Books to Read Now

Seed Picks

May releases on how cooking helped us evolve, the fallout from physics’ greatest fraud, the social science of extremism, and more.

Drivers of Change
By Chris Luebkeman (Arup)
Whenever the architecture and engineering firm Arup makes something, be it Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” Stadium or a pack of flashcards, it aims to impress. The latter, Drivers of Change, dissects six principal facets of globalization — demographics, urbanization, climate change, energy, water, and waste — in way that is simultaneously rapid-fire and deep. Mashing up crowd-sourced photography (courtesy of Flickr), smart graphs, and brief but sharp writing, Arup condenses the world’s most pressing problems into roughly 900 cubic centimeters of sexy design. Though this unconventional format doesn’t lend itself to searching for specific information, it does a fine job of displaying the organic interconnectedness of an increasingly complex planet.
May 1 | Buy

Photography and Science (Exposures Series)
By Kelley Wilder (Reaktion Books)
Nanoscale: Visualizing an Invisible World
By Kenneth S. Deffeyes and Stephen E. Deffeyes (MIT Press)
The misty forms recorded on the first daguerreotype plate heralded a new age in scientific observation, an age in which objectivity trumped theory, says Kelley Wilder in Photography and Science. Part of a series on photography’s history, this meaty treatise addresses the roots of empiricism and reliability, as well as the minutiae of chemical processes harnessed to the scientific cause and the descendants of the photograph — electron micrographs, radiographs, satellite images, among others.
But much modern science occurs at scales where computer models produce more accurate depictions than photography can muster. In Nanoscale, a Princeton geologist meanders through the crystalline structures of fundamental substances using digital molecular renderings as illustration. In the spirit of Linus Pauling’s The Architecture of Molecules, the book tours alpha helices and beta sheets, hemoglobin and small molecule drugs, fuel cells and flash memory, explaining how these physical structures determine properties that make up our reality. The essays, which read like fireside chats with a wise old scholar, include renderings of substances as simple as air and as complex as the coat of the poliovirus.
May 1 | Buy; March 31 | Buy

Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff With Animals
By Richard Conniff (Norton)
Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures, from tracking leopards in the desert with Namibian hunters to, yes, dipping himself into a tank of piranhas at the Dallas aquarium, are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page. His joy and fascination, even with revolting species like termites, is contagious. The book, a collection of short essays published throughout Conniff’s career, is a quick and intensely pleasurable read — quite unlike a run-in with a “bullet ant,” described in a chapter profiling entomologist Justin Schmidt’s insect-bite pain scale.
May 4 | Buy

Froth! The Science of Beer
By Mark Denny (Johns Hopkins)
Mark Denny’s beer book is different. Neither an “ultra-technical account of the brewing process” nor a “how-to plus a lot of recipes,” Froth! is a theoretical physicists exploration of the math and science behind the beer-brewing process. Packed with humor, history, and DIY enthusiasm, Denny shares with readers how he uses physics to home-brew his own beers that froth higher and taste better.
May 7 | Buy

Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World
By Eugenie Samuel Reich (Palgrave-Macmillan)
As an institution, science boasts of its resilient self-correction, its ability to weed out falsehood in an endless search for truth. But how effective is this system, and can it be circumvented? Reich examines this question through the case of Jan Hendrik Schön, a Bell Labs researcher who in 2002 was proved to be one of the greatest scientific frauds in history. Reich’s thorough reporting transforms this cautionary tale into a document of historic significance, revealing troubling weaknesses in science’s foundations and the psychological pressures that can lead researchers to exploit them.
May 12 | Buy

Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide
Cass Sunstein (Oxford University Press)
In Going to Extremes, Sunstein lays out a simple argument based equally on social science, historical analysis, and an eye on current events: Like-minded people amplify their beliefs when they are together. This “group polarization” can be found everywhere from Al-Qaeda training camps to the self-selected enclaves of information and opinion to which we gravitate online. This phenomenon isn’t necessarily bad, but it is both powerful and commonplace. And considering his position in President Obama’s inner circle of big thinkers, Cass Sunstein’s work and theories have never been more important.
May 13 | Buy

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities
By Amy Stewart (Algonquin)
A lighthearted tour of the plants most likely to murder and maim the unwitting gardener or schoolchild, this delightfully macabre guide touches on the chemistry of poisons and the physiology of dangerous look-alikes, and includes a roster of those felled by leafy assailants. (Beware of snakeroot—Abraham Lincoln’s mother died after drinking the milk of a cow that grazed on the poisonous weed.) With drawings that illustrate the fate of the incautious, Stewarts’ original take on the plant kingdom is one worth seeking, if only to avoid its contents.
May 21 | Buy

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
By Richard Wrangham (Perseus Books)
When you avoid cooked food, the results can be brutal. According to one German survey, more than half of female raw foodists were sterile. If people had to live without the modern amenities of high-calorie seed oils, Wrangham says, many folks eating only raw food would be dead. A Harvard biological anthropologist, he makes a convincing case for the importance of cooking in the human diet, finding a connection between our need to eat cooked food in order to survive and our preference for soft foods. The popularity of Wonderbread, the digestion of actual lumps of meat, and the dangers of indulging our taste buds all feature in this expository romp through our gustatory evolution.
May 25 |Buy

Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution
David F. Prindle (Prometheus Books)
Genius, Marxist, sage, ideologue: the legacy of Stephen Jay Gould is nothing if not controversial. David F. Prindle, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, provides an absorbing account of the biologist’s scientific work, viewed through the lens of his explicitly political writing. Aided by the intrinsic charm of Gould’s public persona, Prindle brings an otherwise dry textual analysis to life. Besides providing a deeper understanding of the concepts that propelled Gould to the forefront of his field, he puts the Kuhnian question underpinning that work into stark relief: not whether science should be isolated from the politics of the time and place in which it is created, but whether such a thing is possible. 
May 26 | Buy

Originally published April 29, 2009

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