The Best Science Books of 2015

24:37 minutes

Some of this year's picks. Photo by Brandon Echter
Some of this year’s picks. Photo by Brandon Echter

Was there a science, technology, or environmental book from 2015 that made you think, laugh, or gape in amazement? Now’s the time to celebrate it. Join Ira as we build our list of the Best Science Books of 2015 with help from Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Deborah Blum and Brain Pickings editor Maria Popova. Have a favorite science read from 2015? Share it in the comments!

Maria Popova’s Picks for 2015:
(1) On the Move: A Life, by Oliver Sacks
Read more on Brain Pickings, listen to Oliver Sacks read an excerpt.

(2)The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf
Read more on Brain Pickings, listen to Andrea Wulf on SciFri, and read an excerpt.

(3) Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe, by Lisa Randall
Read more on Brain Pickings, listen to Lisa Randall on SciFri, and read an excerpt.

(4) The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer, by Sydney Padua
Read more on Brain Pickings, listen to Sydney Padua on SciFri, and read an excerpt.

(5) The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time, by Jimena Canales
Read more on Brain Pickings

(6) Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of the Natural World, by Julia Rothman
Read more on Brain Pickings

(7) Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, and Future, by Lauren Redniss
Read more on Brain Pickings, listen to Lauren Redniss on SciFri, and read an excerpt.

(8) The Blue Whale, by Jenni Desmond
Read more on Brain Pickings

Deborah Blum’s Picks for 2015:
(1) H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

(2) The Hunt for Vulcan…And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe, by Thomas Levenson

(3) The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, by Sy Montgomery

(4) Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, by Rebecca Herzig

(5) Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science—and the World, by Rachel Swaby

(6) The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives, by Theresa Brown, RN

(7) Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, by Randall Munroe
Listen to Randall Munroe on SciFri and read an excerpt.

(8) Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, by Cynthia Barnett

And some listeners’ picks:

Segment Guests

Maria Popova

Maria Popova is the editor and founder of BrainPickings.org and a MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow. She is based in Brooklyn, New York.

Deborah Blum

Deborah Blum is a science journalist & author, the publisher of Undark magazine, and the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: If you’re a science geek like me, and you like books, too, there’s one end-of-year ritual that you can always look forward to on our program, and I don’t mean spiking the eggnog. I mean making that end of the year book list. And now is the time to celebrate all the science books that made you think, made you laugh, interrupted other people’s concentration– you ever do this by blurting out, you aren’t going to believe this, and then you upset the person who’s trying to do a crossword puzzle or something like that?

It works for me all the time, or it doesn’t work, especially for books like this. There was Ginger Strand’s The Brothers Vonnegut about Kurt Vonnegut’s connection to weather research, Neal Stephenson’s millennia-spanning sci-fi epic Seven Eves. I really liked that one. Sherry Turkle’s look at digital age communication in Reclaiming Conversation.

And I know everybody out there has their list, so why not share it? Give us a call with your top science read for 2015 at 844-724-8255. That’s 844-724-8255. Or you can tweet us at SciFri, and maybe you can help out a fellow listener find that perfect gift.

But we’re going to get the conversation going, kick it off with two of our most omnivorous– omnivorous is good for devouring books, I think. Don’t you think, Maria? Maria Popova is the editor and founder of BrainPickings.org. She joins us here in our New York studios. Always good to have you back.

MARIA POPOVA: Always good to be back.

IRA FLATOW: Deborah Blum is the director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT, the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook. She joins us today from Cambridge. Great to have you back, Deborah.

DEBORAH BLUM: It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Any more poisoning books this year on your list?

DEBORAH BLUM: I’m writing a poisoning epic book. No one will ever come near me once I finish it, I’m afraid.

IRA FLATOW: You do have that record. Let’s start that, Deborah, with your criteria. What science book got to make your book end list this year?

DEBORAH BLUM: I thought this was a wonderful year for books about science, but the book I’m going to talk about first is not what you might think of as a classic science book. It’s H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, which is just an amazing book– beautiful and chilling and haunting to read. It’s actually the– it’s the story of a daughter grieving the loss of her father in a very depressive sense, but she copes by becoming a falconer.

And she trains a hugely wild, very dangerous kind of hawk called a goshawk. And the book uses both that relationship to explore natural history, this amazing bird, the way we relate to the natural world around us. I love the book. It’s about how we cope with death and how we cope with life, and it does that so beautifully, because life itself needs coping with. But it makes you see this in this amazing picture of the natural world. It’s just an incredible, mesmerizing book.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I’m talking with Deborah Blum and Maria Popova about this year’s best books list.

Let me ask you, Maria, for your first pick, and then I want to ask about what makes a good science book, why it fits into your criteria as a great science book.

MARIA POPOVA: So I’ll answer that first, because it actually frames why my first pick is my first pick. There’s a lovely 1969 interview with EB White in which he says that one must write up to children and not down, and anybody who writes down to them is wasting their time. And I think what’s true of great children’s books is true of great science books. They ought to do three things, I think, for the reader, which is to explain, to enchant, and to elevate. They need to tell you what something is and why it matters, get you captivated to care enough about it, and then to take pleasure in understanding it, and then leave you in a higher state of understanding whatever aspect of the world the book tried to explain.

So my first pick is On The Move by the late, great, sorely missed friend of Sci Fri, friend of Brain Pickings, friend of the world, Oliver Sacks. To me, Oliver Sacks was a Copernicus of the mind and a Dante of medicine who turned the case study into a poetic form. And he did that because his life and work were one. They sprang from the same source.

So his autobiography is so much more than this limited genre term implies. And to me, it’s really a dialogue with time on the scales of the personal, the cultural, and the civilisational. We see him going from world champion weight lifter to world-renowned neurologist. We see him as a young gay man in the 1960s trying to find true love– very different from our marriage equality world.

And then we see him on the beaches of City Island where he lived for a long time, watching the horseshoe crabs mate just like they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas. And he talks about all of that beautifully and enchantingly, but also very much as a scientist.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And he exposes parts of himself, about who he was, that we never had any idea about. And it is a great book.

We have to go to the break. And I don’t want to start another conversation, but he is somebody we sorely miss, certainly this time of the year when we think about gift giving and books.

MARIA POPOVA: He was a giant.

IRA FLATOW: Deborah, do you feel the same way about Oliver?

DEBORAH BLUM: Yes, I do. I think that he inspired a whole generation of both science writers and lovers of science to see the world in a different way and to see it in a more intricately-knit, fascinating, connected way. And that’s actually one of my criteria for a great science book, is that you finish it. And it reminds me of what you said earlier, Ira, when you interrupt someone, because did you know this. But it changes– I do that all the time. But it changes–

IRA FLATOW: I don’t feel so bad.

DEBORAH BLUM: We would be terrible playing games together. But it changes the way you see the world. You think a little differently. And a good science book does that in a way that makes you feel welcome into that conversation. Let’s talk about this together.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re going to continue that conversation with Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, Maria Popova, editor and founder of BrainPickings.org. And we want to hear from you. Give us some suggestions– 844-724-8255. Tweet us at SciFi. We’ll be right back after this break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. It’s our annual end of the year book party, so to speak What are the great books of 2015 with Deborah Blum and Maria Popova. Our number, 844-724-8255. We’re having some suggestions coming in even as we speak. So let’s go to them right now.

Let’s go to Rob in Portage, Michigan. Hi, Rob.

ROB: Hi.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

ROB: I read a book earlier this year called The Martian. It was then made into a fabulous movie. It’s a book about engineering and raw science, about following problems.

IRA FLATOW: You mean The Martian?

ROB: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: It was a great book, but we have to disqualify it, because it came out last year. It feels like this year.

MARIA POPOVA: Yes. It’s the paperback.

IRA FLATOW: And the movie and all that kind of stuff made it– but we’ll allow you to suggest it as a great read, because I loved the book. I loved it. We had the author on. It was great. Deborah, pick number 2. Give us your second pick.

DEBORAH BLUM: Well, my second pick is– obviously, I’m going to sound like I’m doing a theme of strange creatures here. But my second pick is a book called The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. And it’s kind of a really surprising book.

But what it does is it looks at consciousness. It takes this little-known deep sea species that we all tend to think of– I don’t know if we all do, but many people imagine in a kind of Jules Verne monster sense– and it makes it into– not even makes it– it allows you to see the octopus as a creature with relationships and reactions, affection, social awareness of itself and others. There is this one octopus in the story that, for some reason, hates one of the people in the aquarium where it lives.

And literally, years later when this man comes back, it squirts him across the room. It just loos– can see his face and say, oh yeah, that’s that person I really hate, right? And so it allows you to realize how complex they are. And in the course of doing it, it’s just beautifully written. It asks, what’s self-awareness, and what’s recognition of others, and how do we define that? And it moves you away from that idea that those kind of reactions are strictly human. So in that sense, it opens up the natural world.

IRA FLATOW: It’s an octopus with an attitude. Jules Verne was right in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

DEBORAH BLUM: If that had been a boat, he would have been in trouble.

IRA FLATOW: And we have a special fondness for octopuses and all kinds of cephalopods on Science Friday.

MARIA POPOVA: As did Oliver Sacks.

IRA FLATOW: Yes. I could get into a story about him coming on one week many, many years ago when he came on. We told him we couldn’t interview him for the whole hour because we had a guy searching for giant squid out in the South Pacific. And he said, can I stay on? This is my favorite subject, he said. And we didn’t believe him.

And so we were talking to him early in the week. And on Friday, he shows up in the studio with a cephalopod t-shirt, and he’s got two giant squids, one in each hand, squeezing on the rubber little squid saying, I’m ready for the show. It was great. And he was more eager to get done with his interview so he could hear us talking to the guy who was looking in by satellite phone for the giant squid.

Anyhow– OK, Maria. What’s your next pick?

MARIA POPOVA: It’s about another extraordinary scientist. It’s called Alexander Von Humboldt and the Invention of Nature by design historian Andrea Wolfe, whom you had on the show a couple months ago. And it’s a kind of cultural resurrection project that links much of our contemporary understanding of life to this remarkable man who was once the most famous scientist of his time and a huge influence on Darwin and Maria Mitchell and Goethe and Thoreau, and who is now pretty much forgotten.

But he pioneered the idea that life isn’t this hodgepodge of disjointed elements and phenomena, but an intricate web of connectedness, interconnectedness, where everything is in constant dynamic interaction with everything else. To Deborah’s point earlier, this is very much the kind of book that makes you appreciate that and appreciate how this forgotten hero really paved the way for the modern environmental movement. And in dusting him off and relating him to today, Andrew Wolfe is performing, I think, a tremendous act of public service.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because no one in America– you ask anybody if they ever heard of him, probably never.

MARIA POPOVA: Well, Chicago’s Humboldt Park is probably as close as they–

IRA FLATOW: Well, we all know a Humboldt something, but we didn’t know where it came from or who was named after. And I agree with you. It’s one of my great books of the year.

MARIA POPOVA: He popularized science by seeing culture in the same integrated way. So he related science to art and philosophy and poetry and history in a way that was pretty much unprecedented before. So even our science communication can be traced back to Humboldt.

IRA FLATOW: He was sort of a Richard Feynman in that sense.

MARIA POPOVA: Well, Richard Feynman is a Humboldt in that sense.

IRA FLATOW: OK. I’ll take that.

Let’s see if we can go to the phones, get another suggestion or two. Let’s go to Barbara in Maryland. Hi, Barbara.

BARBARA: Hi. Do I turn the phone off now– I mean, the radio off now.

IRA FLATOW: Turn the radio off. There’s an old song.

BARBARA: OK, it’s off now.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Go ahead.

BARBARA: OK. This isn’t the same kind of science, but it’s really interesting. It’s called Ghost Boy. A boy goes home from school. He’s 12 years old. Has some kind of virus that leaves his body rigid, and he can’t speak. He can’t do anything. And he’s been abused by different caretakers and all that, but his parents take care of him.

So 12 years later, I believe, they have this new invention where you can use your eyes to use an alphabet board. And he passed the test, because that’s one thing that still moved. And they found out that this boy was brilliant inside of him just because of this invention. And he went on to be able to use a computer and fix computers that other people had problems with, and just really a brilliant one. But just because of this one invention, it opened the whole world to this boy that couldn’t– his body was rigid, and he couldn’t speak. So I think it comes under science. So I don’t know how you feel.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s sort of a mini Stephen Hawking story, where Stephen Hawking was able to continue his career because they kept inventing new machines that he could use. It’s called Ghost Boy. Have you ever heard of it, Maria?


IRA FLATOW: Deborah?

DEBORAH BLUM: No, I don’t know it but I think one of the things that’s so interesting is that it reminds us of all these ways that the new technologies that we’re coming up with now are like saviors for some people. They enable all kinds of interesting ways of allowing you to communicate, or move the body, or connect in different ways. It’s a whole fascinating new field.

IRA FLATOW: Maria, your next pick?

MARIA POPOVA: I have Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Harvard cosmologist and particle physicist Lisa Randall, whom you’ve also had on the show earlier this year. On the surface– well, really, on the cover– the book is about this really original theory that links dark matter to the extinction of the dinosaurs by proposing that 66 million years ago, a minor perturbation in the outermost solar system, caused by dark matter, dislodged a comet out of orbit and hurled it to Earth, and ended up as the meteor that killed the dinosaurs and 3/4 of living creatures.

But the theory, I think, is just a clever guise to tell this larger story of how the universe evolved and even what made our own existence possible. Because lest we forget, had the dinosaurs not perished, large mammals wouldn’t have come to dominate Earth, and we wouldn’t be here to make sense of the origin of the universe.

In the way, this book is the cultural progeny of Humboldt, because it’s very much concerned with exposing how these seemingly unrelated events across space and time are actually profoundly related to everything we experience as life, weaving together physics, biology, geology, ecology, and even the social sciences. And I have to say, this is one of those books that very much talks up to you, that takes you for an intelligent peer, and to borrow Oliver Sacks’s wonderful term, for a thinking animal, which I think is just a lovely compliment to the reader.

IRA FLATOW: You know what also struck me when Dr. Randall was on the program is I mentioned to her that it’s also a journey of a scientist outside of her own field.

MARIA POPOVA: Yeah. She had to learn to about these other disciplines.

IRA FLATOW: And her delight in discovering are things out there that she could enjoy as much as what she was doing– what she does about her physics.

MARIA POPOVA: Well, yeah, but that’s also an undercurrent of the book itself– the sheer amount of humanity and serendipity and messiness that goes along with all the rigor of how science is done, from the two scientists who discovered cosmic microwave background radiation by cleaning pigeon poop off their telescopes to the crazy 30-year detective story to prove that it was indeed a meteoroid that killed the dinosaurs, and then following a global scavenger hunt to find its location. There’s all of this excitement and thrill and human– just humanity around the science.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Deborah, I love books which start out with a single topic, but then they branch out so widely that you get to learn so much more about other things that are meaningful, but they just take side traction and they’re wonderful to learn about also.

DEBORAH BLUM: I do, too. And one of the books on my list is Rain by Cynthia Barnett, which just takes the topic of rain and makes it an exploration of the entire universe. It actually has this lovely beginning when she looks at Ray Bradbury imagining this blue rain on Mars– speaking of the Martians– and then goes back to how do we decipher the first rains, and drought, and is there rain in outer space. And it’s a sort of a poetic, cultural exploration of everything through the lens of rain.

IRA FLATOW: And Plucked, you familiar with that book?

DEBORAH BLUM: Yes. I love Plucked. I’m so excited to be talking about it, which I know is going to me sound weird.

IRA FLATOW: It’s too late for that.

DEBORAH BLUM: I know. Way too late.

IRA FLATOW: I sense another weird creature.

DEBORAH BLUM: I just love it. Plucked is not chickens, actually. It’s a history of hair removal, and it’s written by an academic, Rebecca Hertzog. And it’s such a fascinating book, because it takes, again, this one subject– our obsession with hair on the human body– and starts when we first started seeing it as a kind of class issue. The higher classes have less hair. And then it runs through all the different sort of technologies and chemistries of removing hair.

And it has this amazing chapter– this is where I would have interrupted your game, Ira– in which– it’s called, I think, Soft, White, Velvety Skin. And it’s looking at young, affluent white women in the early 20th century who would go to x-ray salons, because they would go to be irradiated so that their skin almost all over their body would be hair free. And I’m reading this, and it really one of those first I had no idea kind of moments.

But it’s also a reminder– and I think it’s important to remember this, too– that we get so gee wizzy about these new technologies without fully understanding them, and so we repeat this pattern of putting ourselves at risk, which is one of the things I like about history of science. In the same way that Maria references dusting off important and influential sciences, I think when we go back, we get to dust off important and influential mistakes.

IRA FLATOW: I’ve got to dust off a break here. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. We’re talking about our favorite books of the year with Deborah Blum and Maria Popova.

Let’s go to the phones. I think we have some interesting– let’s see– oh yeah. Let’s go to Bill in Wilmington, North Carolina. Hi, Bill.

BILL: Hello, sir.

IRA FLATOW: Yes. Welcome.

BILL: Hey. Well, basically, the– let’s see. I think it was The Material Explainer by Randall Monroe.

IRA FLATOW: The Thing Explainer. Loved that book.

BILL: Yeah. I’ve already got What If memorized, his first one.

IRA FLATOW: I’ve already given two away as gifts to kids, because it’s already– that’s a great– what did you like most about it, though?

BILL: Oh, I know this sounds funny, but the clarity of and the oh wow. Because I am finding myself teaching GED to folks at English as a second language as well as folks that didn’t graduate high school, and it’s perfect. It makes all the fancy terms so much less scary. And it’s science to folks that are scared of it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Thanks for that suggestion. It is a good book. Maria, are you familiar with that book?

MARIA POPOVA: I am. I am. I very much love Randall Munro’s work, and last year’s book What If is wonderful. As far as blog turned book adaptations go, which generally are not great, this is fantastic.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And Deborah?

DEBORAH BLUM: Yes. I love Thing Explainer, because as a writer, you start really thinking about, well, how do I tell these stories of science. He does such an amazing job of taking 1,000 common words and applying them to all sorts of complicated ideas. It is really fun.

IRA FLATOW: What I also loved about the book being a geek and like to know how things work– I liked the size of the book. I like the fact that it loses a lot on a Kindle. If you read this book, it’s an oversized, big book. It feels great to go through the pictures. There are pictures that fold out from the center of it. It’s a kind of book made the way it used to make books. And you can’t read this on a Kindle, really. There. I said it.

DEBORAH BLUM: Well, if I’ve got a minute, one of my other books is a very little book, which is–

IRA FLATOW: I’ve got a minute. That’s about it. Go ahead.

DEBORAH BLUM: The Hunt for Vulcan by Tom Levinson. And it’s almost a stocking stuffer sized book, but it’s a beautiful little book proving that I’m interested in other things besides strange animals. It’s about a planet that we once thought existed called Vulcan. And scientists in the 19th century were so convinced that it existed that they actually reported sightings of it even through telescopes. But it never existed, and it was disproved by Albert Einstein when he began to explain his theory of general relativity. So it’s a wonderful look at this mythical planet, and also how science works, I think.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I liked Tom Levinson. I think we missed that book. [INAUDIBLE] we got the The Hunt for Vulcan. Any last word? You’ve got 15 seconds, Maria.

MARIA POPOVA: I have– let’s go with this one. I have The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua, who you had also on the show. And it’s the story of how these two eccentric Victorian geniuses– Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer and lovable curmudgeon Charles Babbage– invented the first computer, the analytical engine. But what’s really wonderful about the book is that although it’s a comic book, it’s really a masterwork of scholarship and footnotes.

IRA FLATOW: All right. There you have it. Deborah Blum and Maria Popova, thank you both for joining us, picking out those books. And you can see all of their selections on our website at ScienceFriday.com/books2015. And while you’re there, you can leave your own recommendations in the Comments sections.

And while you’re on our website, you can find a story you have to see to believe. This is stunning illustrations of colorful fish species in the Salish Sea. They’re incredibly lifelike. I swear, they look like they’re swimming off the screen. And they’re not photos. They’re drawings. It’s unbelievable. You’ve got to check them out– ScienceFriday.com/fishdrawings.

Have a great holiday weekend leading up to big holidays coming up. Have a safe weekend while you’re out there shopping. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

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