Books to Read Now

Seed Picks

February releases explore the annals of piracy; delve into the subculture of anti-aging zealots; and reveal the fraught history of the most famous cell line in science.

The Quest for the Perfect Hive: A History of Innovation in Bee Culture
By Gene Kritsky (Oxford University Press)
The oldest evidence of beekeeping is an Egyptian bas-relief from the time of the Great Pyramids, which shows a series of figures harvesting and processing honey. In the millennia since, we have continued to study and improve upon beehive designs, making beekeeping the modern science it is today. Gene Kritsky’s The Quest for the Perfect Hive is a fascinating exploration of this history of beehive innovation, from the early days of mud and straw hives to the commercial hives now used around the world. His well-sourced book contains detailed accounts of the patent battles and bizarre inventions—like glass-jar beekeeping—that have transformed the practice of keeping bees into a $16 billion industry.

Eternity Soup: Inside the Quest to End Aging
By Greg Critser (Harmony Books)
Is the secret to long life self-imposed starvation? Supplemental hormones? A bank of organs reserved for when yours fail? Journalist Greg Critser takes us to the edge of anti-aging—a landscape populated by plenty of zealots and cranks, but by serious scientists, too. He attends a convention of the Caloric Restriction Society, encounters hormone-trafficking pharmacists, and visits researchers probing the cellular basis of senescence, with hilarious character sketches along the way: Thierry Hertoghe, he writes, is the “Billy Graham of Thyroid.” Dressed in a pink blazer, beige pants, and green tie, Hertoghe breathes into the mic: “Testosterone zhust makes everything so veevid!” The questions Critser provokes, however, are deadly serious. Is aging natural or a disease? Where does standard medicine draw that line? Where do we?

How to Find a Habitable Planet
By James Kasting (Princeton University Press)
As of this writing, 424 worlds outside our solar system—exoplanets—have been found, and by the time you read this that number will undoubtedly be higher. But determining whether any of these might support life is a conundrum. Kasting, a key planner for future NASA missions seeking Earth-like exoplanets, possesses a deep understanding of all the multifarious complexities that feed into forming—and finding—living worlds. He writes about these topics, for all their profundity, with remarkable precision and clarity, drawing clear linkages between what we observe through telescopes with what we see right here, in the only biosphere we know. How to Find a Habitable Planet is a canonical guide to the probable future of humanity’s search for life elsewhere in the Universe.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot (Crown)
Nearly 60 years after her death from cervical cancer, Henrietta Lacks’ cells are more than merely alive. HeLa cells (as they’re called) are as ubiquitous as lab mice in scientific research, and have been referenced in over 60,000 published papers. But Henrietta and her family were kept in the dark for decades, not only about the cells’ existence or role in science, but the international tissue industry that sprung up around them. The history of HeLa is a rare and powerful combination of race, class, gender, medicine, bioethics, and intellectual property; far more rare is the writer than can so clearly fuse those disparate threads into a personal story so rich and compelling. Through ten years of painstaking research, done with the help of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, Rebecca Skloot has crafted a unique piece of science journalism that is impossible to put down—or to forget.

The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea
By Philip Hoare (HarperCollins)
Winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction when it was released in the UK, The Whale is a chronicle of our obsession with these mysterious dwellers of the deep. By digging through the stories of Melville, Poe, and others, and visiting the seaside towns of the new and old worlds where our modern view of the whale was shaped, Hoare attempts to understand his own fascination with the giants of the deep sea. What emerges is a vivid exploration of the lives of whales and our struggle to make sense of the profound effect they continue to have on the human imagination.

March of the Microbes
By John L. Ingraham (Harvard University Press)
Traverse the eclectic landscapes of soil, champagne, a Yellowstone spring, Italian salad dressing, and even the human stomach with microbiologist John L. Ingraham as your guide. This remarkable tour will transform novices into keen microbe-watchers in a mere 300 pages—which sounds like a lot, until you realize how much ground there is to cover in humanity’s relationship with our most minuscule “friends.” For instance, it was microbes that transformed the entire face of our planet, via the “Oxygen Revolution” some 3 billion years ago. We have them to thank for literally every breath we take. This is but one example. With the Earth estimated to have a nonillion (that’s one followed by 30 zeros) microbes in and around it, we might as well get to know our tiny neighbors.

The Future History of the Arctic
By Charles Emmerson (PublicAffairs)
The word “Arctic” conjures up a frozen hinterland—dormant, unchanging, inhospitably cold. But in this survey of the Great North, Emmerson reveals instead a land ripe with potential: untapped resources, undocumented biodiversity, and new shipping routes that stand to transform global trade. This account, which reads like a personal travelogue, is nonetheless full of Emmerson’s professional expertise as the head of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Network, and he argues that the issues that define this area should frame the geopolitical dialogue of the 21st century. The current story of the Arctic, we learn, is a “future history” in the making—rich with lessons from the historical struggles that shaped its modern borders and untold stories that will come to define its evolving relationship with the rest of the world.

Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates
By Adrian Johns (University of Chicago Press)
It’s easy to assume, amid all the brouhaha about intellectual property, illegal downloading, and the internet in general, that the question of piracy was born with the web browser. But as long as there have been ideas, people have been accused of stealing them. In this detail-packed biography of fakery, science historian Adrian Johns describes one of the earliest attempts to protect authors’ rights—a vellum-bound book registry in the Stationer’s Hall in 17th century London—and examines everything from the Victorian crusade against the patent, to the radio pirates of the 1920s, to the telephone phreakers of the 1970s and the computer hackers of today. Piracy is not new, he concludes, but we are due for a revolution in intellectual property, and science may be its ideal breeding ground.

The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth
By Irving Kirsch (Basic Books)
Ten years ago, like many clinical psychologists, Irving Kirsch believed in the therapeutic power of antidepressants. But after an extensive research project teasing apart the placebo effect, he has reversed his position. Using a statistical technique known as meta-analysis, the University of Hull professor takes readers through the body of research that has shaped modern perceptions on antidepressant efficacy, and in so doing argues that the only benefit they offer patients is hope. A statistical artifact—the psychological salve of placebo—is the sole mechanism responsible for the reported effects of antidepressants, he claims. Although his methodology has been challenged, Kirsch raises important questions about how drugs are tested and whether complicated human conditions such as depression can be reduced to chemical mechanics.

Originally published February 1, 2010

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