The 10 Best Popular Science Books of 2016: Maths, Physics, Chemistry
This list of fabulous science reads will inspire you to stay strong in your resolution to read (more) books this year
Are you still working on your New Year’s Eve resolutions? Especially that resolution where you pledged to read (more) books this year? I certainly hope so!
This is the last of my best books of 2016 overviews that I will publish until the end of this year. Sadly, all of my 2016 lists were delayed until the beginning of this year because I was relocating to Norway. As a direct result of my recent move, I’ve got an important piece of free advice for you: never, ever sleep on the floor! If you do sleep on the floor (especially if it’s a stone floor), you could end up like I am right now: barely able to think or move due to an intensely painful pinched/trapped nerve.
But back to the books. I’m excited to finally share the last group of popular science books with you. This group of books that I think were the best to be published in 2016 focuses on chemistry, physics and mathematics. So if the other book lists that I published a few weeks ago (evolution/ecology/behavior, environment/conservation and birds/birding) did not spark your interest, then these titles surely will.
From ground beef mixed with horsemeat in the UK and in parts of the EU, to toxic melamine in children’s milk and pet food in China, at least some of the food that we eat has been intentionally adulterated, mislabeled, or otherwise manipulated in the name of profit. But behind the scenes, teams of forensic scientists and chemists are combatting food fraud using a variety of modern cutting-edge methods. Chemical tests, microscopy, chromatography, spectroscopy, DNA analysis and stable isotope analysis provide diagnostic information about food and where it originated. Relying on scientific data as well as case studies, the authors show you the (sometimes lengthy) supply chains involved in modern food production, and point out specifically where food fraud occurs. Not only will this gripping and fast-paced book scare the hell out of you, but it will open your eyes and make you a more discerning consumer — and it may make you into a devoted locavore.
Considering that there are thousands of venomous creatures in the world, it may surprise you to learn that generally, very little is known about what their toxins are comprised of, how they work at the molecular level and how they evolved. In this book, evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explains the difference between “poisonous” and “venomous”, the evolutionary purpose of these toxins, the biochemistry of how these toxins work in the body, and she also also introduces the reader to a plethora of venomous animals, ranging from squishy or spineless creatures (particularly wasps, bees and ants), to reptiles and amphibians, and even some mammals. Wilcox points out that some of these venoms are very useful; having been adopted as medicinal drugs that, say, control blood pressure or clotting. This book shows how a detailed understanding of venoms provides a deeper understanding of evolution, adaptation and immunity. Although nonspecialists may find some of the chemistry slow going, I think the story itself is compelling enough to keep readers engaged.
This captivating book is a collection of stunning photographs that capture frequently repeating mathematical patterns in nature. These images depict patterns in living things, from pollen to animals, and in non-living things, from lightning to landscapes. Images are accompanied by brief, but clear, explanations for how these patterns can be generated by Fibonacci ratios, suggesting they result from simple self-organization. Excellent coffee table companion to the author’s earlier Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts series, which describe in detail how physics and chemistry influence and interweave with evolution (biology) to create patterns and symmetry in nature. This book is a visual feast that can serve as a source of wonder and inspiration for artists and naturalists as well as scientists.
Science differs from religion and other belief systems because science relies on observing natural phenomenon and then testing one’s understanding of those observations by creating testable predictions. And so it was, even for Einstein: In 2016, a team of scientists made history when they announced they had detected a gravitational wave — confirming a prediction made 100 years earlier by Einstein. Gravitational waves are infinitesimal ripples in the fabric of spacetime that are generated by immeasurably powerful events. This meticulously researched book tells the very human story of these scientists, and the story of the most sensitive scientific instrument ever created: LIGO.
In this luminous account, we learn about some of the secrets that we’ve discovered about the universe — from Copernicus’s model of the solar system to the latest models of the Big Bang — and the brilliant people who helped us see the light. The author, Priyamvada Natarajan, a professor at Yale, clearly describes the evidence and logic leading to each discovery. In addition to describing the actual science in a readable way, Natarajan also recognizes the incredible engineering feats that provide the experimental framework that make physicists’ revelations possible — great discoveries are often dependent upon inventions of essential tools. Throughout, the various false alarms, blind alleys, and incomplete ideas are discussed, making the reader acutely aware that science is not a linear progression of ideas but instead, it is an often meandering human endeavor. This book is an accessible overview of physics that will be appreciated by specialists as well as nonspecialists.
This book interweaves the personal story of Enrico Fermi, the last physicist to master both theoretical and experimental physics, with the story of the Manhattan Project and a basic overview of nuclear physics. The book explains Fermi’s considerable contributions to a variety of diverse fields, such as as comic rays, nuclear technology, and even early computers. So brilliant was Fermi, that his scientific colleagues gave him the nickname “The Pope” because they said he was always right. Despite his genius, Fermi was reputed to be a warm, caring and socially responsible man who mentored some of the best scientific minds of the age: indeed, more of Fermi’s students went on to win Nobel Prizes of their own than any other scientist. I was surprised to learn that even though he had fled to America from Nazi Italy, Fermi had a deep desire to live an apolitical life, where he could pursue science for its own sake and without regard for how others might end up using it to further their social or political ends. Although physicists may be disappointed with the general lack of depth into Fermi’s landmark work, this book will likely appeal to physics students and to all those who enjoy reading about science and history, especially nuclear physics and World War II.
This entertaining and enlightening book is an overview of the latest discoveries in astrophysics. It introduces the reader to a wide variety of interesting topics such as solar systems, black holes, wormholes, multiverses, unique types of stars, space colonization, superstring theory, warp drives, and time travel, just to name a few. It also includes illuminating analogies and examples, fascinating ideas and mathematical formulae (these formulae may scare some people, but if you read the accompanying text, you will discover these equations are well-explained.) The writing is witty yet informative, and the book is beautifully illustrated. This book will appeal to all those who wish to learn more about the universe from three internationally prominent astrophysicists.
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly [2016, William Morrow and Company; Amazon US; Amazon UK]
Space exploration is often portrayed as the sole bastion of white men, so this book is a welcome surprise because it focuses on a group of female African-American mathematicians who played crucial roles in NASA’s space program. During the Jim Crow South and the Civil Rights movement, when African-Americans suffered greatly from racism and segregation, these remarkable “colored computers” (as these women were then known), performed thousands of mathematical calculations that launched rockets — carrying white men — into orbit. Based upon interviews with NASA officials and engineers, documents, correspondences, and personal recollections, this book shares the incredible but unrecognized stories of five trailblazing “computers” (Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine) who changed the world. This is my favorite science book of 2016.
Before NASA, there was JPL — the Jet Propulsion Lab, which was started by a group of white male rocket scientists in the 1930s on the campus of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. During this time, some of the women in the founders’ lives who had degrees in math, physics, engineering or chemistry were — not surprisingly — experiencing problems finding work. JPL ended up hiring these women as cheap “human computers” so they could perform the mathematical calculations necessary for putting rockets and satellites into specific locations in the sky. Although the coverage of the science and of the space program was good, I was surprised and annoyed by what I saw as excessive details about the “rocket girls’” physical appearances, clothing, romantic entanglements. (I realize that not everyone will share my reaction.) Despite my complaint, this book covers a somewhat overlapping period of time as Hidden Figures and thus, it is a good companion to that book, especially for younger or nonspecialist readers.
What could be more engaging than a wacky true story about sports and maths? In this book, we follow the adventures of two baseball analysts, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, who are offered the chance to oversee the day-to-day functioning of an independent minor-league baseball team, the Sonoma Stompers, using advanced statistical methods (called sabermetrics). This means the authors had the freedom to choose the roster and the lineup, decide on strategies, eliminate or reposition players, or switch outfield positions — as long as the authors had the statistical data to support their decisions. The authors worked with real players, in a real ballpark, in a real playoff race. The only rule was that all their innovations must work. Each author wrote alternating chapters from his own perspective, detailing how they used statistics to improve the team, and their struggles to implement their plans. More than just a tale about number-crunching, the book is a fascinating and honest personal story about whether sabermetrics can be used to create a functioning baseball team. Even if you don’t like baseball or statistics, you’ll love this wonderful — human — story.
My other “best popular science books of 2016” lists
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Originally published at Forbes on 16 February 2017.