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Top Science Books of 2005

String theory, lobster sex, climate catastrophe, the beauty of life beneath the Antarctic ice: Discover digs through the great stacks of science books published in 2004 and selects 20 of the best.

By Josie Glausiusz
Jan 2, 2005 6:00 AMMay 6, 2023 2:17 PM


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The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History Text by Nancy Pick, photographs by Mark Sloan (HarperCollins, $22.95)

In his autobiography Speak, Memory, the writer and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov described a beautiful gynandromorph butterfly—male on one side, female on the other—that he had caught as a youth on his family’s Russian estate. Sadly, the butterfly was crushed when his stout Swiss governess sat upon his tray of specimens, leaving only a “headless thorax on its bent pin.” The image of an intact gynandromorph at left—the more brilliant blue left side is the male half—is included in the magnificently strange book Rarest of the Rare, a sampling of curious artifacts from the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Among the rich finds: a fossil sand dollar that Charles Darwin picked up in Patagonia in 1834, during his voyage on the Beagle; an exquisite coiled boa constrictor skeleton, 300 vertebrae long; and Nabokov’s wooden cabinet of butterfly genitalia, the study of which enabled him to name seven new genera of Latin American blues.

After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC Steven Mithen (Harvard University Press, $29.95)

With the help of a fictional guide dubbed John Lubbock, modeled after a Victorian naturalist who wrote a popular book called Prehistoric Times, Mithen embarks on a vivid tour of the warming world as it emerged from the last ice age. In the process, he lends a you-are-there immediacy to an era in which humans invented farming, settled in towns, and created civilization as we know it.

Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis--and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster Ross Gelbspan (Basic Books, $22)

Gelbspan condemns corporate indifference to climate change as “a crime against humanity” and indicts the Bush administration for allowing the fossil-fuel lobby to dictate national energy policy. Interspersing his narrative with tales of drowning islands and melting glaciers, he also fingers myopic journalists and environmental activists as unwitting accomplices in allowing global warming to go unchecked.

Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist Edited by John Brockman (Pantheon Books, $23.95)

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux first encountered the brain’s “soft mushy mass” while extracting bullets from cows’ brains in his father’s butcher shop. Ethnographer Sherry Turkle imagined herself at age 8 as a daring Nancy Drew on roller skates. Physicist Lee Smolin found solace from heartbreak in Einstein’s autobiographical notes. In an eclectic collection of essays, 27 scientists recall the early influences that funneled them into their careers.

Copies in Seconds: How a Lone Inventor and an Unknown Company Created the Biggest Communication Breakthrough Since Gutenberg David Owen (Simon & Schuster, $24)

In 2004 people around the world churned out 2 trillion photocopies—a feat made possible by the dogged Chester Carlson, who spent more than two decades inventing and perfecting the Xerox machine. With quiet wit, Owen tells the story of this little-known inventor, whose now-indispensable device was rejected by two dozen major corporations before Xerox built the first office-paper copier in 1960.

Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World's Toughest Math Competition Steve Olson (Houghton Mifflin, $24)

According to popular myth, mathematicians are fools, nerds, or madmen. Not so, says Olson, who thoughtfully explores the nature of genius at the International Mathematical Olympiad while following a team of whiz kids for whom math is a creative game.

The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in the Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia,Croatia, and Kosovo Clea Koff (Random House, $24.95)

Koff recounts in clear and courageous tones her work at mass grave sites, piecing together hacked bones and clothing scraps retrieved from crumbling flesh. In doing so, she returns names and voices to people nearly erased by state-sponsored violence.

Dangerous Garden: The Quest for Plants to Change Our Lives David Stuart (Harvard University Press, $35)

Rhubarb for syphilis? Belladonna for beauty? In a handsomely illustrated text, Stuart catalogs the medical uses—both valuable and dubious—of a wide variety of plants. Consider, for example, species of the genus Artemisia, extracts of which have given rise to a promising new treatment for malaria as well as to the drink absinthe, under whose influence Van Gogh may have sliced off his ear.

Devil in the Mountain: A Search for the Origin of the Andes Simon Lamb (Princeton University Press, $29.95)

Rocks come alive in this personal odyssey to uncover the geologic forces that gave rise to the rugged Bolivian Andes, the second highest mountain range on Earth. Lamb, a geologist at Oxford University, invokes an array of foodstuffs—Viennese schnitzel, fudge cake, hot syrup—to explain how a continental plate diving under South America drove the mountains upwards.

Einstein's Cosmos: How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time Michio Kaku (W. W. Norton, $22.95)

Seamlessly weaving together Einstein’s life and science, Kaku presents an engaging biography of the man and his theories, which were framed around questions a child might ask and duly gave rise to the great discoveries of modern physics, from gravity waves to black holes.

Exuberance: The Passion for Life Kay Redfield Jamison (Knopf, $24.95)

In prose that leaps from the page, Jamison probes the neurochemistry of exuberance, an emotion that bonds young animals together and that fueled the work of such folk as President Theodore Roosevelt, whose irrepressible love of nature led him to found many of America’s national parks.

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality Brian Greene (Knopf, $28.95)

Is the universe a hologram? Can time flow backward? Do we exist in a multiverse of 11 different dimensions? And just what is string theory, anyway? Greene delves into and illuminates some of the most perplexing questions of contemporary cosmology in a reader-friendly chronicle of brilliant clarity.

The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean  Trevor Corson (HarperCollins, $24.95)

Pausing often to impart salacious details on lobster sex—females strip off their exoskeletons before they do it—Corson maps the changing fortunes of the lumbering crustacean, a creature that provides the livelihood of the hardy Maine fishermen he profiles and is a source of fascination to the scientists who study it.

The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram Thomas Blass (Basic Books, $26)

By turns both moving and chilling, Blass’s biography profiles psychologist Stanley Milgram, who conducted the notorious 1960s obedience experiments in which compliant subjects inflicted what seemed to be electric shocks on a screaming victim (in fact an actor) on orders from an authority figure.

The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle Eric Lax (Henry Holt, $25)

Alexander Fleming discovered the antibacterial qualities of what he called “mould juice,” but the paper he published in 1929 went unnoticed for nearly 10 years. Lax pays a long-overdue tribute to three scientists—Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley—who in 1940s Britain raced to create a usable drug from mold—penicillin—and produce it in quantities large enough to treat soldiers suffering from gangrene and other infected war wounds.

A Field Guide to Sprawl Dolores Hayden, with aerial photographs by Jim Wark (W. W. Norton, $24.95)

In their illustrated “devil’s dictionary” of land development gone amok, Hayden and Wark highlight such blights as the LULU (a locally unwanted land use, such as a nuclear waste dump), the TOAD (temporary, obsolete, abandoned, or derelict site), and the rampaging suburban Zoomburb.

Spice: The History of a Temptation Jack Turner (Knopf, $26.95)

From one of the earliest known applications of a spice—a pair of peppercorns stuffed up the nose of Pharaoh Ramses II after his death in 1224 B.C.—through a frantic 15th- to 17th-century European “spice race” to control scarce supplies of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves, Turner relates the history of aromatic condiments that have also served as medicaments, aphrodisiacs, and embalming agents.

The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive and Exploit Us, and What to Do About It  Marcia Angell (Random House, $24.95)

Former New England Journal of Medicine editor Angell lifts the rock she calls “big pharma” and peers beneath to find an ugly sight. This, she argues, is a $200 billion industry that pours more money into advertising than into R&D, licenses discoveries funded by the National Institutes of Health, and promotes drugs for lifestyle diseases such as erectile dysfunction over cures for malaria and AIDS.

Under Antarctic Ice: The Photographs of Norbert Wu Text by Jim Mastro (University of California Press, $39.95)

Antarctica is a frigid environment, but it is anything but barren. Wu’s dramatic photographs reveal a world teeming with life beneath the ice, including gracefully swimming emperor penguins, volcano sponges big enough to swallow a diver, and a giant jellyfish with 30-foot-long tentacles that seems to be robed in a bulbous, frilly pink bridesmaid’s dress.

The Whale Book: Whales and Other Marine Animals as Described by Adriaen Coenen in 1584  Edited by Florike Egmond and Peter Mason (Reaktion Books, $35)

This book is one of the year’s glorious oddities. Based on the writings and watercolors of 16th-century Dutch beachcomber and autodidact Adriaen Coenen, it reproduces, with lively commentary, what are probably the world’s oldest manuscripts on European whales and marine animals. Among the many curiosities depicted are a village built entirely from whale bones and a stupefied, beached fin whale straddled by 15 inquisitive monks.

Gems From Our Friends: Discover’s tireless contributors keep churning out books by the trayful. Here is a sampling from 2004. By Alex Stone

Archives of the Universe: A Treasury of Astronomy's Historic Works of Discovery Marcia Bartusiak (Pantheon Books, $35)

Bartusiak chronicles humanity’s quest to comprehend the cosmos, focusing on a list of 100 documents that spans millennia and includes ancient Mayan Venus tables, Newton’s Principia, and physicist Alan Guth’s 1981 paper on the inflationary universe.

Buzz Text by Josie Glausiusz, Photographs by Volker Steger (Chronicle Books, $24.95)

A curious combination of yuck and wow, this quirky and beautifully illustrated book explores the myriad ways in which we share our lives with insects—and ultimately depend on them for our existence.

Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another Philip Ball (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27)

In a synthesis of social science and natural science, Ball examines the evolution of complex human systems—markets, cultures, governments, and the like—using principles of physics.

The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World James Shreeve (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95)

Shreeve documents the brilliant and frenzied race by maverick biologist Craig Venter to beat the U.S. government in mapping the human genome.

Mind Wide Open:Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life Steven Johnson (Scribner, $25)

In a quest to investigate the link between mind and brain, our Emerging Technology columnist inserts himself into a five-ton magnetic resonance imaging scanner and submits to neurofeedback sessions, in which he learns to play video games by altering his own brain waves.

Pandora's Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution Robin Marantz Henig (Houghton Mifflin, $25)

Now a routine practice with over a million notches on its headboard, in vitro fertilization began as fringe science denied government grants. Henig charts the tumultuous growth of this revolutionary procedure, from the research that led to the birth of the first test-tube baby in 1978 to present-day debates over cloning and genetic engineering.

Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease Wendy Orent (Free Press, $25)

During the Middle Ages the Black Death killed off at least one-quarter of Europe’s population. Orent travels through history with the fleaborne pathogen, which was engineered as a biological weapon during the cold war and, in the form of resistant strains, still threatens the world today.

Strange Universe: The Weird and Wild Science of Everyday Life - On Earth and Beyond Bob Berman (Henry Holt, $25)

Our Sky Lights columnist proffers a potpourri of essays on the scientific wonders underlying the ordinary. Groundhog Day, calendars, and the physics of your morning commute are among the topics that he probes.

The Tarantula Scientist Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop (Houghton Mifflin, $18)

Aimed at the young aspiring naturalist, this lurid narrative offers an up-close look at nature’s most notorious arachnids and the scientists who study them.

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers Robert M. Sapolsky (Henry Holt, $16)

An updated edition of Sapolsky’s eminently readable treatise on the evolutionary roots, biological pathways, and health consequences of the human stress response.

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