By Annalee Newitz
A Brilliant List of Science Books for People Who Want Their Minds Blown
While everybody is getting stoned on turkey and starch this holiday season, you’re hoping to join a secret collective of super-intelligent scientists who will invent faster-than-light travel and cure cancer. We understand. That’s why we’ve put together this list of great science books that came out in the past year — they’re the perfect gifts for people with inquiring minds (including you!).
Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution, by Holly Tucker (W. W. Norton and Co.)
Tucker’s fast-paced, exciting account of the birth of blood transfusions takes us from murder scenes to the bloody halls of sanatoriums during the earliest days of scientific medicine. From the publisher’s description:
On a cold day in 1667, a renegade physician named Jean Denis transfused calf’s blood into one of Paris’s most notorious madmen. In doing so, Denis angered not only the elite scientists who had hoped to perform the first animal-to-human transfusions themselves, but also a host of powerful conservatives who believed that the doctor was toying with forces of nature that he did not understand. Just days after the experiment, the madman was dead, and Denis was framed for murder.
A riveting account of the first blood transfusion experiments in 17th-century Paris and London, Blood Work gives us a vivid glimpse of a particularly fraught period in history—a time of fire and plague, empire building and international distrust, when monsters were believed to inhabit the seas and the boundary between science and superstition was still in flux. Amid this atmosphere of uncertainty, transfusionists like Denis became embroiled in the hottest cultural debates and fiercest political rivalries of their day.
Eruptions that Shook the World, by Clive Oppenheimer (Cambridge University Press)
Entertaining, funny, and downright weird, this book offers a tour through the geological history of one of the planet’s most destructive forces: the volcano. Oppenheimer explains how volcanoes have controlled Earth’s climate, nearly wiped out all multicellular life, shaped ancient empires, and even contributed to the rise of fascism in Europe. Learn about how we study volcanoes, as well as how they’ve affected life on Earth for the past billion years.
Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, by Steven Johnson (Riverhead)
Johnson, who made you fall in love with him with his previous bookEverything Bad Is Good For You, is back with a terrific, smart debunking of the idea of lonely, individual geniuses. Instead, he suggests, great breakthroughs can come to the humblest of us all. Packed with entertaining stories and fascinating insights from scientists, this book validates the citizen scientists and garage inventors in us all.
Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science, by Marjorie Malley (Oxford University Press)
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, many were left wondering how we ever decided that playing around with atomic energy was a good idea. Dense and fascinating, Malley’s story traces the discovery of radioactivity in the late nineteenth century, to the growth of science (including quack science) and industry around the invisible rays that can both injure and heal.
The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind The Vaccine Autism Controversy, by Seth Mnookin (Simon and Schuster)
Ever wonder how the rumor got started that immunization shots can cause autism? This book is a fascinating (and sometimes terrifying) answer to that question. From the publisher’s description:
In 1998 Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist with a history of self-promotion, published a paper with a shocking allegation: the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine might cause autism. The media seized hold of the story and, in the process, helped to launch one of the most devastating health scares ever. In the years to come Wakefield would be revealed as a profiteer in league with class-action lawyers, and he would eventually lose his medical license. Meanwhile one study after another failed to find any link between childhood vaccines and autism.
Yet the myth that vaccines somehow cause developmental disorders lives on . . . In The Panic Virus, Seth Mnookin draws on interviews with parents, public-health advocates, scientists, and anti-vaccine activists to tackle a fundamental question: How do we decide what the truth is?
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through The Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson (Riverhead)
Ronson is the slightly gonzo science journalist who wrote Men Who Stare At Goats (which became a movie), and now he’s back with a scathing, intelligently-written story about what he calls “the madness industry.” From the publisher:
Jon Ronson’s exploration of a potential hoax being played on the world’s top neurologists takes him, unexpectedly, into the heart of the madness industry. An influential psychologist who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are, in fact, psychopaths teaches Ronson how to spot these high-flying individuals by looking out for little telltale verbal and nonverbal clues. And so Ronson, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, enters the corridors of power. He spends time with a death-squad leader institutionalized for mortgage fraud in Coxsackie, New York; a legendary CEO whose psychopathy has been speculated about in the press; and a patient in an asylum for the criminally insane who insists he’s sane and certainly not a psychopath.
The Information, by James Gleick (Pantheon)
Gleick is the profoundly literary science writer who brought youChaos and Genius. Now he turns to the spirit of the information age, trying to determine where its roots lie in history and what our ultra-dependence on electrified communication networks will do to us as a civilization. Heady and intense, this book will take you into amazing stories from early computer history and toward a future where we pass beyond information overload and into a new way of thinking.
Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed, by Carl Zimmer (Sterling)
Usually the author of serious, meaty books about evolution and biology, Zimmer shows us his whimsical side in this coffee table book featuring gorgeous photographs of people who have science tattoos. This book is a nothing short of a love letter to science, and to the people who are so enchanted by it that they’ve marked their bodies with its symbols.
Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl (PublicAffairs)
This is a riveting account of how people across the world are using ultrasound and other pre-natal technologies to give birth to far more male babies than female. What’s especially rewarding is that Hvistendahl never reaches for easy answers in her investigation of why this has happened, and what the consequences will be. As a result, you get a nuanced portrait of a world out of balance. From the publisher:
Rampant sex selective abortion has left over 160 million females “missing” from Asia’s population. And gender imbalance reaches far beyond South and East Asia, affecting the Caucasus countries, Eastern Europe, and even some groups in the United States — a rate of diffusion so rapid that the leading expert on the topic compares it to an epidemic. As economic development spurs parents in developing countries to have fewer children and brings them access to sex determination technology, couples are making sure at least one of their children is a son. So many parents now select for boys that they have skewed the sex ratio at birth of the entire world.
Sex selection did not arise on its own. Largely unknown until now is that the sex ratio imbalance is partly the work of a group of 1960s American activists and scientists who zealously backed the use of prenatal technologies in their haste to solve an earlier global problem.
What does this mean for our future? . . . Traveling to nine countries, Mara Hvistendahl has produced a stunning, impeccably researched book that examines not only the consequences of the misbegotten policies underlying sex selection but also the West’s role in creating them.
Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman (Pantheon)
Neuroscientist Eagleman delves into the parts of our minds that we’re not aware of consciously, and comes up with tons of stories that illuminate how we can be thinking about things without ever being aware of it. From the publisher:
Why can your foot move halfway to the brake pedal before you become consciously aware of danger ahead? Why do you hear your name being mentioned in a conversation that you didn’t think you were listening to? What do Ulysses and the credit crunch have in common? Why did Thomas Edison electrocute an elephant in 1916? Why are people whose names begin with J more likely to marry other people whose names begin with J? Why is it so difficult to keep a secret? And how is it possible to get angry at yourself-who, exactly, is mad at whom?
Taking in brain damage, plane spotting, dating, drugs, beauty, infidelity, synesthesia, criminal law, artificial intelligence, and visual illusions, Incognito is a thrilling subsurface exploration of the mind and all its contradictions.
Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal (Penguin)
Game designer and futurist McGonigal offers us a hopeful look at the future in this incredible analysis of “gamification,” or how our lives are becoming more like videogames — and why that’s a great thing. This is the kind of book that sheds light on the tactics that have succeeded in the Occupy movement, as well as what works in children’s education. Here’s what the publisher has to say:
In this groundbreaking exploration of the power and future of gaming, McGonigal reveals how we can use the lessons of game design to fix what is wrong with the real world. Drawing on positive psychology, cognitive science, and sociology, Reality Is Brokenuncovers how game designers have hit on core truths about what makes us happy and utilized these discoveries to astonishing effect in virtual environments. Videogames consistently provide the exhilarating rewards, stimulating challenges, and epic victories that are so often lacking in the real world. But why, McGonigal asks, should we use the power of games for escapist entertainment alone? Her research suggests that gamers are expert problem solvers and collaborators because they regularly cooperate with other players to overcome daunting virtual challenges, and she helped pioneer a fast-growing genre of games that aims to turn gameplay to socially positive ends.
Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá (Harper Perennial)
Psychologists Ryan and Jethá argue that humans are not monogamous, and that’s actually not a bad thing. Here’s the book flap description:
[The authors] debunk almost everything we “know” about sex, weaving together convergent, frequently overlooked evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality to show how far from human nature monogamy really is. In Sex at Dawn, the authors expose the ancient roots of human sexuality while pointing toward a more optimistic future illuminated by our innate capacities for love, cooperation, and generosity.
If you’ve ever gotten suspicious of how much humans protest that they are “naturally” inclined to form monogamous families, this is the book for you.
The Physics of the Future, by Michiko Kaku (Doubleday)
Leave it to Kaku to bring us another trippy book about the weirdest edges of science. Half-science, half-speculation, this is a wild trip a century into the future, giving us a glimpse of what tomorrow’s science might bring. From the publisher:
In all likelihood, by 2100 we will control computers via tiny brain sensors and, like magicians, move objects around with the power of our minds. Artificial intelligence will be dispersed throughout the environment, and Internet-enabled contact lenses will allow us to access the world’s information base or conjure up any image we desire in the blink of an eye. Meanwhile, cars will drive themselves using GPS, and if room-temperature superconductors are discovered, vehicles will effortlessly fly on a cushion of air, coasting on powerful magnetic fields and ushering in the age of magnetism.
Using molecular medicine, scientists will be able to grow almost every organ of the body and cure genetic diseases. Millions of tiny DNA sensors and nanoparticles patrolling our blood cells will silently scan our bodies for the first sign of illness, while rapid advances in genetic research will enable us to slow down or maybe even reverse the aging process, allowing human life spans to increase dramatically. In space, radically new ships-needle-sized vessels using laser propulsion-could replace the expensive chemical rockets of today and perhaps visit nearby stars. Advances in nanotechnology may lead to the fabled space elevator, which would propel humans hundreds of miles above the earth’s atmosphere at the push of a button.
But these astonishing revelations are only the tip of the iceberg. Kaku also discusses emotional robots, antimatter rockets, X-ray vision, and the ability to create new life-forms, and he considers the development of the world economy. He addresses the key questions: Who are the winner and losers of the future? Who will have jobs, and which nations will prosper?
Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by Richard Rhodes (Doubleday)
This incredible book by Rhodes (author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb), out at the end of November, is a portrait of the scientist as a young starlet. It’s a movingly-written biography of early twentieth century actress Hedy Lamarr, famous for her incredible beauty — and for her contributions to radio science. From the book flap:
What do Hedy Lamarr, avant-garde composer George Antheil, and your cell phone have in common? The answer is spread-spectrum radio: a revolutionary invention based on the rapid switching of communications signals among a spread of different frequencies. Without this technology, we would not have the digital comforts that we take for granted today.
Unhappily married to a Nazi arms dealer, Lamarr fled to America at the start of World War II; she brought with her not only her theatrical talent but also a gift for technical innovation. An introduction to Antheil at a Hollywood dinner table culminated in a U.S. patent for a jam-proof radio guidance system for torpedoes-the unlikely duo’s gift to the U.S. war effort. What other book brings together 1920s Paris, player pianos, Nazi weaponry, and digital wireless into one satisfying whole? In its juxtaposition of Hollywood glamour with the reality of a brutal war, Hedy’s Folly is a riveting book about unlikely amateur inventors collaborating to change the world.