Science Book Roundup, April-May 2019

As an ongoing feature of my blog, here is my Science Book roundup for April and May of 2019. I will occasionally publish full reviews of titles that I consider particularly important.

My usual caveat: For my Roundups, I don’t read all of the books in detail, but they are published by reputable publishers and written by credible authors. I browse them enough to recommend picking them up from a library or bookstore shelf.

My usual request: Because freelance book review opportunities have almost disappeared, I now rely on Amazon referral fees to cover the cost of maintaining my online presence. If you are inclined to buy any of these books from Amazon, please use the links here so I can get a small referral fee. Another way to thank me is to click my portal to Amazon for whatever shopping you plan to do. I get reports of what people buy but not who is buying, so I will not be able to say thanks. But please know that I am grateful.

I’ll start with two April paperback releases of previously published and very different titles, one for serious reading and the other perfect for summer at the beach. It isn’t hard from the titles to guess which is which.

The publisher describes coverThe Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife by London-based award-winning filmmaker Lucy Cooke (originally published in 2018) as “Mary Roach meets Bill Bryson in this uproarious tour of the basest instincts and biggest mysteries of the animal world.”

Roach is the author of hilarious and informational gems such as Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife; Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex; and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Links are my reviews.

The publisher then continues:
“Whether we’re seeing a viral video of romping baby pandas or a picture of penguins ‘holding hands,’ it’s hard for us to think of animals as anything but playful paragons of innocence and virtue. So you’ve probably never considered if moose get drunk, penguins cheat on their mates, or worker ants lay about. They do–and that’s just for starters. In The Truth About Animals, Lucy Cooke embarks on a global adventure to meet everyone from a Colombian hippo castrator to a Chinese panda porn peddler, all to lay bare the secret–and often hilarious-habits of the animal kingdom. Charming and at times downright weird, this modern bestiary is perfect for anyone who has ever suspected that virtue might be unnatural.”

Heavier in topic and tone (and sheer physical size) but well worth reading is Colin Pask’s coverMagnificent Principia: Exploring Isaac Newton’s Masterpiece, originally published as a hardcover volume in 2013 and now in paperback with a new Preface by the author. The publisher describes it as an “accessible guided tour through Newton’s masterpiece. Using the final edition of the Principia, Pask clearly demonstrates how it sets out Newton’s (and now our) approach to science, how the framework of classical mechanics is established, how terrestrial phenomena like the tides and projectile motion are explained, and how we can understand the dynamics of the solar system and the paths of comets. He also includes scene-setting chapters about Newton himself and scientific developments in his time, as well as chapters about the reception and influence of the Principia up to the present day.”

Our roundup includes two April hardcover releases. A modern-day Newton looking for some light reading would be astonished by the contents of coverThe Cosmic Mystery Tour: A High-Speed Journey Through Space and Time by Nicholas Mee. With more than 130 colorful images, this compact volume explores some topics that Newton never could have imagined and the answers to other questions that he might have asked but the science of his time was not prepared to answer. The publisher calls it “a lightning tour of the mysteries of the universe enlivened by brief stories of the colorful characters who created modern science. It explores hot topics in physics and astronomy, including the recent discovery of gravitational waves; the quest for the origin of dark matter; the study of the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy; the ongoing search for Earth-like exoplanets; the search for signals from extraterrestrials; and the development of technologies to send spacecraft to the stars.”

A much heftier book in size and depth of content is coverThe Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive and Fall by eco-adventurer, biologist, and scholar Mark W. Moffett. Solidly researched, full of human stories, and described in cover blurbs as a “manifesto,” “magisterial,” and yet “highly readable (yet) ambitious in its interdisciplinary breadth,” this book “(a)t a time when xenophobia is creating crises of group identity… presents an urgently needed account of the forces that create and break human societies.”

May science books include the paperback release of coverChasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon (2018). You can read a sentence of my review on the back cover, or the whole review at this link.

Space enthusiasts will also appreciate Rod Pyle’s paperback original coverHeroes of the Space Age: Incredible Stories of the Famous and Forgotten Men and Women Who Took Humanity to the Stars. To be a nit-picker, I will note that the title and subtitle overstate the case. It is not the story of reaching the stars or even other planets and bodies of the Solar System. It is limited to human space flight and about our species’ tentative first steps beyond Earth and to the Moon, ending with the second human lunar landing, Apollo 12. Still, given that limitation, its choice of heroes is excellent. They are true pioneers: Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, the first man and first woman to orbit Earth; John Glenn, the first American in orbit; Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first humans to walk on the Moon; Apollo 12 Commander, veteran astronaut, and one of NASA’s most colorful characters Pete Conrad; Gene Kranz, who led mission control in Houston; and Margaret Hamilton, “The First Software Engineer,” whose software expertise was essential for planning and controlling the missions in real time. My advice: Don’t worry that the title does quite fit. Just read and enjoy the human stories.

Those same readers will eagerly pick up coverThe Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility by Robert Zubrin, president of Pioneer Astronautics and the Mars Society, best known for his visionary earlier books, including coverThe Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must and coverMars Direct: Space Exploration, The Red Planet, and the Human Future. The book makes the case for expanding the human presence throughout the Solar System, from Lunar bases commercial exploitation of asteroids, to making Mars a human world (including a chapter on terraforming it and other worlds), to the outer planets and their moons, and eventually interplanetary travel and settlement.

As in his earlier books about Mars, Zubrin sees these explorations as not only possible but essential. This book, to me, is the most enticing of all of the ones in this roundup, and I am setting it aside for a full review.

As is often the case, books about other worlds connect closely to books about Earth itself and the origins of humanity, such as coverOrigins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History by Lewis Dartnell. Future settlers and terraformers of other worlds will be well advised to read a book like that one. As the publisher notes, “Our planet wobbles, driving changes in climate that forced the transition from nomadism to farming. Mountainous terrain led to the development of democracy in Greece. Atmospheric circulation patterns later on shaped the progression of global exploration, colonization, and trade. Even today, voting behavior in the south-east United States ultimately follows the underlying pattern of 75 million-year-old sediments from an ancient sea. Everywhere is the deep imprint of the planetary on the human.”

On a shorter but still considerable timescale, the history of human civilization, University of Texas engineering professor Michael E. Webber’scoverPower Trip: The Story of Energy describes how humanity’s ability to create and control energy has been central to our cultural development and evolution. In this period where our use of fossil fuels threatens civilization itself, Webber takes a more optimistic view, as the publisher notes: “Power Trip explores how energy has transformed societies of the past and offers wisdom for today’s looming energy crisis. There is no magic bullet; energy advances always come with costs. Scientific innovation needs public support. Energy initiatives need to be tailored to individual societies. We must look for long-term solutions. Our current energy crisis is real, but it is solvable. We have the power.”

The final two books for this roundup are more challenging and philosophical. coverCosmological Koans: A Journey to the Heart of Physical Reality by Anthony Aguirre uses the zen technique of using paradoxical riddles to confront the limits of our understanding of the cosmos. A quick examination of the book and its publicity leads me to conclude that each reader will respond to the approach as either enlightening or a gimmick. If you think you are part of the former group, click the link and explore the Amazon page and the reviews, and if you are so inclined, buy it.

coverThe Universe Speaks in Numbers: How Modern Math Reveals Nature’s Deepest Secrets by Graham Farmelo is also likely to produce a dichotomy of reader reactions. When I first discovered Physics in high school, I loved the way it seemed to be written in the universal language of mathematics. Some of my classmates preferred their learning rooted in observation and experiment, and after a while, I became more comfortable in that camp. We were lucky enough to have a gifted teacher who could deliver both aspects at once. I think my teacher would have liked this book, but he would have gone into the storeroom to bring out a demonstration to make sure the lesson took hold. If this intrigues you, click through to the Amazon page for furteher information.

I will be back in another month or two with my next roundup. Happy science reading!

Blogger and reviewer Fred Bortz is the author of numerous science books for young readers.

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