This year the news cycle was dominated again by stories about Covid-19, and rightly so, but other big discoveries were made throughout the sciences. NASA landed another rover on Mars, researchers discovered a new possible species of human, and scientists found ways climate change is influencing the evolution of animals—all topics that may lend themselves to future books.
In 2021, with one year of the battle against the coronavirus behind us, several books came out related to the pandemic. One of those books, The Premonition, by Michael Lewis, is on this list. Another important book that has bearing on how we fight disease, The Code Breaker, by Walter Isaacson, is instead listed among Smithsonian scholars’ picks of the best books of the year. (We didn’t want to review it a second time here.) The books we have selected include dispatches from researchers on their scientific quests to search for an elusive physics equation and learn about the connections betwen trees and in-depth narratives from veteran science journalists exploring everything from solutions to major environmental problems to the benefits of sweat. With so many informative and entertaining works to choose from, it was hard to pick just ten, but these are the books that influenced our thinking the most in 2021.
Under a White Sky:The Nature of the Future, by Elizabeth Kolbert
Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert investigates the wild ways scientists are solving complicated environmental problems in Under a White Sky. As Kolbert notes, humans have directly transformed more than half of the ice-free land on Earth, and indirectly transformed the other half—with many negative consequences in need of fixing. She takes the reader to a canal near Chicago, where officials have electrified the water so damaging invasive carp don’t make their way up the waterway and into the Great Lakes. She heads to Hawaii and Australia, where marine biologists are trying to engineer super corals that can withstand rising water temperatures to save reefs. And she details a geoengineer’s plan to pump diamond dust into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and reduce the impact of climate change. Late in the book, she talks to Dan Schrag, a geologist who helped set up Harvard’s geoengineering program. He says, “I see a lot of pressure from my colleagues to have a happy ending. People want hope. And I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m a scientist. My job is not to tell people the good news. My job is to describe the world as accurately as possible.’” And that is exactly what Kolbert does in her book. She paints a realistic picture of exactly where we’re at. (Joe Spring)
The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, by Michael Lewis
The Premonition, by Michael Lewis, is a thriller, though you know from the start its heroes lose. The book follows several public servants and scientists who saw Covid-19 coming, and did everything within their powers to stop the virus from spreading in the United States. Lewis sticks to his brand: He parachutes readers into the lives of unconventional thinkers who challenged so-called experts. In earlier works, those insiders were Wall Street traders and pro-baseball scouts (The Big Short and Moneyball, respectively). The Premonition’s antagonists are high-ranking government officials that ignore or muzzle our heroes, and bureaucratic systems that pose barriers to their success. In Part I, Lewis recounts the protagonists’ backstories, including a public health officer once damned to hell by hometown church leaders for attending medical school; a microbiologist who injected an Ebola cousin into the hearts of live pythons; and the Wolverines—a covert group of medical and military government insiders pushing pandemic preparedness. In Part II, mostly set in early 2020, the characters meet and try to contain Covid. Lewis’ account then becomes a maddening page-turner, as politics, optics and profits thwart our heroes and allow the virus to rampage. (Bridget Alex)
Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, by Suzanne Simard
Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard penned our favorite book by a scientist this year with her deeply personal and engaging Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. Simard grew up in Canada in a logging family and, at age 20, worked as a seasonal employee for a logging company. But even early on, she had a sense that clear-cutting forests and poisoning the earth so monocultures could grow was the wrong approach. Simard suspected that forests were made up of interconnected entities that helped each other out, and so she pursued a career in science—studying silviculture for the Forest Service and eventually earning a PhD in forest sciences at Oregon State University. In experiments, she documented that birch and Douglas fir trees traded carbon underground. She established that the forest is a “wood-wide web,” with plants exchanging nutrients and chemical signals via their roots and fungal networks, and found that large old trees, or “Mother Trees,” were at the center of these networks, often helping their offspring.
Simard’s discoveries have implications for how governments should manage forests. Clear-cutting swaths and suppressing all but the desired species may not be the best approach; the ecologist instead argues for leaving Mother Trees and enabling plants to grow together and support each other. But Simard’s science alone isn’t the reason this book impresses. Throughout it, she shares personal stories as she embarks on her scientific quest—her close relationship with her brother, the breakdown of her marriage and her battle with breast cancer. In the midst of all this, Simard continues to push the limits of what is known about how forests work. She brings the reader with her—to scientific conferences where she speaks about research that many in the audience discount, to her lab at the University of British Columbia where she does field experiments with graduate students and to forests in western Canada where grizzly bears roam. By crafting a narrative that incorporates so many personal and professional relationships, she shows how connections as intricate as the root and fungal network beneath the forest floor shaped her scientific journey. (J.S.)
The Joy of Sweat: The Strange Science of Perspiration, by Sarah Everts
We are all sweating, at least a little, all the time. That’s a good thing. For one thing, sweat keeps our hot-running mammalian bodies from overheating—but there’s much more to the salty discharge than that. In The Joy of Sweat, science journalist Sarah Everts has composed a strange and wonderful tribute to the bodily effluvia that keep us cool and yet carry so much information about ourselves. Sweat, Everts writes, is “an oddly flamboyant way to control body temperature.” Every person has two to five million sweat pores, part of a built-in temperature control system. But as Everts tracks the natural and cultural history of sweat—from the ways other animals cool down to New Jersey scent manufacturers and Russian speed dates based on body odor—it comes to be so much more. Sweat gives us personal scents that play a role in attraction and may carry signals that we are sick. As the repeated reinvention of the sauna hints, sometimes it just feels good to have a vigorous sweat. What starts as an exploration turns into an ode to our ever-present secretions. “We’re going to have to learn as a species to appreciate our sweat,” Everts writes, “and, perhaps, to embrace sweating even more than we already do.” (Riley Black)
The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything, by Michio Kaku
In The God Equation, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku writes about his almost lifelong mission to find what he calls the “Holy Grail of physics,” a “theory of everything.” His ultimate goal is to write an equation that encompasses the whole of physics and that can explain everything from the Big Bang to the end of the universe. Such an idea started with Isaac Newton and stumped Albert Einstein, who couldn’t come up with a theory that would unify all of the forces at play. If that all sounds too heavy, rest assured that Kaku makes it approachable by taking the reader along on his journey and writing about science in clean, concise language.
Kaku has sought out a grand equation since, at eight years old, he saw a photo of Einstein’s desk and learned in the caption the great scientist couldn’t finish the work he started. He transitions from that anecdote to history, introducing the reader to the ideas of the Greeks and Newton. As Kaku moves through the scientists that uncovered the major forces of the world through equations, he drives home to the reader the importance of such milestones by detailing the technologies that resulted from the findings. Newton’s laws were used to perfect the steam engine. Mathematician James Clerk Maxwell’s equation on waves was tested by physicist Heinrich Hertz in 1886—using a spark and a coil of wire—and led to the unveiling of radio by Guglielmo Marconi in 1894. Eventually the history and Kaku’s quest to find “The God Equation” lead to string theory, the concept that the universe is not made of point particles but of tiny, unseen threads that vibrate with a note corresponding to a subatomic particle. That theory is untested, and Kaku has skin in the game; he started studying string theory in 1968. But neither are reasons not to read the book, as it is at its heart a clear and engaging story of a difficult scientific quest. (J.S.)
Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, by Mary Roach
Of all of the authors on our list this year, Mary Roach is the one we most want to have a beer with. In her amusing book Fuzz, she interviews and accompanies experts—from a wildlife biologist tracking mountain lions to a biowarfare specialist studying toxic peas—to learn how they deal with instances of animals and plants “breaking the law.” Roach heads to Colorado to find out whether bears can be prevented from rummaging through garbage and breaking into homes, to India to find out why elephants kill villagers, and to Canada to see how “danger trees” that could fall and kill hikers are brought down. The book is packed with quirky facts and wild from-the-field dispatches. Her discoveries range from the lighthearted—bears in Minnesota once raided a large supply of MREs, “which bears apparently enjoy more than soldiers do”—to the macabre—effigies, or dead hanging birds, were strung up near debris recovered after 9/11 and placed at a landfill. The effigies were meant to prevent gulls from scavenging body parts as inspectors sorted through the wreckage for remains.
Roach details each subject with her characteristic wit and packs the text with unsettling stats and examples. Did you know 40,000 people die every year from snakebites in India? Or that in one breeding season, 200 men spent six to seven hours a day clubbing and killing 80,000 albatross on Midway Atoll that authorities wanted to prevent from colliding with airplanes? Throughout her journey, Roach documents human responses to plant and animal “crimes,” from measures that are comical to others more disturbing, leaving the reader occasionally shocked, and always entertained. (J.S.)
The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred, by Chanda-Prescod Weinsten
Theoretical cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein begins her visionary book The Disordered Cosmos with a tale about the origin of human existence that establishes our role in the universe as both knowledge keepers and seekers. Prescod-Weinstein then masterfully communicates her deep admiration of the night sky, what is known about the structure of space and what is left to discover about the cosmos. Throughout the book, she weaves groundbreaking discoveries made in physics with pivotal moments from her own career as the first Black woman to hold a tenure-track faculty position in theoretical cosmology—a journey to decipher the universe in a field that too often perpetuates harm in ways that are both racist and sexist. She dives into the historical context of scientific breakthroughs, challenges the notion of who gets to be named a scientist and asks what responsibility researchers owe to society. In the same way Prescod-Weinstein teaches that matter shapes the spacetime around it, she also details how the choices physicists make shape societal futures. The Disordered Cosmos is a fierce reminder that science does not exist in a vacuum; rather, it is a practice firmly rooted in humanity—and access to the night sky is perhaps the most fundamental human right of all. The book is a love letter to the wondrous universe we call home, and an urge to think critically about how we explore its depths. (Katrina Miller)
Deep Time: A Journey Through 4.5 Billion Years of Our Planet, by Riley Black
Our top pick for a coffee table book this year is Riley Black’s Deep Time. Conceiving of the stretch of time since the formation of the universe is difficult. This book helps the reader do so by picking out key historical moments—like the dawn of the dinosaurs and the disappearance of Doggerland, connecting Great Britain to continental Europe—and offering digestible explanations for them with compelling imagery. Black is an expert guide as she has written several books about paleontology—and articles on the subject for Smithsonian for years. But this book doesn’t just stick to fossils and dinosaurs, it also covers key concepts in astronomy (The Hubble Deep Field), geology (the formation of the Grand Canyon) and biology (mitochondria), all in chronological order. For example, an entry titled “Tongue stones” with the accompanying date of 450 million years ago—the beginning of sharks’ existence on Earth—describes the evolution of how European experts thought about shark teeth, and how study of the remnants led to a key scientific concept. Black explains that naturalists originally believed such fossils were the petrified tongues of serpents. Not until a great white shark was brought to an anatomist in 1666 did experts imagine that the relics came from ancient sharks—and that the teeth must have drifted down to the seafloor and been covered by sediment. (Many Indigenous cultures had already identified fossils as coming from animals that lived long before.) That realization led to the geological principle now known as superposition—in layers of rock, the oldest are at the bottom. An anatomist’s 1668 sketch of a shark, an image of a great white shark and a photo of fossilized shark teeth dating from the Upper Cretaceous illustrate this entry. The book consists of 50 such informative entries, which allow the reader to grasp how scientists learned about key milestones in the evolution of our planet. (J.S.)
Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive, by Carl Zimmer
We seem to intuitively know the difference between living things and inorganic matter—but as award-winning science writer Carl Zimmer makes abundantly clear in Life’s Edge, that boundary is not as sharp as one might imagine. Is a blood cell alive? What about a virus? Or a fertilized egg? The notion of death turns out to be equally fuzzy. Tiny tardigrades that grow to no more than one-fifteenth of an inch can be dried out and frozen, but add water and warmth and they spring back to life after years or even decades. Scientists know life took hold on our planet some 3.5 billion years ago, based on the oldest known fossils—but how exactly did it happen? Zimmer revisits a famous experiment carried out in the early 1950s by scientists who tried to simulate the conditions thought to prevail on the early Earth. While no creatures crawled out of their apparatus, the experiment did produce amino acids, which are among life’s building blocks. Zimmer also explores a recent idea known as assembly theory, which tries to give a precise measure of the complexity of chemical compounds as a way of honing in on life’s origins. And yet, no precise moment when chemistry gives rise to biology has been found. After reading Zimmer’s engaging book, the reader might even wonder if categories like “alive” and “not alive” are labels we impose on nature, rather than objective features of the world. (Dan Falk)
Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, by Michelle Nijhuis
In Beloved Beasts, Michelle Nijhuis takes a compelling look at the history of the conservation movement since the late 19th century. The author weaves an intricate story by detailing the efforts of key conservationists—complex individuals who Nijhuis writes sometimes “did the wrong things for the right reasons, and the right things for the wrong reasons.” The reader learns of William Temple Hornaday, who killed a number of rare bison in the West in 1886 for a D.C. diorama before starting a captive breeding program to save the species. Nijhuis shares the story of Rosalie Edge, a bird lover who fought the Audubon Society in the 1920s and 1930s to gain more support for raptors and bought Hawk Mountain, a key migration spot in Pennsylvania that has become an important place for counting birds. As Nijhuis introduces new characters, from Rachel Carson to Aldo Leopold, she establishes their connections to conservationists that preceded them and packs the book with interesting facts. Did you know, for example, that the U.S. adopted DDT during World War II after losing access to the Japanese grown chrysanthemum that had been a source of the insecticide pyrethrum? Or that most species protection by state wildlife agencies is funded by hunting license fees and taxes on hunting equipment? Today, as Nijhuis writes, more than one million species are threatened with extinction, and in the last two decades more than 1,800 conservationists have been murdered protecting species and habitat. To better understand how conservation might move forward to address these dire conditions, it helps to have this comprehensive history detailing the failures and successes of notable practitioners. (J.S.)