Reviews: Best of 2003

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

BOOKS

Top Science Books of the Year

Dinos in the dining room, monsters in the mind: Discover takes a look at 20 superlative science books published in 2003

(Published in the January 2004 issue of Discover

Alpha & Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe

Charles Seife, Viking, $24.95

Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe
Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe

In the sixth century B.C., Thales, a Greek mathematician, claimed that Earth was a vast cork floating upon a colossal ocean. Aristotle later argued that Earth sat motionless at the center of the universe, encircled by the sun and planets. Seife supplies the intervening history of cosmological contemplation, ending with the atom smashers and dark-matter detectives.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land

Subhankar Banerjee, The Mountaineers Books, $35

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land

Banerjee traveled 4,000 miles by foot, raft, kayak, and snowmobile to photograph the animals, people, and landscape of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. His lush images of glaciers, polar bears, caribou, and lichens (on show in New York at the American Museum of Natural History through March 7) remind us how fragile these lands really are.

A Shortcut Through Time: The Path to the Quantum Computer

George Johnson, Knopf, $24

A Shortcut Through Time: The Path to the Quantum Computer
A Shortcut Through Time: The Path to the Quantum Computer

At long last, quantum computing for dummies. Johnson, a writer for The New York Times, explains how handfuls of atoms will one day solve in seconds mathematical problems that would take today’s supercomputers billions of years to crunch.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bill Bryson, Broadway Books, $27.50

A Short History of Nearly Everything
A Short History of Nearly Everything

Step off a spaceship from the planet Xarc and consult this all-embracing field guide to Earth, its inhabitants, and beyond. Celebrated travel writer Bryson sprinkles this saga with sharp-witted portraits of such scientists as the sex-obsessed Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, who invented the modern biological classification system and named one plant genus Clitoria.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Mark Haddon, Doubleday, $22.95

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Written in the meticulous voice of an autistic boy and mathematical savant, this moving debut novel traces its hero’s travails as he tracks down the killer of his neighbor’s poodle.

The Discovery of Global Warming

Spencer R. Weart, Harvard University Press, $24.95

The Discovery of Global Warming
The Discovery of Global Warming

Weart, a science historian with the American Institute of Physics, honors the scientists who spent close to a century marshaling a mountain of evidence that proves that humans were changing the “capricious beast” of climate.

Eating Apes

Dale Peterson, with an afterward and photographs by Karl Ammann, University of California Press, $24.95

Eating Apes
Eating Apes

Our closest primate relatives—chimps, bonobos, and gorillas—may be among the few animals capable of laughter. But there’s little mirth in this merciless exposé of the exploding African bush-meat trade—fueled, say the authors, by poverty, the logging industry, and wars that crisscross the continent.

Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death

Mark Essig, Walker & Company, $26

Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death
Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death

An American icon bites the dust. Thomas Edison was an early and eager advocate of electrocuting criminals using alternating current—the system promoted by his rival George Westinghouse. Though Edison claimed that AC was lethal but more humane than hanging, Essig argues that a desire to quash his competitor was a likelier goal.

Extraordinary Pigeons

Stephen Green-Armytage, Harry N. Abrams, $24.95

Extraordinary Pigeons
Extraordinary Pigeons

Sky rat, gutter feeder, statue splotcher: The pigeon is a bird of ill repute. Perhaps unfairly so, for as photographer Stephen Green-Armytage shows in this weird and wonderful book, the pigeon is not only a creature of grace and beauty but also, to quote the writer T. H. White, “a kind of Quaker . . . , a dutiful child, a constant lover, and a wise parent.” Domesticated by the Egyptians as long ago as 2500 B.C., pigeons have served as mail carriers, ship navigators and, in the days before the telegraph, transmitters of stock market reports. The eyesight of pigeons is so keen that the U.S. Coast Guard has trained them to spot orange life jackets bobbing up and down in the water. In this book they star mainly as ornamental show breeds, such as this curly-feathered crested frillback (above), but others, such as the white-breasted Australian wonga-wonga pigeon, or the lustrous Mindanao bleeding-heart dove, are wild birds. Spend an hour admiring Extraordinary Pigeons and you’ll never again look at that curb-scrabbler with quite the same contempt.

Fruit: An Illustrated History

Peter Blackburne-Maze, Firefly Books, $60

Fruit: An Illustrated History
Fruit: An Illustrated History

From the Garden of Eden to the tale of England’s King John (who died in 1216 after a surfeit of green peaches), this succulent book and its delectable drawings tell the story of fleshy, seed-bearing fruits including apples and berries, papayas and pineapples, olives, avocados, loquats, lychees, and more.

How to Keep Dinosaurs

Robert Mash, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $14.99

How to Keep Dinosaurs
How to Keep Dinosaurs

A complete guide to caring for your own dinosaur. Choose the chicken-size Compsognathus, which can be house-trained, but avoid carnivorous ceratosaurs: They’ll eat your children and practice courtship in your living room. Whimsically illustrated, this is a rollicking good laugh as well as an excellent source of information on dinosaurs of all kinds. The book includes a list of retail outlets and a guide to curing scabby “Stegosaur pox.”

Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension

Stephen S. Hall, Houghton Mifflin, $25

Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension
Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension

Americans born in 1900 could expect to live only 49 years. Hall delves into the knotty political and economic issues surrounding the science of stem cells, immortalizing enzymes, and longevity genes, which could soon extend the average human life to a century or more.

Mirror Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection

Mark Pendergrast, Basic Books, $27.50

Mirror Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection
Mirror Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection

Through the looking glass with 8,000 years’ worth of primpers and prying eyes. Pendergrast meditates not only on mirrors as vanity aids but as tools to make searchlights, optical illusions, and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which maps objects billions of light-years away.

Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind

David Quammen, W. W. Norton, $26.95

Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind
Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind

An assortment of ogres both human and animal populate the pages of this engrossing blend of travel narrative, history, mythology, and scholarly analysis, which ponders the bleak fate of Earth as people drive ferocious predators extinct.

The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors

John Gribbin, Random House, $35 

The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors
The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors

A big bang smash of a book that chronicles four and a half centuries of modern science and its practitioners, beginning with Copernicus and the anatomist Vesalius and concluding with the cosmologists who study the components of the universe.

Sea Legs: Tales of a Woman Oceanographer

Kathleen Crane, Westview Press, $27.50

Sea Legs
Sea Legs

Crane battles male chauvinism, FBI surveillance, and a mysterious neurological disease as she searches for the wreck of the Titanic, explores underwater hot springs, and maps Siberia’s Lake Baikal, which contains one-fifth of the planet’s freshwater and is the deepest in the world.

Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation

Thomas W. Laqueur, Zone Books, $34

Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation
Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation

How did a harmless practice become a putative source of insanity, death, and damnation? Laqueur argues that the profit motive played a prominent role, inspiring the 1712 publication of “Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution,” whose anonymous author also sold a “strengthening tincture” to cure the newly invented “disease.”

Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages

Mark Abley, Houghton Mifflin, $25

Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages
Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages

Part travelogue, part elegy for the world’s endangered tongues, this linguistic treasure trove celebrates such languages as the northeastern Indian Boro, which boasts words like gobram (to shout in one’s sleep), onsra (to love for the last time), and zogno (the sound produced by a mixing of mud and water when thrusting a hand into a crab’s hole).

SYNC: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order

Steven Strogatz, Theia, $24.95

Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order
Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order

Strogatz explores dozens of strange synchronous phenomena, from hands clapping in unison to the rhythmic flashing of fireflies to laser beams produced by trillions of atoms emitting light waves in phase at the same frequency. In the process, he shows that there is a method even in the madness of a chaotic universe.

The World Through Maps: A History of Cartography

John Rennie Short, Firefly Books, $40

The World Through Maps: A History of Cartography
The World Through Maps: A History of Cartography

From rock-carved maps of Idaho’s Snake River, to hand-drawn and painted Ptolemaic world maps predating the discovery of the Americas, to Landsat satellite images of the Great Wall of China, this colorfully illustrated history shows how maps for cities, subways, weather, and even “moral statistics,” such as crime and poverty  have helped people navigate Earth—and conquer large parts of it too.

Josie Glausiusz and Maia Weinstock

Pearls of Wisdom From Our Friends

Discover’s learned circle of writers add their two cents’ worth

War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival

Sheri Fink, Public Affairs, $27.50

War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival
War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival

Wartime duty and medical ethics are stretched to the breaking point in this wrenching account by a Discover Vital Signs contributor of a small group of brave and idealistic doctors who set up shop in the besieged Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1992.  

Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight

Paul Hoffman, Theia, $24.95

Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-DuMont and the Invention of Flight
Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-DuMont and the Invention of Flight

Hoffman, a former editor in chief of Discover, pays tribute to the long-overlooked Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, who piloted the world’s first personal airship. A charismatic genius and bon vivant, Santos-Dumont charmed the elite of fin de siècle Paris before sinking into despair when he saw the airplane transformed into a military machine during World War I. 

Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality

John Horgan, Houghton Mifflin, $25

Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality
Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality

Trances, dissociative disorders, and drug-induced visions: Horgan explores these curiosities as he pursues a common ground between the mystical and the material.

Echo of the Big Bang

Michael D. Lemonick, Princeton University Press, $24.95

Echo of the Big Bang
Echo of the Big Bang

Lemonick provides a behind-the-scenes look at an eight-year quest by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) team to produce the first all-sky map of the early universe. (See “Probe Reveals Age, Composition, and Shape of the Cosmos,” Discover, January 2004, page 37.)

The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be

Dana Mackenzie, John Wiley & Sons, $24.95

The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be
The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be

Mackenzie describes two and a half centuries of debate on how the moon was formed. The consensus, reached in 1984, is that a Mars-size rock named Theia collided with Earth 4.5 billion years ago.

Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human

Matt Ridley, HarperCollins, $25.95

Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human
Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human

In a new take on an old polemic, Ridley acts as mediator between biological and cultural determinists, arguing that genes and the environment play equally important roles in shaping human destiny.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Mary Roach, W. W. Norton, $23.95

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

A natural history of corpses and their often-dubious uses in medicine, forensic science, and weapons testing. Live burials, decapitations, and dissections of brain-dead “beating-heart cadavers” are among the more lurid subjects that Roach broaches.

Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain—and How It Changed the World

Carl Zimmer, Free Press, $26

Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain--and How it Changed the World
Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain--and How it Changed the World

Thomas Willis, a 17th-century British physician whom Zimmer casts as the Galileo of modern anatomy, showed that the brain, then considered a marginal organ, was the seat of consciousness. Although Galileo’s heliocentric theory of the heavens was branded heretical, the Church embraced the neurocentric model of the body.

Discover Science Almanac: The Definitive Science Resource

Stonesong Press, $13.99

Discover Science Almanac: The Definitive Science Resource
Discover Science Almanac: The Definitive Science Resource

From the editors of Discover comes a comprehensive source for facts, descriptions, and trivia on everything from paleontology to space exploration.

Alex Stone

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