The Best Science Books Of 2016
Time travel, microbes, black holes, and polar bears. There’s something for everyone on this year’s list of best science books. Maria Popova, founder of Brain Pickings, and Scientific American editor Lee Billings join Ira to weigh in with their top picks.
Cosmologist and novelist Janna Levin tells the story of the century-long vision and half-century experimental quest to hear the sound of spacetime by detecting a gravitational wave. With a novelist’s flair for unraveling the universal through the specific, she chronicles LIGO’s particular scientific triumph in order to tell a larger story of the human spirit, its tenacious ingenuity in the face of myriad obstacles, and the somewhat mysterious, somewhat irrational animating force that compels scientists to devote their entire lives to exploits bedeviled by uncertainty, frequent failure, and meager public appreciation. What emerges is pure signal from cover to cover.
The story follows a little girl who, in a delightful meta-touch, pulls this very book off the bookshelf and begins learning about the strange and wonderful world of the polar bear, its life, and the fascinating science behind it. At a time when we can no longer count on politicians to protect the planet and educate the next generations about preserving it, the task falls solely on parents and educators. Desmond’s wonderful project alleviates that task by offering a warm, empathic invitation to care about, which is the gateway to caring for, one of the creatures most vulnerable to our changing climate and most needful of our protection.
From science historian and writer extraordinaire James Gleick comes a grand thought experiment, using physics and philosophy as the active agents, and literature as the catalyst. Gleick explores how time travel fantasies originated, what technological and cultural developments fomented this distinctly modern impulse of the collective imagination, and how it illuminates our greatest anxieties. What emerges is an inquiry into why we think about time, why its directionality troubles us so, and what asking these questions at all reveals about the deepest mysteries of human consciousness.
“Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours,” Carl Sagan urged in his excellent Baloney Detection Kit—and yet our tendency is to do just that, becoming increasingly attached to what we’ve come to believe because the belief has sprung from our own glorious, brilliant, fool-proof minds. Through a tapestry of riveting real-life con artist profiles interwoven with decades of psychology experiments, Konnikova demonstrates that a con artist simply takes advantage of this hubris by finding the beliefs in which we are most confident—those we’re least likely to question—and enlisting them in advancing his or her agenda.
Dogs, who “see” the world through smell, can teach us a great deal about that springlike sensorial aliveness which E.E. Cummings termed “smelloftheworld.” So argues cognitive scientist and writer Alexandra Horowitz, director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, in this fascinating tour of what Horowitz calls the “surprising and sometimes alarming feats of olfactory perception” that dogs perform daily. She explores what they can teach us about swinging open the doors of our own perception by relearning some of our long-lost olfactory skills that grant us access to hidden layers of reality.
An illustrated homage to some of the most influential and inspiring women in STEM… Woven throughout the micro-biographies are visual factoids, like a timeline of notable events in the history of women in science, statistics about the alarming gender gap in STEM fields, and a visual taxonomy of lab tools.
Sobel tells the story of the pioneering women astronomers, known as “computers,” who worked at the Harvard Observatory at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century–women who made trailblazing discoveries 40 years before they were allowed to vote and contributed, among other things, the classification system of stellar spectra, which astronomers continue to use today, and the calculations that became the basis for Hubble’s discovery that the universe is expanding.
In this fascinating inquiry into how our subjective experience of time’s passage shapes everything from our emotional memory to our sense of self, German psychologist Marc Wittman bridges disciplines as wide-ranging as neuroscience and philosophy to examine questions of consciousness, identity, happiness, boredom, money, and aging, exposing the centrality of time in each of them. What emerges is the disorienting sense that time isn’t something that happens to us—rather, we are time.
This is a book so fascinating and elegantly written as to be worthy of its Whitman reference. Yong peels the veneer of the visible to reveal the astonishing complexity of life thriving beneath and within the crude confines of our perception, touching on everything from mental health to free will.
Trees might be among our lushest metaphors and sensemaking frameworks for knowledge precisely because the richness of what they say is more than metaphorical—they speak a sophisticated silent language, communicating complex information via smell, taste, and electrical impulses. This fascinating secret world of signals is what German forester Peter Wohlleben explores in The Hidden Life of Trees.
Only the first two here are 2016 releases; Morton’s book came out last year. I think they form a trilogy of sorts, albeit one from different authors, each different than the other in style, content, and outlook for the future. But all three are, I think, essential reading on the Anthropocene, the proposed geological epoch in which humankind has become a dominant force driving global change.
A gorgeous coffee-table book of photographs taken by NASA astronaut Don Pettit during his time on the International Space Station. A tinkerer at heart, Pettit built a device called a “barn door tracker” from spare parts on the space station that allowed him to compensate for the station’s orbital motion to capture beautiful and unique long-exposure photographs of the planet below.
These two physics books are both about…well, everything. Space and time. Matter and energy. How humans—or rather physicists, to put a finer point on it—make sense of the universe using their particle accelerators, observatories, and equations. But despite their topical similarities, these two volumes are very different in approach. Carroll’s book is big and meaty, Rovelli’s is slim and spare. I’d recommend both—Rovelli’s as an introduction, and Carroll’s as a plunge into the deepest, gnarliest problems at the frontiers of discovery.
Surfing on a rising tide of research demonstrating that “bird-brained” should perhaps be more of a compliment than a slur, Ackerman has penned a nice travelogue built around her “quest to understand the different sorts of genius that have made birds so successful—and how they came about.” Any birdwatcher will enjoy this book.
This is the first book from one of my favorite futurists, the George Mason University economist Robin Hanson, and just like him, it is thought-provoking, puzzling, vexing, and challenging. Its premise is something seemingly straight out of science fiction, which is that in the not-too-distant future we may succeed in creating virtualized human brains—”ems,” Hanson calls them. What separates this book from many other wild-eyed speculations is Hanson’s encyclopedic willingness to follow the seed of an idea to its fullest fruit, to examine and present of the broad spectrum of possible consequences ems would have for the world. Maybe it all will prove to be a fairy tale, but it’s still profoundly fascinating.
Hey everyone! @scifri is doing our annual roundup of best science books of the year. What were your favorites?
— Katie Hiler (@sciencewritr) November 30, 2016
— Margaret (@Mdoyle17) November 30, 2016
— Evelyn Lamb (@evelynjlamb) November 30, 2016
— Ben Gross (@bhgross144) December 1, 2016
— Jeff Koeppen (@DinsdaleKep) November 30, 2016
Maria Popova is the editor and founder of BrainPickings.org and a MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow. She is based in Brooklyn, New York.
Lee Billings is editor of Scientific American and author of Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars (Current, 2013) based in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday. Welcome back to our program. I want you to know that we are very happy to begin our actual book review of the season. Nothing says holiday season like a best of list. Am I right? It’s our end of the year tradition to share the best science books we read this year. And there were some great ones.
We talk a lot about books on Science Friday, and this year was a bumper crop; everything from climate change, to the microbiome, to profiles of women in science, to, well, the small things like the meaning of the universe. Small topic. That one really got us thinking, just as any good science book should. What about you? Which of this year’s science books spoke to you? Give us a call 844-724-8255, and you can also tweet us @scifri.
Joining me to recap some of the best science books of the year are two recurring guests. Maria Popova is editor and founder of the website brainpickings.org and Lee Billings, editor at Scientific American. Welcome back. Good to see you.
MARIA POPOVA: So wonderful to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Would you agree that it was a good year for science books, Maria?
MARIA POPOVA: It’s a very strong year.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah? Let’s start off with your top pick. What would you recommend?
MARIA POPOVA: Without a doubt, one of the most beautiful, most interesting books I’ve ever read is “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space” by cosmologist, the novelist, Janna Levin, who you’ve had on the show. And it’s the story of the century long vision, originated by Einstein, and half century long experimental quest to detect a gravitational wave to hear the sound of spacetime. But one of the extraordinary things about the book is that it was written before LIGO made the historic detection. So, it’s not the story of the triumph. It’s the story of the climb, and it’s really a larger story of the human spirit and its tenacity, and why scientists do what they do. Why they devote entire lives two pursuits strewn with unimaginable obstacles and constant failure and do it anyway.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. It’s great when you learn about the process and the people–
MARIA POPOVA: The people.
IRA FLATOW: –involved in the book.
MARIA POPOVA: Well, and I think Dr. Levin is in a very unique position to tell this story, because she’s a working scientist who studies black holes. That’s her bread and butter. But she’s also an award winning novelist. And so, she writes so beautifully with kind of Dostoyevskian insight into the character of these people, and you come to see that the genius and the foibles are just completely interwoven in the fabric of their personhood.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
MARIA POPOVA: And that science is just such a profoundly human endeavor.
IRA FLATOW: And she had the bonus of actually being there when they made that discovery–
MARIA POPOVA: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: –and added it on to the book. Yeah. Lee, you recommended a, (CLEARS THROAT) excuse me, a trilogy of books that aren’t by the same author.
LEE BILLINGS: That’s right.
IRA FLATOW: What’s the connection?
LEE BILLINGS: Well they’re all about the anthropocene and this idea that humanity is becoming a global geological force that can control the fate of the planet. And so, the three books are “The Unnatural World” by David Biello, “The Planet Remade” by Oliver Morton, and “Earth in Human Hands” by David Grinspoon. They all offer three different views on the anthropocene.
“The Unnatural World” by David Biello, a former colleague of mine and friend I should say, is kind of getting a ground truth look at how the planet’s changing, some of the key players involved at high policy levels, and just street levels that are helping some of these changes come about or combating them in some cases. He’s traveled around the world to do that. So, he’s traveled to Beijing. He’s traveled to other parts of China and all over the south polar seas, crazy places.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
LEE BILLINGS: The other two books, Oliver Morton’s book is actually from 2015. I’m sorry that I kind of slip it in, but it didn’t get enough credit, I think, when it first came out. It is the most authoritative book that I’ve read about geoengineering. Oliver Morton is a journalist in Britain, who’s spent more than a decade researching this problem about how we could control the climate in the future. And he gets really deep into policy and talks about weird situations like it’s really not that cheap to do some of these things, some of these big experiments with the climate. You can imagine an individual billionaire or rogue nation doing that and it’s kind of scary. So, he gets real deep into policy.
The final one, David Grinspoon’s “Earth in Human Hands”, is from a more astrobiological perspective, because he’s an astrobiologist. And so, he’s talking about the potential cosmic implications of the anthropocene, and of a sentient species taking control of it’s planet. What does that look like in the far future, and does it have implications for our search for life elsewhere, for instance? Could it be that something like the anthropocene is going to last longer than hundreds of thousands of years and maybe stretch into hundreds of millions or billions of years.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s hope we’re still here–
LEE BILLINGS: I hope so.
IRA FLATOW: –for what we’re doing with the anthropocene. Maria, people are looking for a book to enjoy with their kids. Got a kid’s pick for us?
MARIA POPOVA: Yeah. I have one that ties into what Lee was saying in terms of the relationship between humanity and our planet. It’s a wonderful book by the British artist Jenni Desmond, who is a Maurice Sendak fellow, and it’s called “The Polar Bear.” It’s part of a non-fiction series that she’s doing.
Last year in this end of year review, we included “The Blue Whale”, which was her first one. And now, comes “The Polar Bear”, which is the life, and world, and science of one of our planet’s most vulnerable creatures. But it came out right around the election, so it’s very interesting to think about now that we can’t count on politicians to advance science and to protect the planet and to educate the next generation about responsibility. It falls on us. It falls on parents, and on educators, and this really wonderful book is just such a wonderful tool for that.
IRA FLATOW: Interesting. 844-724-8255. Yeah, there are a lot of things that it looks like we’re going to have to do on our own. Let’s go to Kenai, Alaska. Cathy, welcome to Science Friday.
CATHY: Hi. How are you?
IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead. Thank you.
CATHY: I love your program. I listen to NPR all the time. And the book I’m in I’m interested in is “Hidden Figures”, which I believe you spoke about a couple of weeks ago on your program.
IRA FLATOW: What did you like, Kathy, about it so much?
CATHY: Well, I’m a math geek myself, but I’m also very interested in the history of women in mathematics and science. And I haven’t yet been able to get the book. I just ordered it for my dad for Christmas, but I’m anxious to read it myself. I think it sounds fascinating.
IRA FLATOW: That’s great. Maybe we have a couple of other suggestions we could add on to that. Let me– Maria?
MARIA POPOVA: Yeah, I think that book fits into a series that came out this year. Another one that is– “Hidden Figures” is about the black women mathematicians who helped put people on the moon, basically, during the space race. But almost a century before that, we have these women working at the Harvard Observatory who are known as the Harvard Computers, and their story is told in a book called “The Glass Universe” by Dava Sobel, which comes out next week on Tuesday.
LEE BILLINGS: You know about it already.
IRA FLATOW: (LAUGHING)
MARIA POPOVA: Yea, she might appear on the show at some point.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, she will. We’ve already booked it.
MARIA POPOVA: Wonderful!
IRA FLATOW: It’s a preview of it.
MARIA POPOVA: But these were women who are making astronomical discoveries 40 years before they were allowed to vote. And some of these discoveries we still use today to classify stars, and they were the foundation for how Hubble figured out that the universe is expanding, all on the basis of these women’s work. And it’s a really wonderful story that paved the way for women in science.
IRA FLATOW: Lee, do you have any comment?
LEE BILLINGS: Other than– well, Maria has taken several of my other favorites that I figured she could handle more than I could.
MARIA POPOVA: (LAUGHING)
LEE BILLINGS: But I think those are also some great topics. One book I did want to talk about was actually– I brought it into the studio, so you could see it yourself– it’s called “Spaceborne” by Donald Pettit. He’s a former astronaut who spent a lot of time in the International Space Station. And what’s special about this book is he is not just an astronaut, he’s also a photographer. And he’s taken, I think, some of the most iconic, best photos you’re ever going to see from the space station.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We’re going to have him on next week.
LEE BILLINGS: Oh, beautiful! You know the funny thing about Don, though, is that he technically cannot promote the book. As a federal employee of NASA, he technically cannot promote the book itself, so he’s going to have to talk about the photography and stuff.
IRA FLATOW: Who knows with this new administration what you’ll be able to promote.
LEE BILLINGS: Yes! Yes. But–
MARIA POPOVA: (LAUGHING) Vested interests.
LEE BILLINGS: Truly gorgeous book, though, and the story of how he took these photos is phenomenal. And it really give you a new view into the space station and also, into our planet.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And he’s a wonderful speaker. We’ve actually talked to him from when he was up in space. He’s a funny guy. OK. Let’s move on to your next selection. Maria, both of you picked “Black Hole Blues” by Janna Levin, as you said. You brought a passage from Levin’s book to read to us. Can you pick that up there?
MARIA POPOVA: Sure. And I’ll also add that I think there are three kinds of science writers. There are explainers, who are the kinds of people that write textbooks, they’re elucidators, who do more than inform and kind of illuminate the connections between things in most popular science books or that, and then there are enchanters, who really take us to these higher orders of meaning with beautiful prose, and that’s what I’m reading. It comes in the context that she’s talking about how gravitational astronomy is opening new landscapes of possibility, because everything we know about the universe comes, so far, from sight, and now, we’re beginning to listen.
And this is what she writes. She says, “In the hopefully plentiful years that follow a first detection, the aspiration is for Earth based observatories to record the sounds of cataclysmic astronomical events from many directions and from varied distances. Scientists will reconstruct a clanging discordant score to accompany the silent movie humanity has compiled of the history of the universe from still images of the sky. A series of frozen snapshots captured over the past 400 years since Galileo first pointed a crude telescope at this sun. Five decades after the experimental ambition began, were on the eve of the crash of a colossal machine into a wisp of a sound. An idea sparked in the 1960s, a thought experiment, an amusing haiku, is now a thing of metal and glass.”
IRA FLATOW: Very nice. Very nicely read.
MARIA POPOVA: And before the detection! Before the wisp of sound.
IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s go for another suggestion to the phones to Hallandale Beach, Florida. Elijah, hi, welcome to Science Friday.
ELIJAH: Hey there.
IRA FLATOW: Hey there. Go ahead.
ELIJAH: The book that I suggest is “I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life” by Ed Yong.
IRA FLATOW: One of our favorite subjects, the microbiome. Lee, you want to talk about that? Do you agree with him?
LEE BILLINGS: Well, I do agree with him. However, I should say that due to having a very young son at home who takes up all my time, I have not yet read “I Contain Multitudes”. I haven’t been getting a multitude of sleep. So, I think, actually, we should probably turn that to Maria, because I think she has read it.
MARIA POPOVA: That’s on my list, actually. Yeah. It’s a wonderful book that’s completely worthy of it’s Walt Whitman reference of the title. And Ed Yong, who’s one of the most capable science storytellers, and communicators, and journalists today, basically looks at how the microbiome is related to everything from mental health to even free will. It’s absolutely fascinating.
IRA FLATOW: Oh. Yeah, it’s a great book. It’s a great book. Lee, we have a lot of listeners who like birdwatching.
LEE BILLINGS: Oh!
IRA FLATOW: And for them, I know you recommend “The Genius of Birds” by Jennifer Ackerman. Why?
LEE BILLINGS: Because it’s an appreciation, not only of, you know, birds, obviously, if you like birds, but it’s kind of giving you a deeper appreciation of non-human intelligence. It’s really casting doubt on this view we’ve had for a long time that we’re somehow special and unique in our ability to reason and make sense of the world. And I’m not saying that birds are as smart as people, but maybe bird brain isn’t as much of a slur as we think it should be.
So, she’s traveled around to all kinds of places, New Caledonia, an island off Australia, to look at crows who build tools. She’s looked at things like pigeons in New Jersey or jays in Virginia that can do things like distinguish between an impressionist and a cubist painting. Or there’s lots of other examples, a birdsong being similar to language, their ability to remember locations and find them across thousands of miles, their flocking behavior, their social intelligence, the way they can tell sometimes the emotional tenor of their partners. These are all things that we’ve seen in birds, and Jennifer does a really, really good job of explaining, not only how we’re finding more and more of these behaviors, but also connecting it to their natural history, the way that birds are really just dinosaurs with feathers. And they don’t even have cortexes like we do, so their bird brains are strange.
IRA FLATOW: They’re fascinating. Yeah. We’re finding out they’re smarter than we are.
MARIA POPOVA: Speaking of non-human intelligence, there’s a wonderful book by Alexandra Horowitz, who is the head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard, it’s called “Being a Dog”, and it’s about how dogs perceive a completely different version of reality than we do. And although, some of it is biologically wired, a lot of it is learned, so it’s really about how we can learn to use our smell– kind of learn from dogs to swing open the doors of our own perception.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Everybody loves dogs.
MARIA POPOVA: In New York, especially.
LEE BILLINGS: Pigeons not so much.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Here with Maria Popova and Lee Billings talking about our favorite books this year. Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Berkeley, California. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.
– Hi. Am I on?
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you’re on.
– Hi, Ira. I love your show. Yes, I wanted to share some books that I’ve been giving to my nieces and nephews, and it’s a book for kids and young adult called “Doctor Bonafide”, and it teaches the kids about their anatomy. It’s like a workbook. It’s colorful. It’s instructional. It’s participatory.
And even adults love to do it and work with them, because it really brings a lot of knowledge to understanding themselves. And the graphics and activity are just engaging. And what’s so unique about this is that the bones are actually outlined in typography so the actual name of the bone is outlined. And I know that my nieces and nephews have loved it, so it called “Doctor Bonafide” and it’s by a company called Know Yourself, and it’s awesome.
IRA FLATOW: Thanks for that suggestion. Are you familiar with it?
MARIA POPOVA: No. It sounds wonderful. But it made me think of another book for kids and young adults that’s in the vein of women in science. It’s called “Women in Science” by Rachel Ignotofsky, who’s an Illustrator, and it’s a lovely illustrated encyclopedia of pioneering women in science, people like Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter, and Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission, Jocelyn Bell, who discovered pulsars, Katherine Johnson, who helped put people on the moon. She’s one of the figures in “Hidden Figures”. It’s just the lovely kind of light companion to “Hidden Figures” and “The Glass Universe”.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking of women, we have a tweet from Emil Volcheck who says, I recommend “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren. Are you familiar with that, Lee?
LEE BILLINGS: I’m familiar. That’s another one that’s on my to read list, but I’ve heard very, very good things about this memoir of Hope’s experiences basically working in a lab and trying to balance being an average person– well, not an average person– above average person, I think, with a lot of the strange demands that are rather unique when you’re, I think, a woman in science.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to South Dakota. Hi, Brad. Welcome to Science Friday.
BRAD: Hey. How are you doing today, Ira?
IRA FLATOW: Hey. How are you?
BRAD: I’m wonderful. I’m on Interstate 90. I read several books this year that were really good. They were kind of some of the history of technology. I’m an engineer by education, a retired electrical engineer. But the one that I wanted to mention, in particular, was a book called “Pinpoint”, and it’s about the history of the GPS system and how far that’s come and how it’s reached into places way, way further than anybody ever dreamed of just, you know, location purposes to the point of it’s used for timing of stock market trades and things like that. Very interesting book on the history of that.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We’re familiar with that one. Thanks for recommending that. Yeah, the history of GPS is fascinating.
MARIA POPOVA: And it’s a favorite example that scientists use when people say, well, what’s the use of so and so. And, you know, GPS comes from Einstein’s relativity.
IRA FLATOW: Right. We don’t have to talk about Tang, anymore, coming out of the space race.
MARIA POPOVA: Speaking of relativity, another one of my favorite books, both this year and of all time, is “Time Travel” by James Gleick, who is an icon of– historian of science, wonderful writer, very similar to Janna Levin and just the lyrical quality of the prose. And it’s about the history of why we think about time travel, and why we’re so troubled by its directionality. So, it pulls on relativity theory and the history of science. It pulls a lot on philosophy, but is really a Literary book. So, a lot of [INAUDIBLE] a lot of using literature as a cross-pollinator of science and philosophy to ask this larger question of our relationship with time and how it factors into our consciousness.
IRA FLATOW: Time is very popular now in entertainment, in movies, in film. A lot of time people talking about the time, which is my segue to say we have to take a break. So, we’ll be right back in about 30 seconds.
MARIA POPOVA: (LAUGHING)
IRA FLATOW: Stay with us. We’re talking about books with Maria Popova, editor and founder of the website brainpickings.org and Lee Billings, editor at Scientific American. Our number– lot of phone calls today– 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @Scifri. Stay with us. We’ll be back with more books after the break.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re recapping the best science books of 2016 with Maria Popova of brainpickings.org and Lee Billings, editor at Scientific American and welcoming your phone calls. 844-724-8255, also your tweets at SciFri. Let me go through some of the tweets that have been coming in. Lots of people have tweeted us.
I recommend “Overview: Aerial Photographs to Help Us See Earth and Human Impact from a New Perspective” by Alexa Quinn. She suggested that. Nicky says “Embryo: Science and Sentient Beings”. Gigi says, I recommend Teresa Bondora’s “The Periodic Table of Elements Coloring Book” for middle school and high school students. Great tools, she says. Also, Katey Howes says, for the younger book worms, I’m recommending Ruth Spiro’s new “Baby Loves Quarks” and “Baby Loves Aerospace Engineering”.
MARIA POPOVA: That’s a smart baby there.
IRA FLATOW: I’ll bet it is. Speaking of smart, let’s talk about Sean Carroll.
LEE BILLINGS: Yeah. Of course, Sean Carroll is a physicist who has written a really great book called “The Big Picture”, and it’s rather, in some ways, a typical physics book. You could say it’s two books in one. One is just kind of giving you the standard explanation about how we know things we know about the universe, how the universe works.
In particular, he has this idea of what’s called the core theory, which is him saying that quantum field theory can be used to explain, essentially, everything in our everyday life. So, maybe not the pulsations of a neutron star very far away, but anything you’re ever going to encounter in your life, quantum field theory explains. And then he uses that to dismiss things like the afterlife, telekinesis, psychic powers, astrology, so on and so forth.
But it’s not just that. So, he kind of extrapolates from there– he jumps off from there from the idea that we live in this meaningless universe that’s incomprehensible, and we’re just specks of dust that mean nothing in it to more philosophy where he’s saying, well, can we draw some sort of philosophy and way to live our lives and way to drive meaning from the universe from this meaningless state we find from science. And of course, he says the answer is yes. It’s kind of a softer, gentler, more fuzzy version of the New Atheism in some ways that you you heard from folks like Hitchens, and Dawkins, and so on and so forth. But yeah. Very, very solid book. I adored it. And–
IRA FLATOW: He’s a great writer.
LEE BILLINGS: –if you don’t agree with him, you still can– you can find the areas of disagreement and those sorts of– finding where you disagree with him, I think, really can clarify your own views about the universe and about philosophy.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
MARIA POPOVA: Yeah. That book was also on my list, and I especially love what he calls poetic realism, which is if the universe is meaningless, how do we synthesize meaning in the act of living and thinking. It’s a very humanistic notion.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Virginia Beach, Virginia. Hi, Amber. Welcome to Science Friday.
AMBER: Hi, Ira. Thank you so much for taking my question. I love your show.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Go ahead.
AMBER: So, I have a 13-year-old son who is an advanced reader, and he wants to grow up to be a quantum physicist. And on his Christmas list, he asked for books about black holes and the universe, and I was for suggestions for him.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. A lot of books there. Let me start on the left and move to the other side of the table. Thanks for calling, Amber.
LEE BILLINGS: Sure. Well, if we want to go for one that’s a little less heavy hitting or– I shouldn’t say heavy hitting– but maybe a little easier to digest and read than Sean Carroll’s, which is a very weighty thick tome and also ideologically loaded, I would suggest going with Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons On Physics”. He’s another theoretical physicist, and he published a series of columns in an Italian newspaper that was then condensed into this book– distilled into this book. It’s only 78 pages, and it covers general relativity, quantum mechanics, the structure of the cosmos, elementary particles, quantum gravity, probability thermodynamics, and our place in all of it. Right? Only in 78 pages. You can read this thing.
IRA FLATOW: Easy to understand stuff.
LEE BILLINGS: Easy to understand, yes. So, I would recommend it for pretty much any reader.
MARIA POPOVA: I would say “Black Hole Blues” is very much enjoyable for any kind of reader. There’s also another book called “Mapping the Heavens” by Priyamvada Natarajan, who’s a younger scientist who studies black holes and dark matter. But if you’re able to find, there’s an out of print book from 1991 by a stern physicist called “Alice in Quantumland”, and it’s an allegory of quantum physics using “Alice in Wonderland” as the template. It’s a wonderful book.
IRA FLATOW: You know, that reminds me of a book that I started reading when I was a kid that got me a lot of interested in science, and that was George Gamow, the physicist.
MARIA POPOVA: Oh, yes.
IRA FLATOW: And he used to write about relativity. He had a “Mr. Tompkins” series.
MARIA POPOVA: (EXCITED) Yes!
IRA FLATOW: You remember that one?
MARIA POPOVA: They were so wonderful.
IRA FLATOW: It was a serial in one of the New York magazines, like The New Yorker or something like that, and then he took them and put them all together into a book. Mr. Tompkins makes many cameos in James Gleick’s “Time Travel”.
IRA FLATOW: Great, but I mean, find it online somewhere, or out of print. But for the basic knowledge about relativity, it’s about a guy who lives in a world where relativity comes to life, so he explains what’s going on around him. I love it when scientists are able to do that.
MARIA POPOVA: And not many are.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. All Right. Let’s see if we can go to the phones. Let’s go to Jack in Alexandria, Minnesota. Hi, there.
JACK: Hi. I’d like to suggest “Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch.
IRA FLATOW: Hmm.
JACK: I don’t know if you guys have heard that. It just came out, I think, in, July of this year. And it’s about a physicist who just is living his normal life with a wife and kid and teaches at a tier two college in Chicago, and then is one day abducted. And it turns out, as you get into the book, that I won’t spoil it all, but he’s abducted by himself from another universe, and then explores the theory of the multiverse in a very compelling and gripping novel.
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
JACK: Yeah. So, his other self that comes and visits him developed a box that you can enter, and you take this drug that allows you to see infinite number of doors inside the box.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We did this book. This was quite an interesting science fiction book.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Thanks for calling. It reminded me of a play on Broadway that actually was– now I can’t think of the name. It’s not playing any more. But the director or the writer actually had people sitting on different universes at the same time. They would read the lines a little bit differently. The next line you say, I just heard that, but no, it was sort of recreating what a parallel universe would be, a multiverse. Gyllenhaal was in that, I think. It was a good, good play. I can’t remember–
I guess I’ll have to recall it. But it seems, from what we hearing, a lot of people are interested in physics. A lot of physics books are being suggested, whether it’s black holes, or multiverses, or it’s quantum mechanics.
LEE BILLINGS: I think we, maybe, just had a bumper crop this year of really solid physics writing, and maybe we always do every year. But I feel like something about this year, there was just a bumper crop of good physics books, so it’s just a random fluctuation, I think, maybe.
MARIA POPOVA: But I also think the zeitgeist is always fermented by events, cultural events, and we cannot discount the fact that the LIGO discovery, which is a physics discovery, is one of the most important discoveries ever made in the history of science. Of course people’s, you know, the popular imagination is going to be captivated by that and fertilize the field.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And it is interesting how we’re now, as I said before, we’re now seeing more popular culture, whether films, or plays, or whatever picking up on this theme about science being very popular.
MARIA POPOVA: But I would say, in a way, it’s sometimes to the detriment of another branch of science, which is social science, and we have not done a very good job of giving social science the respect that it deserves. And to that end, a social science book on my list called “The Confidence Game” by Maria Konnikova, who writes about–
IRA FLATOW: She’s great.
MARIA POPOVA: She’s wonderful. We get mixed up a lot because of our names–
–which I always take as a compliment, because she’s a wonderful writer, wonderful thinker. She writes for The New Yorker about psychology. And this book is about cons and why they work on intelligent, well-intentioned people. So, she kind of debunks the myth through 50 years of research and through profiles of some of the greatest con artists in the world, the myth that somehow only stupid or inferior people are susceptible. And you know, it’s interesting in the context of in a culture where masses of normal people have been swayed to ideologies based on fraudulent claims, you know, what that is, what human psychology that exploits.
IRA FLATOW: Uh-hmm. And in the short minute I’ve got, do you have a last pick, Lee?
LEE BILLINGS: I’m going to go with “The Age of Em” by Robin Hanson, George Mason University economist. Its his first book. It’s called “Age of Em”, E-M. Em stands for emulated brain. It’s the idea that in the future, maybe a hundred years from, where you can actually upload people’s consciousnesses and virtualize consciousness. It’s a wild idea, but what’s so nice about this kind of science fictional idea and this treatment in this book, which is, I have to say, very fun but very tough to get through, because it’s a very detailed book, is how rigorous it is.
Hanson really goes through all of the possible implications for what this means for the economy, for human behavior, for sex, love, death, architecture. He goes through it all. And it’s one of those things where, again, maybe you don’t agree with everything he says, but when you figure out where you disagree, you come to interesting insights. And who knows, in the future, maybe our uploaded ancestors will see him as a prophet. I’m not really sure, but it’s a great, great read, dizzying with ideas.
IRA FLATOW: I’ll bet. Well, that’s been great. Thank you, both.
MARIA POPOVA: Thank you so much.
IRA FLATOW: Time flies.
LEE BILLINGS: My pleasure. Yes.
IRA FLATOW: Maria Popova, founder of the website the brainpickings.org and Lee Billings, editor at Scientific American. And if you couldn’t keep up with the fast pace of our book picks, we have them up on our website at sciencefriday.com/books.