The Best “Art Meets Science” Books of 2016

Eight sumptuous books from the past year that meet at the intersection of science and art


When the two broad fields of art and science intertwine, discoveries become sublime and unexpected approaches to problems are born. This collection of eight notable titles from the past year includes rich photographs and diverting illustrations that explore science through visual art and the written word. And as art does, these books don't shy away from deep questions about nature and human activity.

Evolution: A Visual Record, by Robert Clark

Angraecum sesquipedale (now commonly known as Darwin’s orchid), a species from Madagascar that, Darwin predicted in 1862 could be pollinated only by a moth with a proboscis far longer than any that had yet been seen on Earth. © Robert Clark
Evolution: A Visual Record, by Robert Clark, Phaidon 2016
True leaf insect or "walking leaf" (family Phylliidae) © Robert Clark
The five-toed foot of a saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) © Robert Clark
The long, powerful tail of a saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) © Robert Clark
The skeleton of a prehistoric whale © Robert Clark

Vivid, stunning photographs by Clark capture some of the striking variation and specialization of Earth's life. Portraits of lizards, birds, extinct mammal skeletons and close-ups of beetles and bird feathers are complemented by short lessons about every species pictured. Evolution's progress can take millennia, but, here, glimpses are visible on the page.

Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way it Does, by Philip Ball

There are some imperfections, but for the most part these bubbles intersect at three-way junctions with angles close to 120 degrees. This “preference” is dictated by the interplay between the material’s surface area and tension. Shebeko/
At a smaller scale, the scales that make up those butterfly wing patterns are etched with parallel ridges that scramble light waves hitting them so that only certain colors are reflected. Nikola Rahme/
The wings of a butterfly often sport patches of color and stripes that can imitate eyes or warn of toxins and therefore deter predators. AppStock/
A furled chameleon tail obviously takes its shape from the rolling of a tube, but its pattern is distinct from that created by rolling an even tube, such as that of a garden hose. The gentle taper of the tail produces a logarithmic spiral—one that gets smaller, yet the small parts look like the large parts. Michal Filip Gmerek/
Hexagons show up in an insect’s eye, again influenced by the forces ruling a bubble raft. Tomatito/
This mollusk’s shell not only shows a logarithmic spiral, but also wave-like patterns of color created when the mollusk produces a burst of pigment, followed by a less pigment. The result: slanting stripes along the edge. Aabeele/
Lava cracks have a regularity that arises from the build up and release of tension. Clearviewstock/
The nautilus’s spiral, logarithmic shell allows it to add successively larger chambers that keep up with its growth while maintaining the same shell shape. Pete Saloutos/
The undulations of a sand dune reveal a pattern in time as well as space. Sinuous waves arise from a pulse, an ebb and flow, as grains of sand are blown in the wind. Denis Burdin/
A wasp (Vespula vulgaris) builds its nest of hexagonal cells by instinct. This pattern is an efficient way to use space. Anest/
Fractals also show up in these branching mineral dendrites found in rocks. This pattern comes from aggregation, when similar particles will stick together and form long, tenuous lines with branches and space between. A new particle is more likely to stick to the end than it is to diffuse deep between the branches and fill in the gaps. Vangert/
Water that meets a water-repellent surface will form droplets—their shape dictated by surface tension. Here, below the droplets, branching leaf veins also make an appearance. The laws that influence fractals—a pattern that is similar on a large scale as it is on a smaller scale—govern the veins’ repetition. Olgysha/

The cracks, bands, spirals and dots adorning living creatures, planets and even inanimate rock and earth can resemble one another for a simple reason: the physical and chemical forces that shape them are the same. Learn the science behind why the tiger has its stripes and more, while ogling beautiful illustrative photographs of natural patterns. (See's Q&A with Ball.)

Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, by Phaidon Editors

Albert Lleal Moya, Fruit of moon trefoil (Medicago arborea), 2013. Cultura RM Exclusive/Albert Lleal Moya/Getty Images
Magdalena Turzańska, Lepidozia reptans, 2013, microphotograph. Magdalena Turzańska, Institute of Experimental Biology, University of Wroclaw, Poland
Philip Reinagle, 'Large Flowering Sensitive Plant' from Robert John Thornton, The Temple of Flora, 1799, hand-colored engraving. Natural History Museum, London/Science Photo Library
Rob Kesseler, Scabiosa crenata, 2013, hand-colored scanning electron micrograph. Collection of Rob Kesseler
Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Rosa centifolia: Rosier à cent feuilles, 1820, hand-colored stipple engraving. The Art Archive/Eileen Tweedy
Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, Phaidon 2016

From classical prints that array a single species' seeds, fruit, leaves and roots across the page to stylized paintings of poppy blossoms and x-ray photographs of foxgloves, this collection of botanical art throughout history explores the allure of plants. A non-chronological approach illuminates intriguing contrasts and similarities in the artists' approach to capturing vegetation as well as ensures that each page will surprise.

A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschkas' Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk, by Drew Harvell

Common sea star (Asterias forbesi) Guido Mocafico, courtesy of National Museum of Ireland–Natural History
Long-armed squid (Chiroteuthis veranyi) Guido Mocafico, courtesy of National Museum of Ireland–Natural History
Common octopus Gary Hodges
Portuguese Man-of-War Gary Hodges
Tentacled tubeworm Claire Smith

In the 19th century, father-son duo Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka spent decades crafting scientifically accurate, handblown glass models of marine invertebrates. A menagerie of more than 500 sea slugs, anemones, octopuses and others now resides at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Curator and marine ecologist Harvell recounts her quest to find the living versions of the creatures and the scientific insights the 150-year-old glass replicas still provide.

The Secret Lives of Colour, by Kassia St Clair

The Best

When it was invented, the color "Turkey red" stank because it was made with castor oil, ox blood and dung. "Puce" is French for 'flea' but became a color name when Louis XVI objected to the shade of Marie Antoinette's dress. (It didn't work, and soon all the ladies of the court wore puce.) Surprising anecdotes, history, politics and etymology mingle with chemistry and optics theory in this well-designed book.

The Best American Infographics 2016, edited by Gareth Cook and Robert Krulwich

The Best
The Best American Infographics 2016, edited by Gareth Cook and Robert Krulwich, Mariner Books

The collection showcases the year's most informative and interesting data visualizations, works that "pull you right in and won't let you go," writes Krulwich (of "Radiolab" podcast fame) in the introduction. See in a glance how vaccines choked out diseases such as measles and hepatitis A, compare the speaking styles of presidential candidates and trace the sometimes convoluted paths of road trips described in American literature.

Overview: A New Perspective of Earth, by Benjamin Grant

Davis-Mothan Air Force Base Aircraft Boneyard, 32·151087°, –110·826079° The largest aircraft storage and preservation facility in the world is located at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, USA. The boneyard—run by the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group—contains more than 4,400 retired American military and government aircrafts. Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
Gemasolar Thermasolar Plant, 37.560755°, –5.331908° This image captures the Gemasolar Thermosolar Plant in Seville, Spain. The solar concentrator contains 2,650 heliostat mirrors that focus the sun’s thermal energy to heat molten salt flowing through a 140-metre-tall (460-foot) central tower. The molten salt then circulates from the tower to a storage tank, where it is used to produce steam and generate electricity. In total, the facility displaces approximately 30,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year. All images in this gallery are reprinted with permission from Overview by Benjamin Grant, copyright (c) 2016. Published by Amphoto Books, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
Tulips, 52.276355°, 4.557080° Every year, tulip fields in Lisse, Netherlands begin to bloom in March and are in peak bloom by late April. The Dutch produce a total of 4.3 billion tulip bulbs each year, of which 53 percent (2.3 billion) is grown into cut flowers. Of these, 1.3 billion are sold in the Netherlands as cut flowers and the remainder is exported: 630 million bulbs to Europe and 370 million elsewhere. Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
Olives, 37.263212°, –4.552271° Olive tree groves cover the hills of Córdoba, Spain. Approximately 90 percent of all harvested olives are turned into oil; the remaining 10 percent are eaten as table olives. With rising temperatures and phenomenal weather variations in growing regions, olive groves on high hills or slopes will probably suffer less, but groves located on low altitude areas or plains could become totally unproductive. Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
Moab Potash Evaporation Ponds, 38.485579°, –109.684611° Evaporation ponds are visible at the potash mine in Moab, Utah, USA. The mine produces muriate of potash, a potassium-containing salt that is a major component in fertilizers. The salt is pumped to the surface from underground brines and dried in massive solar ponds that vibrantly extend across the landscape. As the water evaporates over the course of 300 days, the salts crystallize out. The colors that are seen here occur because the water is dyed a deep blue, as darker water absorbs more sunlight and heat, thereby reducing the amount of time it takes for the water to evaporate and the potash to crystallize. Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
Arlit Uranium Mine, 18.748570°, 7.308219° The Arlit Uranium Mine is located in Arlit, Niger. French nuclear power generation, as well as the French nuclear weapons programme, are both dependent on the uranium that is extracted from the mine—more than 3,400 tonnes per year. Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
Lake Oroville Houseboats, 39.398691°, –121.139347° Moored houseboats float peacefully on the New Bullards Bar Reservoir in Yuba County, California, USA. Due to a severe drought that has hit the state over the past four years, there is less space to anchor on the lake and many houseboats have been moved to a nearby onshore storage area. Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
Delray Beach, Florida, 26.475547°, –80.156470° Because many cities in the American state of Florida contain master-planned communities, often built on top of waterways in the latter half of the twentieth century, there are a number of intricate designs that are visible from the Overview perspective. One particular neighborhood in Delray Beach is seen here. Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
Dadaab Refugee Camp, –0.000434°, 40.364929° Hagadera, seen here on the right, is the largest section of the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya and is home to 100,000 refugees. To cope with the growing number of displaced Somalis arriving at Dadaab, the UN has begun moving people into a new area called the LFO extension, seen here on the left. Dadaab is the largest refugee camp in the world with an estimated total population of 400,000. Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
Angkor Wat, 13.412505°, 103.864472° Angkor Wat, a temple complex in Cambodia, is the largest religious monument in the world (first it was Hindu, then Buddhist). Constructed in the twelfth century, the 820,000 square metre (8·8 million-square-foot) site features a moat and forest that harmoniously surround a massive temple at its center. Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
La Plata, –34.921106°, –57.956633° The planned city of La Plata—the capital city of the Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina—is characterized by its strict, square grid pattern. At the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, the new city was awarded two gold medals in the categories ‘City of the Future’ and ‘Better Performance Built.’ Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
Burning Man, 40.786981°, –119.204379° Burning Man is a week-long, annual event held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, USA. Drawing more than 65,000 participants each year, the event is described as an experiment in community, art, self-expression, and radical self-reliance. Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
Iron Ore Mine Tailings Pond, 46.407676°, –87.530954° Tailings are the waste and by-products generated by mining operations. The tailings seen here were pumped into the Gribbens Basin, next to the Empire and Tilden Iron Ore Mines in Negaunee, Michigan, USA. Once the materials are pumped into the pond, they are mixed with water to create a sloppy form of mud known as slurry. The slurry is then pumped through magnetic separation chambers to extract usable ore and increase the mine’s total output. For a sense of scale, this Overview shows approximately 2.5 square kilometres (1 square mile) of the basin. Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
The Empty Quarter, 22.182760°, 55.134184° Rub’ al Khali, or The Empty Quarter, is the largest sand desert in the world. It covers 650,000 square kilometres (251,000 square miles), and includes parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. In the center of the desert there are a number of raised, hardened formations that were once the sites of shallow lakes, thousands of years ago. For a sense of scale, this Overview shows approximately 350 square kilometres (135 square miles) in Saudi Arabia, near the border with Oman. Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
Shadegan Lagoon, 30.327274°, 48.829255° Dendritic drainage systems are seen around the Shadegan Lagoon by Musa Bay in Iran. The word ‘dendritic’ refers to the pools’ resemblance to the branches of a tree, and this pattern develops when streams move across relatively flat and uniform rocks, or over a surface that resists erosion. Images (c) 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Satellite photographs of the Earth from above are common in this post-"space race" age, but few collections are as visually striking as the images featured here. With a focus on how humans have altered the face of the planet, Grant's book is an attempt to evoke the "Overview Effect," as described by astronauts. This is a view of the world one rarely thinks to appreciate. (See's Q&A with Grant.)

Wild Encounters: Iconic Photographs of the World's Vanishing Animals and Cultures, by David Yarrow

The Wolf of Main Street © David Yarrow, Wild Encounters, Rizzoli 2016
Grumpy Monkey © David Yarrow, Wild Encounters, Rizzoli 2016
The Puzzle © David Yarrow, Wild Encounters, Rizzoli 2016
Heaven Can Wait © David Yarrow, Wild Encounters, Rizzoli 2016
Wild Encounters: Iconic Photographs of the World's Vanishing Animals and Culture, by David Yarrow, Rizzoli 2016
The Departed © David Yarrow, Wild Encounters, Rizzoli 2016

Scottish photographer Yarrow creates iconic images that have been shown in international galleries to great acclaim. With this collection, in large format, readers come face to face with the globe's most endangered and charismatic creatures. Portraits of favorites—lions, elephants and polar bears—renew again the emotional connection people have to these animals facing uncertain futures.

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