As I begin collecting titles for an early 2020 science book roundup, I have four left over from 2019, three from the life sciences and one celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of arguably the greatest human and technological achievement of the twentieth century.
That achievement, as you probably have guessed, was the first human landing on the Moon. We will get to that book shortly, but first “a word from our sponsor.”
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.
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As a writer of science books for young readers, I have learned the value of story-telling in nonfiction. My fellow children’s author Richard Maurer has clearly learned the same lesson and has applied it in a book for young and not-so-young adult readers. His Destination Moon:The Remarkable and Improbable Voyage of Apollo 11 is marked by a strong clear narrative supplemented by a wealth of illustrations and a series of seven one-page “Briefings.” The publisher describes the book’s important contribution to the literature about the Apollo program as follows: Only now, it is becoming clear how exceptional and unrepeatable Apollo was. At its height, it employed almost half a million people, many working seven days a week and each determined that “it will not fail because of me.”… Packed with adventure, new stories about familiar people, and undeniable danger, Destination Moon takes an unflinching look at a tumultuous time in American history.
Life science covers a broad range of living things, but one fact is unmistakable. Earth was not always habitable and inhabited. The story is familiar. Our planet’s early atmosphere was rich in carbon dioxide and practically devoid of oxygen. Then photosynthetic plant cells arose and began transforming the planet and the air, eventually producing enough oxygen to support animal life. In Making Eden: How Plants Transformed a Barren Planet, University of Sheffield Professor David Beerling picks up where his earlier book The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth’s History leaves off. Both titles have similar themes, looking not only back to the emergence of life on Earth but also forward to what that history suggests about where the human transformation of Earth and its climate might lead.
The publisher’s publicity describes Beerling’s new title this way: In Making Eden, David Beerling reveals the hidden history of Earth’s sun-shot greenery and considers its future prospects as we farm the planet to feed the world…. As threats to plant biodiversity mount today, Beerling discusses the resultant implications for food security and climate change, and how those can be avoided. Drawing on the latest exciting scientific findings, including [his] own field work…and his experimental research…, this is an exciting new take on how plants greened the continents.
For some lighter reading about the diversity of life around us, I suggest Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live by ecologist Rob Dunn, which the publisher describes as the completely unexpected natural history of the great indoors. In this book, Dunn introduces us to the nearly 200,000 species living with us in our own homes, from the Egyptian meal moths in our cupboards and camel crickets in our basements to the lactobacillus lounging on our kitchen counters…. Yet, as we obsess over sterilizing our homes and separating our spaces from nature, we are unwittingly cultivating an entirely new playground for evolution. These changes are reshaping the organisms that live with us–prompting some to become more dangerous, while undermining those species that benefit our bodies or help us keep more threatening organisms at bay. No one who reads this engrossing, revelatory book will look at their homes in the same way again.
We close this roundup with a much more serious topic, cancer. Every life-threatening tumor begins with a single aberrant cell, and thanks to modern medicine, it can be eradicated–at least to the point of being survivable in many cases. Unfortunately for Columbia University cancer researcher and professor Azra Raza, her husband’s leukemia could not be cured. The publisher’s powerful publicity notes that in The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last, Raza offers a searing account of how both medicine and our society (mis)treats cancer, how we can do better, and why we must. A lyrical journey from hope to despair and back again, The First Cell explores cancer from every angle: medical, scientific, cultural, and personal. Indeed, Raza describes how she bore the terrible burden of being her own husband’s oncologist as he succumbed to leukemia…. The First Cell is no ordinary book of medicine, but a book of wisdom and grace by an author who has devoted her life to making the unbearable easier to bear.
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