This was a year that made waves — some so steep that I found myself reaching for a psychological surfboard. I skimmed along the discovery of gravitational waves (featured in Janna Levin’s Black Hole Blues and Other Songs of Outer Space), and rode the CRISPR tsunami. The political turbulence stateside, in Britain and beyond had me scrabbling for balance — and historical precedents. Yet amid all the Sturm und Drang, it has been a terrific year for science and culture.
In Nature’s first sci-fi special, we celebrated two anniversaries that stand as reminders of profound — and much-needed — humanistic vision. One was the 150th of the birth of H.G. Wells, ‘Shakespeare of science fiction’, prolific author and frequent Nature contributor; the other, the 50th of Gene Roddenberry’s pioneering franchise Star Trek. And as ever I was able to trace bright currents in the bookish deeps.
Oncologist and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee plunged into the genetics riptide with The Gene — fortuitously, in a year when Richard Dawkins’s name-making classic The Selfish Gene hit 40 and a pod of genome-editing studies surfaced. There was a glut of big physics, notably Roger Penrose’s trenchant Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe. And forests, earthquakes, biomechanics and military technology were all ‘trending’. But in trawling hundreds of books for my top 20, one of the more astonishing confluences was in the history of women in science — specifically, the ‘computers’ or number-crunchers behind key astronomical discoveries and space missions. (I’ve cheated here by counting three books on this phenomenon as one — as they are both important self-contained stories and part of a great historical trajectory.) The rest are pretty wonderful too. Enjoy.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, Dava Sobel. Viking. The science writer traces the stories of pioneering women ‘computers’ who, from the late nineteenth century, made astronomical history at Harvard College Observatory. (Reviewed here.)
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, Margot Lee Shetterly. William Morrow. A historian extols the brilliant African-American women mathematicians at NASA’s Langley Research Center who helped propel postwar America to the Moon and beyond. (Reviewed here.)
Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars, Nathalia Holt. Little, Brown. The HIV researcher on the women at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab who from the 1940s number-crunched in near-secrecy to launch missiles and the first US satellite. (Reviewed here.)
Lab Girl, Hope Jahren. Knopf. A palaeobiologist reveals the joy (and strangeness) of field and lab life through the lens of a woman in science. (Reviewed here.)
Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, Edward O. Wilson. Liveright. The eminent biologist issues a compelling call to commit half the planet to the rest of nature. (Reviewed here.)
Reality Is Not What It Seems, Carlo Rovelli. Allen Lane. The theoretical physicist invites us to gaze through a window at a world where space is granular and time does not exist. (Reviewed here.)
The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters, Sean B. Carroll. Princeton University Press. An evolutionary biologist distils a vast body of biological research into six rules of regulation for the restoration of ecosystems and management of the biosphere. (Reviewed here.)
The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, trans. David Fernbach. Verso. Two historians dig into technological history, economics and climate science to reveal the role of imperialist ideology in today’s planetary crises. (Reviewed here.)
Serendipity: An Ecologist’s Quest to Understand Nature, James A. Estes. University of California Press. An innovative ecologist unpacks his life’s work tracing the top-down control of ecosystems by sea otters as apex predators. (Reviewed here.)
The Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives, Helen Pearson. Allen Lane. The Nature editor unravels the 70-year history of the British cohort studies and the crucial insights they offer on socioeconomic inequities. (Reviewed here.)
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg. Viking. A historian delivers a searing indictment of the US political forces that persistently marginalise poor whites. (Reviewed here.)
Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, Adam Cohen. Penguin. The award-winning writer revisits Buck vs Bell, the notorious 1920s case highlighting the dark history of US eugenics. (Reviewed here.)
Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil. Crown. A data scientist and former Wall Street quant uncovers the biases in the algorithmic overlords that micromanage the US economy. (Reviewed here.)
Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital, David Oshinsky. Doubleday. The historian surveys the key advances and bold open-door policy that have made the New York public hospital a medical beacon. (Reviewed here.)
The Cyber Effect, Mary Aiken. John Murray. A forensic cyberpsychologist examines the mental lures built into sociotechnology and their impact on individuals and society. (Reviewed here.)
The Most Wanted Man in China: My Journey from Scientist to Enemy of the State, Fang Lizhi, trans. Perry Link. Henry Holt. The late astrophysicist and dissident on the scientific passion and quest for freedom of expression that drove his extraordinary life. (Reviewed here.)
Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World, Marc Raboy. Oxford University Press. The communications scholar investigates the complexities of a giant of technology devoted to both science and fascism. (Reviewed here.)
How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet, Benjamin Peters. MIT Press. A communications specialist plumbs the messy and engrossing history of a Soviet technological failure on the grand scale. (Reviewed here.)
The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, Tara Zahra. W.W. Norton. An accomplished historian busts myths and adds nuance to the story of the 58 million Europeans who poured into the Americas from 1846 to 1940. (Reviewed here.)
Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art, edited by Stephen H. Blackwell and Kurt Johnson. Yale University Press. In this collection, a Russian scholar and entomologist trace the novelist’s significant contribution to lepidoptery and how that played out through his fiction. (Reviewed here.)
Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums, Samuel J. Redman. Harvard University Press. A historian harks back to the nineteenth-century ‘skull wars’ and after, which packed US museums with human remains and fired ethical debates that still burn. (Reviewed here.)
The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe, Joseph E. Stiglitz. W.W. Norton. The Nobel laureate and economist analyses the failures of eurozone policymakers and the shape radical reform might take. (Reviewed here.)
Listen to my Nature Podcast interview on the top 20 books with Scientific American’s Steve Mirsky here.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.