I have a stack of books on the floor to add to the catalog of science books I’ve read out loud to my husband. I may miss one or two that have gone back to the library. This is the third installment in this list of very interesting books that have fed our joint curiosity. Round 1 had an emphasis on evolution and paleontology, and Round 2 branched out from neurology and human biology to measuring time and observing natural disasters. This round is a little broader, including music, geology, astronomy, and even some cosmology. It’s fun when things we’ve read before come around again in different contexts.
|Jourdain, R. (1998). Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. Harper Perennial.
From tone to melody to harmony to rhythm to … A systematic and cumulative exploration of how humans experience music, from the physics to the neurology to the differences that practice and training make. Great beginning for deeper study.
|Levin, J. (2002). How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space. New York: Anchor Books.
This one was a bit of a mind bender for me, given my totally inadequate education in physics and topology. But what wonderfully big ideas, thinking about the size and topology of the universe and how such things can be explored.
|Sobel, D. (2005). The Planets. New York: Viking.
When we finished an earlier book, my husband had all sorts of questions about planets and the formation of our solar system, and this book has many answers. It progresses systematically from the genesis of the sun out to the Kuiper belt and Pluto’s ambiguous status. For each planet, it explains what is known and how we know what we know.
|Angier, N. (2008). The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.. New York: Mariner Books.
This was a real tongue twister to read out loud, since the author was trying both to inform and to entertain. Many very witty passages, but also a general exploration of the state of knowledge in physics, chemistry, geology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, and astronomy. This book touched a lot of things we had already encountered, but introduced new ones. A new idea for me: the origin of the universe in the Big Bang is estimated at 13.5 billion years ago. Now I understand better news stories about how far back we can see.
|Fortey, R. (2005). Earth: An Intimate History. New York: Vintage Press.
Using descriptions of rocks and geological history from Hawaii, Sicily, Newfoundland, Scotland, and several places around the globe, the author discusses the evolution of plate techtonics theory — as well as the rise and fall of oceans and continents. Bell Island off the west coast of Newfoundland is more similar to Wales in terms of fossils and rocks than it is to the east coast of Newfoundland. Lovely to think about how that can be.
|Fouts, R. & Mills, S. T. (1998). Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees. Harper Paperbacks.
Can chimpanzees learn language, if we use a gestural language like American Sign Language instead of a vocal language? Roger Fouts taught chimpanzee Washoe several hundred words in ASL that she combined in novel ways. She taught ASL to her adopted infant chimp, Loulis, who was not exposed to human signing, thus demonstrating that “language acquisition is based on learning skills we share with chimpanzees.” Very interesting exploration of language acquisition, and another chip away at our sense of human uniqueness.
August 2009 – time to add a few more books to the list.
|Ferreira, Pedro (2006). The State of the Universe: A Primer in Modern Cosmology. Phoenix Paperback.
Dark matter, dark energy, cosmic microwave background, primordial sound, age of the universe and how we know. Another view of the topology of the universe to add to Janna Levin’s. Strange and wonderful stuff.
|Fagan, Brian (1995). Time Detectives: How Archaeologist Use Technology to Recapture the Past. New York: Simon & Schuster.
How do we learn about humans in prehistoric times? How do we interpret the clues left behind? In the words of archaelogist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, “You dug it up boy. Make sure you describe it because you can’t undo your deed.”
|McPhee, J. (2000). Annals of the Former World. Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux.
Exploring the geology of the United States through roadcuts along I80 from New Jersey to San Francisco. Plate tectonics, glaciation, ophiolites (sections of the ocean floor emplaced on land). This book was 20+ years in the writing – some of it published in articles along the way. The author traveled with 5 geologists and includes both his observations about their lives as geologists and their observations about what they saw in his presence.
|Greene, Brian (2007). The Best American Science and Nature Writing: 2006. New York: Houghton Mifflin|
|Gaarder, Jostein (1991). Sophies World. New York: Berkeley Books. Read October-November 2011|
|Ferguson, Niall (2008). The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. Penguin Books. Read December 2011.|
|Meyer, A. (2005). The DNA Detectives: How the double helix is solving puzzles of the past. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press. Read December 2011.|
|Laubichler, M. & Maienschein, J. (2007). From Embryology to Evo-Devo: A History of Developmental Evolution. MIT Press.
This was a hard slog because the focus was more on the history — who did what when and why — than on the science of evo-devo, which is what really interests us.
Read January 2012
|Seife, C. (2003). Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe. Viking.
This was pretty interesting, though occasionally he wrote in journalistic hyperbole. But we kept wishing we could get an update about the things he projected would occur around 2010!
Read Jan-Feb 2012
|Salsburg, D. (2001). The lady tasting tea: How statistics revolutionized science in the twentieth century. Henry Holt and Company.
This was a delight to read.
Read March-April 2012.
|Reader, J. (2011). Missing Links: In search of human origins. Oxford University Press.
This was another delight to read — beautifully illustrated with photographs of fossils and people who discovered them and the places where they were discovered, detailed discussions of the preconceptions and reasoning of the major contributors — even a lengthy discussion of the Piltdown man and the remaining mystery around it (whodunit?)
Read March 2012
|Stewart, I. (2012). In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World. New York: Basic Books.
At first, we weren’t sure how interesting this book would be to my husband, who has a BS in Mathematics. I knew it would be interesting to me, being a member of C. P. Snow’s other culture who can’t (always) remember the second law of thermodynamics. Yet each chapter has something in it that neither of us knew. Ranging from the history to the impact for each of the 17 equations. A good read.
|Pendergrast, M. (2003). Mirror Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection. New York: Perseus Group.|
|Hazen, R. (2012). The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet. Viking.
This was a wonderful exploration of many things we didn’t know about the genesis of the earth. Yes, we knew that the earth didn’t have a highly oxygenated atmosphere until after photosynthesis, but we gained a much clearer picture of the formation of the moon (from a collision with another planetoid, most of which was absorbed by the earth but also causing a big blob of earth-stuff to go flying off), the formation of first a basalt crust and then a granite crust, more ideas about the origins of life. Fun to read. May 2012.
|Impey, C. (2012). How It Began: A Time-Traveler’s Guide to the Universe. W. W. Norton.|
|Firestein, S. (2012). Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Oxford University Press.
An interesting, but somewhat repetitive discussion of the importance of ignorance — being aware of what you don’t know — on the conduct of science. Based on a class taught by Dr. Firestein at Columbia. We particularly enjoyed the 4 case histories. Finished June 4, 2012.
|Zuk, M. (2007). Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are Harcourt, Inc.
Fun! Except when it’s gross. But mostly fun. Finished June 26, 2012.
Steinhardt, Paul J. & Turok, Neil (2007). Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang. Broadway Books.
Finished Spring 2012. An interesting alternative to the Big Bang→Stretch Away picture of the universe’s evolution.
|Chaison, E. (2006). Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos. New York: Columbia University Press
This is an interesting presentation of the history of the universe in terms of 7 evolutions: Particle, Galactic, Stellar, Planetary, Chemical, Biological, Cultural. This cuts a wide swath through science — including cosmology, chemistry, physics, biology, even anthropology and psychology. Interesting to have so much pulled together in one place. Finished November 2012.
|Sacks, O. (2012). Hallucinations. New York: Knopf.
We’ve enjoyed books written by Oliver Sacks before — from Musicophilia to Uncle Tungsten. This book carried a great many quotations from people experiencing various kinds of hallucinations. The focus was more on the experience, with just a few paragraphs discussing how the experiences were tied to neurological functioning. Finished Nov 2012.