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What We Have Taken from Nature

The biosphere—the Earth’s thin layer of life—dates from nearly four billion years ago, when the first simple organisms appeared. Many species have exerted enormous influence on the biosphere’s character and productivity, but none has transformed the Earth in so many ways and on such a scale as Homo sapiens. In Harvesting the Biosphere, Vaclav Smil offers an interdisciplinary and quantitative account of human claims on the biosphere’s stores of living matter, from prehistory to the present day.

With robots, we are inventing a new species that is part material and part digital. The ambition of modern robotics goes beyond copying humans, beyond the effort to make walking, talking androids that are indistinguishable from people. Future robots will have superhuman abilities in both the physical and digital realms. They will be embedded in our physical spaces, with the ability to go where we cannot, and will have minds of their own, thanks to artificial intelligence.

The Hand and the Emergence of Humanity

This book is a hymn to the hand. In Prehension, Colin McGinn links questions from science to philosophical concerns to consider something that we take for granted: the importance of the hand in everything we do. Drawing on evolutionary biology, anatomy, archaeology, linguistics, psychology, and philosophy, among other disciplines, McGinn examines the role of the hand in shaping human evolution. He finds that the development of our capacity to grasp, to grip, to take hold (also known as prehension) is crucial in the emergence of Homo sapiens.

The United States has one of the highest rates of premature birth of any industrialized nation: 11.5%, nearly twice the rate of many European countries. In this book, John Lantos and Diane Lauderdale examine why the rate of preterm birth in the United States remains high—even though more women have access to prenatal care now than three decades ago. They also analyze a puzzling paradox: why, even as the rate of preterm birth rose through the 1990s and early 2000s, the rate of infant mortality steadily decreased.

The idea that human history is approaching a “singularity”—that ordinary humans will someday be overtaken by artificially intelligent machines or cognitively enhanced biological intelligence, or both—has moved from the realm of science fiction to serious debate. Some singularity theorists predict that if the field of artificial intelligence (AI) continues to develop at its current dizzying rate, the singularity could come about in the middle of the present century.

The field of Artificial Life (ALife) is now firmly established in the scientific world, but it has yet to achieve one of its original goals: an understanding of the emergence of life on Earth. The new field of Artificial Chemistries draws from chemistry, biology, computer science, mathematics, and other disciplines to work toward that goal. For if, as it has been argued, life emerged from primitive, prebiotic forms of self-organization, then studying models of chemical reaction systems could bring ALife closer to understanding the origins of life.

Many parts of the world in which common infectious diseases are endemic also have the highest prevalence of trace metal deficiencies or rising rates of trace metal pollution. Infectious diseases can increase human susceptibility to adverse effects of metal exposure (at suboptimal or toxic levels), and metal excess or deficiency can increase the incidence or severity of infectious diseases.

The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change

The risks of climate change are potentially immense. The benefits of taking action are also clear: we can see that economic development, reduced emissions, and creative adaptation go hand in hand. A committed and strong low-carbon transition could trigger a new wave of economic and technological transformation and investment, a new era of global and sustainable prosperity. Why, then, are we waiting? In this book, Nicholas Stern explains why, notwithstanding the great attractions of a new path, it has been so difficult to tackle climate change effectively.

Anyone Can Map

Maps of physical spaces locate us in the world and help us navigate unfamiliar routes. Maps of topical spaces help us visualize the extent and structure of our collective knowledge; they reveal bursts of activity, pathways of ideas, and borders that beg to be crossed. This book, from the author of Atlas of Science, describes the power of topical maps, providing readers with principles for visualizing knowledge and offering as examples forty large-scale and more than 100 small-scale full-color maps.

In the late 1950s, experiments such as the cybernetic sculptures of Nicolas Schöffer or the programmatic music compositions of John Cage and Iannis Xenakis transposed systems theory from the sciences to the arts. By the 1960s, artists as diverse as Roy Ascott, Hans Haacke, Robert Morris, Sonia Sheridan, and Stephen Willats were breaking with accepted aesthetics to embrace open systems that emphasized organism over mechanism, dynamic processes of interaction among elements, and the observer’s role as an inextricable part of the system.

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