Temperatures are on their way up and the swimming suits are coming out of hiding, which can only mean one thing: summer break. Before you buy the latest “beach lit” paperback to while away those sunny hours or download the entire Twilight saga to your e-reader, consider this humble suggestion: this summer, try a page-turner of the science variety.
Think we’re joking? Not hardly. The stories of science are full of complex and intriguing characters who experience, and are shaped by, all the same things as their fictional counterparts–conflict, mistakes, rivalry, passion, doubt, discovery, and luck, to name a few. But these stories are even more compelling because they are true.
To get you started, we took a quick survey of the Visionlearning team’s favorite (nonfiction) science books. They are a combination of recent releases and trusty classics, spanning the range of disciplines. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and we hope you will help improve it by critiquing our suggestions and offering up favorite titles in the comments section below. Happy reading!
Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson
This collection of witty essays from well-known astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson runs the gamut, exploring what would happen if you actually fell into a black hole, the most egregious astronomy errors on the big screen, and everything in between.
The Day We Found the Universe by Marcia Bartusiak
In a book that is part scientific thriller, part character-driven drama, Marcia Bartusiak describes the exciting early days of modern astronomy in the United States. The characters, some of whom are rarely mentioned in pages of textbooks, show how breakthroughs are often not single moments of brilliance, but a collection of hard work, imagination, rivalry, and luck.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
One of science’s unsung heroes, Henrietta Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer from Virginia whose cells (taken without her consent) were grown in culture and used throughout decades of medical research on polio, cancer, the effects of radiation exposure, and much more. Yet Lacks died virtually unknown, and her family never received compensation from the multi-billion dollar industry that her cells made possible. Science writer Rebecca Skloot offers a riveting look at Lacks’ story and her legacy, weaving together biology, business, ethics, and the ties that bind families together.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Science writer Mary Roach blends humor, science, and old-fashioned grossology as she explores the fascinating exploits and scientific contributions of human bodies–after they’re dead.
The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen
As a winner of the John Burroughs Medal, David Quammen is known for his nature writing, but his ability to write about human nature and all our quirks and foibles is equally impressive. This book takes readers back to the 19th century to trace the journey of Charles Darwin–not so much his fabled voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, but his intellectual and emotional struggle to understand the evidence for natural selection piling up before him.
Evolution’s Rainbow by Joan Roughgarden
Evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden takes readers on a fascinating tour of sexual diversity among fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals, challenging traditional notions of gender and sexuality in the animal kingdom and human society.
The Journey of Man by Spencer Wells
Using DNA as a guide, population geneticist Spencer Wells maps all of human history, from our earliest common ancestor to the global diversity we see today, and illuminates the surprising links that connect all of humankind.
The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson
Prolific author Steven Johnson tells the quirky, dramatic story of Joseph Priestley–an 18th century scientist, minister, and associate of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, whose intellectual contributions spanned chemistry, theology, and politics.
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
Writer, chemist, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi blends memoir and science writing to tell the beautiful, poignant stories of his life and community–using one element from the periodic table to anchor each chapter.
The Two-Mile Time Machine by Richard Alley
Climatologist Richard Alley offers a glimpse into the world of a climate sleuth and a history of Earth’s climate as written in the rings of Greenland’s ice cores.
Basin and Range by John McPhee
A classic from Pulitzer Prize-winner John McPhee, Basin and Range is a poetic exploration of the rugged terrain along Interstate-80 through Utah, Nevada, and California–and the geologic processes that created it. A great book for anyone who has ever looked at a landscape and wondered how it came to be.
The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester
Prolific journalist and author Simon Winchester chronicles the story of William Smith–a British coal miner whose on-the-job observations of patterns in rock layers and fossils beds led him to develop the first geologic map of the strata beneath the Earth’s surface. The map was not greeted with the acclaim one might expect, but Smith and the power of his idea ultimately triumphed.
ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & NATURE WRITING
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
Journalist Richard Louv examines the body of research showing how healthy childhood development is linked with direct exposure to the natural world and makes a compelling case that the current “wired generation” is seriously threatened by “nature deficit disorder.”
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
From the dizzying overabundance of a modern supermarket to the quiet intensity of wild mushroom gathering, Michael Pollan tackles the seemingly simple but ultimately profound question: what should we have for dinner?
The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson
Today, marine biologist Rachel Carson is probably best remembered for her book Silent Spring and its role in chronicling the effects of pesticides and jumpstarting the American environmental movement. But a decade earlier, in 1951, Carson penned this beautiful, best-selling treatise on the science and poetry of the sea.
The Whale and the Supercomputer by Charles Wohlforth
Journalist and lifelong Alaskan Charles Wohlforth takes readers on a journey to the far North, where climate change is very tangible–to both the scientists studying it and the native people struggling to cope with it.
How to Teach Physics to Your Dog by Chad Orzel
Physicist Chad Orzel, and his curious dog, Emmy, offer a fun, engaging, and truly unique way to explore quantum mechanics. By considering such practical questions as how to catch a squirrel or locate a bone, Orzel and Emmy dig into the history and technical details of weighty topics like particle-wave duality, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and quantum entanglement.
Einstein: His Life and the Universe by Walter Isaacson
Acclaimed biographer Walter Isaacson examines the life and world-changing ideas of Albert Einstein. Like many icons of history and science, Einstein is surrounded by legends, and Isaacson offers an interesting new take on what is fact and what is folklore.
TECHNOLOGY & ENGINEERING
The Code Book by Simon Singh
Physicist-turned-award-winning-journalist Simon Singh explores the history and science underlying the secret world of codes and cryptography from Egyptian hieroglyphics to Internet security.
The Human Factor by Kim Vincente
If you’ve ever felt confused, frustrated, or even endangered by the very technology that is supposed to make life easier and safer, you are not alone. Scientist and engineer Kim Vincente offers a compelling look at how technology has failed us and how we can make dramatic improvements in our satisfaction and safety by factoring the realities of human needs, limits, and habits into technology design.
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine Benyus
Writer, educator, and sustainability consultant Janine Benyus presents a simple but powerful strategy for good design: ask nature. She argues, using compelling examples, that we can learn to design cleaner, more efficient products and technologies by studying nature’s 3.8 billion-year record of innovation.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Renowned travel and nature writer Bill Bryson offers a quick and cheeky tour of, well everything, from the beginning of the universe to the rise of modern human society. Not content to simply rehash what we know, Bryson takes readers on a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening quest to understand how we know what we know.
Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway
Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway shine the light on a group of high-level scientists who have repeatedly been the voices of dissent on topics like acid rain, climate change, DDT, and secondhand smoke and examine what can happen when scientific research is at odds with political motives.
Finally, we would be remiss not to mention Visionlearning’s own book: The Process of Science by Anthony Carpi and Anne Egger
Using examples drawn from everyday life as well as historical case studies from nearly every branch of science, Carpi and Egger offer a clear and concise explanation of how science really works. While that may not sound like the first thing you’d normally toss in your beach bag, The Process of Science is an easy read and great way to reinvigorate (or start) a thirst for scientific thinking. If you’re a student considering a career in science or a teacher looking for resources to help students engage in science, this is a must-read.
Written by Christine Hoekenga
Christine is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist, specializing in science and nature. She holds an Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science and Media Studies and a Master's of Science Writing. She has been working in science communication and education for nearly a decade as a journalist, an organizer for conservation groups, and a museum educator. Before joining the Visionlearning team, she served as the New Media and Online Community Manager for the Webby award-winning Smithsonian Ocean Portal. Christine is assisting Visionlearning with developing new modules and glossary terms, managing the blog, and outreach through social media.