Books to Read Now

Seed Picks

January releases paint a portrait of an early fossil hunter; probe the nature of time; and reveal that the vast majority of your brain cells are not neurons.

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Remarkable Creatures
By Tracy Chevalier (Dutton)
Mary Anning, 19th century fossil-hunter extraordinaire, comes alive in this absorbing and vibrant novel about the dawn of modern paleontology. An uneducated daughter of a debtor in the British village of Lyme Regis, Anning had a gift for spotting and selling ammonite fossils (thought at the time to be coiled snakes whose heads have broken off) and other curiosities. But when she discovered a new kind of fossil encased in a seaside cliff—the first ichthyosaur known to science—everything changed. In a society that had never heard of extinction or evolution, Anning’s discoveries provided troubling evidence of the Bible’s fallibility. And as a working-class woman, she fought for recognition in a scientific establishment dominated by men. With all the warmth and color of Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Remarkable Creatures is an engrossing dip into a pre-Darwinian era when cracks in the status quo were already beginning to show.

The Other Brain
By R. Douglas Fields (Simon and Schuster)
More than 85 percent of your brain cells are not neurons. The unsung multitudes crowding your cranium, writes NIH neuroscientist Fields, are glia, cells shaped like sunbursts that insulate neurons with myelin and keep the brain’s environment stable. But these cells are not just nursemaids to neurons. As Fields describes in this fascinating account, glia have links to everything from cancer to seizures to the formation of long-term memories. Fields’ narrative brings readers into the lab, to peer over scientists’ shoulders as they navigate the cellscape with confocal microscopes and electron beams. Filled with flashes of scientific insight, this enlightening account turns the spotlight on the overlooked “other” brain cells.

Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution
By Caroline Fraser (Metropolitan Books)
In June of 1991, a wolf with a tiny radio collar set off on an epic adventure. While researchers watched over the span of almost two years, she roamed some 500 miles through the Rockies and provided key evidence for rewilding—the re-introduction of wild species to their native habitats. Journalist Caroline Fraser undertakes an ambitious journey of her own across the American Southwest, Southern Africa, and Europe to offer the first in-depth account of this conservation method, describing how early ecological insights about “top carnivores” (they have a disproportionately large influence on an ecosystem) gave way to the “cores, corridors, and carnivores” model (a linked system of preserves). Her nuanced reportage makes a convincing case that sharing our land with wild creatures may be the only way to keep ecosystems healthy enough to support humanity.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
By Daniel H. Pink (Riverhead Books)
Would you rather get a raise or flexible hours? A Christmas bonus or creative license? For decades, Pink argues, we’ve assumed financial incentives are what make people tick, and we’ve adopted a carrot-and-stick approach to encouraging certain behavior. New findings in behavioral economics, however, have upended this theory: The intrinsic rewards of work—intellectual fulfillment, social benefit, plain old fun—are just as powerful (if not more) than monetary rewards. This may explain the triumph of Wikipedia over Microsoft’s Encarta, and the rise of a new “for benefit” business sector. Though clearly meant for a corporate audience (the text is rife with bullet points, and chapters end with executive summary digests), Pink’s deft traversal of research at the intersection of psychology and economics make this a worthwhile read—no sticks necessary.

The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness
Edited by Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh, and Jeremy Adam Smith (W.W. Norton & Company)
For more than a century, the scientific consensus has been that humans are inherently selfish creatures. Today, scientists armed with new insights into social intelligence are turning this notion on its head. Combining personal stories with empirical research, this collection of essays—from the University of California, Berkeley’s quarterly Greater Good magazine—highlights the nascent science of good will. Steven Pinker asks not “Why is there war?” but rather “Why is there peace?” Jonathan Haidt wonders how we can be moved to tears by the sight of a stranger helping another stranger. The authors don’t disregard the human capacity for cruelty, betrayal, or violence—important phenomena worthy of continued study. But they demonstrate that such aspects only tell part of the story of the complexities of human behavior.

The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine
By Francis Collins (HarperCollins)
The age of personalized medicine is upon us, and who better than Francis Collins—director of the NIH and former head of the Human Genome Project—to guide us through the exciting yet highly controversial world of direct-to-consumer DNA analysis. In The Language of Life, Collins sheds light on the information encoded in our DNA and how we can use that information to make better life decisions—from knowing the risks of developing rare genetic disorders and common aging diseases, to predicting our tolerance of medical treatments. “Welcome to the genome era,” he writes. “Now, what do you want to know?”

From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time
By Sean Carroll (Dutton)
What is time, and why does it seem to flow in only one direction? These questions are, well, timeless. But thanks to a bonanza of observational data in the last two decades, time has rapidly become a rigorous—if complex—topic of scientific study. Fortunately, people like Sean Carroll exist to provide entertaining, enlightening, and headache-free explanations. In Carroll’s first book intended for popular audiences, the Caltech theoretical physicist delivers a masterful overview of what time is—and what its one-way passage implies about the nature of the universe. Unifying cosmology, thermodynamics, and information science into a refreshingly accessible whole, From Eternity to Here will make you wish time’s arrow could fly in reverse, if only so you could once again read the book for the first time.

Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity
By James Hansen (Bloomsbury)
Amid all the brouhaha about his outspoken stance on global warming, it’s easy to forget James Hansen wasn’t always such a firebrand; for most of his nearly three decades at NASA’s Goddard Institute, he was a rather typical scientist. In this book, Hansen explains how years of grappling with policymakers over climate change gradually transformed him from a mild-mannered researcher into a rebellious public figure who practices civil disobedience and accuses energy-company executives of crimes against humanity. This is his first book—but its “set the record straight”-style and impassioned pleas for future generations make it seem as if it was intended to be his last. Which would be a pity: Behind Hansen’s elegant, methodical eviscerations of denialists lies a compelling personal story whose final chapters have yet to be told.

What Science Knows and How It Knows It
By James Franklin (Encounter Books)
Why have thought experiments been such successful means of scientific investigation for physicists but largely such flops for evolutionary biologists? In teasing apart questions like this one, philosopher and mathematician James Franklin uncovers the fundamental differences between the branches of science. Peppered with examples taken from sources as disparate as Noam Chomsky and Sherlock Holmes, What Science Knows is a thoughtful attempt to define both the methods we use to explore the natural world and the limits of the philosophies and ideas we derive from them. It reads not as a lecture or a textbook, but as a considered reflection on the profound ways in which scientific thought has shaped our lives, languages, and world.

Originally published January 5, 2010

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