This was a great year of reading for science nerds.
The book options included a novella about an out-of-this-world college student, a tale about life in the sunken New York City of the future, and astronaut Scott Kelly’s memoir about his year in space. There was a little something for everyone who loves the Earth, the stars, or those who inhabit them.
Our favorite science-y reads from 2017 won’t all be found in the science section at your local bookstore. While some non-fiction texts from respected names in the field stood out, other top picks include science-fiction stories and notable novels with themes that science-minded readers might enjoy.
Here’s our list.
Henry David Thoreau died in 1862, but some of his never-before-published journal entries are included in a new collection — a delightfully-illustrated ode to animals.
“Thoreau penned his journal entries with the accuracy of a scientist and the deep spirituality of a transcendentalist and mystic,” Thoreau’s journal editor Geoff Wisner wrote about the new collection.
The writings describe chasing loons across the surface of Walden Pond and dealing with a runaway pig.
A husband and wife pair predict the future of tech in an illustrated guide.
From space elevators to printed body parts, Kelly, a parasitologist, and her husband Zach, a cartoonist, detail the weird ways tech could “improve and/or ruin everything” in their new book “Soonish”.
Part comic, part crystal-ball-style prediction engine, the book tackles the future of emerging technologies both imaginary and not-so-far-off. But the authors are clear-eyed about the chances that any of their technologies could actually become mainstream:
“Frankly, it’s really freakin’ hard to tell you whether any of the technologies in this book will be realized in their fullest form in any particular time frame,” they write.
They take a stab anyway, theorizing about the future of rocket launches with reusable rockets, and “nano-bio-machines” that will make genetic disorders a thing of the past “in the next fifty years.” Maybe.
A non-fiction book details the story of a team of single, college-educated, crossword-puzzle loving women who were secretly enlisted to decrypt World War II messages for the US.
In “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II,” journalist Liza Mundy interviews more than 20 of the women who were hired by the US Army and Navy to break Nazi codes during World War II.
“Codes are broken not by solitary individuals but by groups of people trading pieces of things they have learned and noticed and collected,” Mundy writes.
More than 10,000 young female codebreakers (who were routinely paid far less than their male counterparts) hunted for patterns in long strings of foreign letters and numbers throughout the war, and also invented novel, false codes to throw the Germans off.
The book’s a captivating read for anyone who loved “Hidden Figures,” or for WWII buffs who want the inside story about the individuals who decoded the mysteries that helped allied forces win.
In the second novella in Nnedi Okorafor’s award-winning trilogy, a young Namibian woman returns home from her first year at college… in outer space.
Forget the Ivy Leagues — Binti is going to the best university in the galaxy. Oomza University is literally out of this world, with Earthlings like Binti attending class with brainiacs from other corners of the galaxy.
But what happens when Binti brings back her friend Okwu, who hails from a warring planet, to meet her family? That’s the premise of “Binti: Home“, the sequel to Okorafor’s 2015 release, “Binti”, which won the Nebula award and the Hugo award for best science fiction novella.
Divergent author Veronica Wroth says the book is “a rich, complex story of identity, family, and friendship. It’s the rare sequel that exceeds the expectations set by the first—a futuristic story that is nonetheless vivid, emotional, and timeless.”
The third and final story in the trilogy, “Binti: The Night Masquerade”, is due out in 2018.
Novelist Kim Stanley Robinson imagines what it will it be like to live in New York once it’s underwater.
Robinson, who more often sets tales in outer space, imagines life in an underwater New York 120 years in the future in his novel “New York 2140”.
With sea levels on track to rise two to eight feet by the end of this century, it’s part fiction, part prediction of what life on the island might be like for a future generation of New Yorkers.
But it’s not a bleak read.
Business Insider’s Kevin Loria, who’s currently tearing through the book, calls it a “fascinating page turner” that grapples with the economic and scientific realities for characters living “in a world with higher seas.”
Read our review in full here.
A bird lover wants to change the way we think about Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Ornithologist Richard Prum says he’s not “over” Darwin.
Instead, “The Evolution of Beauty” reminds readers that mating is a tricky business, and isn’t just about having “fittest” feathers or the most practical wings. Birds (and people) are picking mates, and furthering species, for a host of wacky reasons.
As Prum writes in the book, “the science of beauty requires that we get out of the laboratory and the museum and into the field. Fortunately, my bird-watching youth was great basic training for doing natural history research on birds in the field.”
Prum’s adventures in phylogenetics take a look at what he calls “Beauty Happening,” in the high-stakes game of sexual selection. The New York Times dubbed it “survival of the prettiest.”
Farmer Wendell Berry pens a beautiful ode to hard work.
The Kentucky farmer shares his thoughts on why living close to the land matters, and looks hopefully towards a future of local economies that thrive.
As he writes in the opening pages of the book, the text is “intended as a part of a public conversation about the relationship of our lives, and of our communal and economic life, to the lands we live from.”
A sleep expert who’s given advice to the NBA, NFL, Pixar, and Google explains why you really should get eight hours of sleep every night.
UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab director, Matthew Walker, explores all the fascinating reasons “Why We Sleep” in his new book.
Walker has spent more than two decades studying how sleep impacts health and disease. Now he calls himself a “sleep diplomat” and practices what he preaches: adhering to his own strict schedule of eight hours a night. He says the regimen helps him stay sharp, healthy, and kinder.
After a year aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Scott Kelly describes what it’s like to live in outer space.
NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly is back. And compared to his twin who stayed on Earth, Scott is taller, his gut bacteria is different, and his chromosomes got longer.
His new memoir, “Endurance“, offers a personal glance at his time in space and at his five-decade Earth-based life leading up to the record-breaking journey.
As The New York Times puts it, “he holds nothing back when discussing his battle with prostate cancer, the grief he felt over the loss of his colleagues to the Columbia shuttle disaster, or the emotional strain his year in space creates between him and his romantic partner, Amiko.”
NASA asteroid hunter Carrie Nugent describes how to hunt down an asteroid barreling toward Earth.
In her 2016 Ted talk, Nugent detailed how space-gazers like herself have only found one quarter of the space rocks that could take out a “medium sized country.” But Nugent is working to ensure that won’t happen anytime soon:
“Unlike earthquakes, hurricanes, or volcanic eruptions, an asteroid impact can be precisely predicted and prevented,” she said.
“Asteroid Hunters” is a quick study guide for anyone curious how the science of hunting and mapping asteroids works.
A veteran biographer reveals how da Vinci really made Mona Lisa smile.
In “Leonardo da Vinci,” biographer Walter Isaacson (who also chronicled luminaries like Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein) reveals how da Vinci, born out of wedlock in the 15th century, grew up in a real “golden age for bastards.”
Largely self-taught, da Vinci relied on his own curiosity and observations to inform his life’s work. The master painter, inventor, and all-around brainiac understood from a young age that engineering and science could not thrive when divorced from the beauty of nature and art.
“Leonardo’s genius was a human one, wrought by his own will and ambition,” Isaacson writes. “It did not come from being the divine recipient, like Newton or Einstein, of a mind with so much processing power that we mere mortals cannot fathom it. Leonardo had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from.”
Superstar astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new text is “for all those who are too busy to read fat books, yet nonetheless seek a conduit to the cosmos.”
“Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” is a cheat-sheet guide to some of the biggest cosmic questions:
How did the universe form?
What’s dark matter?
What kinds of strange signals might we be sending about ourselves to other far-off lifeforms?
As Tyson says, “the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”
But he’s here to help.
One of Bill Gates’ favorite books of 2017 explains how “energy is the only universal currency.”
It’s probably the most technical read on this list, but it’s a wise look at how energy and economics have intertwined throughout human history.
Author Vaclav Smil is a Czech-Canadian professor who’s published more than 40 books on how public policy, population, innovation, food production, environmental change and other forces shape our world.
As Gates put it: “Yes, our history has a lot to do with kings and queens and games of thrones,” but, “Smil shows that it has even more to do with energy innovation.”
Journalist Derek Thompson looks into the science of hits and flops.
In “Hit Makers“, Thompson details how our most basic, evolutionary needs “to belong, to escape, to aspire, to understand, to be understood” have been driving everyday decisions about what’s cool for centuries.
Thompson details the rise of hits from 19th century French painters who “made it,” to popular rock songs of the 1950s and widely-used 2017 smartphone apps.
No matter the era, he says, people like what’s popular, and pure talent or artistic genius is only part of the equation. He also explains why “going viral” isn’t really a thing.
Journalist Maryn McKenna explores why American chickens have been taking antibiotics for decades, and what that means for our health.
The rounder, plumper poultry that people in the US have enjoyed over the past several decades has reshaped the American diet — but it has created a scary threat to human health.
In “Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats,” journalist Maryn McKenna takes a deep dive into how drugged-up chickens have forged a path for antibiotic-resistant bacteria to travel from poultry farms into our lives.
“We have been feeding chickens, and almost every other meat animal, routine doses of antibiotics on almost every day of their lives,” McKenna writes. The antibiotic-dosed chickens on our tables have serious consequences for our microbiome: In women, they’re responsible for an estimated 10% of urinary tract infections every year in the US.
But today, thousands of consumer complaints are starting to shift the way that chicken companies do business. “Big Chicken” is a timely, sobering yet hopeful look at how beefed-up chickens are impacting our health.