These regular blog posts are for educated but non-expert readers who love science. For many years, I regularly sold freelance book reviews to major metropolitan newspapers. Over the past few years, the market for such reviews dried up, but I did not want to leave the field entirely. Fortunately, publishers still send me their catalogs and, if I request them, advance reading copies. I choose a few of the most interesting titles to feature in my postings.
I will also be adding these posts to my Science Shelf website, where you can find nearly two hundred science book reviews that I have written since 1997, plus a few guest reviews as well.
This posting includes five books that are due to reach booksellers in January and February of this year. As I write this, they are already available for advance purchase at Amazon.com.*
The first is The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives by William A. Stixrud, Ph.D. and Ned Johnson. As an author of science books for adolescent and young adult readers as well as a grandparent of newly minted adults, I am acutely aware of the constant struggle to guide our offspring to take control of their own lives amidst societal pressures (and sometimes in spite of our protective parental instincts). As the subtitle suggests, understanding the science of the adolescent brain and mind is useful, especially when combined with the sense gained from our own life experiences.
Serious books like The Self-Driven Child fill an important need, but when your children, your relatives, your colleagues, or your friends drive you a little bit nuts, you might want to turn to the debut book of British science writer Emma Byrne, who asserts that Swearing is Good for You, subtitled The Amazing Science of Bad Language. Looking through my advance reading copy, it’s the kind of book that I would have been eager to pitch to my favorite book review editors who share my appreciation of puns and author Mary Roach. (A favorite example, where the headline writers had as much fun as I did, is Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.)
Readers fascinated with human evolution will appreciate Turning Points: How Critical Events Have Driven Human Evolution, Life, and Development by Kostas Kampourakis. Kampourakis, a researcher in science education at the University of Geneva, makes an argument that unpredictable events have led to decisive changes in the development of our species. It reminds me of a famous question from Stephen Jay Gould. How different would life on Earth be if we restarted from the conditions under which it first arose?
Moving from evolution of our species to the evolution of today’s technological world, we discover Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World by Joshua B. Freeman, Distinguished Professor of History at Queens College and CUNY. The publisher describes it as “the story of the factory and … how it has reflected both our dreams and our nightmares.”
I close with a new book about one of my favorite areas of modern technology, materials science and engineering.** NASA Physicist/author/inventor Les Johnson joins forces with materials scientist Joseph E. Meany, Ph.D. to look at the promise of Graphene: The Superstrong, Superthin, and Superversatile Material That Will Revolutionize the World. Graphene, a material based on one-dimensional structures of carbon atoms joined in a chicken wire pattern has remarkable electrical and mechanical properties that are only now being exploited in technology.
* I no longer earn money directly for this work, so the frequency of my posts will depend on Amazon.com referral fees, which currently are about enough to cover my costs of maintaining a website. If you like this service, I would appreciate your using the Science Shelf portal to make your purchases at Amazon.com. Please bookmark that link and use it for whatever products you buy. I never know who is buying what, so I can’t thank you personally. But please know that I appreciate your support very much.
** Why is materials science a favorite area for me? Recognizing that modern technology would not be possible without modern materials led to write my first book for young readers, Superstuff! Materials That Have Changed Our Lives in 1990. I revisited the topic in Techno-Matter: The Materials Behind the Marvels in 2001, which was recognized on several best books lists and earned me a cash prize as a winner of an American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award.
In addition, graphene is a successor discovery to the soccer-ball shaped molecule named Buckminsterfullerene, a coinage by the late Nobel Prize-winning chemistry Richard Smalley. I had the pleasure of interviewing Smalley in depth for a chapter of my book To the Young Scientist: Reflections on Doing and Living Science. He often remarked that “Bucky hasn’t found a job yet.” Bucky’s descendant graphene is likely to find the job that Bucky was seeking and many more.