Your Summer Science Reading List 2018

25:07 minutes

School is finally out! No more teachers! No more books! … Except the ones on our summer science reading list. From harvester ants to the ruts of ancient Rome, Annalee Newitz, freelance science journalist and author shares her picks written by scientists who really dig into their work. And Science Friday education director Ariel Zych sings the praises of a book about the stuff no one likes to talk about—human waste. So, act like a kid again and assign yourself a book or two from our summer science reading list.

Plus, check out the SciFri staff’s recommendations for summertime science beach reads. No book report required.

Annalee Newitz’s Picks

cover of book with broken stonesThe Traffic Systems of Pompeii by Eric Poehler

This is the strangest and most delightful history of the city of Pompeii that you’ll ever read. Archaeologist Poehler explores ancient Roman culture by studying the streets of Pompeii, and specifically how ruts and scrapes on the cobblestones reveal tremendous amounts of information about what kinds of vehicles the Romans drove. And that in turn reveals how people navigated this small tourist city at the base of a volcano that would eventually bury it.




Ariel Zych’s Picks

cover of book with picture of toilet paper on it

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters by Rose George

We might pretend we don’t want to know what happens after we flush the toilet, but the truth is, everyone has, at one point or another, wondered about the toilet’s aftermath. George easily dives into the unsavory and familiar exercise of defecation in this book. What really sets apart The Big Necessity is how it draws our attention to the less familiar forms of sanitation (and lack thereof) around the world. George balances facts and science with highly-relatable human experiences from a variety of cultures. Using candor laced with humor, she instills in the reader a sense of urgency (pardon the pun) for what sanitation must accomplish for the wellbeing of society.

Ira Flatow’s Picks

The New World of Mr. Tompkins by George Gamow and Russell Stannard

The original Mr. Tompkins was a seminal book that put me on the path to understanding relativity. Simple language, but deep thoughts. Gamow was magnificent.







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Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a freelance science journalist, editor-at-large for arstechnica.com, and founding editor of io9.com. She’s the author of  Autonomous (Tor, 2017). She’s based in San Francisco, California.

Ariel Zych

Ariel Zych is Science Friday’s education director. She is a former teacher and scientist who spends her free time making food, watching arthropods, and being outside.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: School is out. And across the country, kids are headed into the first week of summer vacation. How does the old song go? No more pencils, no more books, no more– well, I won’t go into the whole thing, you know. Except, of course, they get assigned that dreaded reading– summer reading list. I don’t want to do that! But now, you’re a lot older, and you’re a lot wiser, and you welcome the lazy days of summer because of the extra time you have to read.

You like reading now. And being ever so cognizant of your desires, we decided to create our own list of classic summer science reads, so you can curl up in the hammock or laze out on the beach blanket with a great summer book. And we’re going to talk about that. And joining me now to share their picks for our summer science reading list is Annalee Newitz, tech culture editor at Ars Technica. Welcome back, Annalee.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Ariel Zych, Science Friday’s education director, joins me here in the studio. Good to always have you, Ariel.

ARIEL ZYCH: A pleasure, as always.

IRA FLATOW: And we also want to hear from our listeners, you folks out there. Are you looking for a great science book for yourself or a student? Do you have a recommendation you want to share? Give us a call. Our number– 844-724-8255. 844-724-8255, or you can tweet us, @SciTalk. And now, we have a special ground rule when Ariel is here, don’t we? Our rules this year are a little bit different. We didn’t just go with the current best seller list, right?

ARIEL ZYCH: That’s right. We went off the beaten path. We figure you’ve heard about all these other– you know, whatever’s out there right now, you’re kind of aware of it. You’re on board. We wanted to expose you to stuff that maybe you hadn’t picked up in awhile or hadn’t really seen that flew under your radar.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s go on to your first suggestion. Ariel, what’s your first pick in a book?

ARIEL ZYCH: My first pick is Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel. This is a great book. It’s published in 1999, but it’s really about a 17th century challenge that Galileo undertook to convince the world that, in fact, the sun wasn’t revolving around it. It was revolving around the sun.

IRA FLATOW: And what made that your first pick? Did that just jump into your head as, oh, that’s a great book, I remember reading it?

ARIEL ZYCH: I’ve got to say that right now a story about someone using evidence to change the minds of many, many, many millions of people at a time when power oppressed knowledge, that’s a compelling narrative. And to see someone do it with amazing writing, with diplomacy, with deference, with populism, to essentially infect a world with an understanding was incredible.

But then the fact that it was also in the supportive community that he had a daughter who, in spite of the fact that she was in a convent, was loving him, was caring for him, was editing his manuscripts, starching his collars, and saying, hey, you can do this. And so really–

IRA FLATOW: It’s comforting.

ARIEL ZYCH: It’s comforting. Exactly. And it was– you know, he’s still– his book was banned for 150-plus years. So it’s not like this book that he wrote as a dialogue, specifically, to make it kind of hypothetical so he could get it– get it through the church. He did that anyway. It still worked. It was– the whole black market erupted in Europe to grasp at this knowledge because it was so well-written, and it was so important, and so evidence-based. So I’d– reading this book, besides being a beautiful read, it was inspiring.

IRA FLATOW: Galileo’s Daughter. Annalee, give us your most summery science book.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So my most summery book is Deborah Gordon’s book Ants at Work, which is a fantastic story about a scientist, Gordon, who studies communities and animals, including humans. She’d spent her summers for 17 years studying harvester ants in the broiling heat of the Arizona sun. And from that, she learned a lot about ants that we’d never known before.

And one of her big discoveries that she popularized with this book is that, in fact, queens are not in charge of the colony. Queens are just hanging out, laying eggs. And she discovered how workers in the colony learn what they need to do, how each individual ant makes a decision about what it’s going to do with its day.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that is fascinating. You know, we were just talking about bees before, but ants also– great social colony.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Ants, like bees, have a colony structure. But one of the great things about Gordon’s work is that she uses network theory to think about how ants talk to each other and communicate what’s needed. And so she gives us this incredible picture of how ants are basically counting each other. Each time they encounter each other, they touch antennae onto each other’s bodies, which is basically kind of like smelling and licking.

So they’re smelling each other all the time. And when they smell each other, they can figure out where they’ve been. And so an ant that’s just sort of sitting around in the colony wondering, hmm, what should I do? If it starts to smell a ton of ants coming in that smell like they’ve been gathering food, for example, it knows to go out and gather food. Or if it smells a bunch of ants that have been cleaning something up, it knows how to do that.

And so she gives us this picture of ants as both a social organism, but also a bunch of individuals who are making decisions all the time. And on top of that, it’s just a really funny, humane book. It’s really– we get a sense of what it’s like to be a scientist out in the desert studying these ants and how hard it is, but also how rewarding and exciting.

IRA FLATOW: Great book. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios talking about our summer books with Annalee Newitz and Ariel Zych. A lot of insects– you’re going to hear about creatures this hour. Ariel, speaking of animal behavior, I hear you have a very peculiar book on your list.

ARIEL ZYCH: Yes, I couldn’t resist. This book is called Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation. It’s kind of exactly what it sounds like. It’s a series of advice columns written by Dr. Tatiana, an evolutionary biologist caricature. But to this column, organisms from all shapes and sizes write in about their bizarre sex conundrums. Hopeful, lonely, frustrated, near-death experiences– all of these insects, and animals, and molds, and mites– they write in and say, hey, I’ve got this problem.

And an evolutionary biologist answers those problems with concern, but also with robust evidence, with this way of saying, hey, if you’re struggling with all of these males attacking you every time you emerge from your solitary bee den, it’s probably because there’s an equal investment in reproductive strategies between the sexes of your species. Or you know, if you’re a slime mold and you’re upset about the fact that you have eight different sexes and have to convene them, good news– you probably have closer to 100 different sexes,

And ultimately, any one of you might get lucky at any given time, so fear not. So it’s– what I like about this book is that I blush, and I gape, and I laugh out loud. I read it because, truly– you know, if you’re feeling like normal, the way you think about sex normally is boring. Pick this thing up because it will just horrify and delight you.

But also, I found myself looking over my shoulder while I was reading it, to be like, did someone see me just read that? This is bizarre. So apart from that element, it’s truly educational. You need no mastery of evolutionary biology. You don’t need to have a mastery of the concept of sexual selection to get the gist because she explains it in this wildly compelling, relatable detail. This is by Olivia Judson, who is herself an Oxford-trained PhD evolutionary biologist.

And the other thing I really appreciate about this book is how much we don’t know. So there are these systems that are so bizarre and are so elaborate– hyena phalluses, and polyandry, and incest that would make Oedipus blush. And sometimes, she says, you know what? Here’s the three theories. We actually– we’re still trying to figure out how this happened. So it was just– it’s absolutely delightful, and you can pick it up and read it column by column, or all at once.

IRA FLATOW: Time to catch our breath here with a break. We’re going to take a break and talk lots more about summer books with Annalee Newitz and Ariel Zych. And you can also send us– well, we have some recommendations coming in– our number 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @SciFri. Stay with us. We’ll be right back, and I might throw in a pick of my own when we come back. Stay with us. We’ll be right back, as I say, after this break.

I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday. We’re talking about our summer book reading picks from our summer lists, with Annalee Newitz, tech culture editor at Ars Technica, Ariel Zych, our Sci Fri education director, here in our studio. Our number, 844-724-8255– let’s see if we can get a couple of book– people are suggesting books. Let’s go to Lynn in Savannah, Georgia– one of my favorite cities. Hi, Lynn.

AUDIENCE: Hi, how are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

AUDIENCE: Well, I like Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind.

IRA FLATOW: That’s just this year– it’s just out this year.

AUDIENCE: Yes, it is, and it’s a very interesting book regarding the passage of psychedelic drugs from the ’50s, where they were accepted, to the ’60s, where they were rejected, to the underground research, which is still going on. And then the second half of the– and he took each one of those just once, just to see it. And then the second half of the book is how your brain reacts to it.


AUDIENCE: It’s a fabulous book.

IRA FLATOW: It is a great book. And we had him on a few weeks ago to talk about it, and–

AUDIENCE: Well, that’s why I bought it.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s great.


I’ll tell Michael Pollan that you send his–

AUDIENCE: –I love his book.

IRA FLATOW: All right, thanks. That is a great book. All of Pollan– you know, we’re talking about other books, but the whole Pollan series. He’s written everything, you know.

ARIEL ZYCH: And it’s always through that first person account, you know. I think that’s what comes to me about a lot of these books, is that the nonfiction genre is one in which the writer often experiences the thing. That’s what made Michael Pollan’s book so great, and I think that’s one of the things that makes a lot of the recommendations on our list this year really pop– is that you feel like you’re there because the writer was there while they were experiencing it.

IRA FLATOW: Annalee, your next pick.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: My next pick– Ira, you know that I like archeology, so I had to put something in here about an ancient city. This is a book by Eric Poehler called The Traffic Systems of Pompeii. So usually, you don’t think of traffic when you think of Pompeii. You think of the fact that it was buried under volcanic ash after the eruption of Vesuvius. But one of the great things, of course, about Pompeii is that, because it was buried for so long, it’s basically a city preserved in amber.

And so we can really see just the daily life of Romans in this port town. And what Poehler does that is just fantastic, and at first seems really counterintuitive, is that he starts understanding– he starts understanding everyday life by examining the cobblestone streets of the city. He literally spent months on hands and knees looking at patterns from wagon wheels in the street and also curbstones.

And by examining curbstones, he was actually able to see, from the wearing patterns, a lot of different things about daily life, such as the fact that Romans drove on the right-hand side of the street and often took curbs really fast. And so they would drive up on the curb. And he learned a lot about the life of ordinary people, like drivers, and where they lived, what their lives were like, what kinds of vehicles belonged to different people.

And from this book, which– like I said, it sounds just like a crazy, specific topic– but we get this incredibly visceral sense of street in Pompeii. And it really brings the city to life. Poehler is a great writer, and he ends the book with a short story about a wagon driver who is very grumpy about having to drive his master’s stuff from his home in Pompeii out to his summer estate, which was a very typical thing that the elites in Pompeii would have.

And we just learn all about how traffic sucks, and how do you find your way around the city, and what kinds of affordances that a wagon driver would have, as opposed to a rich guy. And so it’s just– it’s delightful. It’ll transport you to another world. And it’ll really make you see your own city differently. I found, after reading it, that I spent a lot of time looking at curbs in my own city and trying to see what I could learn from it. So it’s just delightful. I can’t recommend it enough.

IRA FLATOW: That’s good. That’s very interesting because you just reminded me of one of my favorite books that I was going to recommend, which I will, that is sort of a historical book, also. It’s the Lost City of Z.


IRA FLATOW: Isn’t that a great– David Grann wrote this book. It’s about the very legendary British explorer, Percy Fawcett, who goes into the Amazon looking for this fabled civilization, and then was there. And it swallows him up, and he’s never heard from again. And the author goes back there to try to trace what happened to him, and it’s so good. I remember saying to him at the time, and when we interviewed him, that they should make a movie out of it, which they did.

ARIEL ZYCH: You bet.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, like many movies, it’s half– not half as good as the novel. And it’s not really a novel. It’s a– it’s a work of nonfiction. It’s a great, great book. And it’s a great read. And it’s– to say that a nonfiction book is a page-turner is a good compliment, I think, because it is page-turner.

ARIEL ZYCH: Absolutely. If you can’t put it down, that’s how you know it belongs on the summer list. I think that’s absolutely true.

IRA FLATOW: It’s just– it was great. Let me go to the phones. Let’s see if we can get another call in from Matthew in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Hi, Matthew.

AUDIENCE: Hi, how are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

AUDIENCE: So the book I wanted to recommend is called The Descent of Man, and the selection– wow, what’s the rest of the title– Selection Based on Sex. I may have missed a few words in there. But it’s Charles Darwin, 1871. This was 12 years after The Origin of Species was published.

And although Darwin dives into sexual selection a bit in The Origin of Species, in this particular book, he goes into it a lot more in depth based on all the morphological and behavioral evidence he had, and then also talks a bit about human evolution, as well. And the thing I love about this book– it’s a good read for probably high school age and up.

But the thing we have to consider when we’re looking at literature is the author, and where they were living, and the era of the time. And I think– reading this book, you almost get the feeling, or at least I did, that because this was 12 years after The Origin of Species was published and– of course, that was a very controversial book in many ways when it was published.

You almost get the sense that people were more open to these ideas and that Darwin may have, in turn, been more comfortable writing about them. So it’s a very classic book. Definitely recommend it for anyone who is just starting to be interested in natural selection and evolution, but, of course, people who are already very interested and have read a lot of those sorts of things, as well.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s a good suggestion because it’s very interesting to go back to the original– the sources. There are some great scientists who write very well, in very easy to understand language.

ARIEL ZYCH: And they’re invitational, as well. I mean, my thought when I was reading about Galileo– and even with Darwin, especially with Darwin– is they write how they did it. And if you’re like, if this guy could make these observations 200 years ago, I probably could do it, too. You know, these observations are out there to be made, and that blows my mind. And it is. It’s the kind of thing where I think– as a teacher, I’m like, my students could replicate this study. This guy did it in his back yard over a summer.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: One of the things that’s great about, I think, all these books that we’ve been talking about is that we get a window into the scientific process. So it isn’t just someone saying, like, here’s the truth, and here’s what we know. It’s actually, you know, here’s how I discovered it, and I kind of screwed up sometimes, and I had false starts. And it really– it humanizes the scientific process.

And we realize, like, yeah, it’s just a bunch of people. It was just Darwin hanging out on a ship, observing what he could. And so I think it’s– that’s just a really important part of good science writing.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And you know, you remind me, in that genre, one of the books I really, really enjoyed over the last few years was a book called Einstein and the Quantum, The Quest of the Valiant Swabian– Swabian by Douglas Stone. And you know, there are a lot of books about Einstein, a lot of stuff. But you never really read the context in which he lived. And in this book, you get to meet Einstein with all the other famous people around him. It’s almost–

ANNALEE NEWITZ: It doesn’t happen in isolation, does it?

IRA FLATOW: No, and you see how he interacted, and how their thinking influenced his thinking, and how they all worked together, and the ideas bounced off of each other, and they disagree, and whatever. That’s why I really like that book. When you–

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, science is a group project, and it lasts over generations, which is part of what’s very beautiful about it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. 844-724-8255– phones are lighting up. Ariel, have you got another pick for us?

ARIEL ZYCH: I do. I will share one that totally blew my mind. It’s called The Big Necessity by Rose George. She’s a British journalist who went on a multi-year, multicultural voyage into sanitation. It’s not something that we like to talk about, but we all think about it. And she’s a–

IRA FLATOW: Into sanitation.

ARIEL ZYCH: Sanitation– dealing with mostly poo, but also the other stuff. And you know, it was one of those things I was expecting potty humor. And she says outright, you know, I’m not– I don’t much like toilet humor, and by now, I’ve heard a lot of it. But I also don’t think 2.6 billion people without a toilet is funny. And so she makes an incredibly compelling case for why sanitation should be the premier frontier of engineering and civic society.

And she does it in a way that is actually really funny. So she goes into sewers with people, the flushers of London and the sewer engineers of New York. She talks to the engineers who designed the TOTO, who have a trade secret, artificial poo recipe that they use to test their toilets. She talks to untouchables in India who collect and dispose of human waste with their bare hands.

But she also– if you’re sitting at home listening to Science Friday on your northern porcelain throne thinking, I have it made in the shade. I’ve got a flush toilet. People in Japan might be appalled that your toilet isn’t heated, that it doesn’t close on its own, that it doesn’t wash and dry you afterwards. And so I laughed out loud in this book, and I also came away positively horrified that there are girls who are quitting school because they don’t have proper sanitation.

And so it’s a travelogue. You move through all these places with the author, but you also– you see this most human activity from the eyes of astronauts to schoolchildren. And that– you know, like all good books, it made me think about my own experiences with sanitation. Your first pit toilet experience is a memorable one. And like good nonfiction, it kind of makes you think a little differently about stuff.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because you can’t have a society without sanitation.

ARIEL ZYCH: You can’t.

IRA FLATOW: It’s so basic, it just flies way under the radar screen.

ARIEL ZYCH: And yet, we’re still pushing it all into oceans, rivers, and lakes. I mean, I couldn’t believe it. 90% of the world’s sewage stills ends up untreated in water. So yeah. So yeah, it was mind-blowing.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of sewage, I’m Ira Flatow and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. All right, talking about Annalee Newitz, [INAUDIBLE] of Ars Technica, and Ariel Zych, Science Friday’s education director, talking about books this summer. Our phone number, 844-724-8255. Lots of people want to get in. Let’s see if we can get another recommendation from here, and then we’ll go to the phones. Annalee, what’s your next recommendation?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So my next recommendation is– actually, it’s a little bit of a heavy topic. So it’s not as much of a beachy read, but it’s something that’s really important. It’s by Safiya Umoja Noble, and it’s called Algorithms of Oppression.

And it’s a very interesting look at how we can answer a question that first came up, really, around 2010 or 2011, when a lot of commentators and people noticed that if you used Google search, and you searched for the term, black girls– which is what Noble was doing because she was looking for some fun things for her nieces to do– all of the results were porn. And Google has since changed this.

And that’s actually one of the things that’s wonderful about this book is that it’s already changing some of the problems that it’s addressing. But she also found that many other searches related to black women, black people were coming up with these results that were really disturbing. For example, if you searched on Michelle Obama, pictures of gorillas would come up in Image Search on Google.

And if you search for something like beautiful women, almost all the results are white women. And if you search for ugly women, most of the results are black women and people of color. And again, a lot of this stuff is changing, partly because of her work. But the book– she’s an information studies professor, and the book is about, how did this happen? She doesn’t think it is a technical problem.

She thinks that it’s a social problem, and it has to do with the fact that people designing algorithms, basically, aren’t consulting librarians. And that’s part of the thing I love about this book is because librarians kind of emerge at the end as these heroes who can help us fix some of these technical problems with algorithms that are supposed to be really objective. You know, when you go to Google and you do a search, you really expect to get quality information or at least truthful information, certainly not biased or racist information.

And so she really feels that we’re having a lot of these technological problems because the people designing algorithms really aren’t aware of how biased the data on the web is. And so they’re designing algorithms assuming that data is really neutral, when, in fact, a piece of data might seem salient to an algorithm not because people all think it’s really good data, but because people hate it, or because people are passing around a lie that they really like, or it’s a popular stereotype.

So she really feels that librarians who are, of course, spending their lives helping people get good information need to be helping engineers who are trying to design these algorithms and that the librarians really have a lot to offer that process. And so it’s kind of a call for engineers to work together with people who have a more humanities background or social science background, but also just to get humans in the loop who understand that not all data is neutral.

And so it’s a fantastic, smart, deep dive into a question that a lot of us deal with every day when we use Google search, and we’re like, how did we get that incredibly weird result? And it also, of course, deals with one of the great social problems of our time, which is racism.

IRA FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a quick call in to Abbie in Brunswick, Georgia. Hi, Abbie. Welcome to Science Friday. Quickly.

AUDIENCE: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

AUDIENCE: The book that I’d like to recommend is called The Narrow Edge by Deborah Cramer. And it’s a book– kind of a conservation story focused on a species of shorebird called the red knot. And it’s a bird that travels from the southern tip of South America in Tierra del Fuego all the way up to the Arctic’s nest, and stops along the way at different important sites along the East Coast.

IRA FLATOW: Where people could get to see it themselves. It’s good–

AUDIENCE: –I think a nice summer read because you’re sitting out on the beach, and you might be sharing the beach with these birds that– here’s these super important stop-over sites that are critical to their survival.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Good suggestion, Abbie, thanks for taking that. We’ve run out of time. It goes by quickly.

ARIEL ZYCH: It does. So many books, and you’ve got so much time–

IRA FLATOW: So many books, so little time. Well, we’ll have the book up on our website at sciencefriday.com. We have our selections up there. Annalee Newitz, tech culture editor for Ars Technica. Ariel Zych, Science Friday’s education director. We’ll see you again next year.


IRA FLATOW: I mean, hope to see you sooner.


IRA FLATOW: All right.

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