3 years ago

Science explained in 10 excellent popular books (plus dozens of others)

Science explained in popular books: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one my top 10 choices.

Astronomy. Epidemiology. Lexicography. Microbiology. These are among the 38 different scientific fields discussed and explained in the more than four dozen good popular books about science and science history that I’ve read and reviewed. Some of these books are by prominent authors, including Malcolm Gladwell, Bill Bryson, Atul Gawande, Erik Larson, and Michael Lewis. You’re less likely to be familiar with the names of many of the others.

You’ll find two lists below. The first includes my choices for the top 10 titles among the more than 50 books I’ve read and reviewed here. They’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

The second list includes all the books in alphabetical order by the fields’ names. Each is linked to my review. (If a link comes up short, just go to www.malwarwickonbooks.com and search for the title.)

This post was updated on January 24, 2021.

Science explained best in 10 top nonfiction books

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

This book is a wake-up call to the healthcare industry to deal with dying not as something to be “fixed” with heroic, last-minute measures, whatever the patient might say, but as a natural process in which patients who wish for cessation of pain should be heeded above all. Being Mortal is a cry for compassion, a plea for doctors, nurses, and hospitals to integrate the compassionate contemporary version of hospice care into their services, allowing the terminally ill to die in peace at home. Gawande makes his case through a series of vignettes that illustrate both the folly of the conventional wisdom of death and dying in the healthcare system and the beauty of the hospice approach that allows death with dignity. Read the review.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert

You probably know that you and I—actually, all of us collectively, homo sapiens the species—are responsible for a truly alarming reduction in the number of other species on Planet Earth. But apart from occasional stories in the media about endangered polar bears and black rhinos and the like, you may feel, as I do, that it’s tough to get terribly excited. As it turns out, only a handful of these disappearing species are “charismatic” large animals. In fact, nearly all of them are small, many of them vanishingly so; they’re plants as well as animals, few of them even with names, and they’re hidden away in tropical forests. From a scientific perspective, that’s no less serious. But the PR angle is tough to find. But Elizabeth Kolbert tackles this challenge with considerable success in this outstanding book. Read the review.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

If you’re wondering why the incidence of cancer seems to rise continuously despite all the advances in cancer research and treatment, look no further than the aging of the American population. Cancer, primarily a disease that comes with aging, becomes well nigh inevitable once we get really old. Now, as our life expectancy hovers in the neighborhood of 80, cancer has become our #1 killer. So, Dr. Mukherjee’s “history of cancer” is now doubly welcome—and a brilliant accomplishment it is! Read the review.

The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller

Muller tackles our society’s obsession with metrics and accountability. However, “[t]his book is not about the evils of measuring,” he writes. “It is about the unintended consequences of trying to substitute standardized measures of performance for personal judgment based on experience. The problem is not measurement, but excessive measurement and inappropriate measurement—not metrics but metric fixation.” In just 200 pages, Muller assesses the use and misuse of metrics through case studies drawn from a wide range of fields: colleges and universities, K-12 education, medicine, policing, the military, business and finance, and philanthropy and foreign aid. The research he cites, and the examples he chooses, are compelling. Read the review.

Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, by Sonia Shah

Any logical, clear-headed look at the world around us reveals that the true existential threats on the horizon include climate change, nuclear holocaust, pandemics, and, at a higher level of logical abstraction, rampant consumerism. However, the most immediate of these threats to our civilization is clearly contagious disease—as the COVID-19 pandemic of 2019-21 has made abundantly clear. In this superb book, Sonia Shah surveys the past, present, and future of infectious disease. Just so it’s clear: she’s not writing about simple colds and mild flus, but about illnesses that might kill tens or hundreds of millions of people with little warning and with unpredictable consequences for the cohesion of society. The heart of the problem, as she explains, is that “epidemics grow exponentially while our ability to respond proceeds linearly, at best.” Read the review.

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman

Only in the last two decades has a consensus about autism developed among the psychiatrists, psychologists, and neurologists who traffic in the science of the mind. Even today, thousands, perhaps millions, flock to the defense of the quacks and charlatans who perpetuate the myth that autism is caused by vaccines, especially the MMR vaccine for the childhood afflictions of measles, mumps, and rubella. That theory, never demonstrably reasonable, has been soundly disproved. More sensible people, and all but a handful of psychological practitioners, agree today that “most cases of autism are not rooted in rare de novo mutations [much less vaccinations] but in very old genes that are shared widely in the general population while being concentrated more in certain families than others. Whatever autism is, it is not a unique product of modern civilization.” Read the review.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t, by Nate Silver

Silver asserts that “our predictions may be more prone to failure in the era of Big Data. As there is an exponential increase in the amount of available information, there is likewise an exponential increase in the number of hypotheses to investigate . . . But the number of meaningful relationships in the data . . . is orders of magnitude smaller. Nor is it likely to be increasing at nearly so fast a rate as the information itself; there isn’t any more truth in the world than there was before the Internet or the printing press. Most of the data is just noise, as most of the universe is filled with empty space.” Read the review.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks, we discover, was an ill-educated African-American woman who died of cervical cancer at the age of 31 nearly sixty years ago. She was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, home of one of the nation’s most prestigious medical schools and of some of the world’s leading researchers in fields such as cell culture and oncology. One of those researchers asked Henrietta’s physician for a sample of her diseased cervix in faint hopes that, unlike every other tissue sample anyone to that date had ever tested, the cells he extracted would divide indefinitely,thus become “immortal,” and open up new vistas for medical research. To his and everyone else’s astonishment, they did. And not only did those cells continuously divide from 1951 to the present, they proved to be so aggressive and so persistent that they contaminated every other cell culture they came in contact with—invalidating years of medical research that was conducted before the contamination was discovered. To this day, HeLa cells, named as a contraction of Henrietta’s name, constitute one of medicine’s most pervasive experimental tools. Read the review.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

They’ve been lying to us. Or, better put, shading the truth. And I’m not referring to the climate deniers in the Trump White House and Congress. We know they’re lying. The problem is, the scientists who have been warning us about climate change aren’t telling the whole truth. In fact, that bad habit is so widespread there’s even a name for it: scientific reticence. The reality is, climate change is worse than you think—much, much worse. And the only place I’ve found the whole story laid out in plain English is in an eloquent new book by David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth. This truly extraordinary book should be must reading for every elected official at any level of government throughout the United States. Read the review.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

He was the most famous man in the world, and more places around the world are named after him than anyone else. To many of the giants of his time — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau — he was a colossus whose genius overshadowed their own. He was the first to describe the web of life on Earth, foreshadowing James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, and the first to describe the impact of human activity on the world’s climate. His books, which read like poetry, “were so popular that people bribed booksellers to be the first to receive copies.” Eleven years after his death at age 89, the centennial of his birth was observed by hundreds of thousands of people in huge celebrations around the world. Read the review.

Science explained in more than 50 good nonfiction books

Animal Husbandry: Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Archaeology: The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, by Douglas Preston

Archaeology: Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age by Annalee Newitz

Artificial Intelligence: Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It’s Taking Us Next, by Luke Dormehl

Artificial Intelligence2062: The World That AI Made by Toby Walsh

Artificial IntelligenceThe Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity by Amy Webb

Artificial Intelligence: AIQ: How Artificial Intelligence Works and How We Can Harness Its Power for a Better World by Nick Polson and James Scott

Astronomy: Beyond: Our Future in Space, by Chris Impey

Astrophysics: Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian

Atmospheric ScienceCaesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us, by Sam Kean

Big Data: Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Viktor Mayer-Schoeneberger and Kenneth Cukier

Big Science: Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik

Climate Change: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz

Disability: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell

Earth ScienceThe Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

Ecology: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert

Ecology: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

Economics: Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, by Sylvia Nasar

Epidemiology: Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, by Sonia Shah

Epidemiology: Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen

Epidemiology: Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney

Future TechnologyThe Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future by Vivek Wadwa and Alex Salkever

Future TechnologyMegatech: Technology in 2050 edited by Daniel Franklin

Gastroenterology: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, by Mary Roach

General Science: A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

Genetics: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by Adam Rutherford

Hydrology: Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, by Peter H. Gleick

Innovation: How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson

InnovationThe Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World by Sharon Weinberger

Lexicography: Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper

Linguistics: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

Medical DiagnosticsBad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

Medical Research: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Medical Research: Jonas Salk: A Life by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

Medicine: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

Meteorology: Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, by Erik Larson

Meteorology: The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic by Ginger Strand

Microbiology: I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong

Military Science: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach

Nanotechnology: Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, by K. Eric Drexler

Neurology: Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks, by Tiffany Shlain

Oncology: The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Palaeography: The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox

Paleontology: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: The Untold Story of a Lost World by Steve Brusatte

Physics: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli

Psychiatry: NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman

Psychology: The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis

Psychology: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain

Sexology: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach

Social Psychology: The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram by Thomas Blass

Social Psychology: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Space Travel: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach

Statistics: Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data, by Charles Whelan

Statistics: The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t, by Nate Silver

StatisticsThe Tyranny of Metrics, by Jerry Z. Muller

For further reading

If you gravitate toward nonfiction, you might also be interested in:

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.

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