plastic in the oceans to three-dimensional printing, today's concerns are beautifully repurposed as tomorrow's background. But for Gibson, technological change is just a different route to the same problems: his protagonists, who wield the humanoid-telepresence 'peripherals', are socially marginalized.

Note-by-Note Cooking: The Future of Food

Hervé This (transl. M. B. DeBevoise) Columbia University Press (2014) ISBN: 9780231164863

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Molecular cooking, that scientific wonderland of filter pumps and rotary evaporators, has evolved. The new revolution, proclaims physical chemist Hervé This, is “note-by-note cooking” — the orchestration of pure molecular compounds. Amid the dollops of theory are practical examples, such as chef Pierre Gagnaire's glucose “péligot” caramels (exemplars of contrasting consistency), and lists of compounds including the mushroom-scented 1-octen-3-ol. Recipes are scant, although Effervescence, a cocktail involving Syrah grape polyphenols and ethanol, sounds toast-worthy.

The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining

Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman Wiley (2014) ISBN: 9781118490822

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Anyone who thoughtlessly masticates their way through a meal is missing something extraordinary. So might opine experimental psychologists Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, who have mined neuroscience and behavioural economics for this study of the social, sensory and psychological factors that optimize the pleasures of the table. Their exhaustive analyses of everything from plate size to flavour incongruities are laced with details such as cutlery's evolution from Victorian marrow scoops and chocolate muddlers to today's textured spoons and “aromatic forks”.

Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive

Mark L. Winston Harvard University Press (2014) ISBN: 9780674368392

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From the whirr of wings to the whiff of honey, the “full-body experience” of working in apiaries has, for biologist Mark Winston, sparked insights into humanity's relationship with nature. In this personal and scientific journey into the history we share with bees, he ranges over neonicotinoid pesticides and colony collapse, the control of African 'killer' bees and more. The charismatic social insects emerge as both icons of societal cohesion and symbols of nature's paradoxically mingled power and fragility.

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