The world through the nose of a dog and the psychological secrets of the plot twist: Books in brief

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

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The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

Steve Brusatte William Morrow (2018)

Palaeontologist Steve Brusatte has described more than 15 new species of fossil vertebrate, including the long-snouted theropod “Pinocchio rex” (Qianzhousaurus sinensis). In this vivid, pacy chronicle, he meshes the findings in a field currently seeing a new species unearthed, on average, every week with a re-creation of the dinosaurs’ 150-million-year reign. This is scientific storytelling at its most visceral, striding with the beasts through their Triassic dawn, Jurassic dominance and abrupt demise in the Cretaceous period, which spared only the theropods from which birds are descended.

Secrets of the Snout: The Dog’s Incredible Nose

Frank Rosell (transl. Diane Oatley) University of Chicago Press (2018)

With up to 300 million olfactory cells to our 5 million, dogs are spectacularly equipped to sense fugitive compounds emitted by everything from buried mines to colorectal cancer. In this fascinating study, behavioural ecologist Frank Rosell guides us through compelling research on olfaction-related canine ethology, physiology and neuroscience. Interwoven are feats of star sniffer dogs such as Tucker, a seagoing research Labrador that detects killer whales by locating their faeces; and Aska, trained to smell the pheromones of spruce bark beetles, a major insect pest.

The Tectonic Plates are Moving!

Roy Livermore Oxford University Press (2018)

In 1963, a revolution began to rumble in Earth science. The Vine–Matthews hypothesis (brainchild of marine geologists Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews) laid the basis for plate tectonics, a key to conundrums as diverse as mountain formation and earthquake location. Consensus came slowly, as geophysicist Roy Livermore charts in this packed account, richly contextualized by the chain of discovery from William Gilbert (author of 1600 treatise De Magnete) to Alfred Wegener, Kiyoo Wadati and Ken Bullen. Today’s big debates, such as the mechanics of subduction, also get a look-in.

Elements of Surprise

Vera Tobin Harvard University Press (2018)

Plot twists can jolt us into an understanding of fiction’s deeper meaning. But how do they work? In this scholarly study, cognitive scientist Vera Tobin pinpoints the psychological quirks that make us vulnerable to literary shock tactics. She shows, for instance, how Charles Dickens harnesses the ‘curse of knowledge’ bias (the belief that others know what we know) to dizzying effect in his 1861 Great Expectations; and how in Villette (1853), Charlotte Brontë twists the story twice through unruly protagonist Lucy Snowe, leaving us wallowing in a “vertiginous instability” not unlike Snowe’s own.

The Big Cloud

Camille Seaman Princeton Architectural Press (2018)

Photographer Camille Seaman’s images of icebergs as entities gnawed by climate change are a window on the world of fast-disappearing polar ice (see J. Hoffman Nature 492, 40; 2012). Here, she turns to a phenomenon even more evanescent: the storm cloud. Carefully avoiding “disaster tourism”, Seaman captures stupendous storm fronts, from supercells to baby tornadoes, across South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska – a record of meteorology under the cosh of a shifting climate, and a homage to untameable nature.

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