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Science Book Picks for 2013


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow and you are invited to join our annual holiday club of the air. This week we'll be talking about some of the best science reads from 2013. I'm going to throw in my favorite one right at the beginning before Deborah and Maria get a chance to put a word in edgewise.

"Einstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian," by Douglas Stone. It gives a look at the lesser-known discoveries of Albert Einstein and a little peak about what physics was like at that time and all the great characters there. What's yours? What's your favorite? Give me a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255 if you're got a favorite book.

And if you even have a classic you want to suggest, we'll let that into our suggestions. Let me introduce my guests. Deborah Blum is our Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Welcome back, Deborah.

DEBORAH BLUM: Thanks. It's great to be here.

FLATOW: She's at WPR, Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison. Maria Popova is the editor and founder of Brainpickings, Brainpickings website, and she runs that out of Brooklyn, New York. Welcome.

MARIA POPOVA: So glad to be here.

FLATOW: Tell us what Brainpickings is all about.

POPOVA: It is a cabinet of curiosities that's spans art, science, history, philosophy, psychology, but mostly it's my record of what I read and what I find makes sense with the world.

FLATOW: All right. Then you get to bat up first. You're leadoff hitter with your recommendation for what you might think about recommending as the books for 2013 or your number one on your list.

POPOVA: Actually my favorite science book this year is probably my favorite book this year and my favorite book in a long time. It's called "On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes." And it is by Alexandra Horowitz, who's a cognitive scientist. She teaches psychology at Columbia's Barnard College and runs the dog cognition lab there.

And this book actually came out of - was inspired by her first book, which is called "Inside of a Dog," and it deals with how a dog experiences the world and one day she was walking down her city block and realized that the dog was having a profoundly differently experience of what we call reality than she was even though they were in the exact same physical space.

So she decided to see how our expertise and how our living shapes our experience of reality and she invited eleven different so-called experts to walk with her down a city block and they ranged from the dog to her toddler to entomologist, a physician, an artist, a blind woman and she records basically what they see and what they observe that she completely misses.

And she sort of underlines the entire narrative with rigorous science and psychology and cognitive science and neuroscience and anatomy of why they're able to see these things.

FLATOW: So you don't distinguish between science writing and regular writing. There's just good writing.

POPOVA: Exactly. And I actually think it's such a microscopic tragedy to make the distinction because it somehow suggests that science is separate from life because writing really is the art of observing life and I think good writing and good science writing both answer to the same thing, which is it needs to be truthful without being dry; it needs to be enchanting without being fluffy or sensationalistic. And most of all, it needs to leave you with a new understanding of the world or some facet of it or your experience of it and ideally make you gasp a little at that understanding.

FLATOW: Yeah, well Deborah Blum has made us gasp many times.

BLUM: Oh thank you.

POPOVA: Indeed she has.

FLATOW: Especially with her poisons that keep coming back. Do you agree with what Maria's saying basically about science writing?

BLUM: Every word. I mean, I think science itself is people trying to understand the world around us, right, at its most basic. You can't separate out people using the tools of science as we try to explore how things work and what makes us who we are from all the other forms of inquiry. I mean, to me a good science story is a very human story and I think that's true of most stories.

And finally, I don't think we do science any favors, as Maria says, by putting it into some kind of a geek ghetto, right? It's so much better to let it be part of everyone's life.

FLATOW: Okay. Give us your top pick or two or three.

BLUM: I worry. I mean, you alluded to my deep affection for poison which seems to be a guided principle in my life and I worry that as I stack up my books they were all kind of dark and creepy. But I do want to mention two forensic ones to start with, one of which has gotten a lot of attention. It's called, "The Inheritor's Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science" and it's by Sandra Hempel.

And the other, which I think is very little-known, which is called "The Sixteenth Rail," and is about one of the steps in the ladder used to kidnap Charles Lindbergh's baby and how that convicted the kidnapper. And it's just so fascinating. Both of them are fascinating because they're really both stories of obsession, right?

If you take science as a story of just a human being, these are two stories of two phenomenally obsessed scientists trying to make the world right.

FLATOW: Do they uncover anything new in "The Sixteenth Rail," or is it just in the storytelling that's so wonderful?

BLUM: I think it's partly - it's written by a Wisconsin writer named Adam Schrager and I think it's partly the storytelling and the phenomenal depth of this storytelling, so it follows this one scientist, who actually I had never heard of, named Arthur Koehler, who's a wood forensic scientists. I didn't even realize - I'm a forensics nut - that there was wood forensics, so that's on me.

But he goes through 1,500 wood sales places hunting down this ladder step, right? He figures out what kind of wood it is. He finds it in the end in Bruno Hauptman's attic floor and he takes this unbelievable understanding of wood, what a tree makes, right - How old is it; how does it curve and bend and curl and all of those things - to not only solve the Lindbergh case but bombings and other murders.

I mean, it's just a fascinating exploration of a little-known science.

FLATOW: 1-800-989 - let's get a quick recommendation from listeners. 1-800-989-8255. Renee in Houston. Hi, Renee.

RENEE: Oh hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

RENEE: Hi. I love SCIENCE FRIDAY and I love Brainpickings. I wanted to put a plug in for one of my favorite books and definitely my favorite science book, "Stiff" by Mary Roach, and anything by Mary Roach is fantastic.

BLUM: Mary Roach is wonderful.

POPOVA: She is, she is. And the new book, "Gulp," is also absolutely fantastic.

BLUM: I know. It is and it makes you - if you were someone like me who ate dog food or dog biscuits when you were a kid, it makes you really worry about your future.

FLATOW: I think it turned out okay.

BLUM: Thank you. I may just keel over as I sit here.

FLATOW: All right.

RENEE: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome, Renee. And have a happy holiday. Thanks for calling. Maria, your second pick, got another pick for us?

POPOVA: There's a really wonderful book called "Wild Ones" by Jon Mooallem, who's a journalist and he basically, one day he was playing with his four-year-old daughter and he noticed that all of her toys, even her toothbrush, were animals, but most of these animals were species that would be extinct by the time she was her father's present age. And he was sort of jarred by that and he thought about the, what he calls the generational amnesia.

You know, when she gets to be his age, she won't remember that these things existed and he set out to understand the dynamics that sort of rip apart this idyllic childhood menagerie and the reality of our fragile wildlife ecosystems. And he went to a tiny wildlife reserve, which is also one of the most studied, and he looked at how three different species - a bear, a butterfly and a bird - basically live and how they might die.

They were very endangered species and he went on many walks and on some of them he took his little daughter with him and it's just a beautifully written book. And there's a line in it that really stayed with me where he writes, "leaving a world without wildlife is a special tragedy," and I think it's absolutely right.

FLATOW: Yeah, I can share that. I know places that I've visited no longer existed. I mean, as a scuba diver, there are coral reefs that no longer - they were so full of coral I could not get in and out of them and now they don't even exist anymore.


FLATOW: And so I say to my kids get out there and see it while you can or anybody, you know. It's going to be gone some day so I can understand that. Deborah, another pick.

BLUM: Well, in the sense that we were talking about sort of putting science in the middle of our lives, one of the books that I really like that came out this year is "Five Days at Memorial" by Sheri Fink and the subtitle of that is "Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital." And this is actually a book that followed series she did for ProPublica which was looking at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the survival and non-survival of people in hospitals there.

And "Five Days at Memorial" is structured tick by tick by tick. I mean, it's just a fabulous structure in which you tick, tick, tick as the hurricane rises around many places, but she focuses on this one hospital where 45 patients were dead by the time the water receded. And so it's a medical mystery, which is was because the doctor and some of the nurses were prosecuted.

But it's also a, you know, you wouldn't think of it in this rise of a powerful storm, you know, total catastrophe setting, but it looks at how we take care of patients. It looks at for-profit hospitals. It looks at how our medical system works in hospitals that are there to really protect and take care of the very poor, and so it's both this tick, tick, tick, tick drama and this look at who we are and the way we take care of the least powerful, I think, in society.

FLATOW: I'm going to check that one out.

BLUM: I really love it. It's "Five Days..."

"Five Days at Memorial" by Sheri Fink.

FLATOW: Sheri Fink.

BLUM: She's fantastic.

FLATOW: We're going to take a break. Come back and talk lots more about books. Our number, 1-800-989-8255 if you've got a suggestion. You can also Tweet us @scifri. Returning with Deborah Blum and Maria Popova. Stay with us, we'll be right back.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the best science books of 2013. My guests are Maria Popova, inventor and founder of the Brainpickings website; Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. A couple of questions here. Terry in Alexandria, Virginia. Hi, Terry.

TERRY: Hi. I don't have a book to suggest. I'm hoping you or your guests could recommend a book about science and religion. I heard someone on NPR or WAMU in the past several months talking about a book and I had the impression it was fairly recent and I'd appreciate any recommendations you could give me. Thank you.

FLATOW: Okay. I'll ask our small panel of experts here. Deborah, any suggestion? Maria, do you have any idea what you would suggest?

POPOVA: I can think of a number of letters that are in anthologies of letters. There's a beautiful letter that Einstein wrote to a little girl who asked whether scientists pray and it's in the collection, "Dear Genius," I think it's called, or "Dear Professor Einstein." And also there's a biography of Ada Lovelace, who's commonly considered the first programmer, that includes a selection of her letters and in many of them she sort of talks about science and spirituality being one and the same.

FLATOW: Let's move on. Deborah, what would be your next pick for a read?

BLUM: Well, I brought with me - I'm actually holding it in my hand, a book called "Ninety Percent of Everything" by Rose George, which is about shipping, container shipping, the invisible industry that puts clothes on your back, and I love it for a couple of reasons. One is, I like books that make you - she's right that it's invisible. You never think about these ships that are constantly trawling around.

And she travels on these, on phenomenal ships, so the book is both an adventure; it's actually surprisingly beautiful in places and it's kind of horrifying environmental - I don't want to say allegory, but an environmental insight into things that we're doing to the planet that, you know, you just don't see. And I wanted to quickly read, she's describing this fuel they use called bunker fuel, which is residual fuel oil, dirty but cheap.

And she goes: But it's horrible stuff. It's so unrefined that you could walk on it at room temperature. And then she talks about what goes out in the smoke as this enormous ship burns bunker fuel and I found myself just thinking wow. You know, we are so busy doing these things to the planet and we don't see them. So it's a terrific book.

FLATOW: Years ago I remember a story came out about wood and how the — one-third of all the wood in the world is wrapped up as shipping pallets, you know, the forklift picks up. A third of the wood and so many hardwoods come in that way. They chop trees down to make shipping pallets out of them and I thought how much wood there must be. And there was a company in the Bronx, actually, that would recycle all these into furniture, and we had them on talking about it.

But it gave me an idea of how big the shipping industry is. We have a tweet from Erin Calvert who says Barbara Kingsolver write beautiful dramas and fiction about the delicate forests of the U.S. My favorite is "Flight Behavior."

BLUM: And "Prodigal Summer." I haven't read "Flight Behavior" but "Prodigal Summer" is gorgeous.

FLATOW: Maria, another one on your pick?

POPOVA: There's actually a little book that is a sequel to a book that came out last year called "Big Questions from Little People and Big Answers from Great Minds." It's edited by Gemma Elwin Harris. It's a British book but it's available in the U.S. as well. And it basically collects primary school children's questions about how the world works and asks scientists and writers to answer them.

And the sequel came out this year and actually the editor had asked me to contribute to it after writing about the first book. And the sequel is called, "Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am?" and again it features a lot of really, you know, children have this way of asking extraordinarily simple questions that are actually so profound because they touch on things that we take for granted. And the second we realize that we take them for granted we realize there's a much bigger answer behind it.

And so the questions range from everything from why do we cry to how come the brain can hold as much information as it can. How come we don't have memories from the time when we're babies and toddlers, and the answers come from, you know, Sir David Attenborough and Brian Cox and Mary Roach, Claudia Hammond, a lot of well-known science writers.

FLATOW: Somebody just phoned in and said if you're looking for a science and religion book you might try "God's DNA," by Francis Collins, who started the human genome project.

POPOVA: And also Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World," which leans heavily on the side of science, but it does talk about religion and spirituality in it.

FLATOW: We're going to have a special rebroadcast of a Carl Sagan interview we did on Christmas week so - little preview is really - he could have done it yesterday if he were around. It's so relevant to today. Let's get another phone call in. Joshua in San Francisco. Hi Joshua.

JOSHUA: Hi there. This is Joshua (unintelligible) conversation biologist in training. I'm just calling, I want to recommend a book that I read earlier this year called "Eye of the Continents," the most ambitious wildlife conservation project ever undertaken. It's by Mary Ellen Hannibal and it was a very great book to read, really informative and taught us about how a lot of wildlife and national parks are separated and how a lot of wildlife can travel (unintelligible).

And the book is mostly about how to connect them back together. It needs some more of a brighter future for a lot of the animals on kind of an island.

FLATOW: All right Joshua.

JOSHUA: Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Have a happy holiday. Thanks for that recommendation. Deborah, any trends? We ask you every year, you read a lot of books; you're a professor of journalism. Any trends in science writing, I mean, that you can pick up in books?

BLUM: You know, I was thinking in that we're starting to see more of what I think of as the high-profile science book. It used to seem to me that, and I've been a science writer a while as you know, that we turn out our science books and those of us gathered around the science campfire would talk about them and admire them, but they weren't necessarily always reaching a larger audience.

But when you look at some of the books over the last few years that, you know, have really caught fire. I mean, you could say Rebecca Skloot's book, "Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."

POPOVA: Oh, it's so fantastic.

FLATOW: It's lasting forever, isn't it? Yeah, people keep reading it.

BLUM: I know. And as an author I am not jealous, not jealous at all. But Sheri's book is a big book. Sean Carroll's book, you know, "The Particle at the End of the Universe" has won awards all over the place. And I think, I've been saying to myself, are we, as science writers, are we learning to tell stories more beautifully or more narrative or maybe going back to what Maria said at the start, we're learning how to write our stories in a more inclusive way.

And so I think we really do see a trend of science books that people see, you know, those people who are not sitting around the campfire, still say that sounds like a great book. And that's really exciting to me.

FLATOW: Do you agree?

POPOVA: Absolutely. And I think part of it has to do with this notion of the science book no longer being, you know, a trade book or academic book, but being just a good book. And another thing is science, by its nature, is really about all these fringe disciplines that it touches on in making sense of the world and I think more and more we're seeing that in books now that include the social sciences and often even the humanities, and that gives them more dimension, I think, and provides more of an invitation for people who don't think of themselves as scientists to be interested in science and, I guess, science writing which is just writing.

FLATOW: Are we seeing more informal science education popping up in the media? "Big Bang Theory," other TV shows and movies and stuff.

POPOVA: "It's Okay to Be Smart" on PBS Digital.

FLATOW: Yeah, so maybe people are not shying away from reading more about it and not feeling...

BLUM: Yeah, I like that a lot.

POPOVA: And there's actually, I think, one of the best books that I read this year was by Dorian Sagan, Carl Sagan's son, who's an exceptional science writer in his own right and it's called "Mind and Cosmos" - I'm sorry, that was Thomas Nagel's book. It's called "Cosmic Apprentice" and it's about basically why science and philosophy need each other. It's a collection of his essays, but the underlying message is that, that science is not separate from the rest of our ways of understanding the world and it's just like a metabook about science basically.

FLATOW: I want to thank you both. I'm always saying that. We've run out of time. I want to thank both of you for taking the time to be with us today. Maria Popova, editor and founder of the Brainpicking's website. She runs that out of Brooklyn, New York. And Deborah Blum, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, professor of journalism at University of Wisconsin in Madison and she was at WPR, Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison.

Thank you both. Have a good holiday.

POPOVA: Thank you.

FLATOW: We'll see you next year.

BLUM: Hope so.

FLATOW: And if you...

BLUM: Happy Holiday.

FLATOW: Happy Holiday. And if you missed the references we make, we have them all up on our website. You can go to - and also find some offbeat science pics we have up there at sciencefriday.com/morebooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.