Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

New Books

By Stephen Luntz

Your guide to new books

Drive and Curiosity: What Fuels the Passion for Science?
Istvan Hargittai, Footprint Books, $39.95

Dr Istvan Hargittai is a research professor in chemistry, but has carved out a second career interviewing some of the leading scientists of recent times. In Drive and Curiosity he profiles 15 greats, most of them Nobel Laureates, including giants such James Watson, Linus Pauling and Sherwood Rowland. In these extensive interviews Hargittai explores the science his subjects’ discoveries, but focuses on their diverse motivations.

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Burke & Wills: The Scientific Legacy of The Victorian Exploring Expedition
E.B. Joyce & D.A. McCann (Eds.), CSIRO Publishing, $59.95

Burke and Wills’ crossing of the continent may have ended in disaster, but that does not mean nothing of value was learnt. Detailed scientific observations were made following the instructions of the Royal Society of Victoria, the expedition’s sponsor.

While most of the information gained was not published in the aftermath of the tragedy, some of it is of value today, revealing the natural environment of a large slice of Australia before the changes wrought by introduced species and alterations to hydrology. The University of Melbourne’s Dr Doug McCann and A/Prof Bernie Joyce have collected and edited the expedition’s information, and reconsidered the value of the expedition in this light.

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Math for the Frightened
Colin Pask, Prometheus Books, $31.95

For many people, studying mathematics was one of the traumas of their school days, leading to a lifelong aversion to the subject. Many science books for the general public deal with this by trying to leave the equations out, but Colin Pask takes the opposite approach, gently encouraging the reader to make symbols their friend.

Despite the American language of the title, Pask is a professor of mathematics at the University of NSW.

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Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology
Erika Lorraine Milam, Footprint Books, $41.95

Mate selection, more often practised by females than males, is one of the central drivers of evolution. A/Prof Erika Milam of the University of Maryland looks at the interpretations of experiments conducted over 150 years to investigate how female animals select their partners, and the evolutionary reasons for these choices. In the process she considers the way animal behaviour has been extrapolated to humans, and the sometimes doubtful conclusions that have been drawn in the process.

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The Best Writing on Mathematics 2011
Mircea Pitici (Ed.), Princeton University Press, $19.95

The title may sound like a joke to those used to thinking of mathematics as a dry and abstract field. However, the topics range widely. While some articles would be inaccessible to those who have not studied fairly advanced mathematics (preferably recently), others have much wider appeal.

Martin Campbell-Kelly discusses his nostalgia for mathematical tables. The old log tables may have been painful to create and far from easy to use, but he explains why their demise brings a tear to his eye. Ioan James discusses autism and mathematical talent, while other topics range from number theory to the use of maths in art.