Nonfiction Previews, Jan. 2013, Pt. 1: Five Science Books from Radiation to Biomimicry to Antarctica

Gale, Robert Peter & Eric Lax. Radiation: What It Is, What You Need To Know. Knopf. Jan. 2013. 256p. ISBN 9780307959690. $25.95. SCIENCE
Gale understands radiation. A one-time faculty member at the UCLA School of Medicine, he developed the bone-marrow transplant used to treat exposure to it, and he was tapped as a consultant at Chernobyl and Fukushima. He’s so hot, in fact, that he was profiled in the January 2012 issue of Vanity Fair. Here, joined by science/medical writer Lax, he explains what radiation is, why it’s important‚ there would be no life on Earth and indeed no universe without it‚ what the risks of exposure are, and what role radiation-based technologies play in our world. Intended as a myth buster, particularly for those who panic when they hear terms like plutonium, iodine-13, and the radiation of food.

Harman, Jay. The Shark’s Paintbrush: Biomimicry and How Nature Is Inspiring Innovation. Doubleday. Jan. 2013. 336p. ISBN 9780385535717. $27.95. SCIENCE
Founder and CEO of PAX Scientific, which aims to develop more efficient industrial equipment, Harman is here to show us how scientists, inventors, engineers, and entrepreneurs are solving demanding design problems by turning to nature. The bumblebee’s aerodynamics outshine the 747, for instance, and seashells suggest how we can keep microchips from overheating. And what about those butterfly wings? They suggest a way to cut our lighting bills significantly. Meant not just as hopeful‚ here’s how we can live in harmony with nature and move ahead in technology‚ but as fun.

Loewenstein, Werner. Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain. Basic Books: Perseus Book Group. Jan. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9780465029846. $28.99. SCIENCE
However mystifying quantum mechanics may seem, one thing is even more mystifying: how the brain works. Here Loewenstein, emeritus professor of biophysics at Columbia University, argues that quantum mechanics can be used to explain the functions of the brain. Drawing on information theory (the idea that all information can be quantified) and recent developments in the burgeoning field of neuroscience, he shows us how the vast computational power of the brain allows it to sort through sensory data and build a coherent view of the world. Heady stuff, but Loewenstein’s work has appeared in venues like the New York Times and Scientific American, so he’s not just for insiders.

Streever, Bill. Heat: Adventures in the World’s Fiery Places. Little, Brown. Jan. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9780316105330. $26.99. SCIENCE
Having chilled us to the bone with the national best seller Cold (which makes sense, as he lives in Alaska), Streevor goes to the other extreme. To explain how heat works, he takes us through fever, fire, coal walking, Death Valley, and thermonuclear explosion. Important in our global-warmed world and accessibly written, but be sure you’re sitting by a fan when you read.

Walker, Gabrielle. Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent. Houghton Harcourt. Jan. 2013. 416p. ISBN 9780151015207. $27. SCIENCE
Yes, it has penguins, but Antarctica is the only continent where people have never permanently lived; there’s nothing to sustain us, so we drop in as explorers, scientists, and, more recently, hardy tourists. A Cambridge Ph.D. in chemistry, Walker has frequently visited this juncture of two giant ice sheets, and she comes back with lots of fascinating stories to tell. Fish with antifreeze in their blood? As she visits coastal bases and the high plateau in the interior, she explains that Antarctica speaks to the future: giant telescopes there show us what telescopes elsewhere on Earth cannot, and the melting ice shelves suggest the real threat of global warming. Armchair travel at its absolute best and good science, too; not as big a printing as some other titles here but of general interest.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.