2010 has been a great year for science books. In addition to new titles from many of my favorite authors, there were also a number of exceptional debut titles this year. (I am not counting myself among this latter lot – I don’t care to judge my own book on this score and am content to leave that to others.) Unfortunately, I did not get to read as many of the new titles as I had hoped, but I did manage to review a few books from this year’s excellent crop. Enclosed below is a short list of my favorite new science books of 2010 with snippets from my reviews of them.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a triumph of science writing (it is truly one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read), and I was deeply affected by it on a personal level. The story reaffirmed that small events can have major repercussions, and as sad and angry as the tale of the Lacks family made me by the end of the book, I was glad that [Rebecca] Skloot had worked so hard to reach them. Through something as simple as wanting to learn more about Henrietta’s life, Skloot and the Lacks family were able to create a fitting tribute to Henrietta and her legacy. For the first time, the most important woman in modern medicine is having her story told, and I truly hope that it gets the attention it deserves. (Original Review)
To share a sad truth, I do not particularly enjoy most of the popular science books I read. Even if I am enthusiastic about the subject matter, what I had hoped to be a pleasant reading experience often turns into a slog to get to the end of the book (I know I am in trouble when I start counting pages, “Ok, just fifty more to go…”). Not so with The Poisoner’s Handbook. For me, at least, it is the epitome of good popular science writing. Its excellence stems from Blum’s ability to present science in a social context, and while murderers, victims, bootleggers, and corrupt politicians populate the book’s landscape, the science remains central to the story. It is a rare book that is able to strike such a balance, and for that reason The Poisoner’s Handbook has earned a treasured place in my ever-growing collection of books. (Original Review)
Calculus does require a certain amount of effort and discipline to comprehend, but it is not so arcane, inaccessible, or irrelevant to modern life as I have made myself believe. I have not yet had my mimetic moment – the flash of insight Jennifer [Ouellette] describes in which the abstract becomes connected to something concrete and tangible – but The Calculus Diaries gave me a little nudge to be more receptive to the tangle of symbols and ideas which has caused me no small amount of frustration over the years. Like many monsters, math is often feared because it is not understood. With enough effort, that fear can be turned into fascination. (Original Review)
I lost my original review of Packing for Mars in the move from my personal blog to WIRED Science, but suffice it to say that this book is Mary Roach at her best. Packing for Mars is a comfortable extension of Roach’s previous books – particularly Stiff and Bonk – but the questions which drive the story are fresh enough that the narrative does not become stale. There is plenty of weird science surrounding the efforts of our species to reach other worlds, and Roach is the perfect writer to present those stories to those who wonder what it would take to visit Mars and points beyond.
I also posted a list of the top dinosaur books of 2010 at Dinosaur Tracking. To keep up with the top picks of magazines, newspapers, and other writers, keep your eye on Confessions of a Science Librarian.