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Best Sci-Tech Books 2007: Beyond the Bounds of Science

The top 39 science titles of 2007 reflect a crossover trend as novelists, historians, and other nonscientists make the list

By Gregg Sapp -- Library Journal, 3/1/2008

Something new and exciting is happening in science writing. Look who has contributed to the list of the best science books of 2007. Certainly the most notable names in the field of science journalism are here, including Richard Preston, Oliver Sacks, Douglas Hofstadter, Natalie Angier, and Steven Pinker.

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But authors from other fields are now crossing over. In Einstein, think-tank executive Walter Isaacson has written a major, up-to-date biography of one of the 20th century's greatest scientists. National Book Award–winning historian Edward Ball's The Genetic Strand turns a family history into an exploration of the science of genetics. And even renowned writers of fiction like Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) and Gwyneth Cravens (Power To Save the World) have applied their creative writing skills to science exposition.

Popular science readers have long known that this genre is not only topical and informative but that it also lends itself to a distinct kind of artistic expression that can challenge the most accomplished writers. The crossover trend will continue as its market grows.

Kingsolver, Barbara with Steven L. Hopp & Camille Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. HarperCollins. 384p. ISBN 978-0-06-085255-9. $26.95.
Novelist Kingsolver and her family retreated to Virginia's Appalachian mountains and became “locavores,” eating only locally produced food. What began as an experiment in self-sufficiency became an environmentally friendly, healthier lifestyle. (LJ Xpress Review, 4/3/07)

Sims, Michael. Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination. Viking. 296p. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-0-670-06328-4. $24.95.
Observing the sun's trek across the horizon from dawn to dusk and back again has inspired the human imagination since the beginning of time. Sims describes the celestial mysteries each new day brings. (LJ 7/07)

Belfiore, Michael. Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space. Collins: HarperCollins. 305p. photogs. index. ISBN 978-0-06-114902-3. $26.95.
Today, a commercial space age is dawning to offer economic opportunities, as Belfiore's exciting account reveals. (LJ 8/07)

Chiles, James R. The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter. Bantam. 354p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-0-553-80447-8. $25.
The helicopter's ability to hover in the air is the result of aerodynamic principles, perhaps first envisioned by Leonardo Da Vinci but perfected by engineers and basement tinkerers over decades. Chiles's lively narrative is the cultural history of invention. (LJ 9/15/07)

Isaacson, Walter. Einstein: His Life and Universe. S. & S. 675p. photogs. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-0-7432-6473-0. $32.
The 2006 release of over 3500 pages of Einstein's papers revealed new insights into his mind and personality. This epic biography is intricate in its nuances and lavish in its expansiveness—in some ways, as was the man himself. (LJ 2/15/07)

Lytle, Mark Hamilton. The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. Oxford Univ. 277p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-0-19-517246-1. $23.
Carson was the first popularizer of the new science of ecology and a spokeswoman for the conservation movement. Her advocacy extracted a high personal price, though, and Lytle's account of her life depicts her inner strength. (LJ 2/1/07)

Todd, Kim. Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis. Harcourt. 328p. illus. index. ISBN 978-0-15-101108-7. $27.
Amateur naturalists made some of the great biological discoveries of the Age of Enlightenment. But even by the bold standards of this intrepid breed, Merian's fieldwork on South American insects was remarkable for its courage and significance. (LJ 1/07)

Friend, Tim. The Third Domain: The Untold Story of Archaea and the Future of Biotechnology. Joseph Henry: National Academy. 296p. index. ISBN 978-0-309-10237-7. $27.95.
Not only may archaea, recently discovered microbes that exist in extreme environments, hold answers to questions about the origin of life on Earth, but their study could lead to key developments in future, microbial-based economies. (LJ 6/15/07)

Gunn, Moira A. Welcome to Biotech Nation: My Unexpected Odyssey into the Land of Small Molecules, Lean Genes, and Big Ideas. AMACOM: American Management Assn. 258p. index. ISBN 978-0-8144-0923-7. $24.95.
Ex-NASA engineer and NPR journalist Gunn didn't know quite what she was getting into when she began hosting a weekly radio show on biotechnology. Now, she vividly writes about its visionary frontiers and quirky personalities. (LJ 6/15/07)

Ludlow, Peter & Mark Wallace. The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid That Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse. MIT. 295p. illus. ISBN 978-0-262-12294-8. $29.95.
Expectations of behavior in virtual worlds are often ambiguous. When Urizenus Sikar, an online persona, wrote about vice and crime in his virtual world, he was promptly banned. Thus was born a muckraking tabloid for an imaginary universe. (LJ 9/1/07)

Cravens, Gwyneth. Power To Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. Knopf. 439p. illus. index. ISBN 978-0-307-26656-9. $27.95.
Novelist and science writer Cravens's “nuclear tour of America” made her a convert: it must be an essential part of our energy future. (LJ 11/1/07)

Weisman, Alan.
The World Without Us. Thomas Dunne Bks: St. Martin's. 304p. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-0-312-34729-1. $24.95.
Would Earth's ecology be more sustainable without the presence of human beings? Simple answers are impossible, but this provocative book considers what would happen if we suddenly disappeared. (LJ 5/15/07)

Glavin, Terry. The Sixth Extinction: Journeys Among the Lost and Left Behind. Thomas Dunne Bks: St. Martin's. 318p. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-0-312-36231-7. $24.95.
Unlike the previous five major epochs of extinction, the sixth, dawning period of biological depletion, is caused by human activity. Not only are plant and animal biodiversity threatened, so, too, are human cultures, livelihoods, and more. (LJ 1/07)

Sawyer, G.J & others. The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans. Yale Univ. 256p. illus. index. ISBN 978-0-300-10047-1. $34.
The Hominid Reconstruction and Research Team joined scientists and artists to create a gallery of extinct hominids. Arranged chronologically, these three-dimensional reconstructions offer a field guide to our remote ancestors. (LJ 3/1/07) 

Wilson, David Sloan. Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. Delacorte. 390p. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-0-385-34021-2. $24.
Darwin's theory has, from its first publication, been a source of confusion and misconception. Wilson believes that not only can it be easily understood but the controversies surrounding it can be resolved. (LJ 4/1/07)

Ball, Edward. The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA. S. & S. 265p. illus. index. ISBN 978-0-7432-6658-1. $25.
Using locks of hair collected as family keepsakes, National Book Award winner Ball analyzed DNA samples to trace his family history. He learned that, probably like most people, his lineage is a diverse racial mixture. (LJ 10/1/07)

Gawande, Atul. Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance. Metropolitan: Holt. 273p. ISBN 978-0-8050-8211-1. $25.
Gawande shares personal vignettes on the human frailties of doctors and discusses three guiding principles—diligence, doing right, and ingenuity—vital to the doctor's perpetual quest to improve. (LJ 3/1/07)

Groopman, Jerome, M.D. How Doctors Think. Houghton. 307p. index. ISBN 978-0-618-61003-7. $26.
Groopman (Harvard Medical Sch.) offers insight into how misdiagnoses are made and suggests ways for consumers to work with physicians to avoid them. (LJ Xpress Review, 2/13/07) 

Sachs, Jessica Snyder. Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a Bacterial World. Hill & Wang: Farrar. 290p. index. ISBN 978-0-8090-5063-5. $25.
Most of the billions of microbes in our bodies are neutral or even beneficial. The rise of antimicrobial medicine has altered this natural balance, and excessive sanitation may even thwart the development of healthy immunity. (LJ 7/07)

Aczel, Amir.
The Jesuit and the Skull: Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). 388p. photogs. index. ISBN 978-1-59448-956-3. $24.95.
Teilhard de Chardin, a devout Jesuit cleric, was among the team of scientists who discovered the skull of the so-called Peking Man, which stirred new debates between science and religion over human evolution. (LJ 9/1/07)

Friedman, David M. The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest To Live Forever. Ecco: HarperCollins. 338p. photogs. index. ISBN 978-0-06-052815-7. $26.95.
The unlikely partnership between a Nobel laureate and a heroic aviator was motivated, among other things, by a vision that, through a combination of medicine and engineering, the human body could be made immortal. (LJ 8/07)

Byers, William. How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox To Create Mathematics. Princeton Univ. 415p. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-0-691-12738-5. $35.
To many, mathematics is the realm of rules, algorithms, and proofs, but Byers shows how randomness, illogic, and uncertainty are just as essential to mathematical creativity. (LJ 7/07)

Mooney, Chris. Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. Harcourt. 392p. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-0-15-101287-9. $26.
While the scientific consensus is that global warming is real, the issue of whether it causes weather events, like hurricanes, remains uncertain. Insert politics into the mix, and science can get lost in the rhetoric. (LJ 6/15/07)

Walker, Gabrielle. An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere. Harcourt. 272p. illus. index. ISBN 978-0-15-101124-7. $25.
Invisible but powerful, massive but fragile: the atmosphere is the planet's medium for sustaining life. Walker's vivid prose almost makes it possible for readers to “see” the air around them. (LJ 7/07)

The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology on the Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic. Bloomsbury, dist. by Macmillan. ed. by Elizabeth Kolbert & Francis Spufford. 560p. ISBN 978-1-59691-443-8. $29.95.
This flip book (two anthologies in one) includes essays, field notes, diary entries, and excerpts of natural histories that underscore the fragility of the polar ecologies and what their loss would mean. (LJ 9/15/07) 

Preston, Richard. The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring. Random. 294p. ISBN 978-1-4000-6489-2. $25.95.
Suspended from ropes high above the valley floor, “canopy voyagers” explore the largely undiscovered biodiversity in the redwood forests of northern California. (LJ 2/15/07)

Williams, Wendy & Robert Whitcomb. Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Politics, and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound. PublicAffairs: Perseus. 326p. illus. bibliog. ISBN 978-1-58648-397-5. $26.95.
Many environmentalists herald wind as a clean, cheap alternative energy worth developing. But when an entrepreneur proposed building a wind farm off Cape Cod, wealthy residents mobilized their political influence to stymie the project. (LJ 3/15/07)

Roberts, Callum. The Unnatural History of the Sea. Shearwater: Island. 435p. index. ISBN 978-1-59726-102-9. $28.
Pollution and overfishing poses a possibly greater threat to biodiversity than the human-caused losses of terrestrial species. Roberts, a professor of marine conservation, exposes the tragedy of industrial fishing and argues for new marine reserves. (LJ 7/07)

Hofstadter, Douglas. I Am a Strange Loop. Basic Bks: Perseus. 412p. ISBN 978-0-465-03078-1. $26.95.
Since Descartes, separating our mental and physical “selves” has been philosophically problematic. Hofstadter writes about the paradox of mental feedback loops, in which the mind reflects upon itself. (LJ 1/07)

Mazur, Joseph. The Motion Paradox: The 2500-Year-Old Mystery Behind All the Mysteries of Time and Space. Dutton. 272p. ISBN 978-0-525-94992-3. $24.95.
According to Greek philosopher Zeno, speed and motion are logical impossibilities. Yet this paradox has yielded useful mathematical tools for conceptualizing many ideas of modern physics. 

Toomey, David. The New Time Travellers: A Journey to the Frontiers of Physics. Norton. 320p. illus. ISBN 978-0-393-06013-3. $25.95.
The notion of time travel, a favorite theme of sf, is now the subject of serious research. English professor Toomey translates mind-bending concepts into imaginable scenarios.

Pinker, Steven. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. Viking. 512p. ISBN 978-0-670-06327-7. $29.95.
Expressions of language begin as neurological phenomena and pass through a filter of cultural consciousness before being spoken. Harvard psychologist Pinker thus looks at words as how what starts as empirical brain activity can assume different meanings. 

Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Knopf. 400p. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-1-4000-4081-0. $26.
Sacks's clinical case studies illustrate the myriad ways that music influences the mind and the body. (LJ 9/15/07)

Wolf, Maryanne & Catherine Stoodley (illus.). Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Harper: HarperCollins. 308p. illus. index. ISBN 978-0-06-018639-5. $25.95.
The ability to read is not an inevitable part of human intellectual evolution. Wolf's interdisciplinary tour shows how, through reading, neurological phenomena affect cognitive events, which in turn shape values, knowledge, and cultures. (LJ 8/07)

Angier, Natalie. The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Houghton. 292p. index. ISBN 978-0-618-24295-5. $27.
A Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer expounds with zeal and reverence on the essence of scientific thinking and the fundamentals of physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and geology. (LJ 2/1/07)

Klein, Stefan. The Secret Pulse of Time. Marlowe. 288p. tr. by Shelley Frisch. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-1-60094-017-0. $24.
Perceptions of time can differ dramatically from actual time. This European best seller by a German science journalist will certainly appeal to busy Americans who never think they have enough time. (LJ 1/08)

Edgerton, David. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900. Oxford Univ. 270p. photogs. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-0-19-532283-5. $26.
British historian Edgerton provocatively argues that the history of modern technology is better understood by everyday tools in common use. (LJ 12/06)

Flannery, Tim. Chasing Kangaroos: A Continent, a Scientist, and a Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Creature. Grove. 258p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-0-8021-1852-3. $24.
Kangaroos are perhaps the most iconic symbol of Australia. It is fitting, then, that scientist and native son Flannery should write so lyrically about this animal in this travelog/natural history treatise. (LJ 6/15/07)

Weidensaul, Scott. Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding. Harcourt. 358p. index. ISBN 978-0-15-101247-3. $25.
This passion for ornithological observation began when Europeans first set foot on the continent and marveled at its avian diversity; today birders, the author among them, are important amateur scientists. (LJ 8/07)

Author Information
Gregg Sapp is Associate Librarian, State University of New York at Albany, and a longtime LJ reviewer

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