A view From the Bridge

The top 20: a year of reading immersively


George Peabody Library, Baltimore, Maryland.

George Peabody Library, Baltimore, Maryland.

Matthew Petroff

It has been quite a year. We found ourselves saturated with light and knee-deep in soil — even diving down the rabbit hole with Alice to explore Lewis Carroll’s legacy for logic. There were discoveries (the pockmarked beauty of Pluto) and rediscoveries (the taxonomic reinstatement of Brontosaurus).

Meanwhile, in my parallel biblio-Universe, hundreds of science, social-science and science-history books hove into view. As I read, relished, reviewed and commissioned, I too made discoveries. Fascinating patterns emerged — ripples from shifts in science, society, culture. Robots held pole position, as authors grappled with the deep implications of twenty-first-century mechanisation and AI. There was a burst of books on the soup-to-nuts story of the cosmos, and an astonishing irruption of butterfly studies. Bedbugs had a moment (in Richard Jones’s House Guests, House Pests, reviewed here, and Brooke Borel’s Infested), as did pigs (in offerings such as Barry Estabrook’s Pig Tales, reviewed here).

As always, pulling ‘the best’ out of this flood has been tough. The 20 that stood out for me have an original grain — not going with the flow but creating whorls of their own. Several are biographies themselves representing a life’s work for their authors. Death, rainforests, seashells, Alexander Humboldt and DNA get a look-in. In no particular order, here goes.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander Humboldt’s New World, Andrea Wulf. Knopf. The accomplished historian delivers an inspired biography of the German polymath, explorer, prescient proto-environmentalist and discoverer of climate zones. (Reviewed here.)

Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code, Matthew Cobb. Profile. A zoologist reframes the double-helix story, interweaving findings across physics, chemistry and biology with the lives of the luminaries involved. (Reviewed here.)

On the Edge: The State and Fate of the World’s Tropical Rainforests, Claude Martin. Greystone. The seasoned conservationist traces decades of rainforest losses to map future strategies for sustainable management in a key report to the Club of Rome. (Reviewed here.)

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert D. Putnam. Simon and Schuster. The astute political scientist and author of Bowling Alone (2000) exposes the insidious erosion of US social mobility that is disenfranchising a generation. (Reviewed here.)

Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells, Helen Scales. Bloomsbury Sigma. A marine biologist tours the exquisite morphology and multidimensional functionality of that architectural marvel, a mollusc’s shell. (Reviewed here.)

Pure Intelligence: The Life of William Hyde Wollaston, Melvyn C. Usselman. University of Chicago Press. A meticulous, engrossing biography of the Enlightenment polymath — discoverer of cystine and palladium — by the late chemist. (Reviewed here.)

Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies, Alexandra Harris. Thames & Hudson. A cultural historian traces the weather fronts moving through English literature and art, from Shakespeare’s storms to Turner’s meteorological sublime. (Reviewed here.)

Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure, Cédric Villani. Bodley Head/Faber and Faber. The flamboyant French recipient of the 2010 Fields Medal parts the curtains on the “strange alternate universe” of a mathematician’s life. (Reviewed here.)

The Black Mirror: Looking at Life Through Death, Raymond Tallis. Yale University Press. The former geriatric specialist uses his future corpse as the philosophical focus for a layered journey through his sensory and emotional life. (Reviewed here.)

Alfred Wegener: Science, Exploration, and the Theory of Continental Drift, Mott T. Greene. Johns Hopkins University Press. The science historian brilliantly biographises the physicist, meteorologist and explorer who discovered the precursor to plate tectonics. (Reviewed here.)

Concrete Revolution: Large Dams, Cold War Geopolitics, and the US Bureau of Reclamation, Christopher Sneddon. University of Chicago Press. A geographer surveys the US hegemony in twentieth-century dam engineering that has spawned a mixed global legacy. (Reviewed here.)

The Brain: The Story of You, David Eagleman. Pantheon. The virtuosic neuroscientist skips into the skull for a cutting-edge tour of how meat can generate self. (Reviewed here.)

The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the 21st Century, David Rieff. Verso. The veteran development observer reveals how philanthrocapitalists and aid agencies are failing to crack the deep political problem of poverty and hunger. (Reviewed here.)

The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, David Wootton. Allen Lane. A robust, expertly synthesised revisionist retelling of the scientific revolution by a commanding historical mind. (Reviewed here.)

Applied Minds: How Engineers Think, Guru Madhavan. W.W. Norton. A bioengineer lifts the lid on the rigorous, solution-oriented, constraints-savvy mindset of the made world’s hidden heroes. (Reviewed here.)

Why Are We Waiting?: The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change, Nicholas Stern. MIT Press. The towering economist examines the hellish complexities of climate change and the potential of future innovation to tackle them. (Reviewed here.)

The Vital Question: Why Is Life the Way It Is?, Nick Lane. Profile. The evolutionary biochemist analyses the “improbable” moment, 1.5 billion years ago, when an endosymbiosis event created the cellular forebear of complex life. (Reviewed here.)

Plant Behaviour and Intelligence, Anthony Trewavas. Oxford University Press. The plant physiologist draws on 50 years of research for a rollicking exploration of botanic behaviours. (Reviewed here.)

Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities, Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyeman. MIT Press. Two urban sustainability thinkers propose a paradigm for collaboration and inclusivity in cities that far outpaces the commercial sharing-economy model. (Reviewed here.)

Scientific Babel: The Language of Science from the Fall of Latin to the Rise of English, Michael Gordin. Profile/University of Chicago Press. A linguist and historian deftly analyses the irresistible rise of English as the scientific lingua franca. (Reviewed here.)


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.


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