Top Science Books of the Year
String theory, lobster sex, climate catastrophe, the beauty of life beneath the Antarctic ice: Discover digs through the great stacks of science books published in 2004 and selects 20 of the best
By Josie Glausiusz
The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History
Text by Nancy Pick, photographs by Mark Sloan (HarperCollins, $22.95)
From The Rarest of the Rare by Mark Sloan, courtesy of HarperCollins
In his autobiography Speak, Memory, the writer and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov described a beautiful gynandromorph butterfly—male on one side, female on the other—that he had caught as a youth on his family’s Russian estate. Sadly, the butterfly was crushed when his stout Swiss governess sat upon his tray of specimens, leaving only a “headless thorax on its bent pin.” The image of an intact gynandromorph at left—the more brilliant blue left side is the male half—is included in the magnificently strange book Rarest of the Rare, a sampling of curious artifacts from the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Among the rich finds: a fossil sand dollar that Charles Darwin picked up in Patagonia in 1834, during his voyage on the Beagle; an exquisite coiled boa constrictor skeleton, 300 vertebrae long; and Nabokov’s wooden cabinet of butterfly genitalia, the study of which enabled him to name seven new genera of Latin American blues.
After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC
Steven Mithen (Harvard University Press, $29.95)
With the help of a fictional guide dubbed John Lubbock, modeled after a Victorian naturalist who wrote a popular book called Prehistoric Times, Mithen embarks on a vivid tour of the warming world as it emerged from the last ice age. In the process, he lends a you-are-there immediacy to an era in which humans invented farming, settled in towns, and created civilization as we know it.
Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis--and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster
Ross Gelbspan (Basic Books, $22)
Gelbspan condemns corporate indifference to climate change as “a crime against humanity” and indicts the Bush administration for allowing the fossil-fuel lobby to dictate national energy policy. Interspersing his narrative with tales of drowning islands and melting glaciers, he also fingers myopic journalists and environmental activists as unwitting accomplices in allowing global warming to go unchecked.
Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist
Edited by John Brockman (Pantheon Books, $23.95)
Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux first encountered the brain’s “soft mushy mass” while extracting bullets from cows’ brains in his father’s butcher shop. Ethnographer Sherry Turkle imagined herself at age 8 as a daring Nancy Drew on roller skates. Physicist Lee Smolin found solace from heartbreak in Einstein’s autobiographical notes. In an eclectic collection of essays, 27 scientists recall the early influences that funneled them into their careers.
Copies in Seconds: How a Lone Inventor and an Unknown Company Created the Biggest Communication Breakthrough Since Gutenberg
David Owen (Simon & Schuster, $24)
In 2004 people around the world churned out 2 trillion photocopies—a feat made possible by the dogged Chester Carlson, who spent more than two decades inventing and perfecting the Xerox machine. With quiet wit, Owen tells the story of this little-known inventor, whose now-indispensable device was rejected by two dozen major corporations before Xerox built the first office-paper copier in 1960.
Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World's Toughest Math Competition
Steve Olson (Houghton Mifflin, $24)
According to popular myth, mathematicians are fools, nerds, or madmen. Not so, says Olson, who thoughtfully explores the nature of genius at the International Mathematical Olympiad while following a team of whiz kids for whom math is a creative game.
The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in the Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia,Croatia, and Kosovo
Clea Koff (Random House, $24.95)
Koff recounts in clear and courageous tones her work at mass grave sites, piecing together hacked bones and clothing scraps retrieved from crumbling flesh. In doing so, she returns names and voices to people nearly erased by state-sponsored violence.
Dangerous Garden: The Quest for Plants to Change Our Lives
David Stuart (Harvard University Press, $35)
Rhubarb for syphilis? Belladonna for beauty? In a handsomely illustrated text, Stuart catalogs the medical uses—both valuable and dubious—of a wide variety of plants. Consider, for example, species of the genus Artemisia, extracts of which have given rise to a promising new treatment for malaria as well as to the drink absinthe, under whose influence Van Gogh may have sliced off his ear.
Devil in the Mountain: A Search for the Origin of the Andes
Simon Lamb (Princeton University Press, $29.95)
Rocks come alive in this personal odyssey to uncover the geologic forces that gave rise to the rugged Bolivian Andes, the second highest mountain range on Earth. Lamb, a geologist at Oxford University, invokes an array of foodstuffs—Viennese schnitzel, fudge cake, hot syrup—to explain how a continental plate diving under South America drove the mountains upwards.
Einstein's Cosmos: How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time
Michio Kaku (W. W. Norton, $22.95)
Seamlessly weaving together Einstein’s life and science, Kaku presents an engaging biography of the man and his theories, which were framed around questions a child might ask and duly gave rise to the great discoveries of modern physics, from gravity waves to black holes.