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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Segment Guests

Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula is an associate editor at Library Journal Reviews.

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

The transcript for this segment is being processed. It will be posted within one week after the episode airs.

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About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.

About Attabey Rodríguez Benítez

Attabey Rodríguez Benítez is a 2020 AAAS Mass Media Science Fellow and is Science Friday’s 2020 summer radio intern. She enjoys all things science and how they intertwine with culture, history, and society, but she enjoys it more when food is also involved.

About Daniel Peterschmidt

Daniel Peterschmidt is a digital producer and composes music for Science Friday’s podcasts, including Science Diction and Undiscovered. Their D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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