Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

New books

By Stephen Luntz

Your guide to new science books this month.

Nature’s Compass: The Mystery of Animal Navigation
James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould, Princeton University Press, $45.00

James Gould discovered how a honeybee’s dance guides other bees to newly discovered food. In Nature’s Compass, Gould and his wife, science writer Carol Grant Gould, reveal the ways that various animals manage astonishing journeys, finding their way across thousands of kilometres – often to places they have never been.

The Goulds show that animals use a range of tools to achieve these feats of navigation, and investigate why humans get lost without a map and compass.

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Floating Gold
Christopher Kemp, Harper Collins, $29.95

It sounds repulsive but ambergris, a by-product of the digestive system of sperm whales, sells for $20 per gram. It washes up on beaches, and is often confused for many other things. To those in the know, however, it is almost as valuable as gold – used in perfumes, medicines and aphrodisiacs.

People really do go to the ends of the Earth in search of this material, and Christopher Kemp follows them, investigating what it is made of, how sperm whales produce it, and what people will do to possess it.

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Taste Matters: Why We Like the Foods We Like
John Prescott, UNSW Press, $34.99

In a world in which our taste for food is proving detrimental to our health, John Prescott ponders what drives our preferences. Are differences in taste driven by genetics, cultural practices or early food experiences?

Prescott has held positions in experimental psychology and sensory science at CSIRO and universities around Australia and New Zealand. He is the past President of the Australasian Association for ChemoSensory Science and editor of the peer-reviewed journal Food Quality & Preference.

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Physics and Technology for Future Presidents
Richard R. Muller, Footprint Books, $56.95

Subtitled An Introduction to the Essential Physics Every World Leader Needs to Know, this book confronts the fact that leaders are increasingly called on to make judgements based on science they don’t understand. While we cannot expect the majority of politicians or business leaders to have mastered quantum field theory, a basic understanding of the physical limitations placed on us by the laws of motion and thermodynamics might come in useful.

Muller is professor of physics at the University of California, Berkley, and teaches a course on the physics needed to understand the modern world.

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Experiment Eleven: Deceit and Betrayal in the Discovery of a Wonder Drug
Peter Pringle, Bloomsbury, $39.99

The discovery that streptomycin can effectively treat tuberculosis is one of the most life-saving events in the history of medicine. However, what happened thereafter revealed the ugly side of science, with Selmon Waksman, the professor in whose lab the finding was made, stealing both the prestige and royalties from its discoverer, Albert Schatz.

Peter Pringle not only recounts these events, and Schatz’s lawsuit, but also the way the streptomycin patent entrenched the power of pharmaceutical companies and changed the way medical research is conducted.