In search of great science writing titles to enjoy this summer, MyScienceWork turned to several scientists for their suggestions: Rosie Redfield, of open science blog “RRResearch” and the University of British Columbia; independent scholar Greg Laden, who can be found at his eponymous blog on scienceblogs.com; and Mike Taylor of the University of Bristol, whose paleontology blog “SV-POW” often makes room to promote open access. From very different disciplines and of wide-ranging interests, they invite you, with their choices, to discover how information is changing humanity and what humanity needs to know about its energy use, as well as how dinosaurs worked, before there even was a humanity.
Here in Paris, summer is in the air (even weather-wise…at last!), and you can feel the city packing up for vacation. But wherever you are, and wherever the season may take you, one of the most important things to remember is your reading material. Very often, in summer, this is of the “beach reading” genre, lighter literary fare not up to our “normal standards”, we sometimes feel obliged to point out.
That being said, for fans of science, a book doesn’t have to be lightweight to be a page-turner! For this reason, to help steer you towards some excellent reads, MyScienceWork asked some of our favorites-to-follow what they would recommend. Here are the books that captured the minds of Rosie Redfield, Greg Laden and Mike Taylor. You can find them easily in the scrolling Amazon bar at the bottom of this page.
Humanity and information, across the sweep of history
The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
Author James Gleick is a renowned journalist, science writer and Pulitzer Prize finalist. In Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, he took on that larger-than-life figure of 20th century physics, and his book Chaos: Making a New Science brought the notion of the “butterfly effect” into mainstream consciousness.
In The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick traces the evolution of humanity's relationship with information, from communication via talking drums in Africa and the creation of the first alphabets, to the invention of the term “bit” as a unit of information measure and the deluge of online information that we are all living in today. Such profound transformation is not without consequences. Gleick examines how humanity's relationship to information is changing the way we live, but also the way we see the world, perhaps even the nature of our consciousness. (See our article “Media consumption, online and offline: What are the main cultural differences?”)
Rosie Redfield says she loved this book, a vast, heavily researched survey and analysis. She appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of Gleick's treatment. “For me, it pulled together all of my interests in genetics and computers.”
Professor Redfield does admit that it's “a BIG book (not beach reading) but compelling.” If you'll have to choose between The Information and your beach umbrella, though, it may be best to stay in the shade and consider Redfield's other Gleick suggestion. “For readers who want something they can tuck into their beach bag, I also recommend his little biography of Isaac Newton.”
Required reading for an “intelligent conversation about energy”
Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us by Maggie Koerth-Baker
When asked if he could think of a book that particularly struck him, Greg Laden's immediate response was “That's easy. I'd recommend Before the Lights Go Out.” Subtitled Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us, the book's author Maggie Koerth-Baker is a journalist and science editor at Boingboing.net.
“We all know that the next big thing we need to innovate in technology is a 'smart grid',” Laden writes, “and better ways of making electricity, and of heating and cooling buildings.” Most of the fossil carbon emissions we release, in the US and Europe, is produced not by cars, in fact, but by operating buildings. And “most but not all of that comes from electrical power plants delivering energy through a grid system that was never designed, but rather, evolved.”
Koerth-Baker recounts this evolution in the US, and describes where our energy comes from today, where it flows, where it is finally used – and where we can go from here. Greg Laden notes that Before the Lights Go Out is full of information that all of us should have. “Maggie's book covers the history of the grid and power generation and lays out all the information one needs to have an intelligent conversation about energy.” This is significant when the energy debate is fraught with misunderstandings, misconceptions, and out-of-date data, yet citizens will be called upon to make decisions about our energy future. Knowing that, maybe Maggie Koerth-Baker's book ought to be made required reading. Laden definitely seems to think so. Since reading it himself, he says, “I always check with the person I'm conversing with when the topic of energy comes up, to see if they've read it. If they haven't, I change the subject and tell them they need to read Before the Lights Go Out and then get back to me.”
A “little gem” that covers a lot of ground...and how dinosaurs did the same
Dynamics of Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Giants by R. McNeill Alexander
Mike Taylor suggests an old favorite of popularization from his field of paleontology. “For general readers, the one book I'd recommend would be R. McNeill Alexander's little gem, Dynamics of Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Giants.” The author is professor emeritus at the Institute of Integrative and Comparative Biology of the University of Leeds, where his main research interests involve the mechanics of human and animal movement. He is well placed, then, to help us imagine exactly what was happening when a dinosaur thundered past.
While strolling past the skeletons in a natural history museum, many of us have wondered how on earth anyone can know T. rex's top speed, when all we've got are bones. In this book, Prof. Alexander addresses such questions by applying the principles of physics, mechanical engineering and aerodynamics to show how paleontologists are able to draw such detailed conclusions from seemingly small clues. He looks at dinosaurs on land, in the air, and in the sea, as well as giant prehistoric mammals and birds.
Scientific American called Dynamics of Dinosaurs “a wonderful little book . . . irresistible for its simple and compelling demonstration of the unity of the natural sciences.” Mike Taylor adds that the book may be “only 167 shortish pages, but it covers a huge amount of ground in a very approachable style and leaves you with a broad grasp of what biomechanics is about and how dinosaurs worked.” From a distance of at least 65 million years, that's a pretty cool thing to understand. While summer vacation may be a time to put life temporarily on hold, it's also the perfect opportunity to dig more deeply into a subject than we normally have time for. Keeping up with the headlines can be a full-time job, but books still provide different, and more detailed, information from the sea of newspaper articles and blog posts. Take advantage of the summer downtime to get well-versed, in an enjoyable way, on the fundamentals of a subject that speaks to you, be it dinos of the distant past, information's path to present, or our energy future. If you’re excited about another science book, we want to know! Please leave a comment to share it with us here. We hope you enjoy some fascinating summer science reading.
Find out more:
"Science writer James Gleick explains the physics that define new media in the ongoing communications revolution”, The Boston Phoenix http://thephoenix.com/boston/life/118249-science-writer-james-gleick-explains-the-physics-t/#ixzz21R7WmWJf “If Shakespeare Had Been Able to Google...”, James Gleick in The New York Review of Books http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/dec/18/if-shakespeare-had-been-able-to-google/
Related articles on MyScienceWork (in French):
Historique de la Communication Scientifique avant le XIXe siècle http://blog.mysciencework.com/2011/09/26/historique-de-la-communication-scientifique-avant-le-xixe-siecle.html
Historique de la Communication Scientifique du XIXe siècle à l’ère de l’Open Access http://blog.mysciencework.com/2011/09/07/historique-de-la-communication-scientifique-du-xixe-siecle-a-lere-de-lopen-access.html