Books to Read Now

Seed Picks

August releases on the curious world of microbes, why Einstein’s relativity matters, the intimate history of falling stars, and more.


Release Date: August 4
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The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life
By Alison Gopnik (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Developmental psychologist Gopnik argues that human infants—those strangely useless creatures—are in fact “useless on purpose.” Early models of development focused on babies’ inability to distinguish fantasy from reality or imagine what others might be thinking or feeling. Using innovative and insightful experiments, many from her own lab, Gopnik shows that these traits aren’t deficiencies, but rather products of babies’ unique consciousness that facilitates their tremendous capacity to learn. By better understanding these traits, Gopnik argues, we may help unravel fundamental questions about human nature and morality.
Read the Q&A With Gopnik


Release Date: August 4
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The Invisible Kingdom: From the Tips of Our Fingers to the Tops of Our Trash, Inside the Curious World of Microbes
By Idan Ben-Barak (Basic Books)

Microbiologist turned science writer Ben-Barak’s debut book is dotted with pub-worthy facts (two to four pounds of human body weight is made up of microbes) and playful footnotes that make for an accessible and amusing look at the hidden world of ubiquitous microscopic creatures like bacteria, archaea, protists, and viruses. Woven into the humor is a bona fide crash course in parasitology, microbiology, and gene transfer, as well as a compelling case for the vital role microbes play in the continuation of all of life on Earth.


Release Date: August 24
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Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science
By Carol Kaesuk Yoon (Norton)

New York Times science journalist Yoon set out to write a story about taxonomy and classification highlighting “the endearing kookiness” of prescientific and nonscientific ways of ordering life. Instead, she found that many cultures construct hierarchies of the natural world that, while nonscientific, are surprisingly coherent—and that our urge to order nature is believed to be hardwired. With eloquence and expertise, Yoon argues that “folk” taxonomies offer both insight into our perceived world and a powerful way to rekindle the human connection with the natural world.


Out now
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Why Does E=MC2? (And Why Should We Care?)
By Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw (Da Capo Press)

To move beyond a cursory understanding of Einstein’s iconic equation, put yourself in the adept hands of physicists and science educators Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. Using clear language and a few clearly explained equations, they demystify physics’ most counterintuitive claims, connecting the dots between space-time, electromagnetic fields, invariance, and Galileo’s earlier theory of relativity. Cox and Forshaw place these ideas in context, ultimately demonstrating how the Large Hadron Collider, where Cox works, is an essential tool in a new level of understanding the laws of our universe.


Out now
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Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology
David B. Williams (Walker & Company)

Brownstone façades and marble floors are far more than just plain old rock, as urban geologist Williams explains in this charming investigation of the hidden history, ecology, and origins of stone used to build America’s cities and landmarks. Williams hops from Boston to Minnesota to the Hawk Tower in Carmel-by-the-Sea, devoting each chapter to a building stone—for example, Indiana-quarried Salem Limestone once cohabitated with dinosaurs and is now found in buildings in every state—while spinning tales about the explorers, quarrymen, and builders who, thousands or billions of years later, fell for these pretty minerals.


Out now
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The Mathematical Mechanic: Using Physical Reasoning to Solve Problems
Mark Levi (Princeton University Press)

Pennsylvania State University mathematician Mark Levi reverses the old stereotype that math is merely a tool to aid physicists by showing that many questions in mathematics can be easily solved by interpreting them as physical problems. He derives the Pythagorean theorem, for example, by considering how torque acts on a triangular fish tank. Some sections of the book require readers to brush up on their calculus but Levi’s clear explanations, witty footnotes, and fascinating insights make the extra effort painless.


Out now
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The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars
By Christopher Cokinos (Penguin Group)

When Cokinos isn’t chronicling the solar system’s origins or recounting obsessive tales of explorers trekking to the ends of the Earth in pursuit of exotic rocks from the sky, he’s telling the reader about the dissolution of his first marriage or his struggles with depression. But this unflinching introspection sets the stage for Cokinos’ transformation, as he delves deeper into his subject and grasps the profound links between shooting stars and life here on Earth.


Out now
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The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office
By David Blumenthal and James A. Morone (University of California Press)

Obama health adviser David Blumenthal and political scientist James Morone’s intimate history reveals surprising links between presidential health and health policy from FDR to George W. Bush. “No one escapes the human condition and nothing reveals the president’s humanity like hurt and sickness and death,” they write, citing examples like JFK’s campaign for universal health care for the elderly, launched after his own father’s death from a stroke. The book also takes a close look at the effectiveness of each man’s health care policy, relevant as Americans navigate reform today.


Out now
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Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness
By Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown and Company)

“Developing as a naturalist, a knower of nature, is arguably one of the most critical tasks for modern humans on planet Earth, yet naturalist is a word and a role that has, in the last century, lost its core meaning,” Haupt writes, seeking to restore that meaning in this book-length essay. Revealing the insistent presence of nature in urban habitats, Haupt takes a philosophical look at her own backyard investigation of a crow’s life and challenges the view that an urban existence is detached from wilderness, while exemplifying the joy that can come with nurturing a curiosity with a raucous little bird.

 

Originally published August 3, 2009

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