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Books occupy a curious place in my reading life. I read a lot as an academic biologist, from research papers to grant proposals to student assignments, but I struggle to carve out time for longer reading commitments that don’t have a work-related purpose. Most years since before I began a faculty position, I set myself a goal of 20 books read for extracurricular enjoyment, and I have never quite hit that mark. This year isn’t over yet, though! And, in fact, between holiday breaks and long-distance travel, I have managed to cover a pretty good range of fiction and non-fiction in 2022. Here’s four science books I read this year that are, I think, well worth your time — and maybe helpful if you’re still filling in the cracks of a holiday gift-giving list.
Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods by Lyndsie Bourgon. I reviewed Tree Thieves for Science this summer, and liked it a lot. The book traces the history of the timber industry and forest conservation in a slice of Northern California, grounding it with a story of illegal timber harvesting in Redwood National and State Parks. Lyndsie Bourgon takes the time to introduce and understand the individual people involved in redwood poaching, blending elements of a police procedural with larger historical and economic perspective. It’s ultimately not so much a warning about the ecological dangers of tree theft, as an indictment of capitalism’s reduction of forests to the market value of the timber they can grow. —Find it on Amazon or Bookshop
A Brief History of Earth: Four Billion Years in Eight Chapters by Andrew H. Knoll. My evolutionary biology course includes a module on the geological history of Earth, and it has taken multiple years of iterating to begin to feel as though I — a neontologist in the pejorative sense — truly know the landmarks of the planet’s history. This short, clearly written volume was a nice refresher as I contemplated that module again this year. —Find it on Amazon or Bookshop
A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane by Samanth Subramanian. Some of my earliest science-blogging was a dive into the contradictory commitments of J.B.S. Haldane. Haldane helped build the “Modern Synthesis” that united Gregor Mendel’s “particulate inheritance” with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection. He has always been a favorite figure of mine in the history of evolutionary biology, because he insisted on the broader value of basic science for the society in which scientists practice. Subramanian’s magisterial biography chronicles Haldane’s lifelong involvement science and leftist politics. The book’s narrative pivots around Haldane’s failure to confront Josef Stalin’s purges of evolutionary biologists and geneticists — a rare lapse of conviction, or maybe courage, from a man who in other contexts risked life and limb in the pursuit of knowledge and social justice. It’s a reminder that scientific and political idealism have their limits, in the hands of fallible human beings. —Find it on Amazon or Bookshop
An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong. These days, you most likely know Ed Yong as an authoritative and humane chronicler of the COVID-19 pandemic, but his science journalism covers natural history much more broadly. An Immense World is a deep, curiosity-driven dive into what we humans know of other animals’ senses, and what that knowledge tells us about their experience of the world. Yong structures the book around different classes of sensation, building to a meditation on the nature of consciousness itself. Along the way he imagines vision based on polarized light, traces the origins of different tastes, and delineates the differences between bats’ echolocation and whales’ sonar. It’s a throughly fun and thoughtful tour through glimpses of sensations and minds radically different from — and sometimes surprisingly similar to — our own. —Find it on Amazon or Bookshop