As I’ve revealed before in my Medical Memoir booklist, I read a lot of nonfiction written on scientific topics. In the last several years there has been an influx of excellent books written on complex scientific topics like the history of DNA or the history of computer science.
Despite the complexity of the topics they cover, these titles shine for their ability to turn advanced scientific information into accessible and engaging narratives for all readers. All 8 of these titles succeed in bringing important scientific topics to the public, while remaining captivating and engrossing reads.
The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Published: February 2nd, 2010
I think to not know about Henrietta Lacks at this point, you’d have to be living under a rock. For a long time, however, her unwitting contribution to modern medicine was overlooked. In The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot brings to light the problematic story of Henrietta, an impoverished African American woman whose cells were taken without her knowledge in the 1950s and turned into a cell line which has proved to be one of the most significant tools in medicine.
Skloot retells Henrietta’s life story and the incredible nature of her unknowing contribution to science. The unfairness of the story can be difficult to stomach – Henrietta’s family is still living in extreme poverty while her cells are bought and sold all around the world. The story is at times incredible, at times saddening and overall a moving portrait of a very normal and at the same time truly extraordinary woman.
Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik and Sarah Scarlett
Published: May 27th, 2014
Stuff Matters is one of those books I picked up because of a Kindle Deal, only to be extremely pleasantly surprised at its quality. If you’ve read Bill Bryson’s At Home, Stuff Matters follows a similar concept. It takes the everyday – like steel, paper and chocolate – and explains the nature of each material and what makes it extraordinary.
Every chapter focuses on a different material of regular life, which gives the book the feeling of a collection of extremely interesting short stories. Miodownik is a British materials scientist who ties each of the materials he discusses to personal experiences in his life. Most captivating was Miodownik’s startling retelling of when he was randomly stabbed in a metro station as a young man – and how interestingly enough this catapulted him into an investigation of the nature of steel. You’ll never look at the banal accessories of everyday life in the same way again.
The Emperor Of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Published: November 16th, 2010
I could rant and rave about this book for days, and it’s one of the titles I’m most likely to recommend to anyone who likes nonfiction (as well as anyone who doesn’t, to be honest). Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, The Emperor Of All Maladies is Mukherjee’s masterful retelling of the history of cancer and cancer research.
If that leaves you less than enthused, believe me when I say that there is nothing dryly medical about this book. Yes, you’ll come away with a much clearer understanding of the mechanics of one of the most menacing illnesses that humans face. However, Mukherjee expertly humanizes the face of cancer and of cancer research, through intimate and compelling portraits of scientists and patients throughout the history of this disease. Despite it’s over 500 pages, I couldn’t put this book down.
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Published: May 17th, 2016
Let me start by saying that as evidenced above, for me, Siddhartha Mukherjee can do no wrong. I’m more than halfway through The Gene at present, and I have to say that it definitely starts off dryer than The Emperor Of All Maladies. It’s probably because in my IB Biology classes in high school and the biotechnology class I took in college, we covered most of the ground that Mukherjee addresses in the first half of the book – the discovery of the gene and its structure through decades of scientific inquiry.
The story is still engrossing in its importance – after all DNA is the very basis of our identity and heritage as humans, as well as the basis of all life. Based on the riveting history of the synthesis of insulin that I’m currently reading, I’m definitely looking forward to a more anecdotal and narrative second half to the book, including stories of patients and the nature of genetic disease. Despite the slow start, I would recommend this book – though you might want to head into it on a chapter-by-chapter basis while concurrently reading other lighter titles.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
Published: February 11th, 2014
Winner for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, The Sixth Extinction is a scientific tour de force through the six major extinction events that have caused a sharp downturn in diversity among species on earth. More important, The Sixth Extinction introduces the possibility that the last of these extinction events is man-made and ongoing – that we as humans are having a devastating impact on the diversity of life on earth through the environmental changes we are perpetrating on the planet.
Kolbert takes the reader into the lives of different researchers who are dedicating their themselves to studying extinct or near-extinct species. From the rain forests of South America, to the Great Barrier Reef, Kolbert follows the work of these scientists as they catalog the devastating effects of climate change that can already be witnessed on some of the earth’s flora and fauna. This book will make you think about the impact of humans on natural diversity and the inevitability of history repeating itself.
The Tale Of The Dueling Neurosurgeons by Sam Kean
Published: May 6th, 2014
In this book, Sam Kean details the history of neuroscience through anecdotes and case studies of unfortunate patients who suffered from varying neurological conditions through history. Lets just say that you’re definitely better off suffering from a mental illness or traumatic brain injury today than say 3 or 4 hundred years ago.
The characters of these vignettes on specific brain injuries include kings, industrial workers, mad scientists, befuddled physicians and ill-advised experimenters. Kean is gifted in making such a complex scientific topic approachable to all readers. You’ll find yourself learning about the human brain, while being at times diverted and at times slightly grossed out by stories of lances in the brain and primitive surgical practices. It’s quite the scientific ride.
The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
Published: July 12th, 2010
Between these two titles by Sam Kean, I did enjoy The Tale Of The Dueling Neurosurgeons slightly more, probably because I naturally have a greater interest in biology than chemistry. (I was terrible at chemistry in high school).
Just as in The Tale Of The Dueling Neurosurgeons, Kean brings chemistry to the masses by producing humorous, thought-provoking and unbelievable anecdotes from The Periodic Table. There was a time when scientists were racing each other to be the first to discover a new element – a time replete with scientific competition, betrayals and hurt feelings galore. The Disappearing Spoon takes readers to that time, introducing them to the key personalities in the foundation of chemistry, and to nature’s most interesting elements and their position in history.
The Innovators by Walter Isaacson
Published: October 7th, 2014
Just like previous titles in this booklist have been histories of the study of neuroscience, the discovery of genes or the discovery of the elements, The Innovators brings a digestible history of computer science and of the main characters involved in its discoveries.
Nowadays, computers permeate our daily existence, and I think it’s very important to be familiar with the origins of these technologically advanced tools, and of the geniuses that made such technology possible. From less known contributors of the past like Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing, to the well-known scientists and investors of today like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Isaacson details the dizzying advent of computers, microprocessors and the Internet. Take a few hours away from your Instagram, your Apple Watch and your Amazon Echo to be riveted by the stories of the inventors who made modern technology possible.
Do you have a favorite scientific nonfiction read that wasn’t mentioned in this post? Let me know in the comments!
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