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7 Favorite Science Books of 2017

From trees to consciousness to black holes, an immersion into the glory of the knowable and the splendor of the unknown.

7 Favorite Science Books of 2017

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.


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.

Read more here.


“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.

Read more here.


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.

Read more here.


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.

Read more here.


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.

Read more here.


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.

Read more here.


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.

Read more here.

* * *

I discussed some of these books during my annual visit to Science Friday:

And because great science books continue to illuminate and enchant long past their publication, do revisit the selections for 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.


Between Sinew and Spirit: Are You a Body with a Mind or a Mind with a Body?

An animated journey to the center of the self.

Between Sinew and Spirit: Are You a Body with a Mind or a Mind with a Body?

“The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use,” computing pioneer Alan Turing wrote as he anguished at the intersection of love and loss. And yet we are creatures of atoms, with spirit and sinew inextricably entwined. A century before neuroscientists came to explore the central mystery of consciousness, Rilke knew how beholden the mind is to the body when he wrote: “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.”

So what is the direction of servitude between the body and the mind, and where does the constellation of certitudes we experience as a self reside in all of it?

In this lovely animated inquiry from TED-Ed, inspired by Isaac Asimov’s I Robot (public library), Maryam Alimardani traces the mind-body problem from Descartes’s foundational ideas to the disorienting findings of neuroscience to explore the ever-elusive locus of self.

Complement with Walt Whitman on the paradox of the self, pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg on how our minds affect our bodies, and PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk on how body and mind converge in the healing of trauma, then revisit other illuminating TED-Ed animations exploring why we fall in love, what makes you you, how melancholy enhances creativity, why some people are left-handed, what depression actually feels like, and why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity.


An Ode to the Number Pi by Nobel-Winning Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska

“…nudging, always nudging a sluggish eternity to continue.”

I am thinking about time this morning — about how it expands and contracts in the open fist of memory, about how the same duration can feel like a blink or incline toward the infinite, or even do both at once. Eleven years ago today, Brain Pickings began — birthed by what feels like another self, one that was once myself but no longer is and never again will be, and yet tethered to who I am today by some invisible thread of personal sensibility woven by and of time. As I look back on my most important learnings from the first decade, I am thinking of Simone de Beauvoir and her meditation on how chance and choice make us who we are. I am thinking of Borges and his sublime refutation of time. But, above all, I am thinking of a poem by one of my favorite poets, the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012), about my favorite number, pi — an ode to the most precise language of the universe, mathematics, in the most precise language on Earth, poetry.

When I read the poem at The Universe in Verse, I prefaced it with a few words about my lifelong love of pi as both an anchor of reality and a counterpoint to certainty. In pi resides a reminder that despite the rigor and devotion with which we may map reality, our maps are still maps — incomplete representational models that always leave more to map, more to fathom, because the selfsame forces that made the universe also made the figuring instrument with which we try to comprehend it.

by Wisława Szymborska

The admirable number pi:
three point one four one.
All the following digits are also initial,
five nine two because it never ends.
It can’t be comprehended six five three five at a glance,
eight nine by calculation,
seven nine or imagination,
not even three two three eight by wit, that is, by comparison
four six to anything else
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth calls it quits at about forty feet.
Likewise, snakes of myth and legend, though they may hold out a bit longer.
The pageant of digits comprising the number pi
doesn’t stop at the page’s edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over a wall, a leaf, a bird’s nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh how brief — a mouse tail, a pigtail — is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star’s ray, bent by bumping up against space!
While here we have two three fifteen three hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size the year
nineteen hundred and seventy-three the sixth floor
the number of inhabitants sixty-five cents
hip measurement two fingers
a charade, a code,
in which we find hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never wert
alongside ladies and gentlemen, no cause for alarm,
as well as heaven and earth shall pass away,
but not the number pi, oh no, nothing doing,
it keeps right on with its rather remarkable five,
its uncommonly fine eight,
its far from final seven,
nudging, always nudging a sluggish eternity
to continue.

“Pi” appears in Szymborska’s indispensable Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library), which also gave us her masterpieces “Life-While-You-Wait” and “Possibilities.” Complement it with Szymborska on how our certitudes keep us small, why we read, and the importance of being scared.

For more highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy, Amanda Palmer’s reading of Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, poet Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Rosanne Cash’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie, Diane Ackerman’s poem about our search for extraterrestrial life, playwright Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, and poet Elizabeth Alexander’s stunning cautionary poem about the misuses of science — or watch the complete show for a two-hour serenade to science and the transformative power of poetry.


91-Year-Old Lebanese-American Poet, Philosopher, and Painter Etel Adnan on Memory, the Self, and the Universe

“The universe is itself the glue that keeps it going, therefore it is memory in action and in essence, in becoming and in being. Because it remembers itself, it exists. Because it exists, it remembers.”

91-Year-Old Lebanese-American Poet, Philosopher, and Painter Etel Adnan on Memory, the Self, and the Universe

Oftentimes during meditation, I am visited by flash-memories dislodged from some dusty recess of my unconscious — vignettes and glimpses of people, places, and events from long ago and far away, belonging to what feels like another lifetime. They are entirely banal — the curb of a childhood sidewalk, mid-afternoon light falling on a familiar building in a familiar way, the smell of a leather armchair on a hot summer day — but in their banality they intimate the existence of the former self who inhabited those moments, a self that seems so foreign and so remote, yet one to which I am forever fettered by this half-conscious memory.

Memory, indeed, is the centerpiece of our selfhood and moors our bodies to our minds, as those flashes of the embodied mind unclenched by meditation reveal. Memory endows us with creativity and animates some of our most paradoxical impulses.

A century after Virginia Woolf painted memory as the capricious seamstress that stitches our lives together, Paris-based Lebanese-American poet, essayist, philosopher, and visual artist Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925) picks up Woolf’s thread throughout Night (public library) — her slender, powerful collection of prose meditations and poems that, from the fortunate vantage point of Adnan’s ninety-first year on Earth, concretize in luminous language and incisive thought life’s most elusive perplexities: time, memory, love, selfhood, mortality.

Etel Adnan: “The Weight of the World” (Serpentine Galleries)

Adnan, whom the polymathic curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has celebrated as one of the most influential artists of the past century, was born in Beirut to a Greek mother and a Syrian father. She began writing poetry in French at twenty and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne a generation after Simone de Beauvoir, then crossed the Atlantic for graduate studies at Harvard and Berkeley. In the 1960s, Adnan took a teaching position at a small Catholic school in California, where she began painting and transcribing the work of Arab poets. She moved back to Beirut and in the midst of the Lebanese civil war composed politically wakeful poetry and prose that arrested the popular imagination with an uncommon precision of insight. Adnan now lives in Paris with her partner, the Syrian-born artist and publisher Simone Fattal, where she continues to paint and write.

Drawing on the rich span of her life across time and space, Adnan reflects on the role of memory in the continuity of our personal identity:

Memory, and time, both immaterial, are rivers with no banks, and constantly merging. Both escape our will, though we depend on them. Measured, but measured by whom or by what? The one is inside, the other, outside, or so it seems, but is that true? Time seems also buried deep in us, but where? Memory is right here, in the head, but it can exit, abandon the head, leave it behind, disappear. Memory, a sanctuary of infinite patience.

Is memory produced by us, or is it us? Our identity is very likely whatever our memory decides to retain. But let’s not presume that memory is a storage room. It’s not a tool for being able to think, it’s thinking, before thinking. It also makes an (apparently) simple thing like crossing the room, possible. It’s impossible to separate it from what it remembers.

Etel Adnan (Photograph by Simone Fattal)

In stretching between the poles of existence and nonexistence, memory, Adnan suggests, might be the native consciousness of the universe:

We can admit that memory resurrects the dead, but these remain within their world, not ours. The universe covers the whole, a warm blanket.

But this memory is the glue that keeps the universe as one: although immaterial, it makes being possible, it is being. If an idea didn’t remember to think, it wouldn’t be. If a chair wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be tomorrow. If I didn’t remember that I am, I won’t be. We can also say that the universe is itself the glue that keeps it going, therefore it is memory in action and in essence, in becoming and in being. Because it remembers itself, it exists. Because it exists, it remembers.

Art by Etel Adnan (Sfeir-Semler Gallery)

In a sentiment that calls to mind Joan Didion’s unforgettable assertion that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Adnan considers how memory binds us to each other and to our own former selves:

Memory is intelligent. It’s a knowledge seated neither in the senses, nor in the spirit, but in collective memory. It is communal, though deeply personal. Involved with the self, though autonomous. At war with death.

It helps us rampage through the old self, hang on the certitude that it has to be.


Reason and memory move together.

And night and memory mediate each other. We move in them disoriented, for they often refuse to secure our vision. Avaricious, whimsical, they release things bit by bit.

Building upon Woolf’s metaphor, Adnan adds:

Memory sews together events that hadn’t previously met. It reshuffles the past and makes us aware that it is doing so.


Memory is within us and reaches out, sometimes missing the connection with reality, its neighbor, its substance.

Complement this particular fragment of Adnan’s wholly enchanting Night with Sally Mann on the treacheries of memory and Cecilia Ruiz’s poetic illustrated meditation on memory’s imperfections inspired by Borges, then revisit Kahlil Gibran, another Lebanese-American poet and philosopher of uncommon insight, on why artists make art.

Thanks, Jen


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