The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How Science Can Predict the Ultimate Fate of Our World, by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee (Portrait, £8.99)
"Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice". These lines from Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice" appear at the start of Ward and Brownlee's book which argues that both fates await us. The authors are a palaeontologist ("a glorified and well-educated grave robber") and an astronomer ("a catcher of comets"). They point out that the Earth is already middle aged and past its best years. We are fortunate to live in an interglacial period but "the gentle green cradle we regard as normal" is in fact only temporary. After global warming ("a blink in planetary time") has done its worst, the Earth will catch a very nasty cold. For the next ice age is coming: glaciers half a kilometre high will grind their way down to New York and into central Europe. After this, the authors whisk us away hundreds of millions of years into the future, to a time when the sun has become a red giant. Then the only life on Earth will be those from which it all evolved: bacteria. This fascinating but bleak work of scientific eschatology is an important reminder of "how wondrous, fragile, and perilous our present world is".
What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable, edited by John Brockman (Pocket, £8.99)
The "traditional intellectual" is out of a job; scientists now tell us who and what we are, argues John Brockman, the literary agent and founder of the website Edge. Each year Edge poses a question to the leading "thinkers in the empirical world". In 2006 Steven Pinker suggested "What is your dangerous idea?" - not the secret of a doomsday device, or some fiendish theory, but an idea that is dangerous "because it might be true". There are more than 100 responses in this volume and they make fascinating and provocative reading. For Charles Seife (author of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea), "nothing can be more dangerous than nothing". Equally chilling is psychologist Susan Blackmore's thought that everything is pointless. Even her contribution to the book is merely the result of "memes competing in the pointless universe". Richard Dawkins, as ever, is splendidly controversial. He comments that eugenics is notable for its absence and asks "what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons". It doesn't get much more dangerous than that.
Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, by Michael Palin (Phoenix, £9.99)
Could it be that Michael Palin is the most well-adjusted famous comedian ever? His diaries, started when he was 25 and writing TV comedy sketches, certainly give no hint of a dark soul, of creative angst, or addiction to audience appreciation. Reading them is a curiously fascinating pleasure, though there are long swaths where not a lot happens. Not once, in 10 years, does Palin record a row with his wife. Rarely does he report extremes of emotion - no black moods, flared tempers or skittish exuberance - all the more remarkable considering how quickly the Pythons were becoming famous during these years. And yet for all that the diaries are a gently compelling look at a life lived in 70s Britain. Couples meet young and get married, and usually remain so. Babies are born, become toddlers, and couples become families. Parents get older and frailer and become a worry. There are three glorious months in Tunisia shooting The Life of Brian which will appease comedy nerds, but really it is all a delight. Would that all our celebrities could record the events of their remarkable lives in such a calm, measured way.
Forza Italia: The Fall and Rise of Italian Football, by Paddy Agnew (Ebury, £7.99)
When Paddy Agnew arrived in Italy from Ireland 20 years ago to become a football journalist, he continued to wear his old scruffy leather jacket. Had he ditched the jacket and invested in some smart Armani suits, his progress would have been a lot smoother. It's a lesson that his entertaining and immensely readable book shows applies to all aspects of Italian life: some surface style can conceal just about anything. In the case of football and Serie A, the particular skills of del Piero, Maldini and Totti (who somehow manage to come across as sex gods even in translation), have through the years glossed over endemic corruption, enforced doping of players, blatant match fixing, mafia connections and fan violence. Hovering over it all is Berlusconi, ensuring that no aspect of Italian life for the past couple of decades has been free of his heavy-handed control. It is a disgrace, of course it is. But still it feels more shameful to be reminded that when they tried playing there, a hapless Ian Rush demanded baked beans and Welsh ale, and Gazza's contribution to la dolce vita was burping into Italian journalists' microphones.
The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, by Adam Tooze (Penguin, £12.99)
A revisionist history of Nazi Germany, as reconsidered from the bottom line (which ultimately couldn't be made to add up). It starts with the first governmental work of the Nazis in 1934 dealing with crises of balance of payments and consumption - not up the glamour end of the economy, either, but down among the imported oilcake animal feedstuffs supporting the urban populace's sausage intake. Armed German expansionism, especially the Lebensraum plan to settle farmers in a people-purged USSR, was meant to improve the standard of living for an emerging economy not backed by the resource-rich and underpopulated landmasses of the US or France, nor sea-supplied from the British empire. Not "guns OR butter" (though there was a permanent fat deficit post-1934) but the production of guns for use in the confiscation of Europe's butter. It comes down in the starved, powerless end to the 450 daily ration calories often not issued to the mouths of occupied Poland, and the begrudged litres of petrol, Romanian or synthesised, on which the Panzer tanks made their final stand. Astounding.