Perspective twisting books on biology, social science, medical science, cosmology, and tech.
- The best science books push us to think, feel, and behave differently.
- This list includes new releases by authors Merlin Sheldrake, Isabel Wilkerson, James Nestor, David Attenborough, and others.
- Besides making us more knowledgeable, these books inspire curiosity, passion, and empathy for the universe in and around us.
The best science books have the power to shift perspectives, pushing us to think differently and even behave differently. The following titles push boundaries by making novel connections and challenging conventional wisdom about the world as we think we know it. Besides making us more knowledgeable, they inspire curiosity, passion, and empathy for the universe in and around us.
These are our picks for the 10 best books released in 2020, plus a few notable mentions too good to leave out.
Merlin Sheldrake's enthralling study of fungi will reframe your view of the world through the perspective of mycelium networks, providing a natural lesson in the interrelations between all living beings. Fungi have colonized nearly all of Earth's environments, and their interactions with other matter has been one of a subterranean magician creating and transforming the world we inhabit.
Sheldrake, a mycologist who researches underground fungal networks, takes the reader on a journey into unsettling mysteries that shroud his field of study. At the center, just how alive are these networks? Weaving together stories, scientific observations, and philosophical questions, "Entangled Lives" is a book on how beings contaminate and change one another in a perpetual, transformative dance of matter.
From wildfires intoxicating our air quality, to a pandemic caused by a respiratory-system attacking virus, to the social justice cry "I can't breathe," the mundane act of breathing was brought to the forefront in 2020. It's the most fundamental thing to our lives, marking the beginning and the end of it, and yet our culture rarely gives it a second thought. Journalist James Nestor sought to amend that in "Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art," as he interviews men and women around the world to trace the origins of our failure to remember correct breathing, what the consequences have been, and how it can be fixed.
This is an enrapturing look at the history of human breathing through a physiological, evolutionary, cultural, and spiritual lens. Far more exhilarating than a description of pulmonology lab studies, Nestor finds answers in ancient burial sites, New Jersey choir schools, and Soviet facilities. He also offers practical breathing exercises to give the reader a hands-on experience into the simple power of breathing correctly.
This year was one defined by heartbreak and pain across the globe. This was especially the case for Black Americans for whom COVID-19 exposed the ugly racial inequalities in our healthcare system and the loss of more Black lives at the hands of police officers revealed the fundamental injustice of the American justice system. And, so, 2020 saw backlash against the legacy of white supremacy in America.
In her latest book "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson met this revolutionary year with her groundbreaking exploration of identity in America. Wilkerson radically and powerfully reframes injustice, racism, and inequality in the United States as undergirded by a caste system likened to those in India and Germany's Nazi regime. Applying more than a decade of research, ethnography, and reporting for the book, Wilkerson offers us a deep revisionist history through interviews with experts along with ordinary people, and stories from her own life. Woven together, she creates an electrifying and perspective-flipping theory of injustice and racism in America, and the role we all continue to play in perpetuating it.
Renowned and beloved naturalist, journalist, and defender of the planet David Attenborough delivers a witness statement of the state of life on planet Earth. This book was awarded this year's Goodreads Choice Award in Science and Technology.
Part testimony, part heartening memoir, and part battlecry, Sir Attenborough's book proves a much needed imagining of the future if through collective, rapid action we can save Earth's beautiful and wild places and before it's too late.
A gripping tale that is part medical mystery and part case study of abnormal psychology, Robert Kolker presents a riveting piece of narrative non-fiction. "Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of An American Family" is the story of a seemingly cookie-cutter '60s American family: the Galvins. Kolker, a decorated crime journalist, digs under the picture-perfect surface to spotlight a family ravaged by mental illness, violence, and trauma.
Of the Galvin's ten sons, six developed schizophrenia, transforming their home into a traumatic and abusive environment. The book traces scientists' quest to find out if this family's genetics could hold the key to the many unanswered questions the medical and psychiatric field has about the disease.
Of course, it's shameful that a book debunking racist pseudosceince had to have been written at all. Nevertheless, geneticist Adam Rutherford's "How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race, and Reality" is a remarkable telling of the shared ancestry of the human race. The book is a treasure trove filled with gems of knowledge from the field of genetics and what it knows about skin color, intelligence, ancestry, athletic ability, and racial superiority.
By showing how ancestry and family trees scientifically work, Rutherford proves the concept of racial purity to be an erroneous delusion. "For humans," Rutherford explains, "there are no purebloods, only mongrels enriched by the blood of multitudes." The reader is provided the fascinating scientific weaponry to confidently take on questions about race, genes, ancestry. Ultimately, Rutherford's book is a challenge against the manipulation, misrepresentation, and abuse of science to justify hatred and prejudice.
While nations and leaders have entered into a battle to rule the big data sphere, most of us still remain in the dark about AI — a subject shrouded in complex lexicon and confused with sci-fi plots. But AI is real, here to stay, and already has profound and alarming implications on our world. Michael Kanaan, a nationally recognized expert of the topic of artificial intelligence, details these realities in a way that the everyday person can grasp.
Detailing the global implications of AI, Kanaan also presents the ways that cultures and nations have failed to adjust their policies and ethical questions to meet the rapid growth of modern computing, and the erosion of democracies around the world as dubious leaders weaponize the technology to spread misinformation. We're entering this brave new world, there is no turning back, and "T-Minus AI" is our survival guide coming at a critical moment in time.
"Vesper Flights" is Helen Macdonald's dazzling collection of essays about human and other-than-human relationships. The naturalist and poet explores and meditates on subjects ranging from nostalgia for landscapes to the migrations of songbirds from the Empire State Building to the challenges of farming ostriches. And, of course, her own vespers.
Woven throughout the collection of her writings are the themes of captivity and freedom, immigration and flight, precarity and enchantment, time and memory, and ultimately, love. Helen transports the reader into intimate observations of the natural world such as watching tens of thousands of Hungarian cranes, encountering a wild boar, foraging for mushrooms, and the peculiarities of bird nests. "Vesper Flights" re-enchants and brings back to life the world of the other-than-human as more than the backdrop of the human drama. In a time of isolation, Helen reminds us that we are part of a multitude of narratives at play in the natural world, and the wondrous and baffling magic found in paying attention to it.
In "The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another," Ainissa Ramirez explains how inventions from the clock to steel rails to hard disks have powerfully transformed society. By ingeniously describing how matter has transformed humans as we create inventions out of it, Ramirez shows how eight inventions created the world as we know it today, and molded our perception of it.
Ramirez, a material scientist and science writer, illustrates how clocks, steel rails, copper telegraph wires, photographic film, carbon filaments for light bulbs, hard disks, scientific labware, and silicon chips revolutionized modern society. The chapters each tell the story of the creation and rise of one of the inventions and the impact it had on the world. For example, how the railway contributed to the commercialization of Christmas. Ramirez's storytelling and expertise give life to the innovations by contextualizing them in history and providing the biography of the creators behind them. This includes those who have been overlooked in historical tellings of innovation, such as women and people of color. Ultimately, this is about how we manipulate matter, and the matter changes us.
For centuries, human art, religious beliefs and rituals, our social hierarchies, value systems, scientific innovations and discoveries, and even our DNA has been shaped by the heavens. Yet over the last few decades, we have severed that innate and intimate relationship with the cosmos, which are today experienced through screens and mind-numbing data fields. And it's come at a cost.
Jo Marchant's spellbinding book seeks to put the sense of awe, wonder, and mystery back into our relationship with the stars. Presenting various ways that different cultures have celebrated the once-mystical majesty of celestial cycles, she invites you to experience the night through your naked eyes fixed unto the star-spangled sky. It's an experience that has sparked imaginings and ideas that have radically transformed human civilization for millennia, even, Marchant argues, made us human. In "The Human Cosmos," you'll discover Chumash cosmology, learn about Tahitian sailors who navigated by way of celestial maps, and understand how Einstein arrived at his revolutionary theory that space and time are the same entity.
There were so many brilliant books released in 2020, and these picks are just the tip of the iceberg. Here are several other books that almost made our top ten list.
- "All We Can Save" edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson
- "Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl" by Jonathan C. Slaght
- "Explaining Humans" by Dr. Camilla Pang
- "Children of Ash and Elm: A History of Vikings" by Neil Price
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The area of the brain that recognizes letters and words is ready for action right from the start.
- There's an area of the brain specializing in the recognition of letters and words.
- Neuroscientists wonder how this faculty develops since it would not be a trait associated with survival.
- fMRI scans reveal that this region is already connected to the brain's language centers in newborns.
It's been over a century since scientists identified an area of the brain that serves as its "letterbox." The "visual word form area," or VWFA, recognizes letter and word shapes before sending them on to the brain's language regions for processing. The VWFA is an area of fascination for neuroscientists since it seems unlikely that its specialized function would have developed through natural selection, what with reading being such a relatively recent development. Jin Li of Ohio State University (OSU) tells Ohio State News, "It's interesting to think about how and why our brains develop functional modules that are sensitive to specific things like faces, objects, and words."
Some feel that the VWFA develops its specialization as a person learns to read. They theorize that it may begin as a region not too different from its neighbor the visual cortex, which recognizes faces. Li is the lead author of a new study that disagrees.
"We found that isn't true," says study senior author OSU psychologist Zeynep Saygin. "Even at birth, the VWFA is more connected functionally to the language network of the brain than it is to other areas. It is an incredibly exciting finding."
The study's implication is that the VWFA is ready and waiting for reading even in newborns. "That makes it fertile ground to develop a sensitivity to visual words — even before any exposure to language." Saygin is a member of OSU's Chronic Brain Injury Program.
The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Newborn and adult VWFAs
Credit: EVERST via Adobe Stock
Saygin, Li and their colleagues Heather Hansen and David Osher analyzed fMRI brain scans from 40 newborns and 40 adults that had been made as part of the Developing Human Connectome Project and the Human Connectome Project, respectively.
The researchers found that even in the newborns who were less than a week old, the VWFA was different from the visual cortex in that it already had connections to the language areas of the brain. While the VWFA and visual cortex share some characteristics — they both require high spatial resolution in order to accurately comprehend what they're seeing — the study reveals that "the VWFA is specialized to see words even before we're exposed to them."
Comparing the newborn VWFA to the adult VFWA did reveal some differences, however. "Our findings suggest that there likely needs to be further refinement in the VWFA as babies mature," Saygin explains. "Experience with spoken and written language will likely strengthen connections with specific aspects of the language circuit and further differentiate this region's function from its neighbors as a person gains literacy."
Tracking the VWFA
Saygin's lab is currently attempting to better understand the sort of further VWFA development that may occur prior to reading, by studying the brain region in 3- and 4-year-olds. Her team is also interested in identifying the types of visual stimuli the VWFA responds to at those ages.
Learning more about the VWFA is more than just interesting — it may also help experts address reading and other cognitive issues. "Knowing what this region is doing at this early age," says Saygin, "will tell us a bit more about how the human brain can develop the ability to read and what may go wrong. It is important to track how this region of the brain becomes increasingly specialized."
The visual languages of comics and graphic novels are great exercise for developing brains.
- In addition to being fun, studies have shown that the visual language of graphic novels stimulates the brain in ways that complex text can.
- For some readers, information is easier to process through images than it is through text alone.
- These graphic novels are great for getting young readers into philosophy, technology, and other scientific narratives.
If you're not on the graphic novel train by now, you're missing out. In addition to being a pathway to reading for those who see big groups of text as daunting or inherently boring, studies have shown that the visual language of comics and graphic novels is good for the brain.
In a 2019 paper titled "Visual narratives and the mind: Comprehension, cognition, and learning," assistant professor at Tilburg University and comics theorist Neil Cohn writes that because narrative sequential images are often used in things like children's books and storyboards, it has led to the "general belief that visual narratives are transparent to understand, requiring little learning beyond basic cognition like perceptual and event processing, sequential reasoning, and theory of mind." Cohn says that there is a growing field of psychological research that has shown that this is not true.
Humans are 60,000 times faster at processing images than we are at processing text, and combining the two stimulates the brain in meaningful ways. In one study conducted at the University of Oklahoma, 80 percent of students in a senior level business course reported learning more from a graphic novel than from reading a textbook.
"As we read, we practice multimodal literacy, drawing on our available resources and using them to shape meaning from the multimodal elements particular to a comics text, including the combination of words, images, spatial layout, gutters, sound effects, panel composition, body language, facial expression, emanata, and other comics elements," wrote Dale Jacobs, author of "Graphic Encounters: Comics And The Sponsorship Of Multimodal Literacy" and associate professor of English at the University of Windsor, Canada. "Reading comics, then, is an active process, and a theory of multimodality helps to explain how meaning is created by readers of comics and how readers reimagine themselves in relation to specific comics texts."
On top of all of that, reading graphic novels is often just more fun! Well-written stories with beautiful illustrations can make any subject more compelling and palatable, especially for young, easily distracted readers. Here are some titles worth adding to your young reader's shelves if he/she is into STEM but not quite ready to thumb through textbooks and heady scientific journal articles.
Illustrated by Maris Wicks, this graphic novel focuses on three primatologists whose important work revolutionized the field forever. Reviews praise the book for its accessibility and compelling storytelling.
Co-written by theoretical physicist Thibault Damour and Mathieu Burniat, this French graphic novel follows an explorer named Bob and his dog Rick as they travel through the quantum universe. Along the way, they meet some of history's greatest minds, including Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and Louis de Broglie.
Illustrated by Leland Myrick, this biography of Stephen Hawking's life is a great introduction for those unfamiliar with the legendary physicist, but it is also an interesting read for those who only know him through his quotes.
Best known as a Hollywood actress and producer, Hedy Lamarr was also an accomplished inventor. This graphic novel tells how, during World War II, she developed a system that could be used by naval ships to send signals that could not be traced or blocked.
Ottaviani is a name you'll see a lot when it comes to science-focused graphic novels. This novel in particular, illustrated by Zander and Kevin Cannon, is a fictionalized retelling of two nations doing everything they can to be first to the moon.
It's not easy to capture the importance and devastation of historical events with word bubbles and drawn images, but illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm did it beautifully in his debut graphic novel, first published in 2013. In it, you meet scientists including Marie Curie and her husband Pierre, British physicist Ernest Rutherford, and German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, and you learn the role they each played in what eventually became one of the most powerful weapons in the history of the world.
Chances are your young reader is not very familiar with the life and work of British philosopher and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell, but after picking up this book they will be. It's a more accessible way to introduce anyone to complicated ideas involving mathematical logic and analytical philosophy.
With illustrations by Dr. Matteo Farinella and a story by Dr. Hana Roš (both neuroscientists), this graphic novel uses fantasy elements to teach young readers about what the brain is made of and what it can do. Neuron forests and giant sea creatures make for an engaging and educational read.
We may respect their minds now, but throughout history there have been thinkers whose ideas were less than popular with the masses (or even other thinkers). From Galileo to Newton, this funny graphic novel covers some of their wildest theories, like Earth not being the center of the cosmos.
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