The Best Science Books Of 2020
As 2020 comes to a close, it’s hard to find ways to celebrate a year that brought so much frustration, loneliness, disappointment, and heartache.
But however difficult the world got, we at Science Friday could still find joy in awesome science stories and comfort in tales of remarkable science fiction.
And, given that science was so much at the center of our lives this year, it’s not a surprise that we saw so many interesting science books published in 2020. Books about the pandemic, about climate change, and about the algorithms that rule our lives. But also books about curiosity—those things about the human condition that you (maybe) finally had time to notice.
Guest host John Dankosky is joined by librarian Brian Muldoon and Science senior editor Valerie Thompson to highlight some of the science books you may have missed this year.
Jeff G. on the SciFri Book Club Community Space: My list is The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert), The Language of Butterflies (Wendy Williams), Entangled Life (Merlin Sheldrake), and Ready Player Two (Ernest Cline).
Krys P. on the SciFri Book Club Community Space: MetaZoa by Peter Godfrey Smith.
— Lauren Slanker (@MsSlanker307) December 8, 2020
Harrow the Ninth. Eagerly awaiting book 3 of the trilogy. https://t.co/FF8cpl2q37
— Meadhbh Dhommnail (@Meadhbh) December 8, 2020
Children’s Librarian at the Clinton Hill Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library
Merlin Sheldrake gets deep in the dirt with this wide ranging and ebullient exploration of the mycelial world. In rich poetic passages, he provides an eye opening glimpse into what life is like as a fungus, uncovering the ways their penchant for interconnectedness facilitates so much we rely on and how that may yet serve as a model for building a better world.
While uranium gets much of the attention, it’s plutonium that truly made the nuclear era. Weaving together heavy science with biographical narratives, this nuanced history illuminates the deep societal impact of the rush to mass manufacture this element at the core of the atomic bomb.
On a personal note, I was drawn to this book because it focuses on the Hanford nuclear facility in southern Washington state where my grandfather worked as a mechanical engineer. My mom spent part of her childhood in the area and has a lot of stories about it.
Both a scientific exploration and social history of how we’ve come to care for our skin in the modern western world. Consistently hilarious and informative, Hamblin makes a surprisingly strong case for never showering again, while not fully abandoning the undeniable benefits of certain hygienic practices.
Listen to Hamblin discuss his adventures and findings while writing the book in a Science Friday interview.
A blistering and necessary look at how emerging technologies reproduce and, in some cases, deepen social inequality. Pushing past claims of neutrality by its developers, Benjamin exhibits how everything from automatic soap dispensers to predictive algorithms are built, whether intentionally or not, on a range of discriminatory designs that uphold long standing racial hierarchies.
Brooklyn Public Library gives out a literary prize each year. I was on the non-fiction committee this year and we awarded the prize for non-fiction to this book.
Listen to an interview with Benjamin on Science Friday, where she and Deborah Raji talk about the relationship between AI and racial injustice.
A delightfully engaging (and illustrated!) little book that uses deft analogies and warm prose to make the mind-bending complexity of black holes easy to comprehend. With contagious enthusiasm, Janna Levin walks through the various controversies and contradictions surrounding this particularly sticky astrophysical phenomenon, making a compelling case for understanding black holes as key to understanding the nature of the cosmos.
Starting from a place of despair and ending in one of radical optimism, this book is a bold call for a sweeping social and economic revolution to combat the threat of climate change. The solutions detailed show that, in its current state, the crisis is as much one of imagination as looming ecological collapse.
Told with a lightness and humor that doesn’t skimp on the science this brightly illustrated picture book provides young readers with a lively overview of the formation and history of the ocean.
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This book examines how a number of notable materials (steel, telegraph wires, photographic materials, etc.) were invented and how, in turn, those materials went on to shape human culture. One of the most illuminating chapters in the book discusses how racial discrimination was baked into early photographic film, which failed to capture people with darker skin tones, and how this phenomenon re-emerged with digital facial recognition.
Listen to a SciFri interview with Ramirez back in April.
This book takes readers on a tour of the behavioral implications of indoor design, highlighting apartments created for neurodiverse individuals, dome homes, and electronically monitored housing. The author also explores the design implications of hospitals, prisons, and public spaces meant to encourage physical activity. Timely—given how much time we’re all spending indoors these days!
Listen to Anthes discuss the indoor microbiome on Science Friday.
This is a brilliant work of fiction that follows Wallace, a queer, Black biochemistry grad student as he navigates academia at a predominantly white midwestern institution. What I think makes this book especially important for a scientific audience is its incisive indictment of the subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—hypocrisies that pervade institutions that think of themselves as “progressive.”
This book comes at a time when we’re talking a lot about the role of policing and what we want it to look like in the future. It is focused on a factor that’s set to play a larger and larger role moving forward: big data. Author Sarah Brayne is a sociologist who spent five years interviewing people at the Los Angeles Police Department—one of the most tech-savvy departments in America. She talked to everyone—beat cops, supervisors, and civilian employees. These interviews create a portrait of how people in the LAPD are using and thinking about data.
The book tackles this big question: What does it mean to eat wild food? Gina de la Cerva tackles the question from a bunch of different perspectives and scales. La Cerva weaves together historical perspectives, ecological data, and interviews with people who prepare and sell and consume wild foods. It includes a very nuanced discussion of bushmeat, which is useful as we try to figure out how to reduce the spread of zoonotic diseases.
This book is a really nice real-time synthesis of the COVID-19 pandemic that looks at the complex interactions at play, from the epidemiology, to the immunology, to human behavior, and social networks.
As the follow-up to Ackernan’s 2015 The Genius of Birds, this books is another detailed examination of bird behavior. It was also picked in Science Friday’s Best Summer Science Books of 2020 list, but it’s worth highlighting again. Ackerman brings scientific research alive with personal observations of colorful and fascinating birds, from the kea parrot to the raven to the brush turkey, among others. By showing how each species communicates, plays, parents, works, and thinks, she reminds us that there is no one way to be a bird.”
It came out at the very start of the pandemic, and I talked to her on the show. She uses science throughout her work as a starting point and a thru-line. She calls these “unaccountable” times. Crises in the biosphere—climate change, extinctions—collide with crises in human life. And those crises of pandemic and politics really resonated with her work this year.
Listen to Jane Hirschfield recite poems from the book and how poetry can wield science in unaccountable times on Science Friday.
When you buy a book from one of the links above, Science Friday receives a portion of the proceeds from your purchase.
Valerie Thompson is a Senior Editor at Science Magazine in Washington, D.C.
Brian Muldoon is the children’s librarian at the Clinton Hill Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. He’s based in Brooklyn, New York.