The Best Science Books Of 2018

34:16 minutes

Here at Science Friday, our jobs involve reading a lot of science books every year. We have piles and piles of them at the office. Hundreds of titles about biology and art and technology and space, and sometimes even sci-fi.

Now, the time has come for our annual roundup of the books we couldn’t forget. And we’ve been asking you, our listeners, to send us voice memos with your picks for best science book of 2018. Here’s just a few:

Jeff Grant in Batavia, Illinois:“My book recommendation for 2018 is The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte. Dr Brusatte writes in an eloquent way that is easy for everybody to understand and he sheds new light on dinosaur evolution. It is a must read for all of you dino buffs out there.”

Julie G. in Mantua, New Jersey:Origin Story by David Christian gives you the big history of everything just like it says. It’s really informative and I’m still picking up the pieces of my mind that it blew while reading it. Definitely deserves a second read.”

Steve in Seattle:“I recommend The Promise of the Grand Canyon: John Wesley Powell’s Perilous Journey and His Vision for the American West. In addition to just being an exciting read about Powell’s journey through the Grand Canyon, it also addresses his being way ahead of his time in dealing with issues we’re still addressing today. Land use issues, environmental issues, the government and private industry. I think it’s a great read! Thanks a lot.”

Laura in Boulder, Colorado:“I wanted to recommend Ben Goldfarb’s book The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. It’ll just completely make you rethink what a natural stream should look like.”

Will Grover in Riverside, California:“My favorite science book of 2018 is Sex on the Kitchen Table, by Norman Ellstrand. This book shares the secret sex lives of our favorite fruits and veggies. For example did you know tomato farmers use special vibrators to help their plants reproduce? And bananas have been bred to not have sex at all. You learn that plants reproduce in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways and how important these different kinds of plant sex are to our food supply.”

[READ: No one knows how dinosaurs rose to dominate the planet. A mystery mass extinction event that wiped out their competition could have implications for today.]

We have plenty of picks from from our panel of expert guests: Stephanie Sendaula of Library Journal Reviews, Deborah Blum of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Program, and Dr. Eric Topol of Scripps Research. Check out their top picks below.

Ira Flatow’s Picks

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Steve Brusatte

Dinosaurs. Who doesn’t love ‘em? And Steve Brusatte’s engrossing book takes us around the world and through time to uncover little-known details about these beloved creatures and the explorers who uncovered their stony remains.

Buy the book.





book cover with robot with hands on hipsBroad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire Evans

Broad Band does for Silicon Valley what Hidden Figures does for space exploration: reveal the women who were critical to the rise and development of our cyber world.

Buy the book.

Listen to an interview with the author of Broad Band. 




book cover with dark room with single window to blue skyHow To Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

This book will blow your mind. Poof. Michael Pollan skillfully weaves a tale of how psychedelics, once denigrated as a head-trip of the 1960’s, are now being rediscovered as valuable research and treatment tools for mental illnesses. A must read!

Buy the book.

Listen to an interview with the author of How To Change Your Mind. 




The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe by Clifford V. Johnson

How to you discuss big, hair-hurting ideas in a user friendly way? Make a graphic novel about them. For me, the most original, creative and magical science book of 2017. Yes, it was last year’s book. But I didn’t read it until this year. And I cannot leave it out.

Buy the book.

Listen to an interview with the author of The Dialogues. 



Stephanie Sendaula’s Picks

book cover with giant blue whale under the waterSpying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures by Nick Pyenson

From the coast of Panama to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Pyenson explores remaining questions about whales while also examining evidence for the evolution of the species from land mammals to the sea creatures we are familiar with today.

Buy the book.

Listen to an interview with the author of Spying on Whales.




book covering with image of open plain with a tree and cityscape in the distanceRising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush

Proving that rising sea levels are not just a vision of the future, environmental writer Rush visits several states to see the effects of climate change and meet those impacted by rising waters along with researchers documenting it all.

Buy the book.





book cover with stacks of blood bagsNine Pints: A Journey Through the Money, Medicine, and Mysteries of Blood by Rose George

George explores the economic and social injustices surrounding blood; injustices that have a particularly high impact on women. The result is a fascinating work for all curious about blood as commodity in the world economy.

Buy the book.

Listen to an interview with the author of Nine Pints. 



orange cover with illustration of dinosaur skeletonThe Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy by Paige Williams

Williams sheds insight into the for-profit fossil trade, highlighting the people who find, prepare, and auction works of prehistory, including large dinosaurs. She skillfully navigates this unique nexus of paleontology and law along with its notorious black markets.

Buy the book.




Deborah Blum’s Picks

book cover with illustration of boatChesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island by Earl Swift

One of the most powerful ways to tell the story of global climate change is to tell it local. And this meticulous, compassionate look at the fishermen and their families, who have for generations made a home on a tiny island in Chesapeake Bay, is a vivid portrait of what we are losing—and why we may fail to stop that loss.

Buy the book.




book cover with fades images of scattered treesIn Search of the Canary Tree by Lauren E. Oakes

Yes, this is another book about the effects of climate change—perhaps the most important story of our time—but it’s beautiful, bracing, and even heartening. Oakes is a conservation scientist studying the imperiled yellow cedars of Alaska and her research leads her to ponder resilience in profound ways, from natural adaptation to human determination.

Buy the book.





old time-y book cover with illustration of mouth and teethThe Mystery of the Exploding Teeth (And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine) by Thomas Morris

The truth is I’m a sucker for this kind of book, a series of case studies from our research past that will remind you that we are never as smart as we think. Morris uses images of old documents, and citations from physicians of the past, in way that makes the book both real, grounded—and a lot of fun.

Buy the book.




blue-ish book cover with planet and words revolving around itDispatches from Planet 3: 32 Brief Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond by Marcia Bartusiak

This is a terrific book for someone like me who is not a physics or astronomy specialist but who wants to just know more about it. These short, gem-like essays are clear, human, and occasionally just lovely. Something like our understanding of the universe.

Buy the book.




Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Peril’s of Science’s Highest Honor by Brian Keating

Keating, a cosmologist who worked on a once-Nobel worthy project, tells the story of its collapse, of the scientific rancor that ensued, and of prize-winning dreams that may, sometimes erroneously, fuel research. It’s a little bitter, a little gossipy, and a lot insightful.

Buy the book.




Eric Topol’s Picks

book cover with multicolored circle on the frontShe Has Her Mother’s Laugh by Carl Zimmer

This is clearly Zimmer’s best book. It’s an opus in which he goes through the entire history of genetics and epigenetics, and writes about getting his own genome sequenced too. She Has Her Mother’s Laugh is one of the best books ever written about genetics, along with Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene. They’re the two bookends.

Buy the book.

Listen to an interview with the author of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh.



black book cover with red titleBad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

I know the story of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes really well. I’ve met her on a few occasions, from the early days, to the full falling apart of the company. It’s the most extraordinary tale, and John Carreyrou tells it from the inside, as he’s breaking the case. It’s the biggest biotech disaster that we know of and supposedly the biggest fraud since Enron.

Buy the book.




book cover with illustration of multicolored heart against cream backgroundHeart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar

As a cardiologist, this is my area, and I’d heard about some of these historic milestones in my studies. I think Sandeep is one of the great physician authors of our era. He tells these historical vignettes in such a captivating way, and he also gets really personal with his family. It was fun to relive the stories I’d read about or heard about through his eyes.

Buy the book.

Listen to an interview with the author of Heart: A History.



book cover with blue skies and cloudy backgroundWhat the Eyes Don’t See by Mona Hanna-Attisha

Hanna-Attisha is a doctor and pediatrician in Flint Michigan, and she cracked the case of the Flint lead poisoning–she’s a hero. She started her own testing of the water because of her suspicion and then confronted the local government, which was in a state of denial. This story ought to be made into a movie, sort of like Erin Brockovich, but with a doctor as the star.

Buy the book.




very simple white book cover with black textThe Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie

Cause and effect is one of the most heavily debated, difficult-to-prove things in science and medicine. This book really gets you thinking about cause and effect as it applies to issues of our time, such as: How come cigarettes were around for years and we never showed they were causing cancer or heart disease? The authors goes through these cases like an interrogation, and it’s just extraordinary.

Buy the book.



Science Friday is an Amazon affiliate; when you buy a book from one of the links above, we get a portion of the proceeds from whatever you buy.

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Segment Guests

Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula is an associate editor at Library Journal Reviews.

Deborah Blum

Deborah Blum is the director of the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She’s the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook (Penguin, 2010) and The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Penguin Press, 2018).

Eric Topol

Eric Topol is author of The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine is in Your Hands (Basic Books, 2015), practicing cardiologist at the Scripps Clinic, and a genomics professor at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

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About Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata is Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.

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