Tag Archives: #Science

Booko Picks – Popular Science Books

We live in a golden age for Popular Science writing.  Gone are the days when books about topics such as astronomy, neuroscience, and maths (and engineering as well) were mostly written by experts for other experts – informative but daunting.  These days, popular science titles combine expert knowledge with great storytelling, so we can be informed and entertained at the same time.  Here are some of the delights currently on offer:

Humble Pi: a Comedy of Maths Errors by Matt Parker

“Stand-up Mathematician” Matt Parker uses his maths background to great effect, as the basis of very funny performances and books.  In Humble Pi, he uncovers the sorts of disasters that can happen when you get maths wrong.  The stories range from trivial and quirky (such as advertising images of interlocking gears that can’t possibly turn) to deadly and expensive (wobbling bridges, Y2K and aeroplane disasters).  The wide range of examples he uses underscore the message that maths can be found anywhere and everywhere, and that it may be more important to everyday life than many people realise.  

Calling Bullshit: the Art of Scepticism in a Data-driven World by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West

How do you separate bullshit from the truth, when every side in an argument uses data to support their claims?  Calling Bullshit is a very timely book that looks at how to spot misused data, and how to refute it persuasively.  Based on the popular university course that the authors teach jointly, Calling Bullshit describes how data can be manipulated deliberately, or through false assumptions (such as confirmation bias or false equivalencies) or even due to carelessness or laziness.  Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West also describe tools that debunk bullshit constructively, because effective bullshit detection is essential for the healthy functioning of democracy and society.  This eye-opening and empowering book is essential for anyone sick of the proliferation of Fake News and Conspiracy Theories.

Infinite Powers: the Story of Calculus, the Language of the Universe by Steven Strogatz

In Infinite Powers, Steven Strogatz takes on the challenge of making calculus accessible and entertaining.  He explains the history and development of calculus (which originated in ancient Greece, and involved many big-name mathematicians including Archimedes, Newton, and Descartes); he also highlights how, as a tool to understand constant change, it underlies most modern technologies including radio, television, GPS navigation, and MRI imaging; and it informs fields as varied as meteorology, economics, and medicine. You don’t need to know any calculus to enjoy Infinite Powers; but as someone who understood the How but not the Why of calculus, this book gave me valuable context to help me appreciate the history, value and meaning of what I was doing.

Letters from an Astrophysicist by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Not your usual science book, but Letters from an Astrophysicist is all the more profound because of it. This is a selection of letters to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, since he came into the public eye over two decades ago.  Topics cover anything and everything, from taxes to aliens to God; the questions are from friends and strangers alike – some ask for advice, some point out mistakes and some proclaim opposing beliefs. His replies are wise and funny, candid but uncompromising.  Even in the face of “hate mail”, he stands his ground and defends the importance of science.  Letters from an Astrophysicist is not just a glimpse into one brilliant mind, but also a reflection of how space has inspired curiosity, learning and passion in many of us.

Why We Sleep: the New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

Why We Sleep received a positive review from none other than Bill Gates – no mean feat, considering he’s a prolific and discerning reader whose recommendations attract a lot of attention. Why We Sleep aims to create cultural change by highlighting the significant health, social and economic value of sleep.  Using statistics, anecdotes, and well-researched studies, Matthew Walker, an expert sleep scientist, explains how neglecting sleep can reduce creativity, decision-making and memory, and can even damage heart-, brain- and mental-health. Luckily, he also offers us helpful tips on how to change bad sleep habits and improve sleep hygiene.  And don’t worry if you end up reading this book slowly, because you have become inspired to take naps; the author will be delighted, rather than offended by such a change.

We have No Idea: a Guide to the Unknown Universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson

Engineer-turned-cartoonist Jorge Cham has partnered with particle physicist Daniel Whiteson to create this lighthearted look at the biggest unsolved questions about the universe.  From the Big Bang to time travel to extraterrestrial life to dark matter, Jorge and Daniel describe what we don’t know (as well as the bits we do know), and why it’s really exciting to keep exploring at the edge of these unknowns.  You’ll also meet hamsters, evil twins, Doctor Who, Pi charts, pop culture, and Lego philosophy in these entertaining yet deep explanations for some of the most complex concepts in astrophysics.

Popular History Books of Our Time

This isn’t your usual history book list. In fact, some of the books aim to give us quite a different view of what we have learned previously. Which is why we really enjoy them. It’s easy to forget that history books aren’t just books brimming with facts of bygone eras, but rather we can consider them stories of events to be questioned, viewed from different angles and full of scandal and intrigue.

SPQR by Mary Beard

Hailed by critics as animating and with a wonderful ability to bring the past to life in a way that makes your hair stand on end, SPQR spans nearly a thousand years of history. Mary Beard narrates and examines not just how we think of ancient Rome but challenges the comfortable historical perspectives that have existed for centuries. With its nuanced attention to class, democratic struggles, and the lives of entire groups of people omitted from the historical narrative for centuries, SPQR will to shape our view of Roman history for decades to come.

Headstrong by Rachel Swaby

Headstrong delivers a powerful and entertaining response to the question: Who are the role models for today’s female scientists? Covering Nobel Prize winners and major innovators, as well as lesser-known but hugely significant scientists who influence our every day, these engaging profiles span centuries of courageous thinkers and illustrate how each subject’s ideas developed, from their first moment of engagement with science through the research and discovery for which they’re best known. Finally, it gives these 52 lives the attention and respect they deserve with the aim to encourage and inspire a new generation of girls to put on their lab coats.

Sapiens by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Dr. Yuval Noah Harari makes serious non-fiction cool again.  

One hundred thousand years ago, at least six different species of humans inhabited Earth. Yet today there is only one: homo sapiens. What happened to the others? And what may happen to us? Most books about the history of humanity pursue either a historical or a biological approach, but Dr. Yuval Noah Harari breaks the mold with this highly original book that begins about 70,000 years ago with the appearance of modern cognition. From examining the role evolving humans have played in the global ecosystem to charting the rise of empires, Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas. Dr. Harari also compels us to look ahead, because over the last few decades humans have begun to bend laws of natural selection that have governed life for the past four billion years. We are acquiring the ability to design not only the world around us, but also ourselves. Where is this leading us, and what do we want to become?

You can view Dr. Yuval Noah Harari’s other books here.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Drawing together ideas from history, geography, economics and anthropology, Guns, Germs and Steel offers compelling theories and surprising insights into the development of societies, it is a hugely influential book that helped to establish Popular Science as a genre. Jared Diamond examines why some civilisations are more successful than others, in terms of wealth and political power, despite no inherent advantage in genetics or intelligence. He theorises that the tools of success are guns (superior weapons for military might); germs (Eurasian diseases weakening local populations, making them easier to conquer) and steel (advanced technology facilitating imperialism) and that they all arose from environmental conditions that allowed early adoption of agriculture.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson describes himself as a reluctant traveller, but even when he stays safely at home he can’t contain his curiosity about the world around him. A Short History of Nearly Everything is his quest to understand everything that has happened from the Big Bang to the rise of civilisation, how we got from there, being nothing at all, to here, being us. Bill Bryson’s challenge is to take subjects that normally bore the pants off most of us, like geology, chemistry and particle physics, and see if there isn’t some way to render them comprehensible to people who have never thought they could be interested in science. The ultimate eye-opening journey through time and space, A Short History of Nearly Everything reveals the world in a way most of us have never seen it before.

You can see a list of Bill Bryson’s other books here.

The History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer

Susan Wise Bauer presents us with a lively and engaging narrative history showing the common threads in the cultures that gave birth to our own. This is the first volume in a series that tells the stories of all people, connecting historical events from Europe to the Middle East to the far coast of China, while still giving weight to the characteristics of each country. Susan Wise Bauer provides both sweeping scope and vivid attention to the individual lives that give flesh to abstract assertions about human history. Dozens of maps provide a clear geography of great events, while timelines give the reader an ongoing sense of the passage of years and cultural interconnection. This old-fashioned narrative history employs the methods of history from beneath” literature, epic traditions, private letters and accounts to connect kings and leaders with the lives of those they ruled. The result is an engrossing tapestry of human behaviour from which we may draw conclusions about the direction of world events and the causes behind them.

You can see more of Susan Wise Bauer’s work here.

Enjoy!

The history of our world in 18 minutes

Backed by stunning illustrations, in this Ted Talk David Christian narrates a complete history of the universe, from the Big Bang to the Internet, in a riveting 18 minutes. This is “Big History”: an enlightening, wide-angle look at complexity, life and humanity, set against our slim share of the cosmic timeline.

The Best Science Books of 2019 (so far)

I love Popular Science as a genre – having a science background myself, I am passionate about encouraging everyone to have a better understanding of science, and of becoming more aware of its place in everyday life.  I also love anything that shows off the quirky nerdy humour that I know many scientists and engineers have!  The best science books often combine in-depth research, stranger-than-fiction facts and a cracking narrative  – here’s the pick of the recent crop:

Humble Pi: a Comedy of Maths Errors by Matt Parker
Matt Parker is a mathematician and a comedian, and he uses both skillsets to great effect in Humble Pi, a book about the maths that is all around us – and what happens when you get it wrong. The stories range from trivial and quirky (such as posters where the cogs won’t turn) to potentially deadly (wobbling bridges and NASA disasters); and Matt manages to highlight the funny and entertaining side in all of them. Humble Pi subtly celebrates the importance of maths to science and engineering, without depressing readers about being “not good at maths”.

When the Dogs Don’t Bark: a Forensic Scientist’s Search for the Truth by Angela Gallop
Angela Gallop has had an extraordinary career as a forensic scientist. In over 40 years, she has worked on a string of high profile cases that made significant advances to forensics and criminal law.  When the Dogs Don’t Bark is her memoir of how science has helped to uncover the truth behind some shocking crimes.  While the sensational details showcase her amazingly analytical mind, Angela is also keen to educate her readers about the risks of relying on forensic evidence too heavily.  When the Dogs Don’t Bark will appeal to fans of True Crime and police procedurals, while its level of technical detail should engage science buffs. The Guardian newspaper also considers it an essential resource for aspiring crime writers!

The Wisdom of Wolves: How Wolves can Teach Us to be More Human by Elli H. Radinger
Wolves get pretty bad press in many cultures, and Elli Radinger is out to show everyone that they are not as Big & Bad as we’ve previously heard.  Drawing on 25 years’ of observations, The Wisdom of Wolves describes the social structures and behaviours of wolf packs and shows how similar they are to human societies.  The stories of how the entire pack helps to care for their young and their elderly; how the grownups teach their young to play; and how key decisions are made by females and the elderly, are heartwarming and offer surprising insights into kinship and parenting.  


Why Can’t We Sleep? by Darian Leader
Sleep.  It is a human necessity that has become a luxury in our busy world – so much so that there is an ever-growing industry helping us get the quantity and quality of sleep we want/need.  Why Can’t We Sleep? is a timely examination of this hot topic – weaving together a history and critique of sleep research, with neuroscience, psychology, and the social, cultural and economic significance of sleep.  This is psychoanalyst Darian Leader’s complex, intelligent, yet highly readable story on how and why humans sleep.

Guns, Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs and Steel is a hugely influential book that helped to establish Popular Science as a genre.  Jared Diamond examines why some civilisations are more successful than others, in terms of wealth and political power, despite no inherent advantage in genetics or intelligence.  He theorises that the tools of success are guns (superior weapons for military might); germs (Eurasian diseases weakening local populations, making them easier to conquer) and steel (advanced technology facilitating imperialism) – and that they all arose from environmental conditions that allowed early adoption of agriculture. Drawing together ideas from history, geography, economics and anthropology, Guns, Germs and Steel offers compelling theories and surprising insights into the development of societies.

Influenza: the Quest to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History by Dr Jeremy Brown
The deadliest disease in recorded history was the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed up to 100 million people worldwide.  A century later, scientists are still searching for a cure – and an understanding of why this strain disproportionately affects young, apparently-healthy people.  Dr Jeremy Brown uses the Spanish flu pandemic as the starting point of his history of our fight against this ubiquitous yet still deadly virus.  Readers are swept along by this tense mystery/thriller as we begin to understand the high stakes involved – the ‘flu’s ability to spread widely and mutate repeatedly still cause thousands of deaths each year, with widespread social, political and economic consequences, and yet there is still no “bullet-proof” cure or vaccine in sight.

Want to explore great scientific thinking? Grab a book!

Great science books are far more than just dry factual texts; they inspire, educate, delight, warn and provoke us as much as they inform. As the saying goes “truth is stranger than fiction” and the finest science reads entertain — even shock — as well as give us a deeper understanding of the world around us.

One of the most popular science books of our generation is Cosmos by the late Professor Carl Sagan. First published in 1980, this bestseller was a trailblazer in bringing science books to the attention of the general public and outlined the link between science and our civilisation.

Released in conjunction with a thirteen-part TV series, Cosmos retains its immense popularity even today. In 2013, the book was re-released with an essay by science guru Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Prof. Sagan had the rare gift of being able to communicate his love for physics and astronomy and his groundbreaking works remain some of the most wonderful books ever written in the science genre.

Sagan died in 1996 however the mantle of explaining science to the general public in an exciting and interesting way has been taken up by a host of younger science authors. One of the foremost amongst these has been Dr Brian Cox.

A physicist like Sagan, Dr Cox also shares a deft touch with the medium of television and has hosted a number of science programmes. These have been credited with the explosion of interest in physics in universities in the United Kingdom. He has co-written a number of science books that explain complex scientific ideas in accessible and informative language. One of the most popular is Why Does E=mc2?

One of the major scientific breakthroughs of this century was the detection of gravitational waves by scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory  (LIGO) in the United States. Predicted by Einstein in 1915, these are ripples in spacetime that are the “echo” of a Big Bang-type event.

But what exactly are gravitational waves? How important was their “discovery” in September 2015 and how exactly did it prove Einstein’s theory?

Science journalist and author Marcia Bartusiak explains the nature of Einstein’s work in her 2000 work Einstein’s Unfinished Symphony: Listening to the Sounds of Space-Time. The book delves into the complexities of relativity, yet does so in such a way as to make the subject interesting, stimulating and relevant.

 

 

Great science books can also change our thinking and alert us to impending disasters. Two examples are Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, — which alerted readers to the dangers of pesticides — and Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, which tackles climate change, one of the foremost environmental issues of our time.

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Though written over forty years apart, both have the power to galvanise people into action and change the world. They inform us powerfully of the dangers of an impending environmental disaster and teach us what needs to be done to avert such catastrophes. Both act as a call to action as well as a guide to scientific thinking and will be talked about for generations to come as books that inspired environmental movements.

 

For a challenging and enriching explanation of important scientific thinking of our time, it’s hard to beat a well-written book. Whether for a lay person with an interest, or an academic in the field of science, books represent our link to the most important scientific breakthroughs of our time.

No review of these popular texts would be complete without mentioning one of the most fascinating glances into the mind of a genius. This was the slim volume A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, and was, in essence, an exploration into some of the theories that underpin the concept of spacetime and the cosmos by one of our generation’s greatest minds.