From trees to consciousness to black holes, an immersion into the glory of the knowable and the splendor of the unknown.
By Maria Popova
The great marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson, who sparked the environmental movement with her 1962 book Silent Spring and who pioneered the cultural aesthetic of writing about science in poetic prose, believed that “there can be no separate literature of science,” for “the aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth,” which is also the aim of literature. I have written at length about what separates great science books from the merely good, but I keep coming back to the elegant criterion Carson both named and exemplified.
Since I find myself spending less and less time dwelling in the literatures of the present, and more and more in those of the past, I can’t speak to the “best” science books of the year in any ultimate and comprehensive sense. But I can and do have distinct favorites among those I did read — books which embody, in varying degrees, Carson’s example and which accomplish, in various ways, what all great science books accomplish, whether they do so from the perspective of microbiology or of astrophysics: They humble us into remembering that we are but a tiny part of a vast and complex universe operating on scales of space and time in which ours holds no special supremacy.
Here are seven such books.
THE RIVER OF CONSCIOUSNESS
In The River of Consciousness (public library) — a posthumous collection of essays, including many never before published — the warm genius of Oliver Sacks comes alive as he tackles everything from memory to Freud’s little-known contributions to neurology and Darwin’s love of flowers to the nature of creativity. In his signature Sacksian way, he explores the universal through the deeply personal — not only with case studies of his patients, as he has done so beautifully for nearly half a century across his classic books, but this time with the case study of his own self as his body and mind go through the process of aging and eventually dying. Sacks brings the friendly curiosity for which he is so beloved to this ultimate testing ground of character, emerging once more as the brilliant, lovable human he was.
THE SONGS OF TREES
“Trees speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons,” an English gardener wrote in the seventeenth century. “When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse rhapsodized two centuries later in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”
For biologist David George Haskell, the notion of listening to trees is neither metaphysical abstraction nor mere metaphor. In The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (public library), Haskell visits a dozen of the world’s most beautiful trees to explore, in immensely lyrical prose and with an almost spiritual reverence, the masterful, magical way in which nature weaves the warp thread of individual organisms and the weft thread of relationships into the fabric of life.
During WWII, when Richard Feynman was recruited as one of the country’s most promising physicists to work on the Manhattan Project in a secret laboratory in Los Alamos, his young wife Arline was writing him love letters in code from her deathbed. While Arline was merely having fun with the challenge of bypassing the censors at the laboratory’s Intelligence Office, all across the country thousands of women were working as cryptographers for the government — women who would come to constitute more than half of America’s codebreaking force during the war. While Alan Turing was decrypting Nazi communication across the Atlantic, some eleven thousand women were breaking enemy code in America.
Their story, as heroic as that of the women who dressed and fought as men in the Civil War, as fascinating and untold as those of the “Harvard Computers” who revolutionized astronomy in the nineteenth century and the black women mathematicians who powered space exploration in the twentieth, is what Liza Mundy tells in Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (public library) — a masterly portrait of the brilliant, unheralded women — women with names like Blanche and Edith and Dot — who were recruited into lives they never could have imagined, lives believed to have saved incalculable other lives by bringing the war to a sooner end through the intersection of language and mathematics.
WHY TIME FLIES
In Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation (public library), New Yorker staff writer Alan Burdick presents a layered, rigorously researched, lyrically narrated inquiry into the most befuddling dimension of existence. From the temporal meditations of the ancient philosophers to the last hundred years of ingenious psychological experiments, he explores such aspects of his subject — a nearly infinite subject, to be sure, which makes his endeavor all the more impressive — as the temporal underpinnings of empathy, why time dilates and contracts depending on whether we are having fun or facing danger, how a mother’s hormones set a fetus’s circadian clock, and what we are actually measuring when we speak of keeping time.
THE GREAT UNKNOWN
In The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science (public library), English mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, who serves as chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, explores the puzzlement and promise of seven grand scientific questions that are as yet unanswered but are, in theory, answerable. He terms them “edges,” marking horizons of knowledge beyond which we can’t currently see — from consciousness to the complexities of chaos to the nature of dark matter to whether the universe is infinite or finite, or whether it is even a universe or a multiverse. In this age of aggressive certitudes, how refreshing and needed to be reminded of the beauty and value of the unknown as our foremost frontier of civilizational growth.
In his revolutionary treatise Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo employed the ancient rhetorical device of dialogue to reconfigure our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Four centuries later, English theoretical physicist Clifford Johnson turns to the same device in The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe (public library) — a most unusual and original graphic novel (or, rather, book-length comic of cosmic nonfiction) exploring some of the most fascinating facets of modern science. Strikingly, Johnson took a semester off from teaching to learn to draw and illustrated the book himself, then populated his panels with refreshingly diverse characters of varied races, genders, and nationalities. Interpolating between the roles of explainer and explainee without any dominant pattern of presumed authority, they venture into illuminating conversations about black holes, quantum electrodynamics, relativity, the multiverse theory, and other thrilling puzzlements of science.
BONUS: BLACK HOLE BLUES
Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (public library) by astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin is one of those rare achievements where a science book enchants not only with the thrill of its subject, but with the splendor of its prose. Although it was originally published in the autumn of 2016, there are two reasons — quite apart from its being one of the finest books I’ve ever read — that merit its inclusion this year. The first is trivial: The paperback was released in 2017. The second is monumental: The book is the definitive chronicle of the discovery that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics — the landmark detection of gravitational waves, the pinnacle of the century-old quest to hear the sound of spacetime. One of the world’s preeminent astrophysicist, Levin is also a masterly novelist who brings her gift as a literary artist to the greatest astrophysical leap in our understanding of the universe since Galileo first pointed his crude brass telescope at the heavens.
* * *
I discussed some of these books during my annual visit to Science Friday: