Our World Explained: Illuminating Science Reads of 2020

Given that science was so much at the center of our lives this past year, it’s not a surprise that we saw many interesting science books published in 2020. Besides books about the pandemic, we had titles on animal and bird life, the science of fear and the breath, and about our connections to the cosmos and stars, among other topics that exemplified  how science informs our world and gives us a better understanding of it.

These engaging titles which so lucidly illuminate the findings of science to any casual reader and help inspire awe in our natural and material world are all available with your Livingston Library card.

The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another by Ainissa Ramirez

Ramirez shows not only how materials were shaped by inventors, but also how those materials shaped culture. Each chapter is titled with a verb to demonstrate how the meaning of that word was fashioned. Particularly, this book highlights how quartz clocks, steel rails, copper cables, silver photographic films, carbon light bulb filaments, magnetic disks, glass labware, and silicon chips radically altered how we interact, connect, convey, capture, see, share, discover, and think. 

The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age by Steve Olsen

A thrilling narrative of scientific triumph-and the unimaginable, world-ending peril it brought us. Fearing that the Germans would be the first to weaponize the atom, the United States marshaled brilliant minds and seemingly inexhaustible bodies to find a way to create a nuclear chain reaction with unimaginable explosive power.  It would begin with plutonium, the first element ever manufactured by humans. In a matter of months, a city designed to produce this dangerous material arose from the desert of eastern Washington State.  present. With his characteristic blend of scientific clarity and human stories, Steve Olson offers this dramatic story of human achievement-and hubris-to a new generation.

Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live by Nicholas A. Christakis

A deep, science-backed look at how the coronavirus pandemic will change the way we live forever.  Drawing on a combination of fascinating case studies and cutting-edge research from a range of scientific disciplines, bestselling author, physician, and sociologist Christakis explores what it means to live in a time of plague — an experience that is paradoxically uncommon to the vast majority of humans who are alive, yet deeply fundamental to our species as a whole.

Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace by Carl Safina

This book looks into three cultures of other-than-human beings in some of Earth’s remaining wild places. It shows how if you’re a sperm whale, a scarlet macaw, or a chimpanzee, you too experience your life with the understanding that you are an individual in a particular community. You too are who you are not by genes alone; your culture is a second form of inheritance. You receive it from thousands of individuals, from pools of knowledge passing through generations like an eternal torch.

By showing how others teach and learn, Safina offers a fresh understanding of what is constantly going on beyond humanity.

The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think by Jennifer Ackerman

There is the mammal way and there is the bird way. This is one scientist’s pithy distinction between mammal brains and bird brains: two ways to make a highly intelligent mind. But the bird way is much more than a unique pattern of brain wiring, and lately, scientists have taken a new look at bird behaviors they have, for years, dismissed as anomalies or mysteries. What they are finding is upending the traditional view of how birds conduct their lives, how they communicate, forage, court, breed, survive. They’re also revealing the remarkable intelligence underlying these activities, abilities we once considered uniquely our own–deception, manipulation, cheating, kidnapping, infanticide, but also, ingenious communication between species, cooperation, collaboration, altruism, culture, and play.

Black Hole Survival Guide by Janna Levin

An authoritative, wholly accessible, fascinating guide to the most challenging phenomena of contemporary science, which is now the anchor of our understanding of the cosmos. Levin explains how the existence of black holes came to be proven decades after they were first predicted in Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity. And she explores the ways in which what we know about them has changed our most basic understanding of the galaxy, the universe, the whole expanse of reality that we inhabit. 

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

There is nothing more essential to our health and wellbeing than breathing: take air in, let it out, repeat 25,000 times a day. Yet, as a species, humans have lost the ability to breathe correctly, with grave consequences. Science journalist Nestor travels the world to figure out what went wrong with our breathing and how to fix it. Drawing on thousands of years of medical texts and recent cutting-edge studies in pulmonology, psychology, biochemistry, and human physiology, Breath turns the conventional wisdom of what we thought we knew about our most basic biological function on its head. 

Clean: The New Science of Skin by James Hamblin

Hamblin explores the science and culture of how we care for our skin today. He talks to dermatologists, microbiologists, allergists, immunologists, aestheticians, bar-soap enthusiasts, venture capitalists, Amish people, theologians, and straight-up scam artists, trying to figure out what it really means to be clean. He even experiments with giving up showers entirely, and discovers that he is not alone. Along the way he realizes that most of our standards of cleanliness are less related to health than most people think. In fact, our overuse of soap, sanitizers, and untested, misleading skin-care products may be to blame for many problems. But a little-known area of science is shining light on our skin microbiome-the trillions of microbes that live on our skin and in our pores. 

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake

Sheldrake gets deep in the dirt with this wide ranging and ebullient exploration of the mycelial world. In rich poetic passages, he provides an eye opening glimpse into what life is like as a fungus, uncovering the ways their penchant for interconnectedness facilitates so much we rely on and how that may yet serve as a model for building a better world.

Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs

A blend of natural history, philosophy, and science that explores: How do whales experience ecological change? How has whale culture been both understood and altered by human technology? What can observing whales teach us about the complexity, splendor, and fragility of life?

The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health and Happiness by Emily Anthes

 In this wide-ranging, character-driven book, science journalist Anthes takes us on an adventure into the buildings in which we spend our days, exploring the profound, and sometimes unexpected, ways that they shape our lives. Drawing on cutting-edge research, she probes the pain-killing power of a well-placed window and examines how the right office layout can expand our social networks. She investigates how room temperature regulates our cognitive performance, how the microbes hiding in our homes influence our immune systems, and how cafeteria design affects what— and how much— we eat.  And she previews the homes of the future, from the high-tech houses that could monitor our health to the 3D-printed structures that might allow us to live on the Moon.

The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars by Jo Marchant

A  spellbinding parade of the ways different cultures celebrated the majesty and mysteries of the night sky is a journey to the most awe inspiring view you can ever see–looking up on a clear dark night. That experience and the thoughts it has engendered have radically shaped human civilization across millennia. The cosmos is the source of our greatest creativity in art, in science, in life. To show us how, Marchant takes us to the Hall of the Bulls in the caves at Lascaux in France, and to the summer solstice at a 5,000-year-old tomb at NewGrange in England. We discover Chumash cosmology and visit medieval monks grappling with the nature of time and Tahitian sailors navigating by the stars.

Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear by Eva Holland

Holland’s odyssey sheds light on universal questions: How do we feel fear, and why? Is fear necessary? Is it rooted in the body or the mind? And it brings her ever closer to knowing: Is there a better way to feel afraid? Finding the nerve to face down her fears, Holland not only shows us how to grapple with our own, but invites us to embrace them as a way to live happier and feel more alive.

-Archana, Adult Services & Acquisitions Librarian

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