2020 Year-End Science Book Roundup

This blog marks a transition for me. For more than 20 years, I have been reviewing science books written for the library and bookstore crowd. For a few of those years, I even managed a four-figure supplemental income from selling my reviews to major metropolitan newspapers. Then, one-by-one, book review pages began to disappear or cut back on freelance contributions. Still, I enjoyed the work so much that I continued doing it, even for the limited income produced by blogging, eventually producing these roundups to bring attention to titles that caught my eye.

Now the time has come to move this blog back to the reason I originally signed up on Science Blog: an opportunity to share my thoughts about science in the news, so this will be my last roundup–though I hope not in the usual sense of that term. (Thanks, Ben Sullivan, for making this possible!) Future posts will be a mix of stories that catch my attention and whatever enlightenment I have to offer. My political views are slightly left of center, but I pride myself on basing them on evidence rather than ideology, so I hope to engage with people with a wide range of views. To me, the most important issue is the coming climate crisis, so you can expect that to be my main focus. A secondary focus will be planetary science and space exploration because they are “cool” and a major topic of my writing for young readers. And I may toss in a book recommendation from time to time.

We will get to books 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 who might want to pick them up from a library or bookstore shelf.

My usual request: Amazon referral fees are helpful toward covering 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 am also grateful to publishers for sending me examination copies that have made these roundups possible. Often, these include paperback releases of previously published hardcover books, such as the 2018 title The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect by Turing Award-winning Computer Science Professor Judea Pearl and noted science writer Dana Mackenzie.

Pearl respects the maxim “Correlation is not causation,” but he notes that correlation often suggests causation, and that raises important questions that usually begin with “Why?”. The book addresses a new way of thinking that many scientists are calling “the Causal Revolution,” which is a way to figure out whether the relationship suggested by correlation is the cause of a particular phenomenon. In the Preface, he describes the book’s “a three-pronged mission:” (1) to describe the Causal Revolution and how it affects our lives and our future; (2) “to share some of the historic journeys, both successful and failed, that scientists have embarked on when confronted by critical cause-effect questions”; and (3) to describe how robots can be designed to communicate with us in the language of cause and effect.

“Why” questions can be particularly sticky in one sense of the word. In another sense, stickiness is the central topic of Sticking Together: The Science of Adhesion by University of Leeds (UK) Professor Steven Abbott.

Though it is never right to pass final judgment of a book by looking at its cover, you can’t help being attracted by the gecko and the title written in magnetic letters, spaghetti, and adhesive tape. Supplemented by YouTube videos and covering topics from non-stick pans to superglue, this book may be hard to put down. The cover blurb notes, “[A]dhesion is explained with wit and panache…. From chewing gum to Portland cement and and everything in between, all are passed under the microscope to see if, how, and, in some case, to whom things stick and why.” For completion, there is a chapter called “Not Sticking,” that includes such important topics of blood flow and getting ketchup out of the bottle.

Adhesive and non-adhesive materials are important parts of our most demanding and inspiring technologies. For me, those are the technologies that promise to expand the human domain beyond a single world. Twenty-five years ago, author Robert Zubrin wrote a book that captivated me, The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, which will be reissued as a revised 25th anniversary issue next year.

It outlined the feasibility and importance and feasibility not only of exploring Mars but also developing a permanent human colony there. That new edition will be a valuable companion to Zubrin’s 2019 book that expands his vision well beyond a single other planet, The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility.

The publisher describes the book this way:

Fueled by the combined expertise of the old aerospace industry and the talents of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, spaceflight is becoming cheaper. The new generation of space explorers has already achieved a major breakthrough by creating reusable rockets. Zubrin foresees more rapid innovation, including global travel from any point on Earth to another in an hour or less; orbital hotels; moon bases with incredible space observatories; human settlements on Mars, the asteroids, and the moons of the outer planets; and then, breaking all limits, pushing onward to the stars.

Zubrin shows how projects that sound like science fiction can actually become reality. But beyond the how, he makes an even more compelling case for why we need to do this–to increase our knowledge of the universe, to make unforeseen discoveries on new frontiers, to harness the natural resources of other planets, to safeguard Earth from stray asteroids, to ensure the future of humanity by expanding beyond its home base, and to protect us from being catastrophically set against each other by the false belief that there isn’t enough for all.

The final book in our roundup is an apocalyptic novel, The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal, the third book in the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Lady Astronaut series. I will note that this is not my usual reading, and I am not sure that I could accept its premise of a future world. But some of my readers might be looking for exactly this kind of escapism, so I include it here. The publisher describes it this way:

The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The International Aerospace Coalition’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened.

Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.

I’ll close with a wish for your good health as we all face a historic pandemic. Recent news of apparently effective vaccines leaves me encouraged that we are finally turning the corner on of a very difficult ordeal. The year 2021 will not be easy, but it promises to be a huge improvement over 2020.

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

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4 thoughts on “2020 Year-End Science Book Roundup”

  1. Nice round-up. I read Zubrin’s earlier book when it came out, and I’m now wondering what the heck happened to the intervening decades!

  2. Thanks for recommending the adhesives book: any book that not only has a chapter titled “Watching Paint Dry”, but sets it up in a context such that you actually want to read it, is seriously kewl.

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