In honor of National Public Science Day, I thought it would be fun to post what I feel are the top ten science books out there today. These books aren’t just technically accurate, but are a lot of fun as well. I’ve been a science nerd for as long as I can remember, and there’s nothing like a great book that sucks me into the world of science even more than I’m already…well, sucked. I am a lover of all kinds of science books, but I personally understand how those not obsessed with various sciences could be uninterested in those books that are purely technical. These books are anything but, as all of these authors are not just very good and passionate writers, but they are incredibly creative in finding ways to allow your average person to relate to the source material. It’s my personal hope that you, the reader, has read all of these, but if you haven’t please take my suggestions to heart.
Here are the Top Ten Science Books You Should Read in 2012.
10. The Physics of Superheroes by Dr. James Kakalios (Physics)
If superheroes stepped off the comic book page or silver screen and into reality, could they actually work their wonders in a world constrained by the laws of physics? How strong would Superman have to be to “leap tall buildings in a single bound”? Could Storm of the X-Men possibly control the weather? And how many cheeseburgers would the Flash need to eat to be able to run at supersonic speeds?
Face front, True Believer, and wonder no more! Because in The Physics of Superheroes acclaimed university professor James Kakalios shows that comic book heroes and villains get their physics right more often than you think.
In this scintillating scientific survey of super powers you’ll learn what the physics of forces and motion can reveal about Superman’s strength and the true cause of the destruction of his home planet Krypton, what villains Magneto and Electro can teach us about the nature of electricity—and finally get the definitive answer about whether it was the Green Goblin or Spider-Man’s webbing that killed the Wall Crawler’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy in that fateful plunge from the George Washington Bridge!
Along the way, The Physics of Superheroes explores everything from energy, to thermodynamics, to quantum mechanics, to solid state physics, and Kakalios relates the physics in comic books to such real-world applications as automobile airbags, microwave ovens, and transistors. You’ll also see how comic books have often been ahead of science in explaining recent topics in quantum mechanics (with Kitty Pryde of the X-Men) and string theory (with the Crisis on Infinite Earths).
This is the book you need to read if you ever wondered how the Invisible Woman of the Fantastic Four can see when she turns transparent, if the Atom could travel on an electron through a phone line, or if electromagnetic theory can explain how Professor X reads minds. Fun, provocative, and packed with more superheroes and superpowers than an Avengers-Justice League crossover, The Physics of Superheroes will make both comic-book fans and physicists exclaim, “Excelsior!”
“The Physics of Superheroes is clear, rapid, funny, and endlessly informative— as if Stan Lee and George Gamow had teamed up to battle the nefarious forces of ignorance.”
—Gerard Jones, author of Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book
“Author James Kakalios is a scientific genius who could put Lex Luthor and Dr. Doom to shame. Superman should have him on retainer. I do—because The Physics Of Superheroes is this comic-book writer’s newest favorite indispensable resource.”
—Mark Waid, writer of Spider-Man, Superman, and the Fantastic Four
9. Death from the Skies by Dr. Phil Plait (Astronomy/Astrophysics)
According to astronomer Philip Plait, the universe is an apocalypse waiting to happen But how much do we really need to fear from things like black holes, gamma-ray bursts, and supernovae? And if we should be scared, is there anything we can do to save ourselves? With humor and wit, Plait details the myriad doomsday events that the cosmos could send our way to destroy our planet and life as we know it. This authoritative yet accessible study is the ultimate astronomy lesson.
Combining fascinating, and often alarming, scenarios that seem plucked from science fiction with the latest research and opinions, Plait illustrates why outer space is not as remote as most people think. Each chapter explores a different phenomenon, explaining it in easy-to-understand terms, and considering how life on earth and the planet itself would be affected should the event come to pass. Rather than sensationalizing the information, Plait analyzes the probability of these catastrophes occurring in our lifetimes and what we can do to stop them. With its entertaining tone and enlightening explanation of unfathomable concepts, Death from the Skies! will appeal to science buffs and beginners alike.
8. The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics by Dr. James Kakalios (Quantum Physics)
Most of us are unaware of how much we depend on quantum mechanics on a day-to-day basis. Using illustrations and examples from science fiction pulp magazines and comic books, The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics explains the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics that underlie the world we live in.
7. Physics of the Impossible by Dr. Michio Kaku (Physics)
A fascinating exploration of the science of the impossible—from death rays and force fields to invisibility cloaks—revealing to what extent such technologies might be achievable decades or millennia into the future.
One hundred years ago, scientists would have said that lasers, televisions, and the atomic bomb were beyond the realm of physical possibility. In Physics of the Impossible, the renowned physicist Michio Kaku explores to what extent the technologies and devices of science fiction that are deemed equally impossible today might well become commonplace in the future.
From teleportation to telekinesis, Kaku uses the world of science fiction to explore the fundamentals—and the limits—of the laws of physics as we know them today. He ranks the impossible technologies by categories—Class I, II, and III, depending on when they might be achieved, within the next century, millennia, or perhaps never. In a compelling and thought-provoking narrative, he explains:
· How the science of optics and electromagnetism may one day enable us to bend light around an object, like a stream flowing around a boulder, making the object invisible to observers “downstream”
· How ramjet rockets, laser sails, antimatter engines, and nanorockets may one day take us to the nearby stars
· How telepathy and psychokinesis, once considered pseudoscience, may one day be possible using advances in MRI, computers, superconductivity, and nanotechnology
· Why a time machine is apparently consistent with the known laws of quantum physics, although it would take an unbelievably advanced civilization to actually build one
Kaku uses his discussion of each technology as a jumping-off point to explain the science behind it. An extraordinary scientific adventure, Physics of the Impossible takes readers on an unforgettable, mesmerizing journey into the world of science that both enlightens and entertains.
6. Nature’s Blueprint by Dr. Dan Hooper (Quantum Physics)
The first accessible book on a theory of physics that explains the relationship between the particles and forces that make up our universe.
For decades, physicists have been fascinated with the possibility that two seemingly independent aspects of our world—matter and force—may in fact be intimately connected and inseparable facets of nature. This idea, known as supersymmetry, is considered by many physicists to be one of the most beautiful and elegant theories ever conceived. According to this theory, however, there is much more to our universe than we have witnessed thus far. In particular, supersymmetry predicts that for each type of particle there must also exist others, called superpartners. To the frustration of many particle physicists, no such superpartner particles have ever been observed. As the world’s most powerful particle accelerator—the Large Hadron Collider—begins operating in 2008, this may be about to change. By discovering the forms of matter predicted by supersymmetry, this incredible machine is set to transform our current understanding of the universe’s laws and structure, and overturn the way that we think about matter, force, space, and time.
Nature’s Blueprint explores the reasons why supersymmetry is so integral to how we understand our world and describes the incredible machines used in the search for it. In an engaging and accessible style, it gives readers a glimpse into the symmetries, patterns, and very structure behind the universe and its laws.
5. The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean (Chemistry)
The Periodic Table is one of man’s crowning scientific achievements. But it’s also a treasure trove of stories of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. The infectious tales and astounding details in THE DISAPPEARING SPOON follow carbon, neon, silicon, and gold as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, war, the arts, poison, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.
4. Stiff by Mary Roach (Biology)
“One of the funniest and most unusual books of the year….Gross, educational, and unexpectedly sidesplitting.”—Entertainment Weekly
Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers—some willingly, some unwittingly—have been involved in science’s boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. They’ve tested France’s first guillotines, ridden the NASA Space Shuttle, been crucified in a Parisian laboratory to test the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and helped solve the mystery of TWA Flight 800. For every new surgical procedure, from heart transplants to gender reassignment surgery, cadavers have been there alongside surgeons, making history in their quiet way.
In this fascinating, ennobling account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries—from the anatomy labs and human-sourced pharmacies of medieval and nineteenth-century Europe to a human decay research facility in Tennessee, to a plastic surgery practice lab, to a Scandinavian funeral directors’ conference on human composting. In her droll, inimitable voice, Roach tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.
3. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Dr. Daniel Dennett (Evolutionary Biology/Sociology)
In a book that is both groundbreaking and accessible, Daniel C. Dennett, whom Chet Raymo of The Boston Globe calls “one of the most provocative thinkers on the planet,” focuses his unerringly logical mind on the theory of natural selection, showing how Darwin’s great idea transforms and illuminates our traditional view of humanity’s place in the universe. Dennett vividly describes the theory itself and then extends Darwin’s vision with impeccable arguments to their often surprising conclusions, challenging the views of some of the most famous scientists of our day.
2. The Future of Life by Edward O. (E.O.) Wison (Biology)
From one of the world’s most influential scientists (and two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning author) comes his most timely and important book yet: an impassioned call for quick and decisive action to save Earth’s biological heritage, and a plan to achieve that rescue.
Today we understand that our world is infinitely richer than was ever previously guessed. Yet it is so ravaged by human activity that half its species could be gone by the end of the present century. These two contrasting truths—unexpected magnificence and underestimated peril—have become compellingly clear during the past two decades of research on biological diversity.
In this dazzlingly intelligent and ultimately hopeful book, Wilson describes what treasures of the natural world we are about to lose forever—in many cases animals, insects, and plants we have only just discovered, and whose potential to nourish us, protect us, and cure our illnesses is immeasurable—and what we can do to save them. In the process, he explores the ethical and religious bases of the conservation movement and deflates the myth that environmental policy is antithetical to economic growth by illustrating how new methods of conservation can ensure long-term economic well-being.
The Future of Life is a magisterial accomplishment: both a moving description of our biosphere and a guidebook for the protection of all its species, including humankind.
1. Cosmos by Carl Sagal (Astronomy)
The best-selling science book ever published in the English language, COSMOS is a magnificent overview of the past, present, and future of science. Brilliant and provocative, it traces today’s knowledge and scientific methods to their historical roots, blending science and philosophy in a wholly energetic and irresistible way.
As with all top ten lists, I’m sure my preferences are different from yours. If you feel I’ve left something off the list, then feel free to comment, and I’ll certainly check it out. I should probably apologize ahead of time if you read any of these but don’t enjoy them, but I doubt this will happen.