Friday, December 11, 2015

Books for Christmas Part 12: Books on the Brain, in the Gut and in you Hands - Science and Nature

The town of Abingdon-on-Thames is a unique and special place, which is not to be uncritical of it. There are aspects of the town which are the envy of other towns - its heritage, buildings, history and position on the Thames - and the 'wicked problems' that challenge its vitality linked to changes in society, technology, climate and transport that affect every town in the country.

But there are two pieces of incredible good fortune that make Abingdon such a wonderful place to live and work. One is the sheer number of people in the town who are working to solve some of these tricky and long-term problems, the other is Abingdon's location at the heart of some of the most exciting science and technology in the world.

We call it the 'Golden Science Triangle', and at each Apex you have cutting edge fusion, space, physics and academic research. It means that most days we get to chat about science, technology and nature challenges and solutions with some of the most brilliant brains on the planet...

Which means we have to be at the top of our game when it comes to science and nature writing. We may not always make it - but here are our top picks of the year:

The Brain - David Eagleman (£25)
Where better to start than the source of all the ideas - the three pound mass of moist biological matter, locked away in the dark and silent fortress of the skull. Yet somehow it produces the extraordinary multi-sensory experience that comprises us, every day of our lives. Just how it does this is revealed through six fascinating chapters, as Eagleman shows how the brain - a great storyteller - constructs reality and allows us to navigate a complex world of decision-making.

Eagleman also takes the long view of the human brain's trajectory in the coming centuries and millennia, asking pertinent questions about our future. Along the way, Eagleman meets nuns, extreme sports athletes, convicted criminals, genocide survivors, autistic people, and multi-disciplinary experts from child psychologists to brain surgeons. He takes part in experiments that shine an important light on the brain's inner cosmos. He also explores the dark side of human behaviour, as he comes to the realisation that the best and worst of what humans do to each other can be understood through the prism of the brain.

And the most delightful aspect of this book for us? It shows how reading and hearing stories - by rehearsing different scenarios, and experiencing far more than we could ever hope to in physical form - can improve almost all aspects of our life. An exhilarating and hugely important book - we highly recommend it.

Chance – New Scientist (£7.99)
If you think about it, the chances of you being here today are astronomically small – a mind-boggling series of ‘lucky breaks’ between the Big Bang and you sitting listening to this radio show right now. Science can tell us a lot about luck and chance – from gambling and finding love to the truly weird world of coincidences.

This fantastic and utterly fascinating little book tells you how our brains have evolved to cope with chance – and why pretty much everything you think you know about it is wrong!

The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees - Robert Penn (£16.99)
From the author of one of our favourite cycling books of the last few years, It's All About the Bike, comes another exuberant tale of craftsmanship and human history. Uplifting, revealing, great fun and full of stories, it explores the almost symbiotic relationship that we have with trees, explored through the things we make out of them.

Robert Penn cut down an ash tree to see how many things could be made from it. After all, ash is the tree we have made the greatest and most varied use of over the course of human history. Journeying from Wales across Europe and Ireland to the USA, he finds that the ancient skills and knowledge of the properties of ash, developed over millennia making wheels and arrows, furniture and baseball bats, are far from dead. The book chronicles how the urge to understand and appreciate trees still runs through us like grain through wood. Difficult to overstate how splendid this book is - come in and take a look!

Norwegian Wood - Lars Mytting (£20)
Until you see it, feel the heft in your hands, and fall in love with it, it's tricky to understand just why a book about chopping and stacking wood should be such a pan-European bestseller, but - like Robert Penn's book above - our connection with wood runs deep and profoundly.

One of the biggest Scandinavian publishing successes ever. For a time when we are most conscious of our energy security, a practical-lyrical, beautifully illustrated guide to its most ancient source. Lars Mytting shares a Scandinavian passion for wood harvesting, stacking, storing and burning, combining cultural history and folklore with modern science. 'Norwegian Wood' is both entertaining and instructive, and in delivering a wealth of advice and technical know-how for the armchair reader and for those outdoors. This book really tells you everything you wanted to know about wood but were too afraid to ask...

Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Under-Rated Organ - Giulia Enders (£14.99)
The key to living a happier, healthier life is inside us - literally! Our gut is almost as important to us as our brain or our heart, yet we know very little about how it works. In Gut, Giulia Enders shows that rather than the utilitarian and - let's be honest - somewhat embarrassing body part we imagine it to be, it is one of the most complex, important, and even miraculous parts of our anatomy.

And scientists are only just discovering quite how much it has to offer; new research shows that gut bacteria can play a role in everything from obesity and allergies to Alzheimer's. Beginning with the personal experience of illness that inspired her research, and going on to explain everything from the basics of nutrient absorption to the latest science linking bowel bacteria with depression, Enders has written an entertaining, informative health handbook. Gut definitely shows that we can all benefit from getting to know the wondrous world of our inner workings.

Thing Explainer - Randall Munroe (£16.99)
One of our absolute science heroes, Richard Feynman, once said that if you can't explain something to a first-year university student, you don't really get it.

In 'Thing Explainer', ex-NASA robotics scientist, author of 'What If?' and the xkcd web phenomenon takes a quantum leap past this: he explains things using only drawings and a vocabulary of just our 1,000 (or the ten hundred) most common words. Many of the things we use every day - like our food-heating radio boxes ('microwaves'), our very tall roads ('bridges'), and our computer rooms ('datacentres') - are strange to us.

It's a wonderful series of brilliantly simple diagrams ('blueprints' if you want to be complicated about it) that show how important things work: from the nuclear bomb to the biro. It's good to know what the parts of a thing are called, but it's much more interesting to know what they do...

This book is fantastic for both smart kids and eager-to-learn adults and practically anyone who you are stumped to give a gift for!

Want more inspiration? We've been blogging all year about other science and technology books, and ahead of Tim Peake's space mission which launches on Dec 15 - go see our big space book post, take a look at our 'Christmas Rocket' in the shop window, and also take a look at 'The Invention of Nature' by Andrea Wulf and 'The Invention of Science' by David Wootton in our review of favourite history titles)

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