Gift Guide 2015: Books on Science, Tech,
Engineering, and Math
In his 1840 lecture “The Hero as Man of Letters,” philosopher, historian, and critic Thomas Carlyle declared, “The true university of these days is a collection of books.” Even now, in the Internet age, some of us delight most of all in gifts that expand our own personal campuses.
If some folks on your list are always looking to add more volumes to their College of Science, we at American Scientist are here with some suggestions.
So here it is—our 2015 science books gift guide.
Books for Children
Large-Format Picture Books
Atlas of Knowledge: Anyone Can Map. Katy Börner. 224 pp. MIT Press, 2015. $39.95.
If you like infographics and want to know more of what’s behind them, this book is for you. It covers topics ranging from the rise of nanotechnology and the growth of data usage to baleen whale migration densities across the major shipping route located at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay. A large segment of the book features entries written by scientists who discuss specific research projects they’ve conducted and the graphics that resulted. That portion is preceded by sections that define various types of maps and data acquisitions and is followed by a section of resources. Although the book is not a DIY intro to mapping, it provides a jumping-off point for those who want to do more themselves. —Fenella Saunders
Biophilia. Christopher Marley. 288 pp. Abrams, 2015. $50.00.
Christopher Marley, an artist whose medium is preserved natural specimens, has become famous for his colorful artworks featuring arthropods grouped and photographed in painterly ways. A few years ago he hit upon the idea of stretching his compositional range by using frozen specimens of a wide array of creatures, from parrots to puffer fish. He developed relationships with institutions and individuals who preserve specimens and began experimenting. Biophilia (or “love of life”) presents the results of this work, as well as a section featuring his more familiar medium of insect specimens and other compositions showcasing fossils and minerals. The results are kaleidoscopic. Paging through this collection of photos is like viewing a natural history museum with Miriam Shapiro-commissioned displays. The book surprises and delights throughout. Biophilia should have great appeal for anyone who appreciates art and design; those with an interest in entomology, herpetology, or ornithology may be especially intrigued. —Dianne Timblin
The Butterflies of North America: Titian Peale’s Lost Manuscript. American Museum of Natural History. 256 pp. Abrams, 2015. $40.00.
Not every nature lover enjoys walkin’ in a winter wonderland. For those who prefer to hibernate until spring, a book of butterflies may be just the right gift for whiling away the dark days indoors. Throughout most of the 19th century, Titian Ramsay Peale II studied and portrayed every species of Lepidoptera he could find, in every phase of its life cycle. The Butterflies of North America, left unpublished for 130 years after the artist’s death, now finally does his work justice. This collection of sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings display Peale’s attentive eye and his instinct for capturing exactly the right color in the tiger stripes of a caterpillar or the dim underside of a wing. Facsimiles of his written notes on the behavior and habitat of hundreds of species testify to a natural historian’s abiding respect for his subject. —Sandra J. Ackerman
The Cell: A Visual Tour of the Building Block of Life. Jack Challoner. 192 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2015. $40.00.
In his beautiful visual exploration of the cell, Jack Challoner uses an exuberance of imaging techniques as well as infographics and data figures to illustrate this fundamental unit of life. Handsome and elegantly designed, this tour through the cell’s history and diversity in form and function is a delight to peruse. Each page is its own lovely rabbit hole, parsed to allow for quick snippets of “cyte-seeing” or hours-long, leisurely pleasure reading. This stunning collection would make a winning addition to the library of any lover of life and science. —Katie L. Burke
Coloring the Universe: An Insider’s Look at Making Spectacular Images of Space. Travis A. Rector, Kimberly Arcand, and Megan Watzke. 250 pp. University of Alaska Press, 2015. $50.00.
A large percentage of the spectacular astronomy images we see are colorized, but why? The authors of this volume show amazing photos, but also explain cogently and clearly how various filters capture different elements, for instance, and what astrophysicists can visualize through false color that would normally be invisible to the naked eye. Several images are shown in multiple versions, with different light wavelengths highlighted, to demonstrate the varying techniques. The colors may be eye-catching, but understanding their usefulness makes for a much deeper viewing experience. —Fenella Saunders
Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space through Time. Michael Benson. 320 pp. Abrams, 2014. $50.00.
This gorgeous work from the author of Planetfall: New Solar System Visions blends art with science to chronicle how humans have grappled with understanding and visualizing the cosmos. The book’s artwork and scientific drawings—presented meticulously, sumptuously—invite wonder and reverie. Bit by bit, Benson shows illustrates how cosmological knowledge and cultural philosophies have functioned as fellow travelers (although not always friendly ones) century by century, even as they inexorably changed. Cosmigraphics is pure catnip for those interested in the history of science. Yet it’s also worth noting that the copy on my desk stopped nearly all observers in their tracks: Artists, editors, and scientists alike paged through it, transfixed. —Dianne Timblin (Read our review by Corey S. Powell.)
Dragonflies: Magnificent Creatures of Water, Air, and Land. Pieter van Dokkum. 176 pp. Yale University Press, 2015. $37.50.
Astronomer Pieter van Dokkum habitually peers through some of the planet’s most powerful telescopes. He clearly knows his way around a camera lens as well. An expert photographer of insects, he shares his specialty here: dragonflies. The accompanying text makes for an enlightening read as he guides readers through each stage of these creatures’ perilous and predatory lives. —Dianne Timblin (Read our review by Fenella Saunders.)
Hyper Nature. Philippe Martin. 176 pp. Firefly, 2015. $39.95.
Hyper Nature is the culmination of a dream. Philippe Martin, an innovative nature photographer, spent years pursuing his ambition to produce images with the subject in perfect focus. Large spreads and a striking three-dimensional quality (developed using Martin’s own Hyper Focus process) make every subject, from grotesquely coiled snakes (much too close for comfort) to delicate orchids, seem to jump off the page. The lifelike reproductions of insects and reptiles may give some viewers the creepy-crawlies, but even the squeamish may find themselves drawn in, as the stunning detail of each shot invites deeper scrutiny. Nature photographers and digital imaging enthusiasts alike will enjoy the last section of the book, which unpacks the process, showing the images in their earliest state, then again as the process is partly complete, and at last fully realized. Martin’s technique requires an amalgamation of many photographs taken with different focus points. Larger subjects can require upward of 25 hours to digitally process. Martin’s love of detail shows through, as each photograph is accompanied by a brief description of the subject, its relevant ecology, any imaging flaws, and photography specs such as f-stop and aperture. From a newly emerged common cicada’s three red eyes to a male cuckoo roller’s iridescent feathers to a tiny spider photobombing a june bug’s portrait, the details that spring from the pages of Hyper Nature incite all sorts of reactions to the book’s array of subjects: freakish monstrosities, surreal dreamscapes, and the alluring grace of sentient forms. —Katie L. Burke
Infinite Worlds: The People and Places of Space Exploration. Michael Soluri. 355 pp. Simon and Schuster, 2014. $40.00.
Photographer Michael Soluri documents NASA’s last space shuttle mission, which focused on saving the Hubble Space Telescope. Soluri, a 15-year veteran of documenting space programs, was given full access to the multiple facilities where mission preparations were under way. In addition, after quizzing the crew about the quality of light in space, he coached them on photographic tools and techniques, enabling them to vividly capture their experience of the journey. This appealing book puts readers shoulder-to-shoulder with those working with all aspects of NASA’s shuttle program, a boon to the armchair astronaut. —Dianne Timblin (Read our review by Corey S. Powell.)
Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail. Dave Arnold. 416 pp. W. W. Norton, 2014. $35.00.
“Think like a scientist,” says author Dave Arnold, “and you will make better drinks.” His 400-page cocktail compendium demonstrates precisely how. Emily Buehler, who reviewed Liquid Intelligence for our book review section, Scientists’ Nightstand, admires Arnold’s scientific approach, noting that his book “contains a mind-boggling amount of information about the physics and chemistry at work in seemingly simple mixed drinks.” The proprietor of Booker and Dax, a high-tech bar in New York’s East Village, Arnold has made a career of applying science and the scientific method to improve the quality and consistency of the traditional drinks he serves, as well as to concoct new ones. An organic chemistry lecture inspired his minty drink The Carvone, for example, which he describes as “a study in chirality.” (Chiral molecules can be constructed in two ways—both versions have the same structure but are composed as mirror images.) In the pages of Liquid Intelligence readers can find answers to questions they didn’t even know they had, delving into the science behind proper lime juicing, ice making, and herb muddling. While they’re at it, they can snag plenty of drink recipes, some of which involve liquid nitrogen. —Dianne Timblin (Read Buehler’s review.)
Mathematics + Art: A Cultural History. Lynn Gamwell. 556 pp. Princeton University Press, 2015. $49.50.
It’s not uncommon for art to have its roots extend back into mathematicial concepts, and Gamwell shows this connection strongly in Mathematics + Art. Beginning with the early stages of geometry and arithmetic and extending to computer-generated abstract art, Gamwell shows how mathematical concepts enter the cultural mainstream and are eventually portrayed and even explained through art. The examples can occasionally be gruesome—in one case, the author seems to congratulate a 17th-century artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, who corresponded with Galileo, for properly portraying the parabolic arcs of blood spurts during a decapitation. But the breadth of examples only reinforces the author’s point that both math, and art, are everywhere. —Fenella Saunders
Molecules: The Elements and Architecture of Everything. Theodore Gray, with photographs by Nick Mann. 240 pp. Black Dog and Leventhal, 2014. $29.95. E-book app for iPhone and iPad, Touch Press, 2014. $13.99.
Wolfram Alpha cofounder Theodore Gray follows up on his book The Elements with Molecules, which presents the next step in the progression, illustrating molecular structures formed by these elements, the items or circumstances in which they appear, and how they interact with their surroundings. Enticingly designed, the book is approachable while retaining the nerd cred of its predecessor. Among many topics, Gray discusses naming conventions, organic versus inorganic compounds, and the relation of certain molecules to sensory information such as smells, colors, and sweet and salty tastes. Chemistry and materials science enthusiasts can expect an informative read packed with transfixing visuals, including elegant molecular diagrams; readers more expert in chemistry may be interested in topical sections, such as the chapter on pain and pleasure. —Dianne Timblin (Read our review by Fenella Saunders.)
The Oldest Living Things in the World. Rachel Sussman. 304 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2014. $45.00.
In this quietly beautiful book filled with sumptuous earth tones, photographer Rachel Sussman documents continuously living organisms 2,000 years old and older, from Greenlandic lichens to a colony of aspens that has thrived in Utah for 80,000 years, exploring biological and environmental factors along the way. The accompanying text captures Sussman’s enthusiasm for her project and reads like the field diary of an amiable obsessive. —Dianne Timblin (Read our review by Katie L. Burke.)
The Puzzle Universe: A History of Mathematics in 315 Puzzles. Ivan Moscovich. 394 pp. Firefly, 2015. $39.95.
First things first: To ease your mind, yes, this book includes an answer section as well. But Moscovich, a celebrated puzzle inventor, makes a compelling case for puzzle solving as a means of developing creativity and even intelligence, so you might want to give it a go to solve a few on your own before consulting the answers. Colorful illustrations are mixed with historical notes about famous mathematicians, all kinds of puzzles and games, and discussions of objects ranging from gears to the Sphinx—making this book all the more engaging for puzzle enthusiasts and those interested in the history of science. (Mentioned in the book, incidentally, is Albrecht Dürer’s magic square, which was featured in a 2012 American Scientist article.) —Fenella Saunders
Spaceshots and Shapshots of Projects Mercury and Gemini: A Rare Photographic History. John Bisney and J. L. Pickering. 224 pp. University of New Mexico Press, 2015. $45.00.
Moonshots and Snapshots of Project Apollo: A Rare Photographic History. John Bisney and J. L. Pickering. 272 pp. University of New Mexico Press, 2015. $55.00.
More than 50 years after it began, the true impact of the great Space Race remains highly opaque: Was the Apollo mission the first step in a grand cosmic exploration, or a dead-end oddity of Cold War competition? Despite grand pronouncements (from the United States, Russia, and now China) about sending astronauts back to the Moon or on to Mars, such programs remain anchored more in hopes and good intentions than in hardware and funding. These paired books by John Bisney, a veteran space journalist, and J. L. Pickering, a spaceflight historian, provide reason for optimism. In their visually detailed documentation of NASA’s early feats, they illustrate the staggering things human ingenuity can achieve when properly motivated. Seeing 1960s technology pushed to such extremes hints thrillingly at what would be possible today. The two volumes are also a delight simply as documents of space history. They include many rarely seen photographs, presented in a logical chronology and reliably paired with helpful, detailed captions (something missing from far too many books of this type). Together, the books are a treat for any space buff and, for the true believers, a reminder that even greater journeys may lie just ahead. —Corey S. Powell
Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. Randall Munroe. 64 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. $24.95.
Xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe’s second book is a doozy. This (very) large-format collection of explainers features blueprint-style drawings of everything from the periodic table to padlocks, batteries to bridges, and the U.S. Constitution to the USS Constitution. Each item is described in hilariously exact detail, its inner workings and overall function explained using only the 1,000 most common words in English. The result is comically stilted, edifying fun. —Dianne Timblin (Read our review by Henry Reich.)
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For the Armchair Historian
Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything. Salvatore Basile. 288 pp. Fordham University Press, 2014. $29.95.
In this cultural and technological history of air conditioning, Basile conveys the effort that went into perfecting cooling techniques, as well as the surprising difficulty involved in convincing consumers that air conditioning devices were actually desirable. Basile is a gifted storyteller, and he does a yeoman’s job of describing the various mechanical cooling techniques and devices. HVAC equipment is very tricky to write about with accuracy, clarity, and flair, but he pulls off the trifecta: This book reads like butter. Readers interested in engineering, materials science, sociology, science history, or just plain great writing will find this book—yes, I’ll say it—extremely cool. —Dianne Timblin (Read our review as well as our extended discussion of the book via historical images of mechanical cooling.)
Relativity: 100th Anniversary Edition. Albert Einstein, edited by Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn. 300 pp. Princeton University Press, 2015. $26.95.
The Road to Relativity: The History and Meaning of Einstein’s “The Foundation of General Relativity”. Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn. 237 pp. Princeton University Press, 2015. $30.00.
Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity. Andrew Robinson. 256 pp. Princeton University Press, 2015. $24.95.
No self-respecting holiday book guide would be complete without some tome or another on a new aspect of Einstein, but this year marks the centennial of Albert Einstein’s final version of his general theory of relativity, defining how the force of gravity arises for the curvature of space and time by means of matter and energy. The very same year, Einstein wrote a popular book to explain the concept of relativity. The paired books by Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn—Relativity and The Road to Relativity—provide not only a reprint of the original handwritten manuscript of the first work and a complete rerelease of the second, but also add context, historical notes and stories, and a reading companion to further explain Einstein’s ideas. For anyone who wants to get to know Einstein’s ideas in his own words, these books are a great place to start. Robinson’s offering, Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity, which collects historical images and documents in more of the style of a coffee table book, provides a broad biographical overview to Einstein’s life and work, complementing the other two volumes well. —Fenella Saunders
For the Biophiliac
The Amazing World of Flyingfish. Steve N. G. Howell. 60 pp. Princeton University Press, 2014. $12.95.
Naturalist Steve Howell’s slim, distinctive book lavishes long-overdue attention on the Exocoetidae family, discussing their habits, their role in the food chain, and how and why they fly (or glide, more precisely—their winglike pectoral fins allow them to sail through the air, sometimes as far as 600 feet). Howell doesn’t stint on artwork: The book contains 94 color photos, many of them his own. As a book review editor I’m fortunate enough, year by year, to see dozens of smart, beautiful books that focus on a selected species. Many are memorable—but Howell’s gemlike paean to the flyingfish is a book I simply can’t stop thinking about. —Dianne Timblin
The House of Owls. Tony Angell. 224 pp. Yale University Press, 2015. $30.00.
Tony Angell, an artist and naturalist long bewitched by owls, presents his own stunning pen and ink illustrations of these creatures alongside a wealth of information about their characteristics and habits. Much of the book focuses on his family’s experiences as nesting box keepers as his children grow up watching generations of western screech owl nestlings face formidable risks and—if they remain safe, well, and fortunate enough—take flight. The last section of the book serves as a field guide, and it includes generous descriptions as well as Angell’s illustrations of every North American owl species. Throughout, The House of Owls emphasizes, from a conservation perspective, the interaction between owls and humans. Although most people will never see one of these well-camouflaged nocturnal birds in the wild, the quality and thoughtfulness of humans’ interaction with them (especially in terms of infrastructure, as development encroaches on owl habitats) is crucial if they’re to thrive. —Dianne Timblin (Read our review.)
Phytomedicines, Herbal Drugs, and Poisons. Ben-Erik van Wyck and Michael Wink. 304 pp. University of Chicago Press and Kew Publishing, 2015. $45.00.
This overview of herbal medicine across the globe is unique in its broad take on the subject. Instead of delving into any one medical system in particular, Phytomedicines, Herbal Drugs, and Poisons gathers and summarizes information from herbal medicine traditions from all seven continents, examining the similarities between them. Lucidly presented in the style of an introductory textbook and field guide, the book distills the scientific literature on herbal medicine, covering basic chemistry, history, botany, philosophy, pharmacology, and regulatory policy. Sections that stand out as particularly useful and unusual for a book on herbal medicine include one that explains various debates over the efficacy of herbal traditions and another that gives a basic overview of the chemical methods for identifying or extracting active compounds. Although this book is not comprehensive or detailed enough by itself to teach readers how a particular herbal tradition may be applied, it could be an important reference for practitioners, as well as a very useful book for those interested in or teaching the subject of herbal medicines generally, especially before diving into the scientific and regulatory literature. —Katie L. Burke
Save the Bees with Natural Backyard Hives: The Easy and Treatment-Free Way to Attract and Keep Healthy Bees. Rob and Chelsea McFarland. 189 pp. Page Street Publishing, $21.99.
The rather evangelical tone of this book’s title initially put me off. But inside the headline is a solid introduction to amateur beekeeping, with engaging photography. There are clear designs showing how to build inexpensive equipment, good descriptions of bees and their society, and level-headed advice for what to do to avoid rookie mistakes. Whether setting up a backyard hive might help with bee decline is something readers should form their own opinions about, but for those looking to get into the hobby, this book provides some clear paths to start. (Incidentally, the research of Thomas Seeley on how bees find a new home, which he wrote about in the May–June 2006 issue of American Scientist, is mentioned in the book.) —Fenella Saunders
For the Enthusiast
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. Kathryn Harkup. 318 pp. Bloomsbury, 2015. $27.00.
The publishing industry has a particular term for mystery novels set in quaint villages, where the crime is solved by an eccentric old lady or mustachioed foreign gentleman. They’re called cosies—not just as an homage to that most British of objects, the tea cosy that keeps the teapot warm, but also because the reader can relax into the tales’ familiar framework as comfortably as into an old armchair. Agatha Christie’s stories exemplify this type of murder-without-mayhem, and now her legions of fans can claim to be learning a bit of chemistry while vicariously sleuthing, because this lady knew her poisons. Written by a former research chemist, A is for Arsenic takes us through 14 of the toxic substances featured in Christie’s mysteries, explaining each poison’s likely source, means of administration, symptoms, and mechanism of action, while also offering up some delightfully horrid anecdotes about the use of poisons throughout human history. Although a book on death by poisoning may not be a universally appropriate gift, if you know a mystery reader who also happens to be a science buff, this volume may be just his or her cup of peculiar-tasting tea. —Sandra J. Ackerman
Crucial Interventions: An Illustrated Treatise on the Principles and Practice of Nineteenth-Century Surgery. Richard Barnett. 256 pp. Thames and Hudson, 2015. $35.00.
This book is not for the squeamish. I repeat: This book is not for the squeamish. The subtitle indicating that the book focuses on the practice of 19th-century surgery should get that across fairly clearly; nevertheless, it appears in tiny (although beautiful) gold letters on the book’s cover, perhaps easily missed. Once you open the book, however, the wonder of the human body, the skill of medical illustrators, and the relative horror of 19th-century surgeries, even under the best possible conditions, become abundantly clear. Generously illustrated, mostly in color, with historical drawings and diagrams, this book—in all its gory, explicit glory, with its pages and pages of surgical illustrations and tidy illustrations of row after row of medical instruments—is a stunner. The text, by Richard Barnett, who became a historian after having studied medicine, is intelligent and thoughtful. Organized into sections based on regions of the body (“Head and Neck,” “Upper Body,” and “Lower Body”) that are subdivided into chapters focusing on specific body parts, the book is interspersed with helpful interchapters on topics such as anesthesia, antisepsis, and surgery and war. Barnett’s opening section examining the history of surgery before the 19th century provides useful context; his closing discussion, “Under the Knife: The Patient’s Perspective,” strikes an important note clearly and well. This is a book sure to be coveted by historians of health and medicine, as well as medical practitioners who are fascinated by the history of their field. But did I mention it’s not for the squeamish? —Dianne Timblin
A Naturalist Goes Fishing: Casting in Fragile Waters from the Gulf of Mexico to New Zealand’s South Island. James McClintock. 268 pp. St. Martin's Press, 2015. $26.00.
James McClintock is an Antarctic marine biologist and a writer of compulsively readable prose. (If you haven’t checked out his book Lost Antarctica, do.) To describe McClintock as an avid angler would be an understatement—obsessive is the term that comes to mind, but even that may not do his passion justice. Each chapter focuses on a specific fishing location and the variety of fish he sought there, an approach that allows readers to tag along on McClintock’s fishing trips around the globe, from New Zealand to the French Mediterranean. The final chapter, “Fishing for Solutions,” discusses conservation. (It may seem counterintuitive to some, but anglers and hunters have a storied history of advancing conservation initiatives.) A caveat: This is a gorgeously written book, but it’s likely to entrance serious fishers only. That said, it’s a fishing nerd’s dream, brimming with great yarns and layered throughout with transfixing, detailed descriptions of the natural world. Here’s a sample from the chapter on fishing for rainbow trout in New Zealand: “Fifteen minutes after the strike, I beached a spectacular rainbow. The deep red tint of the fat, 26-inch, 17-pound trout pointed toward a mature female, its tattered tail testament to sweeping spawning beds.” Some readers might find themselves scratching their heads, puzzling over the details or wondering what possible drama the description might convey. But I know a few scientist-anglers who would thrill at such a sentence—all the more so to find a book crammed full of them. Perhaps you know a few folks like this too; maybe you’re even one yourself. —Dianne Timblin
The Quotable Feynman. Edited by Michelle Feynman. 488 pp. Princeton University Press, 2015. $24.95.
Legendary physicist Richard Feynman needs no introduction. But why is that? What makes a person, particularly a scientist, legendary? An introduction to The Quotable Feynman by cellist Yo-Yo Ma (who knew the scientist through Feynman’s daughter’s interest in the cello) gives us a hint: Feynman incorporated all of his other life interests into his work, expressing his grandiose personality even through his science. This collection of quotes from Feynman attempts to capture that personality in discrete phrases, offering glimpses into the man and his take on the world. Some of the quotes are a bit mundane, whereas others are an obvious product of his time—Feynman’s behavior was complex, and some of his quotes about love and women could be taken in a derogatory light. But for those who are fascinated by the man, this collection could provide inspiration. —Fenella Saunders
For the Epicure
The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. J. Kenji López-Alt. 958 pp. W. W. Norton, 2015. $49.95.
Kenji López-Alt—managing culinary director of Serious Eats, James Beard Award-nominated Food Lab columnist, and MIT grad—was already much buzzed about in the culinary world when the publishing sphere began buzzing about his book deal a few years ago. The Food Lab is the tome that resulted, a 938-page compendium of recipes and preparation narratives for dishes that have all been subjected to López-Alt’s meticulous testing to discover the most straightforward method for yielding the tastiest result. López-Alt relies on his working knowledge of science, his years of experience as a chef, and his penchant for extensive testing to resolve longstanding kitchen controversies over things like the best way to hard boil an egg. Along the way, readers learn not only how to master a technique but exactly why, scientifically, it works. —Dianne Timblin (Read our review by Eric Schulze.)
Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste. Ole G. Mouritsen and Klavs Styrbæk. 280 pp. Columbia University Press, 2014. $34.95.
Considered the fifth taste (with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter flavors the better known in Western cultures), umami is complex and savory. Diners may readily enjoy it in foods such as mushrooms, aged cheeses, and shellfish, but chefs and home cooks alike may also highlight umami flavors through their use of sauces and food preparation techniques. Chemist Ole Mouritsen (author of Seaweeds, excerpted in American Scientist in 2013) and chef Klavs Styrbæk team up to discuss the history and chemistry of the fifth taste, as well as the nutritional benefits of accentuating umami—instead of relying on salt, fat, and sugar—when preparing and seasoning food. —Dianne Timblin (Read our review by Sandra J. Ackerman.)
For the Interdisciplinarian
The New York Times Book of Science: More than 150 Years of Groundbreaking Scientific Coverage. Edited by David Corcoran. 560 pp. Sterling, 2015. $24.95.
Between 1860 and 2015, a great deal of what we think of as the modern world was discovered, developed, and explored by means of science and related fields. Atomic energy, the lifesaving power of penicillin, how stars are born, and the exact location of the South Pole—strange as it may seem, at one time all these revelations were breaking news, to be proclaimed and (to the extent possible) clearly explained, all within the confines of a newspaper story. Edited by David Corcoran, the longtime “Science Times” section editor, and with a foreword by Brian Greene, a cofounder of the World Science Festival, this volume is a unique collection of “You Are There” vignettes from some of the most remarkable moments in recent intellectual history. —Sandra J. Ackerman
We Are All Stardust: Scientists Who Shaped Our World Talk about Their Work, Their Lives, and What They Still Want to Know. Stefan Klein. 265 pp. The Experiment, 2015. $14.95.
With a lineup that includes Craig Venter, Jane Goodall, Roald Hoffmann, Martin Rees, Richard Dawkins, and Jared Diamond, Stefan Klein’s interviews with some of the most eminent scientists of our time could hardly fail to be engaging. The concept that curiosity is paramount for scientists weaves throughout the book as Klein tries to grasp how scientists draw their inspiration, and from where. The closing section presents a rather whimsical imagined interview with Leonardo da Vinci that elicits answers directly from da Vinci’s manuscripts and notebooks. Like the rest of the book, this imagined interview conveys Klein’s drive to portray scientists as human beings, with strong views on the world. His interview subjects explain their science clearly and display their passions vividly, making this an engaging introduction to a great breadth of scientific topics. —Fenella Saunders
Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies. César Hidalgo. 256 pp. Basic, 2015. $26.99.
Pulling together information theory, biology, sociology, physics, neuroscience, and economics, César Hidalgo explains how he sees networks as the scaffolding that supports the everyday operations of our world. This heady and thought-provoking read, clearly explained in common language, elegantly transcends disciplinary boundaries. In Hidalgo’s world, everything ordered is information, which grows in the face of a universe that favors deterioration into chaos. The conditions that allow for this unique growth underlie the function of living organisms, ecosystems, economies, and societies. Hidalgo sees a car, for example, not simply as a product, but as an organized set of atoms existing in a solid state birthed from a human imagination—a crystal of imagination, as he poetically dubs such objects—and one that only comes to fruition when people with the right knowledge and knowhow are linked together in a network. An apt gift for the big-picture thinker in your life, it’s sure to leave the reader lost in thought experiments for months to come. —Katie L. Burke
For the Scientist’s Stocking
Findings: An Illustrated Collection. Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, illustrated by Graham Roumieu. 144 pp. Twelve Books, 2015. $20.00.
This slim, satisfying book collects dozens of items that Rafil Kroll-Zaidi has compiled for Harper’s “Findings” column—lovingly crafted summations of research study results that read like philosophical one-liners overcarefully translated from some thorny, obscure language—and pairs them with Graham Roumieu’s delightful black-and-white illustrations in ink and watercolor. These items read alternately like dystopian news briefs (“The U.S. military reported progress in its cyborg insects program and in building robots that can power themselves by eating the bodies of those they kill; the developers have promised that all ‘EATR’ robots will be told not to eat people”), bizarro science-fiction natural history reports (“The world’s supercolonies of Argentine ants compose a single ant empire that stretches across six continents”), and surrealist poetry (“Bees can remember human faces, but only if they are tricked into thinking that we are strange flowers”). Scicomm folks may be especially interested in a conversation with Kroll-Zada that appears after the Findings section; and for the insatiably curious, citations at the back of the book direct readers to the studies on which the Findings nuggets are based. But I’d suggest having a coffee or taking a walk before digging into source materials. Gulping down 20 or more Findings at a sitting can be mind-altering; not only will you want to shake off this skewed mental state before poring over sober scientific studies, but you may also want to live in Kroll-Zada’s world just a little bit longer. —Dianne Timblin
Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, and Other Graphic Patterns. Jude Stewart. 152 pp. Bloomsbury, 2015. $25.00.
Part visual mathematics, part social and psychological study, and part technological history, Patternalia may surprise you in its ability to weave together so many themes into a topic based on dots and stripes. Why do prisoners wear striped uniforms? Why are bikinis so often polka-dotted? Why are checked patterns associated with law enforcement in large portions of the world? Bite-sized sections, which are cross-referenced to each other throughout, answer these questions and more, allowing the reader to peruse the book randomly or linearly, each approach equally edifying. —Fenella Saunders
Books for Children
Human Body Theater. Maris Wicks. 234 pp. First Second Books, 2015. $14.99.
In Human Body Theater, a vibrant graphic-novel-slash-explainer written and illustrated by Maris Wicks, a skeleton mistress of ceremonies guides the reader through all of the systems of the human body, from respiratory to reproductive, from endocrine to excretory. An enormous cast of cute and wisecracking characters—molecules, cells, bacteria, organs, hormones, fluids, and body parts, to name a few—perform in the 11-act show. The book is colorful, zany, and packed with science. Readers young and old will love this book. —Barbara Aulicino
I Am Albert Einstein. Written by Brad Melzer; illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos. 40 pp. Dial Books, 2014. $12.99.
As a kid, Albert Einstein was told by grown-ups and peers that he would “never amount to anything” because he was quiet and he daydreamed. But he didn’t listen. In I Am Albert Einstein, Brad Meltzer tells this genius’s story to show that it’s not just okay to be different—it can be your secret to success. —Katie L. Burke
Junk Drawer Physics. Bobby Mercer. 208 pp. Chicago Review Press, 2014. $14.95.
Ages 9 and up.
For parents who aren’t sure where to start when trying to introduce their children to science experiments, it’s tempting to buy premade kits. Mercer nips this proclivity in the bud by showing how inexpensive stuff found around your house can be turned into engaging projects. Projects advance in difficulty in each section—the early ones are simpler and hand-assembled, but some of the later ones might require a drill or other tools, or inexpensive but somewhat specialized equipment such as alligator clips. Each section is followed by a brief explanation of the science behind what you’re seeing or doing. For teachers or well-prepared parents, there’s a brief closing section with advice on how to supply your junk drawer for experiments. —Fenella Saunders
Mad About Monkeys. Owen Davey. 40 pp. Flying Eye Books, 2015. $19.95.
The back cover description just about covers it: “Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys!” Attempting to describe and illustrate an admirable number of the more than 250 species of monkeys on our planet, the book uses marvelous illustrations and just the right amount of text to keep even younger readers engaged. Happily, author Owen Davey distinguishes monkeys from other primates; he also clearly describes the difference between Old World and New World species. In addition, he discusses the evolutionary place of monkeys in the primate family tree, their social behavior, and the impact of deforestation on monkey populations. Such serious topics are broached with a certain element of whimsy, keeping the book approachable for kids. This is definitely one I’ll be reading with mine. —Fenella Saunders
The Manga Guide to Physiology. Written by Etsuro Tanaka; illustrated by Keiko Koyama; translated by Arnie Rusoff. 250 pp. No Starch Press, 2015. $19.95.
Ages 9 and up.
Manga, the hugely popular Japanese genre of graphic novels, turns out to be surprisingly well suited to teaching human physiology. This is a drawing style that can convey true love in the attraction of oxygen molecules to hemoglobin (“Oh my!” murmurs the Hb cell, turning bright red) or savage glee on the part of macrophages as they devour a menacing foreign substance. Meanwhile, we follow the adventures of student nurse Kumiko as she studies for her physiology exam, trains for a marathon, and develops a crush on the charming Professor Kaisei, all at once. Although younger readers may enjoy the book, it’s aimed at advanced high-school and beginning college students; it would make an entertaining supplement to standard physiology textbooks. —Sandra J. Ackerman
Mission: Mars. Pascal Lee. 48 pp. Scholastic, 2013. $6.99.
Authored by the director of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project, which simulates Mars conditions on Earth, this book is written as if the reader is a new recruit on a mission to Mars. The “training manual” covers the basics of Mars itself and its moons, rockets and spacecraft, space suits, and designs for Mars habitats and rovers. It’s a great introduction to a lot of wide-ranging space information for future explorers who respond well to first-person stories. —Fenella Saunders
The New Book of Optical Illusions. Georg Rüschemeyer. 207 pp. Firefly, 2015. $24.95.
Ages 8 and up.
Too old for toys, too young for booze: What to get as a gift for those adolescent nieces and nephews? Ideally, it should be something that doesn’t involve staring at a screen, so how about enticing them to stare at deceptive designs in a book instead? Whether it’s jumping coins, disappearing letters, or a mural by the street artist Banksy, the challenges posed in this volume will likely prove irresistible to even the most jaded youth. Others in the family will want to have a turn with the book as well, which may make for an unusually quiet interval in the midst of holiday madness. Brief explanations accompany most of the illusions, building up to a fresh appreciation for our faculty of sight. —Sandra J. Ackerman
The Rain Wizard: The Amazing, Mysterious, True Life of Charles Mallory Hatfield. Larry Dane Brimner. 120 pp. Calkins Creek, 2015. $16.95.
A book for more mature children, The Rain Wizard not only looks at science but ambiguity in life: Was the man in question a gifted charlatan, or was his scientific rainmaking calamitously successful? The nuances of human nature, eccentric personalities, and persistent mysteries mix together in this engaging tale about a man who was hired to end a drought in California but was then blamed when disastrous floods ensued. Numerous historical photos bring the story to life. At the heart of the tale one can consider the line between science and trickery, as well as whether those who allegedly make discoveries have a right to pass those along for posterity or should be allowed to keep them secret. —Fenella Saunders
Raindrops Roll. April Pulley Sayre. 40 pp. Beach Lane Books, 2015. $17.99.
Lush nature photographs that zoom in on the details of a rainfall are paired with meditative, succinct descriptions for a calming read during nighttime rain showers. —Katie L. Burke
Some Bugs. Written by Angela DiTerlizzi; illustrated by Brendan Wenzel. 32 pp. Beach Lane Books, 2014. $17.99.
This book for very young readers is a true charmer. Angela DiTerlizzi’s lilting text, which describes bugs’ various preoccupations, behaviors, and movements, and Brendan Wenzel’s vivid, effervescent illustrations are perfectly matched. The book veritably buzzes with zest over what may be found out of doors, and DiTerlizzi ends her tale by urging the young enthusiast to head outside and “find some bugs in your backyard.” A closing spread titled “What’s That Bug?” might just seal the deal, sending budding naturalists out the door for some adventures in insect identification. —Dianne Timblin
Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation. Written by Peggy Thomas; illustrated by Stacy Innerst. 40 pp. Calkins Creek, 2015. $16.95.
Thomas Jefferson fit several lifetimes’ worth of activity into his 83 years. He was interested in everything, rotating among vocations as farmers rotate the crops in their fields. When a famous French naturalist belittled the wildlife of the newly formed United States, Jefferson refuted him by writing a book on the subject, crossing the Atlantic to bring the doubting Frenchman a magnificent panther skin, and finally sending him the dismembered carcass of a huge moose. (It was the moose that clinched the argument.) He imported white rice and olive-tree saplings from Europe for farmers to grow in the Southeastern states. When an invasion of Hessian flies devoured the wheat crops of the Northern states, Jefferson turned the insect into an object of scientific study. He built a new, labor-saving kind of plow; served for one term as vice president and for two terms as president; oversaw the Louisiana Purchase; returned to farming at Monticello; and then planned and founded the University of Virginia. These exploits and many more jostle for space among colorful, dreamlike illustrations in a slim volume that conveys just a hint of this remarkable man. This book, intended for children aged 9 to 12, doesn’t ignore the painful question of how Jefferson could maintain that “all men are created equal” while he himself owned several hundred slaves, but it doesn’t offer an answer. Parents may want to prepare ahead of time for further discussion of this troubling point. —Sandra J. Ackerman
Toby and the Ice Giants. Joe Lillington. 32 pp. Flying Eye Books, 2015. $17.95.
The massive, thick-pelted animals of the Ice Age inhabit a special place in the popular imagination: less strange-looking and far more recent than the dinosaurs, but now (mostly) just as extinct. In this gentle tale set about 15,000 years ago, young Toby the bison wanders far and wide on the tundra to make the acquaintance of other Ice Age creatures both predatory and harmless. Fortunately, the predators have the courtesy to warn Toby about their meat-eating habits, so the shaggy adventurer returns home unharmed. A side panel every couple of pages gives additional information that Toby didn’t have time to to compile: the size and weight, diet and habitat, and probable time of extinction for each of these creatures. Of particular interest to, say, a 5-year-old will be a chart in which a couple of modern children compare their height to that of the Ice Age giants encountered in this book. —Sandra J. Ackerman
Weeds Find a Way. Written by Cindy Jenson-Elliot, illustrated by Carolyn Fisher. 40 pp. Beach Lane Books, 2014. $16.99.
Playful illustrations and textual sketches celebrate the abundance and beauty of commonplace weeds through the eyes of a young girl. —Katie L. Burke
You Nest Here with Me. Written by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple; illustrated by Melissa Sweet. 32 pp. Boyds Mills Press, 2015. $16.95.
You Nest Here with Me is a sweet book for young bird lovers ages 4 to 8. Children’s book author Jane Yolen and her coauthor and daughter Heidi E. Y. Stemple tell a simple bedtime story that likens safe and cozy human homes to birds’ nests. Melissa Sweet’s delicate watercolor and gouache illustrations take the reader far and wide to visit more than a dozen different birds and their nesting habitats. Lending a pleasing texture to her illustrations, Sweet weaves subtle bits of paper collage into her birdy environments. The attentive reader is rewarded at the end with an illustrated bird guide. —Barbara Aulicino
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