The Best Summer Science Books Of 2020

29:08 minutes

a collage of eight book covers
The pandemic has nixed many summer vacation plans, but our summer science book list will help you still escape. While staying socially distant, you can take a trip to the great outdoors to unlock the mysteries of bird behaviors. Or instead of trekking to a museum, you can learn about the little-known history of lightbulbs, clocks, and other inventions. 

Our guests Stephanie Sendaula and Sarah Olson Michel talk with Ira about their favorite science book picks for summer reading.

Ira Flatow’s Picks:

book cover that says "American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic"

American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson

This checks all the boxes for an enjoyable page turner I’ve really enjoyed. Take the physician who tried to save Alexander Hamilton after his fateful duel, put him in NYC where he would create America’s first botanical garden—smack dab where Rockefeller Center is now—and add his founding of Bellevue Hospital and the New York Historical Society. What more could you ask for in a life story? A tale full of “I didn’t know that,” and “no kidding!” moments.

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More recommendations from Ira Flatow:

Sarah Olson Michel‘s Picks:

Science writer, book reviewer, and undergraduate student in biology at Oregon State University

a book cover with a greek statue bust that says "Superior: The Return of Race Science"Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini

Superior is the book about race that should be on everyone’s reading lists right now. Science journalist Angela Saini does an expert job investigating and debunking the pseudoscience of race. When I read this book, it changed my entire outlook on human history and the concept of race. It’s a great historical examination of the role race has played in white people’s seemingly never-ending quest for supremacy, and every scientist should take the time to understand the unethical studies Saini explores. If you’re looking for something at the intersection of science and our world’s current conversation about race, Superior hits the mark as both a good and necessary read. (Read my review at readmorescience.com)

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book cover that says "The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another by Ainissa Ramirez"The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another by Ainissa Ramirez

The Alchemy of Us is a brilliant historical examination of inventions that have changed society, and was recently recommended by Ed Yong. Materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez does a truly tremendous job drawing connections between historical events and the materials that made them possible. Her storytelling is superb—this is the book you can easily lose yourself in, especially if you mostly read fiction and want to try nonfiction, but are worried about being bored. Ramirez language is active and accessible. But her book is timely, paying special attention to the ways in which race and privilege and sex have played roles in the invention of certain materials or objects and their uses and influence. We need more voices of Black science communicators like Ramirez to fill our bookshelves, and she is certain to inspire more.

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Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone by Riley BlackSkeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone by Riley Black

Skeleton Keys is the beach read for the science curious. An immersive and brief book by paleontologist Riley Black, who published under the pseudonym Brian Switek, this book will change the way you see your bones. Black has found the perfect balance between lighthearted and thoughtful, and their enthusiasm to reveal the wonders of bones, too often hidden by skin and muscle and fur and scales, is tangible between the pages. It’s the kind of easy reading and fascinating science you enjoy from the first page to the last. Black also recently came out as transgender and nonbinary, and as a nonbinary person myself it’s wonderful to see queer representation in a field so dominated by cishet white men.

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More recommendations from Sarah Olson Michel:

Stephanie Sendaula’s Picks:

Associate editor for Library Journal Reviews

book cover that says "Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family"

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

Kolker looks into the mysterious roots of a misunderstood condition, and explains the lived experiences of the Galvin family and their role in scientific discovery as six of the 12 Galvin children were ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia. This moving story is both scientific intrigue and family biography at its best.

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book cover that says "The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World"

The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World by Patrik Svensson

In this combination of natural history and memoir, Svensson traces our understanding of the secretive and solitary eel. He moves from his own stories of eel fishing with his father to stories of eel fishermen in Sweden and Japan, and how their lives have been impacted by their declining population.

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book cover that says "The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think"

The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think by Jennifer Ackerman

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.

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More recommendations from Stephanie Sendaula:

Audience Picks

A selection of book recommendations sent to us via the SciFri Voxpop app.

book cover that says " consciousness and the social brain"

Consciousness and the Social Brain by Michael Graziano

My name is Jeff and I’m in Northern California. I’m reading Consciousness and the Social Brain by Michael Graziano. It’s a book that tries to make the connection between the way we reason about others and how they think, maybe in exactly the same process about how we reason about ourselves. This interests me because I’m autistic and I developed a sense of self late in life. So I’m interested in the mechanisms involved in the brain that make that possible.

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national geographic magazine cover that says "your emotions: the science of how you feel"

National Geographic: Your Emotions: The Science of How You Feel

I’m reading National Geographic, single edition, on emotions. It’s really great. It’s an easy read for any level, I think, of science knowledge. But it really puts things in perspective and gives you a lot to think about when you just need to go out and chill, which is one thing it recommends. (Via Penny from Arkansas)

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a book cover with a sick looking starfish that says "Ocean Outbreak: Confronting the Rising Tide of Marine Disease"

Ocean Outbreak: Confronting the Rising Tide of Marine Disease by Drew Harvell

A really great book that I just finished reading is Ocean Outbreak by Drew Harvell, who is a professor of marine ecology at Cornell. And this book examines marine epidemics that have potential to cause a mass die-off of wildlife from the top and bottom of the food chain. And it looks at different infectious disease outbreaks in the marine environments. (Via Kyla from Seattle)

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More recommendations from the SciFri Voxpop App:

Segment Guests

Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula is a programming and outreach specialist for LibraryLinkNJ in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.

Sarah Olson Michel

Sarah Olson Michel is a science writer, book reviewer and undergraduate student in Biology at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. I’ve seen many people on social media asking for book recommendations, as they stay home bound during this pandemic. They have run out of books and book ideas. And if you’re one of them, we’re here to help you with our summer reading list.

Yes, I know summer started about a week ago, but there’s a virus going on out there. So we’ve been a bit distracted. Forgive us. The good news now is that if you’re looking for something new to read, we have the suggestions. I want to welcome our panel. Joining us now is Stephanie Sendaula, associate editor for Library Journal Reviews, and Sarah Olson Michel, science writer, and book reviewer, and biology undergrad at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Welcome to Science Friday.

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Thank you. We’re so happy to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Do you both get what I get, that people are just reading and reading and reading while they’re stay home?

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: I mean, I especially have lately. I mean, I’ve taken a break from Netflix and Chill. So reading is a nice, little change of pace for me for the summer months.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And I think people have run out of books. Because I really do think that we can help them out today. So let’s get going. Now that it is summer, people are trying to escape into nature. Stephanie, do you have a book about what might be a good outdoor escape for us?

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Yeah, one of my favorite books this season is The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman. I’m really liking this book a lot. Because it’s really gotten me into birding recently. She talks a lot about how there’s really no one way to be a bird, since they vary in behavior, flight, song, and form, so everything from collaboration to competitiveness, communal parenting, group nesting systems.

I thought it was really interesting how they have various strategies for raising alarm. So blue jays, which are outside my house right now, will sometimes imitate hawks to scare off prey, sometimes imitate car alarms, which I found all this really fascinating.

There’s a great chapter about ravens playing and catching twigs while they’re flying, just to play with each other. So this is a great book, I think, for anyone new to popular science, who just wants to learn about nature, and sit outside in their backyard, and just cozy up to a really good book.

IRA FLATOW: Do you have a bird feeder out in your backyard?

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: We don’t. But that’s my next thing I want to get, so thank you for reminding me.

IRA FLATOW: No, because it’s good. You read a book like that. And then you go out to your bird feeder. And you get to see all these actions that they’re doing that you would not have looked for if you hadn’t read the book. Stephanie, what are some of the most interesting bird facts that you learned in this book that you will be looking for when you go to that bird feeder?

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Yeah. Well, for me, blue jays, especially, because I see them outside all the time, so just the different sounds at night, just even in the morning and you hear them making noise and mimicking other birds or just mimicking other sounds in nature.

So I’m just more especially fascinated by them lately and just seeing the different colors and a different– how they can communicate not just with their voice, but also with their fathers, which I think is also really fascinating– forward to more time outside this summer.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, they’re bullies, you will notice. They’re big birds. Yeah. Have you ever noticed that?

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Yeah, it’s interesting, but fascinating, too. So, yeah. It’s just a really fascinating read overall.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, they chase everybody away from the bird feeder when they’re around. Sarah, you have a recommendation that talks about nature that’s right outside our door. Tell us about that.

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: Yeah, I am actually really excited to start Kelly Brenner’s Nature Obscura. She looks at natural urban landscapes and the different organisms you can find in your backyard. And it’s the perfect pick for the current times that we’re in. Because a lot of people are stuck at home, or they’re stuck in their local area.

And so this is a great way to get to know what lives in your area, what lives in your backyard, what lives on the hiking trail down the road. It’s a good way to get people outside birding or looking for bugs. It’s probably a good one for parents who want to tell their kids about different insects and things that are outside.

IRA FLATOW: My top pick for observing that can help you escape into the natural world is– and this was a great book– American Eden– David Hosack. Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson. A lot of people don’t know about America’s first botanical garden.

And he built the first one. And you know where he built it? Right in Rockefeller Center, before there was a Rockefeller Center. And what’s cool about the book besides reading about his history is that there’s a tiny, little plaque right on the bottom of one of the little gardening exhibitions where they have the angels out there on Christmas. That has a little plaque, saying right on this spot was that botanical garden.

The book is really cool history of botanical gardens and how they were brought over from England and in his role in it. And it hits all my buttons being a gardener. I love it. And loving the history of science, I love it. So it’s got all those things in it for me.

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: That’s one I’ve been meaning to read, too. So I’m looking forward to that one and learning more about gardening, especially lately. So I’ll be making note of that one to read as well.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to our VoxPop. I want to go to a pick from one of our listeners from Seattle. This is Kyla. I hope I’m getting it right, Kyla. Her summer book recommendation.

KYLA: A really great book that I just finished reading is Ocean Outbreak– Confronting the Rising Tide of Marine Disease by Drew Harvell, who is a professor of marine ecology at Cornell. And this book examines marine epidemics that have potential to cause a mass die-off of wildlife from the top and bottom of the food chain. And it looks at different infectious disease outbreaks in the marine environments.

IRA FLATOW: If you’re the type of person that likes slippery sea creatures, we’ve got the right book for you, Stephanie. Right? You’ve got a book.

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: The free sea creatures. I have a book in mind for that. Yeah, I’ve also been really loving The Book of Eels by Patrik Svensson. And I was drawn to this one, because I don’t know anything about eels. And I realized while reading the book that most people don’t know anything about them either. They’re very mysterious, very secretive, very solitary. And so this is a natural history and a memoir where the author talks about eel fishing with his dad who loved to eat eels.

So there’s images of his dad, a reflection just that cooking eels, like boiling, frying, smoking them, which I did not know there were so many way to prepare eels, to be honest. So I thought it was really interesting, especially how they can live for decades, which I had no idea, and can migrate thousands of miles to find a stream or a lake to live in. Well, just live for a while.

But it was really interesting to see how eel fisherman in his native Sweden– the author is native Sweden– and in Japan are affected by a declining population of eels and how disease and climate change are really threatening their habitat. So this is a really fun book. I mean, fun in like a creepy way for anyone interested in marine biology. And this a really great, fascinating read overall, I think.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s another nature pick.


IRA FLATOW: I want to go to Jeff from San Carlos, California on our VoxPop. He has a pick about looking at how the brain works.

JEFF: I’m reading Consciousness and the Social Brain by Michael Graziano. It’s a book that tries to make the connection between the way we reason about others and how they think, maybe exactly the same process about how we reason about ourselves. This interests me, because I’m autistic. And I developed a sense of self late in life. So I’m interested in the mechanisms involved in the brain that make that possible.

IRA FLATOW: Stephanie, you had a book on science’s great hope to understanding an illness.

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Yeah, Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker, which I thought was really interesting, feeding into the whole theme of thinking about the brain and health and science. So this is a great natural– a natural history story. So, yeah. This is a great biography of science as the Galvin family.

There are 12 children, which is, yeah, a lot to think about. So 2 girls and 10 boys. And 6 of the 10 sons were eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. And the author talks about how the family donated their DNA to the National Institute of Health and to other organizations in order to help scientists and medical researchers better understand the genetic markers for schizophrenia.

And I thought this was really fascinating, because you get to know the entire family. It’s not just those with schizophrenia, but also the sisters who are watching their brothers’ experience. It’s really difficult situations. And you really get the insight into their lives, their personal stories. And it’s just a really great story overall. There’s a lot of buzz about this book in general. And the hype, I think, is definitely warranted.

IRA FLATOW: What surprised you the most about this story, Stephanie?

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: I think what surprised me the most is– which isn’t really new, but just the shame and stigma of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses and how different family members either wanted to openly talk about it or wanted to not talk about it at all. And that’s something we need to talk about more, just as a society in general. So that really resonated with me. And I thought that was really just– really nice that he pointed that out with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, especially.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s always good to read a great writer, isn’t it?


IRA FLATOW: And finding great writers who can write about science and medicine is even rarer. Because you don’t see so many, right?

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Yeah, interest in science and medicine, the combination of the two for sure.

IRA FLATOW: Sarah, you have a book that examines the evolution of the human body, very interesting book.

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: Are you talking about Skeleton Keys?


SARAH OLSON MICHEL: OK, good. OK, yeah. So this is a phenomenal book about bones, and everything inside the human body, and the evolution of skeletons. It’s one of those books that I felt as I was reading it, I was becoming aware of the bones underneath my own skin. It’s like, how could you not notice this? The author does a phenomenal job of making connections to things that go unseen.

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: I love this book, too, so I’m excited to read this.

IRA FLATOW: What do you love so much about it?

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: I think just bones and skeletons in general are something we don’t really think much about. But they just affect so much of what we do. And I think Riley, the author, just does a great job of reminding us throughout history of how bones is important in so many situations, like scientific medical research to cultural significance.

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: And I think it’s important to mention this. Riley Black– she published under the pseudonym, Brian Switek. But Riley Black is a transgender woman and non-binary person. And so she talks– she writes a lot about being queer in paleontology. And it’s such a great thing to see. Because that’s just not something that’s very represented in the field.

Paleontology– it’s very Indiana Jones, older white men off on adventures, out finding dinosaur bones. And so Riley brings– she’s has a totally unique perspective to paleontology and to evolution. And I think that that is her talent. She’s able to find things that are overlooked by others, because she’s got a different perspective. And she’s used to maybe even being overlooked.

And so her book is just this beautiful story that’s so personal to her journey in paleontology, but also these connections to humans over millions of years, and how we’ve changed, and how our skeleton benefits us. And it’s just one of those books that it’s hard to put down.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it is an interesting read. I remember speaking with Riley about her book. And she was really a very interesting guest to talk about things like that. She was talking about the evolution of the evolutionary history of the bones. But you bring up a very good point about there are other kinds of messages in the things that she writes about.

After the break, we’ll be talking about more summer book recommendations, so stay with us. We’ll be right back. This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. In case you just joined us, we’re talking this hour about what summer readings are great to take your mind off the pandemic for a little while, especially if you’ve run out of books to read.

Joining us now is Stephanie Sendaula, associate editor for Library Journal Reviews, and Sarah Olson Michel, science writer, and book reviewer, and biology undergrad at Oregon State University in Corvallis. For people who like history and science, Sarah, you have a book that covers those topics and mixes in material science. Tell us about that.

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: Yeah, so this book– I’ve been loving. It’s called The Alchemy of Us, by Ainissa Ramirez. It’s about how humans and matter transformed one another. And I love that. Because she draws these incredible connections between objects and inventions and the way that they’ve transformed society.

And it’s so intersectional. She brings up groups of people you wouldn’t have thought of in ways that they were impacted. And she’s a phenomenal writer, so it’s very immersive. It feels like you’re reading historical fiction. Because she’s a storyteller. So she’s walking you through literally dialogue between these historical figures. And to me, it feels like cracking open a novel, even though you’re reading about science and history.

IRA FLATOW: We had a Ainissa Ramirez come on to this show to talk about that book. She had so many interesting anecdotes that you don’t hear about. And she said, we often think of technology as being precious and neutral. But technology just picks up whatever someone is thinking or whatever is part of their experience.

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And she has a lot of examples in the book where she talks about the types of people who would have been excluded from these objects and materials and inventions. To me, that was what was so interesting is that she’s bringing things into the conversation that we haven’t talked about yet.

IRA FLATOW: Stephanie, Shandra Lewis tweeted the book, Breath– The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor. She says, snore, have allergies, asthma, auto-immune disease, teeth problems? Why, read this. Stephanie, this is one of your picks.

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Yeah, this one was a really fun, quirky adventure into the art and science of breathing. The author lives with nasal congestion and sleep apnea and was talking about his snoring. And he talks about how he goes to these different specialists and doctors in order to find the right way to breathe, so mouth breathing and nose breathing.

And it’s really interesting to watch as he meets different people. And everyone has stories. Everyone can relate. Everyone is like, oh, yeah. I have this, too. Or this is how I breathe. And we really learn a lot about how our ability to breathe has changed, evolved over time.

So from when we were hunter-gatherers, until when we were mashing and cooking food to even how we chew now, I thought it was especially interesting how humans are the only species to have misaligned jaws and overbite or underbite and especially since I had an overbite when I was younger.

So I’m like, this is something to take note of. And especially how athletes– he talks about swimmers to divers to runners, how they breathe during different performances, so something you don’t really think about until you’re reading it. And you’re just like, wait. OK, all these connections are coming together. And it’s just a really fun, accessible read for a wide variety of people, I think.

IRA FLATOW: People don’t really think much about their breathing, unless they’re doing mindfulness, or yoga, or something like that.

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Right. So it’s something you don’t really think about until you read the book. And you’re just like, wait. OK, this all makes sense now. We don’t really think about our breathing. Or we don’t really think about how our breathing changes during running or walking or yoga or anything, until you read the book. And you’re just like, oh, OK, this is all connected. So, Yeah. I highly recommend this one as well.

IRA FLATOW: While we’re on the topic of breathing and health and human body, one of my favorite authors is Eric Topol. And he writes a lot about the intersection of the mind, the body, and AI, things like that. He wrote a book called Deep Medicine– How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again. And the interesting part about his thesis is that people think that artificial intelligence will do away with doctors, right?

The AI will diagnose the diseases you have or take the substitute for a doctor. And he says just the opposite. He says AI will do the mundane tasks of looking through the slides, or the scans, or things like that. And that will allow your doctor to have more personal time with you to talk about your whole body experience. And I thought that was a really interesting take on that.

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Yeah, I agree. I remember when Eric was on this show before. And he always has great insight into not just his books, but science in general.

IRA FLATOW: I really like his stuff. Sarah, you have a pick that examines race and science. Tell us about that.

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: It’s probably my favorite over the past couple years. It’s called Superior– The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini. Angela is a science journalist who wrote Inferior, which was the study of gender and the supposed inferiority of women and how these pseudo-scientific studies led to this notion that women are inferior physically and mentally to men.

And she takes a really similar approach in this book in examining race. And she debunks a lot of studies and a lot of historical inaccuracies that led to this notion that humans are basically separate species based on skin color. She’s writing this at a time when this, obviously, a really important conversation for the world right now.

But she’s taking a scientific approach to it in a way that has honestly never been explored before for the benefit of the general public. So this is a book anybody could pick up and read about without having a scientific background, without being involved in conversations about race and understand what she has to say, and learn something, and come out of it seeing humans as more connected than before.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s an historical book, a look backwards.

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: It is. And she has a lot of historical anecdotes. She has also made a historical documentary, I believe, with BBC. And that’s a great thing to watch if you’re interested in reading the book, but you aren’t sure. That documentary goes through these historical stories that she has to tell.

And she talks about the people who basically had agendas who wanted to prove the superiority of white men and were the ones conducting these scientific studies. And as any scientist knows, that’s an unethical reason to go into a study. You can’t start with an agenda like that. And she not only takes those studies that are clearly biased, but she compares them to studies that are supposedly not biased and finds biases and prejudices within them that the data does not support.

And so I think it’s a really persuasive argument for why race isn’t necessarily real. And that’s a bold statement of her to make. Because the whole argument of inferiority, superiority, equality rests on this idea of, are we equal? And she just does a fabulous job dissecting that.

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: Yeah. This is one of Library Journal’s best science books for last year. And I agree with you, Sarah. It was a really fascinating discussion, really interesting, thought-provoking read about how science can be flawed and data can be flawed. So I’m glad that she brought that to the table and just shows that throughout history, that not all science is based on actual fact-based evidence. So, yeah. I really support and recommend this one as well.

IRA FLATOW: Does this book have obscure studies in it besides the studies we’ve heard about race with the Nazis and historical figures like that? Are these smaller studies that no one hears about?

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: She does a good job of digging out studies that you likely had not heard of. She spends a lot of time on the ones that people might be slightly more familiar with if they’ve ever examined or researched the topic before. But she does bring up some studies and information that people may not have seen before. I think that’s her talent as a science journalist. She’s able to really dig into stuff.

IRA FLATOW: It’s because people naturally expect science to be objective all the time, right? That’s the whole point of science’s objectivity. But it’s done by people.



IRA FLATOW: I would expect that we’re going to see more books about race and science in the year ahead. Don’t you think?

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: I certainly hope so. And I would be interested to see. I know that a lot of people are getting non-fiction books that are about race and how to talk about it, and that those are thankfully reaching the best-seller lists right now with everything going on. And I think it would be important to see Superior reach that list as well and end up on book clubs that are about race. Because she takes a scientific approach to it. And I think that that is important to consider, too.

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: I am seeing more books about race in general. But I would also, like Sarah, like to see more books about race in terms of science, also. So I’m really hoping to see that in the next couple years for sure.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s go to another comment from Jen from Connecticut.

JEN: I just started reading Timefulness– How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World. And the author is Marcia Bjornerud. I’m hoping that this can help me– I teach geology classes– maybe bring in some– why you should learn geology to my teaching.

IRA FLATOW: Geology– one of my favorite topics. I’ve been going back to Centennial where I first started reading about Colorado and the geology James Michener put in that book and then going on to John McPhee. And he was a guest in 1993 on the book Assembling California. I just love rocks. What do you think?

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: It sounds great. That’s exactly the kind of pop-science book I’d be likely to grab off the shelf.

IRA FLATOW: It’s a great idea, especially for people who are going out in the wild now and then looking to get to faraway places, staying socially away from people. There’s nothing better than taking a hike among the rocks and seeing what you discover.

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: Yeah. And I’m a big advocate for those kinds of featuring physical science books that convince you to get outside. Because what’s better than reading about something and deciding that you want to go check it out for yourself?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And there are all these apps now that let you take a look at natural things like that if you see something and you don’t know what it is. You put it up in the cloud. And people tell you within seconds, I have found, what you’re looking at.

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: It’s funny. A while back– well, actually, last summer I read this book called Spying on Whales by Nick Pyenson. And it’s a fantastic book about the evolutionary history of whales. And one thing I was really surprised to learn was that a lot of the fossilized whales that he oversees at the Smithsonian were actually found in my county where I live in Oregon or the next county over.

And so I was talking to the author for an interview for my blog, readmorescience.com. And he told me that if I ever go out to the Oregon coast, you can actually find fossilized whales. And he was telling me about where to look for them and that sort of thing. And it completely blew my mind. I had no idea that you could just go for a hike and potentially come across fossils. So that was really eye opening for me. I enjoyed that book.

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: I love that book, too. And I didn’t know that about the Oregon coast. So now, I just want to travel there. Well, not right now, obviously, but later on. But that’s just so interesting to learn, that I didn’t know that there were those whale fossils there.

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: It’s gorgeous. If you can ever make it out to Lincoln City, that is where so many fossilized whale bones have been found.

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: OK, I’m making note of that right now.

IRA FLATOW: Let me ask both of you. Do you have a book pick that really looks at the world or made you look at the world in a completely different way?

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: I definitely do. My last one is Fire in Paradise by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano. And this is actually about the camp fire in Paradise, California in 2018. It was the deadliest wildfire in California history. And it’s really changed the way I think. Because you don’t really realize– or I didn’t really realize the extent to which natural disasters really affect our day to day.

So they talk about the history of the Sierra Nevada, the natural history, how it has less snowpack and recent drought in more years. And so as a result, there’s more frequent, increased wildfires. And they really profile the town and its residents and essentially talking to them about their lives before the fire, immediately after, and where they’re going now.

So you see people who are displaced, who are moving either within California or even other states, trying to figure out the best place to live for them for the future. And it’s just something we don’t really talk about as much as we should, I feel like. And the writing is just really great. That’s what really drew me to it, also. It really reads like a novel. Their investigative reporting is just so good. They humanize everyone.

So you’re just really feeling for the entire town for their stories, for the people. And I recommend this one really strongly to anyone looking for just a really good read. It’s not your natural history, but just for people and community in general, I think.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Do you have one?

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: Yeah, mine is For Small Creatures Such as We by Sasha Sagan. So she’s the daughter of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. And everything that you’d expect from a Carl Sagan book, the profundity of the cosmos, the value in understanding the natural world, the quest for truth and science is all in this book as well.

The reason that it really stood out to me– even though it’s not necessarily a science book, it’s really a non-fiction book, is that she’s interested in the quest for meaning and the quest for truth. The driving question of her book is, what is meaning? What is the meaning of life?

The approach she takes is in rituals. Rituals are extremely important to humans. From a evolutionary perspective, people have always had religion and rituals and things that created meaning within their individual cultures. And she takes a look at how we can have rituals and meaning in a society that’s less and less religious.

And that’s a really interesting question for someone to take from a scientific perspective. And she does a really good job. The book is part memoir, part guide book. And she’s introducing readers to these profound questions about our meaning and our purpose, while also appreciating the beautiful world and universe that we exist in.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s a spiritual-like book.

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: If you enjoy reading about spirituality, I think it’s great. But coming from a perspective as a non-religious person, I found it just as valuable.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And that’s what I mean. You don’t have to have a religious outlook. You can have a spiritual outlook and enjoy the same kinds of things.


IRA FLATOW: One of my top picks isn’t a standard book. But I have found myself, while I’ve been home a lot, doing a lot of fermentations. So I’ve been working on the perfect sourdough bread recipe. Boy, do I have some flops, but I’ve also– have some good ones, learning about how fermentation works and the actions of yeast and bacteria working together and whatever.

And so I’m going to recommend Noma’s Guide to Fermentation. It’s a fantastic book of fermentation. And if you like to do these sort of things, whether you’re making homemade pickles or you’re making kimchi or cabbage or whatever you’re doing, these people– they pick it up a notch.

SARAH OLSON MICHEL: And, well, I think– because I’m a microbiology major. And so all of my at-home experiments right now are fermentation. And I’ve got microscopes and things. And so I’m just playing around with– I’ve been making sauerkraut and things like that. I’m no good at any of that because I’m a terrible cook. But it’s so much fun as a microbiology major to do it at home.

IRA FLATOW: It’s a lot harder in the kitchen, isn’t it?



IRA FLATOW: We’ve run out of time. But I would like to thank my guests, Stephanie Sendaula, associate editor for Library Journal Reviews and Sarah Olson Michel, science writer, book reviewer, and biology undergrad at Oregon State University in Corvallis. I think we’re all heading out. Make room for all of us, Sarah.

STEPHANIE SENDAULA: We’re definitely all heading there.


IRA FLATOW: We’ll meet you out there in Oregon. And you can read more about the books we’ve talked about on our website– sciencefriday.com/summerbooks.

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