With the Juno spacecraft arriving at Jupiter, a piece of amber-enclosed dinosaur tail showing up in a Burmese market, a child being born of three parents and, of course, the unprecedented detection of “ripples” in space-time, the past year has been a fruitful one in scientific achievement and discovery.
Any of us without the knowhow might be totally lost if it weren’t for the talented writer-scientists who take the time to pen popular science books about their respective fields.
Popular science is a protean genre spanning hundreds of topics, and this article tries to reflect that fact – we have books on neuroscience, books on genetics, books that blend neuroscience with memoir, books that blend genetics with memoir, books on the octopus, books on time and books on black holes.
These are the best in popular science from the past year – books that will enlighten, entertain, terrify and make you feel bad about how little you remember from school.
1. Black Hole Blues: And Other Songs From Outer Space by Janna Levin
In this book, Janna Levin – like many of the authors on this list, a writer trapped in a scientist’s body – tells the story of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (or Ligo) and the long journey that led to the detection of Einstein’s hitherto theoretical gravitational waves.
Perhaps more than any author on this list, Levin is a master of storytelling: the programme’s origins, its purpose, its eccentric architects and its wider significance for humanity all feature in this book as themes, converging to form a novel-like narrative that keeps the reader hooked in awe page after page.
Black Hole Blues is a captivating study of the process of scientific discovery.
2. The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Siddhartha Mukherjee is a physician, researcher, biologist, geneticist, oncologist, a few more -ists, and, importantly for us, an excellent writer.
Six years ago he published a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on cancer – The Emperor of all Maladies – in which he strove to expel the mythology around cancer, to make it less the colossal affliction we imagine it to be and instead show it as something that can and likely will be overcome by scientists.
He places the gene in a triumvirate of scientific ideas that dominated the twentieth century, alongside the atom and the byte.
Mukherjee’s immense knowledge of genetics and formidable fluency in prose shows that there are few people more suited to tackling a subject as complicated, delicate and indeed dangerous – the pseudoscience of genetics and race has often led to catastrophe – as that of the gene.
3. A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford
One of the most extraordinary things about this book is its sheer breadth. Rutherford, a writer and geneticist who has written previously on the subject, weaves from our genes a fascinating tapestry of human history from its most primitive origins to its sophisticated present, and beyond.
True to its title, Rutherford’s overview of genetics is brief: at 300 pages it is considerably shorter than Mukherjee’s, meaning that if you’re after just a quick though comprehensive survey of genetics, this is the book for you.
The writing is concise and often funny, and Rutherford never takes himself or his subject too seriously. It is one of those rare books that you’ll finish thinking you haven’t wasted a single second.
4. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi – a neurosurgeon by profession and philosopher by temperament – died of lung cancer in 2015 at the age of thirty-seven.
At university he studied biology before completing a postgraduate degree in English literature, and only then did he decide that while literature may offer some answers to life’s big questions, it offers little in the way of practical remedies.
And so he began his career in medicine. This book was written in the months leading to Kalanithi’s death, and he writes with an eloquence that befits his love of the literary.
The memoir follows him from his birth through his youth in a desert town through medical school, his residency and, finally, through his illness.
Kalanithi often ponders the big questions that led him to medicine in the first place: the origin of personality, the nature of neuroscience, his spiritual quandaries and his rediscovery of Christianity all feature.
Perhaps for the piercing prose alone, Kalanithi’s book is one of the few must-reads of 2016.
5. The Brain: The Story of You by David Eagleman
Of his previous work – which includes the best-selling Incognito – Eagleman has been praised for making otherwise inaccessible topics (brain surgery and the like) accessible to lowly laymen like us.
One of the charms of his latest book on the brain is Eagleman’s casual approach to his subject.
Like a quirky tour guide in a gallery he leads us around the cranium explaining the brain’s biological mechanisms, pondering the differences between the “brain” and “mind” and discussing questions about reality and consciousness that make the reader suffer from spells of existential doubt – well, we did, at least.
Another of the book’s core attractions is its wealth of mini-facts.
As Stephen Fry has commented, memorable facts pervade every chapter of this book, whether about the magnitude of our neural networks or the power of conversation in warding off Alzheimer’s.
If you want to boost your understanding of the brain, read this book.
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