The Best Books About Science of 2016

Take a journey to the edge of human knowledge and beyond with one of these mind-boggling page-turners

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The best writing makes you see the world anew, and science writing is no different. Whether it’s shedding light on worlds beyond us (Hidden Figures) or delving into microbial worlds within (I Contain Multitudes), these standout science books of the year illuminate the phenomena, people and microscopic organisms that shape our existence each day. Here are 10 books that will jettison you to the forefront of human knowledge and make you see your world differently—whether it’s a blade of grass, a forest, or the night sky.

The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth's Newest Age

“With great power comes great responsibility,” said the philosopher Voltaire (or Spiderman’s uncle, depending on your source). In his first book, David Biello argues that humanity has developed such power—but not the restraint to wield it responsibly. Humans are now “a world-changing force of nature,” the former Scientific American environment editor writes, ushering in an era of global change known as the Anthropocene. Biello delivers a balanced account of this newest chapter in Earth’s history, offering historical perspective and examining concepts like the city, “wildness,” and geoengineering. Unnatural World is a potent reminder that we have an ethical imperative to reign in our power for the collective good.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

If you like your words served with a large helping of awe and wonder (and really, who doesn’t), look no further. In his acclaimed new book, Atlantic science writer Ed Yong takes readers on a Ms. Frizzle-meets-Walt-Whitman-esque journey to illuminate a strange new world composed of trillions of majestic microbes. Here at the outer (and inner) reaches of the budding field of microbiology, we find mind-bending paradoxes: For instance, about half of your cells are not actually you. Yong’s book touches on questions not only of science, but of the meaning of the self and our place in the great web of life. Multitudes, indeed. (Read an exclusive excerpt on microbes’ mighty contribution to human evolution here.)

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

It was World War II, and America needed all the brightest mathematical minds it could get. It found them in the form of math teachers in segregated Southern public schools. These brilliant, black female mathematicians lent their number-crunching expertise to help free NASA engineers from hand calculations in the decades before the digital age; they became known as NASA’s “human computers.” Yet while the nickname suggested a machine-like existence, these women’s lives were anything but. In Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly provides an intimate portrait of the inner lives and accomplishments of these extraordinary “computers,” who helped America make strides in both the space race and the race for human rights. Experience the book before the major motion picture hits screens next month. (Read more about the true story behind Hidden Figures here.)

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

Before NASA’s human computers, astronomers of the 18th century also looked to calculating brainiacs to scan their findings and perform crucial calculations. At the Harvard College Observatory—now part of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics—those talented individuals included women. In a work journalist Elizabeth Kolbert has called "sensitive, exacting, and lit with the wonder of discovery,” author Dva Sobel pores through letters, diaries and memoirs to tell the story of these remarkable women who changed how we look at the heavens. The Glass Universe complements Hidden Figures, employing history and journalistic biography to enlarge the story of the women who revolutionized astronomy. 

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

The battlefield might seem an unlikely subject for a science writer—but then again, so might the gallows, the topic of Mary Roach’s first book. In this extremely topical study, Roach embeds with armies of soldiers and scientists to explore such weighty topics such as research on post-traumatic stress syndrome, new wound-cleaning techniques, drastic surgeries and, okay, yes, diarrhea. In short, Roach more than earns her nickname as “America's funniest science writer”—all while investigating the most critical questions in military science. You’ll be grunting, groaning and bent-over laughing as you follow her forays into labs and battlefields with her characteristic mix of “irreverence and gallows humor.” This is a tour not just of duty, but also of delight.

Venomous: How Earth's Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry

Nature’s poison-packed predators have earned their place in our nightmares. And molecular biologist Christie Wilcox has certainly earned her role of distilling the science behind their scariness. In Venomous, Wilcox shines her light not just on the regular suspects—like stinging jellyfish and snakes—but also on less likely characters, like bristled caterpillars and blue-ringed octopuses. She delves into the biochemistry behind some of nature’s most remarkable potions, and reveals how pharmacologists are turning to venom to save lives. Her book echoes some of evolution’s universal lessons: Bite makes right, and when in doubt, sting for your life. (Read more on the evolution of venom resistance here.)

The Gene: An Intimate History

Humans have long had an inkling that something about us gets passed down. For better or worse, children resemble their parents—like peas in a Mendelian pod. In this far-reaching yet intimate book, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee traces our discovery of the gene, that fundamental unit that all of genetics rests upon. With “scope and grandeur, ” Mukherjee chronicles a search that has spanned minds and centuries, from Aristotle to Mendel to Darwin, for “a ghost lurking in the biological machine.” His book becomes more all the urgent in an era when we have the ability not just to read our own genetic code—but to rewrite it in our own image. (Read an interview with Mukherjee on his first book here.)

Lab Girl

Science is not just a collection of facts and natural laws; it is a distinctive way of looking at the world. In Lab Girl, botanist Hope Jahren takes you inside the head of a scientist “with the soul of a poet.” In allegory and image-rich prose, she renders the outer world new again and creates a powerful bridge for layreaders. As she told NPR: “I could say that the leaves evapotranspirate ... But those words are part of a language that takes years to learn and that scientists speak amongst themselves. So by describing these things in terms that you use every day, I've made the choice to come to you using your words in order that you understand me.” Jahren’s memoir delves into the complex forces that shape scientists, from the challenges of being a woman in science to the triumphs and disappointments of doing science in the lab. Ultimately, she finds beauty inside and out.

The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World

How did cats conquer the planet? That’s the driving question behind The Lion in the Living Room, a meticulously reported investigation by longtime Smithsonian contributor Abigail Tucker. To probe the biology, behavior and natural history of our feline friends, Tucker travels to the drenched forests of Key Largo, Florida and the lion-filled tar pits of La Brea in search of their evolutionary secrets. Her book comprises a “lively adventure through history, natural science, and pop culture in search of how cats conquered the world, the internet, and our hearts.” If you know a cat person who likes science, this is the book you need right meow. (Read an exclusive excerpt on the war between house cats and the woodrat here.)

Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation

The word “radiation” comes with a long history of psychological baggage, conjuring up images of Chernobyl, Hollywood apocalypse films and scare stories of cancer-causing cell phones. Science writer Timothy Jorgenson, who got his start as a researcher working in radiation medicine, takes on the task of bringing this scary abstraction down to Earth. Jorgenson lays out the progression of mankind’s understanding of radiation science over the past century, including the figures, breakthroughs and disasters that moved the field forward (for better or worse). An informative read that chronicles the history and science of humankind’s “ambivalent” relationship with this strange force.

About Rachel E. Gross
Rachel E. Gross

Rachel is the Science Editor, covering stories behind new discoveries and the debates that shape our understanding of the world. Before coming to Smithsonian, she covered science for Slate, Wired, and The New York Times.

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