Books to Read Now

Seed Picks

June releases including the reconciliation of religion with science, Einstein's forgotten little helpers, our transforming planet, and more.


The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon’s Greatest Army
By Stephan Talty (Crown Publishing)
Napoleon was catastrophically defeated in Russia in the winter of 1812, when all but a few thousand of his half-million soldiers were killed by a deadly strain of typhus. Talty, a master of narrative nonfiction and medical history, takes care to recreate the mindset that predated standards for experimentation and clinical trials. He paints a grisly yet enthralling portrait: As the typhoid-induced slaughter progressed and affected each part of the campaign, it flummoxed and terrified all in its wake, only to be buried by history for almost two centuries.
June 2 | Buy


The Evolution of God
By Robert Wright (Little, Brown and Company)
“Can religions in the modern world reconcile themselves to one another, and can they reconcile themselves to science?” Robert Wright—journalist, philosophy professor, and author of the acclaimed books Nonzero, and The Moral Animal—ardently believes the answer is yes. In this meaty account, the result of 10 years of scholarly research, he attempts to do so, drawing on evolutionary psychology, archaeology, and game theory to trace a common pattern in the world’s monotheistic faiths. It’s a thoroughly materialist account of religion and yet is ultimately allied with one of religion’s basic goals: to provide guidance and comfort in a chaotic world. 
June 8 | Buy


And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture
By Bill Wasik (Viking)
In 2003, Bill Wasik started the Mob Project. It involved worshipping mechanical dinosaurs and spawned followers—flash mobs—worldwide. In this compact and whip-smart chronicle, Wasik describes this and the projects that followed, as well as the dawning realization that he was no longer a provocateur but a citizen-scientist whose lab was our meme-obsessed culture. Take heed, social scientists, marketers, and LOLfolk—in other words, us. For as Wasik has it, “all of us” are now “all of them.”
June 11 | Buy

Paper Astronaut: The Paper Spacecraft Mission Manuel
By Juliette Cezzar (Universe)
Few people will ever have the opportunity to take part in the design and construction of something made to travel into outer space. Things like the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station are so far removed from our daily lives that they seem more like gigantic toys rather than the delicate, complex machines they and other spacecraft really are. Paper Astronaut seeks to bring these lofty vessels down to Earth by guiding readers through a series of challenging do-it-yourself projects. By the time you’re finished assembling paper models of spacecraft from the book’s meticulously die-cut blueprints, you’ll be intimately familiar with many of the details of 20 different iconic spacecraft, as well as the broad arc of space exploration history and the basic principles of spaceflight. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it’s certainly a blast.
June 23 | Buy


Einstein’s Generation: The Origins of the Relativity Revolution
By Richard Staley (University of Chicago Press)
Richard Staley, a historian of science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has taken a novel approach to presenting the origins of the relativity revolution. His book reads not as a biography of Albert Einstein, but instead as a considered account of the technological and scientific innovations upon which Einstein’s groundbreaking theory was founded. Einstein’s Generation exposes readers to an era of turn-of-the-20th century scientists whose contributions have too often gone overlooked in histories of modern physics.
Out now | Buy


Climate Change: Picturing the Science
Edited By Gavin Schmidt and Joshua Wolfe (Norton)
Inspired by a 2005 New York gallery exhibition, Photographer’s Perspectives On Global Warming, this book—a joint collaboration between photographer Joshua Wolfe and NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt—is both a visual record of the transforming planet and a masterful account of the science of climate change. Essays by the likes of climatologist Tim Hall, geochemist Peter DeMenocal, and writer Elizabeth Kolbert describe the key observations that researchers rely on to verify climate change, what it portends, and the challenge it presents to journalists. Marbled throughout is the camera’s take—from a NASA shot of the ice-free Northwest Passage to Wolfe’s still life portrait of plastic ducks dredged from the Pacific. Eschewing easy answers, the book closes with a clear synopsis of global policy decisions we face and promising technologies in the pipeline. It will leave you both in awe of the Earth we inhabit and of the science itself, with all of its uncertainties and incomplete answers.
Out now | Buy


Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain
By Kathleen Taylor (Oxford University Press)
Horrific murders sell supermarket thrillers by the millions; genocide, while deeply disturbing, is also an object of fascination. In an academic study of human cruelty, psychologist Kathleen Taylor describes how cruelty is both reviled and glorified, providing insight into the role it plays in societies and why the grotesque is attractive.
If you can make it through the many clinical descriptions of atrocity, you’ll understand why these appalling behaviors persist—and why they seem so titillating and nauseating at the same time.
Out now | Buy


Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist’s Journey Into Seeing in Three Dimensions
By Susan R. Barry (Basic Books)
The subject of Oliver Sacks’ award-winning 2006 New Yorker article, “Stereo
Sue,” Susan Barry tells the story of how she learned to see in three dimensions after nearly five decades of only seeing in two. Her transformation captures the sometimes-indescribable nature of perception—Barry did not even realize there was anything wrong with her vision until she was twenty years old, and could only understand what she was missing after undergoing extensive therapy that trained her eyes to work together. Barry’s tour of the science behind her experience underlines the amazing precision of our senses—and how easily we can take them for granted.
Out now | Buy


Picturing the Uncertain World: How to Understand, Communicate, and Control Uncertainty through Graphical Display
By Harold Wainer (Princeton University Press)
How can you calculate how much you’ll need for retirement when so many factors are unknown? With hemorrhaging 401(k)s all around and financial models looking dubious, it’s a question on everyone’s lips. A veteran statistician takes on that question and others in this handy manual on visualizing uncertainty. Using graphical models, Wainer dissects a number of case studies that have tripped up everyone from the New York Times to the College Board, gives tips on spotting accurate representations of errors and false trends, and assessing just how difficult, statistically speaking, a task is.
Out now | Buy


Smithsonian Atlas of Space Exploration
By Roger D. Launius and Andrew K. Johnston (Collins)
Few people on the planet are better prepared to tell the story of humanity’s journey into space than Roger Launius, a prolific scholar who served as NASA’s chief historian for 12 years. In the Atlas of Space Exploration, Launius, along with his co-author Andrew Johnston, exceed high expectations. Filled with rare photographs and unique infographics, the book holds surprises for space buffs and casual readers alike. Want to know the geographical distribution of ancient observatories or modern launch sites? How about the step-by-step movements of astronauts on the surface of the Moon, or the precise flight paths of milestone space missions? All of that information is here, conveyed in clear text and sharp illustrations. To date, few overviews of the past and future of space exploration have demonstrated such mastery of the subject while also remaining compulsively readable.
Out now | Buy

Originally published June 1, 2009

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