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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Column: Popular science

Scientists have a love-hate relationship with science books meant for the general public. On the one hand, making science reachable to the general public is a great goal; on the other hand, this can sometimes mean oversimplifying research or being less accurate.

It’s a delicate balancing act that not every author can accomplish. If a book is too technical, it will only appeal to the researchers in that field. I’ve read several books that seem promising when I read the summary but soon devolve into sensationalism, or even worse, pseudoscience.

With this in mind, I’d like to introduce a few of my favorite popular science books from a few different fields. These books serve as good introductions for those who don’t know much about the given topics. If you need a good nonfiction book that you don’t need for class, give these a try.

Origins by Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is probably one of the more well-known modern astronomers, from his appearances on “The Colbert Report” to his willingness to answer questions from the public on websites such as Reddit. His book Origins explores the start of the universe and its current state with his unique combination of a sense of humor and awe at the beauty of the universe. His explanation does involve physics, but he leaves equations for the appendices, so don’t worry if you don’t have a background in physics.

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum: Half crime, half chemistry is the best way to describe this book. Blum explores the emergence of toxicology in Prohibition-era America. If you’re looking for detailed chemical explanations, this book isn’t it; she usually just describes the general shape of the molecules involved. However, her medical explanations are fairly accurate and her story-telling ability is undeniable. Warning — this book can be a bit gruesome at times when discussing autopsies, so be careful when eating.

The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins: The unfortunate fact about Richard Dawkins is that he is, to say the least, a polarizing figure. What a lot of people forget is that though he is loudly critical of religion, he is actually an evolutionary biologist at heart. This book is thick, but don’t let that intimidate you; the book is a beautifully written travel back in evolutionary time, from humans to the most common ancestor of all living things. It isn’t just a list of evolutionary relationships, however. Each ancestor reveals something about our own history and about life in general.

Microcosm by Carl Zimmer: This book is about E. coli — not the nauseating illness, but about the bacteria itself. Microcosm is written to clear the name of this much-maligned species; despite its reputation, its use in research has probably saved many more lives than it has sickened. Zimmer explores why it’s such a good model organism and what we’ve learned from it.

Bonk by Mary Roach: Although Roach is better known for her best-sellers Stiff and Packing for Mars, her book Bonk is also a page-turner. Roach explores sex in a funny yet frank way. What happens during an orgasm? Why did a couple have sex inside of a medical scanner? Has there ever been zero-gravity lovemaking in space? Roach’s ability to discuss sometimes uncomfortable topics with both science and humor is a rare talent in both researchers and writers, so this is a book to read when you want a not-so-serious science book. Remember not to skip the footnotes!

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by Scott Lilienfeld: Sometimes, it can seem like psychology is nothing more than common sense. Lilienfeld combats this perception by debunking commonly held beliefs about psychology. For example, did you know that “letting out your anger” through actions like punching a punching bag or yelling loudly is not actually helpful? Lilienfeld explains why not.

This is not an exhaustive overview of all the good science books. I chose these for their ability to introduce cosmology, chemistry, evolution, medicine, sexuality and psychology to those unfamiliar with the topics. Put these in your Amazon cart (or wherever you shop) and happy reading!

Do you have other science books to suggest? AMY STEWART can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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