Reasons To Read Non-Fiction: Science!

A collection fo some of the best reviewed books on science from 2020.

When I made my 2020 New Year’s resolution to quit believing in science, I had no idea it would turn out like this. What a mistake! Personally, I blame my neighbor, a wizard by trade (see: Wizards & spells : a young adventurer's guide), who assured me that the stars were perfectly aligned (see: The sky atlas : the greatest maps, myths, and discoveries of the universe) for my alchemy business to take off. Now I’m stuck with crates of philosopher’s stones, and a lot of other things (see: The chemistry of alchemy : from dragon's blood to donkey dung, how chemistry was forgedthat I can’t even give away. In 2021, I’ve decided to give science another try, so, in order to get caught up, I compiled the following list of twenty of the best reviewed books on a wide variety of science-y subjects from the past year. From genetics to the fossil record, and from microbes to the cosmos, these books illuminate our world and our relationship to nature and each other. Here’s wishing you a happy, safe, and scientifically sound new year (at least until the Lemurians emerge. See: The unidentified : mythical monsters, alien encounters, and our obsession with the unexplained). Happy reading! 

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Science!

Racist pseudoscience has become so commonplace that it can be hard to spot. But its toxic effects on society are plain to see—feeding nationalism, fueling hatred, endangering lives, and corroding our discourse on everything from sports to intelligence. Even well-intentioned people repeat stereotypes based on “science,” because cutting-edge genetics are hard to grasp—and all too easy to distort. Paradoxically, these misconceptions are multiplying even as scientists make unprecedented discoveries in human genetics—findings that, when accurately understood, are powerful evidence against racism. We’ve never had clearer answers about who we are and where we come from, but this knowledge is sorely needed in our casual conversations about race. How to Argue With a Racist emphatically dismantles outdated notions of race by illuminating what modern genetics actually can and can’t tell us about human difference. We now know that the racial categories still dividing us do not align with observable genetic differences. In fact, our differences are so minute that, most of all, they serve as evidence of our shared humanity.--From the publisher 

 

 

(Also available as an E-BOOK) 

The news today is full of stories of dislocated people on the move. Wild species, too, are escaping warming seas and desiccated lands, creeping, swimming, and flying in a mass exodus from their past habitats. News media presents this scrambling of the planet's migration patterns as unprecedented, provoking fears of the spread of disease and conflict and waves of anxiety across the Western world. On both sides of the Atlantic, experts issue alarmed predictions of millions of invading aliens, unstoppable as an advancing tsunami, and countries respond by electing anti-immigration leaders who slam closed borders that were historically porous. But the science and history of migration in animals, plants, and humans tell a different story. Far from being a disruptive behavior to be quelled at any cost, migration is an ancient and lifesaving response to environmental change, a biological imperative as necessary as breathing. Climate changes triggered the first human migrations out of Africa. Falling sea levels allowed our passage across the Bering Sea. Unhampered by barbed wire, migration allowed our ancestors to people the planet, catapulting us into the highest reaches of the Himalayan mountains and the most remote islands of the Pacific, creating and disseminating the biological, cultural, and social diversity that ecosystems and societies depend upon. In other words, migration is not the crisis - it is the solution. Conclusively tracking the history of misinformation from the 18th century through today's anti-immigration policies, The Next Great Migration makes the case for a future in which migration is not a source of fear, but of hope. --From the publisher 

 

 

Galileo And The Science Deniers  by Mario Livio  

Galileo’s story may be more relevant today than ever before. At present, we face enormous crises - such as the minimization of the dangers of climate change - because the science behind these threats is erroneously questioned or ignored. Galileo encountered this problem 400 years ago. His discoveries, based on careful observations and ingenious experiments, contradicted conventional wisdom and the teachings of the church at the time. Consequently, in a blatant assault on freedom of thought, his books were forbidden by church authorities. Astrophysicist and best-selling author Mario Livio draws on his own scientific expertise to provide captivating insights into how Galileo reached his bold new conclusions about the cosmos and the laws of nature. A freethinker who followed the evidence wherever it led him, Galileo was one of the most significant figures behind the scientific revolution. He believed that every educated person should know science as well as literature, and insisted on reaching the widest audience possible, publishing his books in Italian rather than Latin. Galileo was put on trial with his life in the balance for refusing to renounce his scientific convictions. He remains a hero and inspiration to scientists and all of those who respect science - which, as Livio reminds us in this gripping book, remains threatened even today. --From the publisher 

 

 

Sand Talk : How Indigenous Thinking Can Save The World  (E-BOOK) by Tyson Yunkaporta  

As an indigenous person, Tyson Yunkaporta looks at global systems from a unique perspective, one tied to the natural and spiritual world. In considering how contemporary life diverges from the pattern of creation, he raises important questions. How does this affect us? How can we do things differently? In this thoughtful, culturally rich, mind-expanding book, he provides answers. Yunkaporta’s writing process begins with images. Honoring indigenous traditions, he makes carvings of what he wants to say, channeling his thoughts through symbols and diagrams rather than words. He yarns with people, looking for ways to connect images and stories with place and relationship to create a coherent world view, and he uses sand talk, the Aboriginal custom of drawing images on the ground to convey knowledge.  In Sand Talk, he provides a new model for our everyday lives. Rich in ideas and inspiration, it explains how lines and symbols and shapes can help us make sense of the world. It’s about how we learn and how we remember. It’s about talking to everyone and listening carefully. It’s about finding different ways to look at things. Most of all it’s about a very special way of thinking, of learning to see from a native perspective, one that is spiritually and physically tied to the earth around us, and how it can save our world. --From the publisher 

 

 

 

One of the most influential physicists of our time, Stephen Hawking touched the lives of millions. Recalling his nearly two decades as Hawking's collaborator and friends, Leonard Mlodinow brings this complex man into focus in a unique and deeply personal portrayal. We meet Hawking the genius, who pours his mind into uncovering the mysteries of the universe - ultimately formulating a pathbreaking theory of black holes that reignites the discipline of cosmology and paves the way for physicists to investigate the origins of the universe in completely new ways. We meet Hawking the colleague, a man whose illness leaves him able to communicate at only six words per minute but who expends the effort to punctuate his conversations with humor. And we meet Hawking the friend, who can convey volumes with a frown, a smile, or simply a raised eyebrow. Mlodinow puts us in the room as Hawking indulges his passion for wine and curry; shares his feelings on love, death, and disability; and grapples with deep questions of philosophy and physics. Whether depicting Hawking's devotion to his work or demonstrating how he would make spur of the moment choices, such as punting on the River Cam (despite the risk the jaunt posed), or spinning tales of Hawking defiantly urinating in the hedges outside a restaurant that doesn't have a wheelchair accessible toilet, Mlodinow captures his indomitable spirit. This deeply affecting account of a friendship teaches us not just about the nature and practice of physics, but also about life and the human capacity to overcome daunting obstacles. --From the publisher 

 

 

In The Alchemy of Us, scientist and science writer Ainissa Ramirez examines eight inventions - clocks, steel rails, copper communication cables, photographic film, light bulbs, hard disks, scientific labware, and silicon chips - and reveals how they shaped the human experience. Ramirez tells the stories of the woman who sold time, the inventor who inspired Edison, and the hotheaded undertaker whose invention pointed the way to the computer. She describes, among other things, how our pursuit of precision in timepieces changed how we sleep; how the railroad helped commercialize Christmas; and how a young chemist exposed the use of Polaroid's cameras to create passbooks to track black citizens in apartheid South Africa. Ramirez shows not only how materials were shaped by inventors but also how those materials shaped culture, chronicling each invention and its consequences - intended and unintended. Filling in the gaps left by other books about technology, Ramirez showcases little-known inventors who had a significant impact but whose accomplishments have been hidden by mythmaking, bias, and convention. Doing so, she shows us the power of telling inclusive stories about technology. She also shows that innovation is universal - whether it's splicing beats with two turntables and a microphone or splicing genes with two test tubes and CRISPR. --From the publisher 

 

(Also available as an E-BOOK 

We know the universe had a beginning. With the big bang, it expanded from a state of unimaginable density to an all-encompassing cosmic fireball to a simmering fluid of matter and energy, laying down the seeds for everything from black holes to one rocky planet orbiting a star near the edge of a spiral galaxy that happened to develop life as we know it. But what happens to the universe at the end of the story? And what does it mean for us now? Dr. Katie Mack has been contemplating these questions since she was a young student, when her astronomy professor informed her the universe could end at any moment, in an instant. This revelation set her on the path toward theoretical astrophysics. Now, with lively wit and humor, she takes us on a mind-bending tour through five of the cosmos' possible finales: The Big Crunch, Heat Death, the Big Rip, Vacuum Decay (the one that could happen at any moment!), and the Bounce. Guiding us through cutting-edge science and major concepts in quantum mechanics, cosmology, string theory, and much more, The End of Everything is a wildly fun, surprisingly upbeat ride to the farthest reaches of all that we know. --From the publisher 

 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks meets Get Out in this landmark investigation of racial inequality at the core of the heart transplant race. In 1968, Bruce Tucker, a Black man, went into Virginia’s top research hospital with a head injury, only to have his heart taken out of his body and put into the chest of a White businessman. Now, in The Organ Thieves, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Chip Jones exposes the horrifying inequality surrounding Tucker’s death and how he was used as a human guinea pig without his family’s permission or knowledge. The circumstances surrounding his death reflect the long legacy of mistreating African Americans that began more than a century before with cadaver harvesting and worse. It culminated in efforts to win the heart transplant race in the late 1960s. Featuring years of research and fresh reporting, The Organ Thieves is a story that resonates now more than ever, when issues of race and health care are the stuff of headlines and horror stories. --From the publisher 

 

(Also available as an E-BOOK and eAUDIO BOOK) 

Keeping skin healthy is a booming industry, and yet it seems like almost no one agrees on what actually works. Confusing messages from health authorities and ineffective treatments have left many people desperate for reliable solutions. An enormous alternative industry is filling the void, selling products that are often of questionable safety and totally unknown effectiveness. In Clean, doctor and journalist James Hamblin explores how we got here, examining the science and culture of how we care for our skin today. He talks to dermatologists, microbiologists, allergists, immunologists, aestheticians, bar-soap enthusiasts, venture capitalists, Amish people, theologians, and straight-up scam artists, trying to figure out what it really means to be clean. He even experiments with giving up showers entirely, and discovers that he is not alone. […] Lucid, accessible, and deeply researched, Clean explores the ongoing, radical change in the way we think about our skin, introducing readers to the emerging science that will be at the forefront of health and wellness conversations in coming years. --From the publisher 

 

 

It was not easy being a woman of ambition in early twentieth-century England, much less one who wished to be a scientist. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin overcame prodigious obstacles to become a woman of many firsts: the first to receive a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College, the first promoted to full professor at Harvard, the first to head a department there. And, in what has been called “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy,” she was the first to describe what stars are made of. Payne-Gaposchkin lived in a society that did not know what to make of a determined schoolgirl who wanted to know everything. She was derided in college and refused a degree. As a graduate student, she faced formidable skepticism. Revolutionary ideas rarely enjoy instantaneous acceptance, but the learned men of the astronomical community found hers especially hard to take seriously. Though welcomed at the Harvard College Observatory, she worked for years without recognition or status. Still, she accomplished what every scientist yearns for: discovery. She revealed the atomic composition of stars―only to be told that her conclusions were wrong by the very man who would later show her to be correct. In What Stars Are Made Of, Donovan Moore brings this remarkable woman to life through extensive archival research, family interviews, and photographs. Moore retraces Payne-Gaposchkin’s steps with visits to cramped observatories and nighttime bicycle rides through the streets of Cambridge, England. The result is a story of devotion and tenacity that speaks powerfully to our own time. --From the publisher 

 

(Also available as an E-BOOK) 

When we think of fungi, we likely think of mushrooms. But mushrooms are only fruiting bodies, analogous to apples on a tree. Most fungi live out of sight, yet make up a massively diverse kingdom of organisms that supports and sustains nearly all living systems. Fungi provide a key to understanding the planet on which we live, and the ways we think, feel, and behave. In Entangled Life, the brilliant young biologist Merlin Sheldrake shows us the world from a fungal point of view, providing an exhilarating change of perspective. Sheldrake’s vivid exploration takes us from yeast to psychedelics, to the fungi that range for miles underground and are the largest organisms on the planet, to those that link plants together in complex networks known as the "Wood Wide Web", to those that infiltrate and manipulate insect bodies with devastating precision. Fungi throw our concepts of individuality and even intelligence into question. They are metabolic masters, earth makers, and key players in most of life’s processes. They can change our minds, heal our bodies, and even help us remediate environmental disaster. By examining fungi on their own terms, Sheldrake reveals how these extraordinary organisms - and our relationships with them - are changing our understanding of how life works.--From the publisher

 

 

(Also available as an E-BOOK and eAUDIO BOOK) 

It began with plutonium, the first element ever manufactured in quantity by humans. Fearing that the Germans would be the first to weaponize the atom, the United States marshaled brilliant minds and seemingly inexhaustible bodies to find a way to create a nuclear chain reaction of inconceivable explosive power. In a matter of months, the Hanford nuclear facility was built to produce and weaponize the enigmatic and deadly new material that would fuel atomic bombs. In the desert of Eastern Washington State, far from prying eyes, scientists Glenn Seaborg, Enrico Fermi, and many thousands of others manufactured plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki and for the bombs in the current American nuclear arsenal, enabling the construction of weapons with the potential to end human civilization.  With his characteristic blend of scientific clarity and storytelling, Steve Olson asks why Hanford has been largely overlooked in histories of the Manhattan Project and the Cold War. Olson recounts how a small Washington town played host to some of the most influential scientists and engineers in American history as they sought to create the substance at the core of the most destructive weapons ever created. The Apocalypse Factory offers a new generation this dramatic story of human achievement and, ultimately, of lethal hubris. --From the publisher 

 

 

 

A wildly entertaining account of the rules, lessons, procedures, and experiences of space travel, How to Astronaut is an audiobook that will appeal to anyone - male or female, young or old - with even a passing interest in space. Written by Col. Terry Virts, a former astronaut, space shuttle pilot, and International Space Station commander who spent 200 consecutive days in space, it answers all of our curious questions and much more: Here’s how to survive that first brush with weightlessness (in the so-called vomit comet); the nearly indescribable thrill of a first blastoff; managing the daily tasks - eating, bathing, doing chores, going to the bathroom - that are anything but ordinary when you’re orbiting the earth at 17,000 miles per hour; how to don your space suit and head out to work on a spacewalk (“alone in the vacuum”); how to prepare for emergencies of all kinds, from managing “space brain” to dealing with a dead crew member; and what it’s like to return to Earth, including something as seemingly simple as walking after spending six months in zero-g. A born storyteller, Virts reveals the often-untold side of space travel in 51 short chapters filled with a mix of you-are-there detail, a dose of science made simple, and the inherent drama of describing something few will ever know firsthand. --From the publisher 

 

 

From the world-renowned physicist and best-selling author of The Elegant Universe comes a captivating exploration of deep time and humanity's search for purpose. Until the End of Time is Brian Greene's breathtaking new exploration of the cosmos and our quest to find meaning in the face of this vast expanse. Greene takes us on a journey from the big bang to the end of time, exploring how lasting structures formed, how life and mind emerged, and how we grapple with our existence through narrative, myth, religion, creative expression, science, the quest for truth, and a deep longing for the eternal. From particles to planets, consciousness to creativity, matter to meaning - Brian Greene allows us all to grasp and appreciate our fleeting but utterly exquisite moment in the cosmos. --From the publisher

 

(Also available as an E-BOOK) 

Modern humans are an indoor species. We spend 90 percent of our time inside, shuttling between homes and offices, schools and stores, restaurants and gyms. And yet, in many ways, the indoor world remains unexplored territory. For all the time we spend inside buildings, we rarely stop to consider: How do these spaces affect our mental and physical well-being? Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors? Our productivity, performance, and relationships?  In this wide-ranging, character-driven audiobook, science journalist Emily Anthes takes us on an adventure into the buildings in which we spend our days, exploring the profound and sometimes unexpected ways that they shape our lives. Drawing on cutting-edge research, she probes the painkilling power of a well-placed window and examines how the right office layout can expand our social networks. She investigates how room temperature regulates our cognitive performance, how the microbes hiding in our homes influence our immune systems, and how cafeteria design affects what - and how much - we eat. Along the way, Anthes takes listeners into an operating room designed to minimize medical errors, a school designed to boost students’ physical fitness, and a prison designed to support inmates’ psychological needs. And she previews homes of the future, from the high-tech houses that could monitor our health to the 3D-printed structures that might allow us to live on the moon. --From the publisher 

 

 

 

For at least 20,000 years, we have led not just an earthly existence but a cosmic one. Celestial cycles drove every aspect of our daily lives. Our innate relationship with the stars shaped who we are - our art, religious beliefs, social status, scientific advances, and even our biology. But over the last few centuries we have separated ourselves from the universe that surrounds us. It's a disconnect with a dire cost.  Our relationship to the stars and planets has moved from one of awe, wonder and superstition to one where technology is king - the cosmos is now explored through data on our screens, not by the naked eye observing the natural world. Indeed, in most countries modern light pollution obscures much of the night sky from view. Jo Marchant's spellbinding parade of the ways different cultures celebrated the majesty and mysteries of the night sky is a journey to the most awe inspiring view you can ever see - looking up on a clear dark night. That experience and the thoughts it has engendered have radically shaped human civilization across millennia. The cosmos is the source of our greatest creativity in art, in science, in life.  To show us how, Jo Marchant takes us to the Hall of the Bulls in the caves at Lascaux in France, and to the summer solstice at a 5,000-year-old tomb at New Grange in Ireland. We discover Chumash cosmology and visit medieval monks grappling with the nature of time and Tahitian sailors navigating by the stars. We discover how light reveals the chemical composition of the sun, and we are with Einstein as he works out that space and time are one and the same. A four-billion-year-old meteor inspires a search for extraterrestrial life. The cosmically liberating, summary revelation is that star-gazing made us human. --From the publisher 

 

 

The Book OEels : Our Enduring Fascination With The Most Mysterious Creature IThe Natural World  by Patrik Svensson ; translated from the Swedish by Agnes Broomé  

(Also available as an E-BOOK and eAUDIO BOOK) 

Remarkably little is known about the European eel, Anguilla anguilla. So little, in fact, that scientists and philosophers have, for centuries, been obsessed with what has become known as the “eel question”: Where do eels come from? What are they? Are they fish or some other kind of creature altogether? Even today, in an age of advanced science, no one has ever seen eels mating or giving birth, and we still don’t understand what drives them, after living for decades in freshwater, to swim great distances back to the ocean at the end of their lives. They remain a mystery. […] Blending memoir and nature writing at its best, Svensson’s journey to understand the eel becomes an exploration of the human condition that delves into overarching issues about our roots and destiny, both as humans and as animals, and, ultimately, how to handle the biggest question of all: death. The result is a gripping and slippery narrative that will surprise and enchant. --From the publisher 

 

Black Hole Survival Guide  by Janna Levin  

Through her writing, astrophysicist Janna Levin has focused on making the science she studies not just comprehensible but also, and perhaps more important, intriguing to the nonscientist. In this book, she helps us to understand and find delight in the black hole - perhaps the most opaque theoretical construct ever imagined by physicists.  Levin takes us on an evocative exploration of black holes, provoking us to imagine the visceral experience of a black hole encounter. She reveals the influence of black holes as they populate the universe, sculpt galaxies, and even infuse the whole expanse of reality that we inhabit. Lively, engaging, and utterly unique, Black Hole Survival Guide is not just informative - it is, as well, a wonderful listen from first to last. --From the publisher 

 

(Also available as an E-BOOK and eAUDIO BOOK 

Apollo's Arrow offers a riveting account of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic as it swept through American society in 2020 and of how the recovery will unfold in the coming years. Drawing on momentous (yet dimly remembered) historical epidemics, contemporary analyses, and cutting-edge research from a range of scientific disciplines, best-selling author, physician, sociologist, and public-health expert Nicholas A. Christakis explores what it means to live in a time of plague - an experience that is paradoxically uncommon to the vast majority of humans who are alive yet deeply fundamental to our species. Unleashing new divisions in our society as well as opportunities for cooperation, this 21st-century pandemic has upended our lives in ways that will test, but not vanquish, our already frayed collective culture. Featuring new, provocative arguments and vivid examples ranging across medicine, history, sociology, epidemiology, data science, and genetics, Apollo's Arrow envisions what happens when the great force of a deadly germ meets the enduring reality of our evolved social nature. --From the publisher 

 

 

The Sediments Of Time : My Lifelong Search For The Past  by Meave Leakey with Samira Leakey  
 
In The Sediments of Time, preeminent paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey brings us along on her remarkable journey to reveal the diversity of our early pre-human ancestors and how past climate change drove their evolution. She offers a fresh account of our past, as recent breakthroughs have allowed new analysis of her team’s fossil findings and vastly expanded our understanding of our ancestors. Meave’s own personal story is replete with drama, from thrilling discoveries on the shores of Lake Turkana to run-ins with armed herders and every manner of wildlife, to raising her children and supporting her renowned paleoanthropologist husband Richard Leakey’s ambitions amidst social and political strife in Kenya. When Richard needs a kidney, Meave provides him with hers, and when he asks her to assume the reins of their field expeditions after he loses both legs in a plane crash, the result of likely sabotage, Meave steps in. The Sediments of Time is the summation of a lifetime of Meave Leakey’s efforts; it is a compelling picture of our human origins and climate change, as well as a high-stakes story of ambition, struggle, and hope. --From the publisher