The Best Science Books To Read This Summer

34:14 minutes

They say a vacation is only as good as the book you bring with you. And these days it feels like there are as many ways to consume science writing as there are fields of science. Whether you’re a fan of historical nonfiction, graphic novels, poetry or short essays, this year’s panel of summer science books experts has the one you’re looking for to take with you on your journey.

Alison Gilchrist is a graduate student researcher at CU Boulder and host of the podcast Buff Talk Science, and editor in chief of Science Buffs. Caren Cooper is an associate professor of public science at NC State University and author of Citizen Science: How Ordinary People Are Changing the Face of DiscoveryStephanie Sendaula is associate editor for Library Journal Reviews. They join Ira to talk about what they have chosen for their best summer science reads.

Ira Flatow’s Picks:

yellow book cover with einstein next to an atom reading a bookEinstein and the Quantum:
The Quest of the Valiant Swabian
by A. Douglas Stone

Had a tough time picking my favorite book for this year. Because I am so fascinated by them—and they run in my family, my brother is a bee keeper—I was really drawn to Tom Seeley’s The Lives of Bees. His IS the bee keeper’s bee keeper. And being the geek that I am, Did You Just Eat That? spoke to my soul of nerdiness, posing and answering I-always-wanted-to-know questions like “Am I spraying germs everywhere when I blow on my birthday cake?” But, this being the 100th anniversary of the solar eclipse that made Einstein famous, I have to choose Einstein And The Quantum, by A. Douglas Stone as my top choice. I know, I recommended it last year, but it is a gift that keeps on giving. Because I love the history of science, I find this book engrossing: how all the famous people who shared the stage with Einstein, those who crossed his path, and those who became important footnotes, are weaved into a “I didn’t know that” tale. So, that’s my top pick. But: Still check out the others for an eclectic summer reading list.

More recommendations from Ira Flatow:

Alison Gilchrist’s Picks:

Host of the podcast Buff Talk Science and editor in chief of Science Buff blog.

The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century  by Deborah Blum

This is a historical retelling of how the FDA came to be, and how we demanded that ingredients labels be put on our foods. Like Blum says in the book, we tend to romanticize historical foods or “old-fashioned” foods, but they could be pretty gross. Dairy producers used to put formaldehyde in milk to preserve it! Not only was there “embalmed milk,” there was also “embalmed meat” and a long list of other disgusting and dangerous foods for sale before a couple scientists and politicians, and eventually the people, demanded regulations. Since the conversation about how much regulation is too much regulation is ongoing, I thought this book was an excellent reminder about what we take for granted: safe food!

Read the book.

glowing green letters on a black background book coverThe Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

Another account of historical science—this one is about how we discovered and worked with radioactive materials before we knew how dangerous they were. It’s the story of the women working in radium dial factories (painting watches so that they glowed in the dark), who would end up suffering horrible side effects from radium poisoning. Warning: This one includes a bit of body horror—radium poisoning isn’t pretty. It was illuminating (ha) but very sad to read about how hard the radium factories fought to let women keep poisoning themselves so that they could turn a profit.

Read the book.


Best American Science and Nature Writing 2018 edited by Sam Kean

This feels like a cop-out, but I think that collections of essays are a great way to find amazing science writing and science writers. The individual essays are short, so they’re easy to read before bed or on the bus or something, and the collections are always really well written and interesting overall. This edition has one of my favorite essays of all time: “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank Them,” by Kathryn Schulz. Which do you think is more likely to exist: Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster? Unicorns or dragons? Why do you think that? Schulz writes beautifully about the psychology and logic behind these illogical decisions.

Read the book.

More recommendations from Alison Gilchrist:

Stephanie Sendaula’s Picks:

Associate editor for Library Journal Reviews

light green book cover with yellow cursive writing that says "slime"Slime: How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us by Ruth Kassinger

You’d be mistaken for assuming that algae is boring—botany writer Kissinger writes an entertaining book proving that isn’t the case. Her debut takes readers from farmers working in the burgeoning seaweed industry to manufacturers who make clothing out of algae, creating an entertaining read for fans of popular science and culinary narratives.

Read the book.




orangeish book cover with a watercolor-like rendition of california hills and white text on topThe Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California by Mark Arax

Part memoir, part natural history, part love letter to his home state, this engaging work by journalist Arax details the origins of his grape grower father to how current farmers in California are dealing with water rationing and alternating periods of drought and flood. This is a long read, but worth the effort.

Read the book. 




honey-yellow cover with a school bus and a bee landing on it with right justified textThe Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and a Girl Saved by Bees by Meredith May

This debut by journalist and fifth-generation beekeeper May is a captivating read, detailing how she became drawn to the order of beekeeping as a reprieve from an unstable childhood. Besides May, her beekeeper grandfather and the bees themselves are also the stars of this story; their personalities shine throughout.

Read the book. 




More recommendations from Stephanie Sendaula:

Caren Cooper’s Picks:

Associate professor of public science and author of ‘Citizen Science: How Ordinary People Are Changing the Face of Discovery’

What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World by Cat Warren

This book is about a woman (the author) and her dog, Solo, that she trains to find cadavers. Woven around their journey is the fascinating science of scent, forensics, dog training, and animal behavior amidst the drama of detective work. If you enjoy it, your kids will too and the Young Readers Edition will be released this fall!

Read the book.



Dumping In Dixie: Race, Class, And Environmental Quality by Robert D. Bullard

This is a partly academic text that exposes the hard reality that racism also takes the form of pollution. People of color are disproportionately burdened with environmental exposures to industrial pollution. At the intersection of the environmental and civil rights movements, Bullard carefully chronicles struggles of the poorest people in five southern towns, and, in different ways involving science, law, and community organizing, each seek environmental justice.

Read the book.


teal green background with illustrated drawings of ole timey man and woman looking at each otherThe Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua

This graphic novel is partly a well-annotated story of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage as they laid the conceptual foundation for computers, and partly a series of hilarious fantasies of these two historic icons flexing their superpowers in other settings. If you enjoy the history of science and become a fan of historic figures, then you’ll enjoy this a graphic novel.

Read the book.


More recommendations from Caren Cooper:

Stay up to speed with the SciFri Book Club Newsletter!

Segment Guests

Alison Gilchrist

Alison Gilchrist is a graduate student researcher in the Department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder in Boulder, Colorado.

Caren Cooper

Caren Cooper is an associate professor of Public Science in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula is an associate editor at Library Journal Reviews.

Meet the Producers and Host

About Katie Feather

Katie Feather is an associate producer for Science Friday and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a digital producer at Science Friday. When she’s not obsessively checking SciFri’s digital pages, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

About Ira Flatow

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

Explore More

Six Bestselling Authors Share Their Favorite ‘Other Worlds’

Kim Stanley Robinson, Andy Weir, and more share some of their favorites.

Read More