Here is my selection of the top science books from 2016, excluding those mainly for kids. Also, I don’t include climate change related books here either. (These will both be covered in separate posts.)
The number of books on this list is not large, and I think this was not the most prolific year ever for top science books. But, the ones on the list are great! For brevity, I’m mostly using the publisher’s info below. Where I’ve reviewed the book, there is a link to that review. Click through to the reviews if you want to read my commentary, but in most cases, you can judge these books by their covers.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations their male counterparts made via telescope each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but soon the female corps included graduates of the new women’s colleges—Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned from computation to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates.
The “glass universe” of half a million plates that Harvard amassed over the ensuing decades—through the generous support of Mrs. Anna Palmer Draper, the widow of a pioneer in stellar photography—enabled the women to make extraordinary discoveries that attracted worldwide acclaim. They helped discern what stars were made of, divided the stars into meaningful categories for further research, and found a way to measure distances across space by starlight. Their ranks included Williamina Fleming, a Scottish woman originally hired as a maid who went on to identify ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars; Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar classification system that was adopted by astronomers the world over and is still in use; and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne, who in 1956 became the first ever woman professor of astronomy at Harvard—and Harvard’s first female department chair.
In short chapters filled with intriguing historical anecdotes, personal asides, and rigorous exposition, readers learn the difference between how the world works at the quantum level, the cosmic level, and the human level—and then how each connects to the other. Carroll’s presentation of the principles that have guided the scientific revolution from Darwin and Einstein to the origins of life, consciousness, and the universe is dazzlingly unique.
Carroll shows how an avalanche of discoveries in the past few hundred years has changed our world and what really matters to us. Our lives are dwarfed like never before by the immensity of space and time, but they are redeemed by our capacity to comprehend it and give it meaning.
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
A charmingly illustrated and educational book, New York Times best seller Women in Science highlights the contributions of fifty notable women to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from the ancient to the modern world.
Full of striking, singular art, this fascinating collection also contains infographics about relevant topics such as lab equipment, rates of women currently working in STEM fields, and an illustrated scientific glossary.
The trailblazing women profiled include well-known figures like primatologist Jane Goodall, as well as lesser-known pioneers such as Katherine Johnson, the African-American physicist and mathematician who calculated the trajectory of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
Women in Science celebrates the achievements of the intrepid women who have paved the way for the next generation of female engineers, biologists, mathematicians, doctors, astronauts, physicists, and more!
Every animal, whether human, squid, or wasp, is home to millions of bacteria and other microbes. Ed Yong, whose humor is as evident as his erudition, prompts us to look at ourselves and our animal companions in a new light—less as individuals and more as the interconnected, interdependent multitudes we assuredly are.
The microbes in our bodies are part of our immune systems and protect us from disease. In the deep oceans, mysterious creatures without mouths or guts depend on microbes for all their energy. Bacteria provide squid with invisibility cloaks, help beetles to bring down forests, and allow worms to cause diseases that afflict millions of people.
Many people think of microbes as germs to be eradicated, but those that live with us—the microbiome—build our bodies, protect our health, shape our identities, and grant us incredible abilities. In this astonishing book, Ed Yong takes us on a grand tour through our microbial partners, and introduces us to the scientists on the front lines of discovery. It will change both our view of nature and our sense of where we belong in it.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben
Are trees social beings? In this international bestseller, forester and author Peter Wohlleben convincingly makes the case that, yes, the forest is a social network. He draws on groundbreaking scientific discoveries to describe how trees are like human families: tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, support them as they grow, share nutrients with those who are sick or struggling, and even warn each other of impending dangers. Wohlleben also shares his deep love of woods and forests, explaining the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in his woodland.
After learning about the complex life of trees, a walk in the woods will never be the same again.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
An illuminating debut memoir of a woman in science; a moving portrait of a longtime friendship; and a stunningly fresh look at plants that will forever change how you see the natural world
Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.
Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s remarkable stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.
Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.
This book is an interesting idea. Never mind the field guide part for a moment. This isn’t really set up like a field guide, though it is produced by the excellent producers of excellent field guides at Princeton. But think about the core idea here. Take every group of mammal, typically at the level of Order (Mammal is class, there are more than two dozen living orders with about 5,000 species) and ask for each one, “what does the fossil record look like.” In some cases, a very few living species are related to a huge diversity of extinct ones. In some cases, a highly diverse living fauna is related to a much smaller number of extinct ones. And each of these different relationships between the present and the past is a different and interesting evolutionary story.
If you looked only at the living mammals, you would miss a lot because there has been so much change in the past.
The giant sloths may be extinct, but Don Prothero himself is a giant of our age among fossil experts. His primary area of expertise includes the fossil mammals (especially but not at all limited to rhinos). I believe it is true that he has personally handled more fossil mammalian material, in terms of taxonomic breath and time depth, across more institutional collections, than anyone.
Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry by Christie Wilcox
Christie Wilcox’s book is one of the better science books I’ve read in some time. This is an area I should know something about, as a biological scientist, and as a person who has lived for years in the venom-rich rain forest. But I still found myself learning something new with every page turn. Wilcox has studied venom for years — this is her area of specialty — and her text is enriched with well placed and well told stories of her own sometimes harrowing experiences.
The book is very well written and very well documented with copious notes.
A fascinating subtext has to do with human evolution and experience. There is a theory that primates generally are tuned to venomous creatures, especially snakes, and some of the key primate evolutionary adaptations are shaped by the experience of living in trees where large venomous snakes hunt. In the present day, there is what looks to me almost like a cult of self envenomation, found among people who keep venomous snakes (mainly), who inject themselves with venom regularly in order to stay, maybe, immune in case of an accidental bite. But they seem to be doing something more than this, almost using the venom as a sort of drug or, fascinatingly, as an elixir to extend life. On top of this, there is even an expanding practice of using snake bites, or ingesting the powdered form of snake venom, as a recreational drug. This set of not too unrelated human stories sits intriguingly amid myriad stories of venom use among a wide range of animals, including several mammals, fish, cone snails, snakes and lizards, etc.
Some Other Books
There are a few other books that I want to mention, that are not strictly science books, or that are great but that would appeal to a narrower audience.
The first is a book you should buy instead of a science book, this year, if you are only going to buy one book. This is Shawn Otto’s “The War On Science.” I’ve written a review of it here. Please follow through to the review, look it over, then get yourself a copy of this important book.
Howard Wainer’s “Truth or Truthiness” appeals to people who consider themselves skeptics, but may not be as much interest to a wider audience. But if you call yourself a Skeptic and have not seen it yet, have a look it!
Earthquake Time Bombs is an important book to read if you live in an earthquake area and care that YOU ARE ALL GONNA DIE!!! No, but seriously, Robert Yeats is THE expert on earthquake risk and hazard, and I loved this book even though I don’t live in an earthquake prone area. But, I’m really into geology. Are you? If so, check it out.
Anyone interested in, or engaged in, the Evolution-Creation discussion should have a copy of THe Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth on their shelf. Check out my review to see why.