Browsing the new science books, I came across The Sun's Heartbeat. I picked it up expecting a rather dry collection of facts and was immediately engaged by a chapter titled "The Wild Science of the Bearded Men."
Not only can Bob Berman write but he also has that gift shared by all the best science writers: the ability to translate complex scientific terms into language that anyone can understand.
This book provides a compelling overview of several thousand years of sun research including the great sunspot controversy of the 17th century. The invention of the telescope in 1608 spurned a race to discover facts about the sun. Johannes Fabricius and his father discovered little spots on the sun and excitedly watched them for days until they burnt out their retinal cells. An English astronomer who had voyaged to Roanoke with the English explorers also began recording sunspots. And Galileo himself entered the fray. In fact, Galileo engaged in a decades-long fight with the German professor Christoph Scheiner over sunspots. Over who discovered them first--in fact, neither had, over whether the sun has an atmosphere, and many other topics. Read more about The Sun's Heartbeat
While most books about the Arctic or Antarctic focus on just one thing--the indomitable quest to reach one of the poles--this book has a much broader canvas--it covers the equally arduous work of making new scientific discoveries during the age of great polar exploration.
This broader canvas allows the reader to learn about biological, geological, and meteorological phenomena but also about the cost of empire. England sponsored many of these expeditions while this country held political dominion over one quarter of the world. And as the twentieth century dawned, political power was changing rapidly. Britain had lost face in the Boer Wars in Africa and needed heroism and success to bolster its image abroad and its people's faith in the government and military as Germany, France, and the United States were becoming arch competitors.
But the book is mostly about science and adventure under the most brutal conditions. At one point Scott and Shackleton dock near an ice floe and decide it's time to use a hot-air balloon to get a better view of the landscape ahead. In this totally unpeopled land, Scott rides up into the air and views the vast white expanse. For most of us, such a view would provoke sheer terror. And Scott himself was a little nervous in the little bamboo basket. I kept thinking, what if he falls out. Read more about An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science
Everything is not what it seems. I guess I watch too much tv. I've always been under the impression that forensic investigations and death investigations were done in a highly scientific and professional manner. As it turns out, the reality is that throughout most of America the position of Coroner is an elected position. This means that the person doing the investigation could have little to no experience at all which could then lead to a Read more about Post Mortem: The death investigation crisis in America.
It seems common knowledge that riding your bike to work is a low carbon activity. What you might not know if that if you fuel your bike ride with air-freighted off season asparagus, then your carbon footprint increases dramatically and you'd be better off commuting buy Hummer. The art and science of taking into account many aspects of what constitutes a carbon footprint has often been ignored. Read more about How Bad Are Bananas?
OK, who can resist a title like How I Killed Pluto...? It promises and then delivers a light, interesting take on the Pluto demotion from one of the nine big ones to a dwarf planet at the edge of our solar system. "My very excellent mother just served us nine pizzas." Do you remember that line from science class in grade school? The words helped us remember the planets and their order in the solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto. Alas, now mother is just serving us nine___? Read more about How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
If you only read one book about science this year, let this be the one. Richard Holmes has somehow managed to meld a compendium of 18th and 19th century scientific biographies into a compelling narrative that is part travelogue, part scientific exploration, and all magical. He begins with the story of Joseph Banks who travelled the South Seas with Captain Cook as the expedition's botanist, a position he paid for and equipped with many new instruments and two great mastiffs. Banks was one of the earliest westerners to visit Tahiti. He soon learned the language and basically abandoned his botanical studies to become an anthropologist in Paradise. Read more about The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science