Top Science Books of the Year

Gigantic hurricanes, the beauty of symmetry, and a giraffe-dissecting surgeon all formed fodder for great science books in 2005. Discover takes a look at the best.

By Brad Lemley and Josie Glausiusz
Jan 17, 2006 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:52 AM


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Faces of Science Photographs by Mariana Cook, Intro by Gerard Piel W. W. Norton, $39.95

Humanity, humor, and wisdom grace the portraits in Mariana Cook's Faces of Science, an enchanting collection of 77 photographs. Cook's illustrious subjects include the umbrella-bearing British cosmologist Sir Martin Rees of the University of Cambridge, the wrinkle-faced late naturalist and flea expert Miriam Rothschild, and the biologist Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (left) of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for codiscovering key genes that shape embryonic development. An illuminating autobiography accompanies each portrait. Cell biologist Harold Varmus, for example, compares scientific research to cycling, his favorite sport: "Long flat intervals. Steep, sweaty, even competitive climbs. An occasional cresting of a mountain pass, with the triumphal downhill coast. Always work. Sometimes pain. Rare exhilaration."

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus Charles C. Mann; Alfred A. Knopf, $30

In a poignant reconstruction of paradise lost, Mann marshals compelling evidence that the "New World" was an advanced, thriving, and crowded place before Columbus and his disease-bearing ilk swept through it like a scythe. Mesoamerican intercropping was so sophisticated that it "may be the cure for some of modern agriculture's ailments," writes Mann. And the immaculate temple-filled Aztec capital Tenochtitlán dazzled its invaders—it was bigger than Paris, then Europe's greatest metropolis, and coursed with aqueducts that fed water from distant mountains into botanical gardens. 

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin; Alfred A. Knopf, $35

Like the Greek god Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus, Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer captured the atom and gave the world the bomb. When he warned of its dangers—and opposed the birth of the hydrogen bomb—the Zeus-like Atomic Energy Commission rose up in 1954 to destroy him. In this masterful biography, Bird and Sherwin draw on thousands of documents to create an indelible portrait of a brilliant, naive physicist undone by a merciless McCarthy-era witch hunt.

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson; Scribner, $25

Animals may be autistic savants, and autism itself "a kind of way station on the road between animals and humans," writes animal scientist Temple Grandin. She argues that her own autism makes her uniquely aware of the way animals think—in pictures, not words. People without autism peer through a veil of verbal "abstractification," she says, but animals are more sharply attuned to their environments—making dogs, for example, the perfect guides for the blind. 

At Day's Close: Night in Times Past A. Roger Ekirch; W. W. Norton, $25.95

The impetus for sleep, according to the medical opinion of the Middle Ages, arose from a process called concoction: Fumes from digested food arose from the stomach and traveled to the brain, where they congealed, and so "doe stop the conduites and waies of the senses." Such delightful details fill Ekirch's narrative of the night, which examines nocturnal habits from lamp lighting to dividing the night into first and second sleeps, broken by periods devoted to chores, reading, and eating. 

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Jared Diamond; Viking, $29.95

Greenland Vikings, Easter Islanders, ancient Maya, and the Anasazi were so careless of environmental resources that they committed cultural—and often literal—suicide, writes Diamond, who contends that we moderns are doing the same on a planetwide scale. More than half the world's forests and a third of its coral reefs are already gone, and up to 80 percent of farmland has become severely damaged. Diamond insists that salvation is possible if we stop consuming as if there were no tomorrow—or indeed, there won't be one. 

Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment Jacques Leslie; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25

The world's dams store so much water in reservoirs, Leslie reports, that geophysicists believe that the resulting shift in weight has slightly altered the tilt of Earth's axis. The reservoirs also accumulate greenhouse-gas-releasing rotting plants and have displaced up to 80 million people. Leslie brings home the cost of such projects by following an engineer, a bureaucrat, and, most powerfully, activist Medha Patkar, who has threatened to drown herself in the rising waters behind India's giant Narmada dam. 

The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th-Century Science Alan Lightman; Pantheon, $32.50

Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson cleared a pair of pigeons out of their radio antenna in an attempt to eliminate a faint hum. That hiss, they realized later, was cosmic background radiation. Nobel Prize–winning physician Otto Loewi conceived an idea in a dream for testing his theory of chemical transmission of nerve impulses. Lightman relates these and other tales of scientific discoveries in a fat tome, complete with original papers, that covers every great idea from the structure of DNA to the expansion of the universe.

Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes Kerry Emanuel; Oxford University Press, $40

Katrina was a zephyr compared to the Great Hurricane of 1780; the Western Hemisphere's deadliest storm wiped islands clean and claimed 22,000 souls from Bermuda to Barbados. Emanuel, an MIT earth scientist, puts hurricanes into historical perspective and tackles the big question of 2005: Does climate change make nastier megastorms? In his view, the answer "appears to be yes." 

Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo Sean B. Carroll; W. W. Norton, $25.95

Biology is experiencing a revolution, and its name is Evo Devo. Short for "evolutionary developmental biology," Evo Devo posits that the same set of master genes, with differing on-off switches, controls the development of basic body structures in animals ranging from flatworms to humans. Carroll, a University of Wisconsin geneticist, describes this emerging field in a lively work colorfully illustrated with images of fly embryos and butterfly wings.

The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved: How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry Mario Livio; Simon & Schuster, $26.95

"I have no time," wrote 20-year-old mathematician Évariste Galois in 1832, and he was promptly shot dead in a pistol duel. The page on which Galois had scribbled his comment was covered in a proof that gave rise to group theory, the apparatus that mathematicians use to study symmetry. Livio, an astrophysicist, deftly intertwines the doomed man's tale with an exploration of symmetry itself, touching upon topics that include Rubik's cube, quantum physics, and our tendency to seek mates with symmetrical faces.

False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear Marc Siegel; Wiley, $24.95

SARS, anthrax, and mad cow disease have in the past decade sickened and killed only a tiny minority of humanity. Yet anxiety over these "bugs du jour" is indeed making us sick—by triggering the release of stress hormones that increase our risk of heart disease and depression. Siegel, an internist, indicts the government for whipping the public into a panic over nonexistent perils while neglecting to prepare for real dangers, such as the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel Rebecca Goldstein; W. W. Norton, $22.95

Kurt Gödel upended the ordered world of mathematics in 1931 with his incompleteness theorem, which showed that some true statements in certain mathematical systems could never be proven. In a graceful biography, Goldstein traces Gödel's life from his brilliant youth in Vienna through his close friendship with Albert Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where the mathematician died, bedeviled by paranoia, of self-inflicted starvation in 1978. 

Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape Brian Hayes; W. W. Norton, $49.95

Is the industrial world one vast ecosystem? Beginning and ending in the earth, Hayes, who calls himself a "technotourist," tracks the interconnected cycles of extraction, transportation, and disposal of the minerals, water, and food that sustain us. Illustrated with the author's photographs, Infrastructure reveals a strange beauty in objects such as the egglike sludge digesters at a Boston sewage treatment plant, the tangled pipes of an oil refinery, and the wooden water towers perched atop the roofs of New York City. 

The Physics of Superheroes James Kakalios; Gotham Books, $26

When Superman leaps a tall building in a single bound, his tights-clad legs push the sidewalk with 5,600 pounds of force. Kakalios, a University of Minnesota physicist and an unrepentant comics nerd, offers up jovial, largely equation-free deconstructions of Ant-Man's shrinking ability, the centripetal acceleration of Spider-Man's swing, and the strength of his silk web. 

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder Richard Louv; Algonquin Books, $24.95

One in 5 American children is obese—compared with one in 20 in the late 1960s—and nearly 8 million kids suffer from mental illnesses, including depression and attention deficit disorder. One culprit is dwindling outdoor play, argues Louv, who proposes that we build school yards that replicate nature's green chaos, or turn the city into a "zoopolis," where green spaces enliven urban tedium. 

Pantanal: South America's Wetland Jewel Russell A. Mittermeier and others Photographs by Theo Allofs; Firefly, $35

Half the size of California, the Pantanal, which stretches across Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, is the largest contiguous wetland on the planet. Allofs captures the beauty of this wildlife paradise with his arresting images of herds of bathing capybaras—at up to 154 pounds, Earth's biggest rodents—as well as giant anteaters, caimans, and the piranha-gulping jabiru, the world's largest stork. 

The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery Wendy Moore; Broadway Books, $26

A dedicated anatomist, ruthless vivisectionist, and rigorous experimentalist, John Hunter (1728–1793) transformed surgery at a time when most practitioners were little more than tooth-pulling barbers. Moore vividly re-creates the life of this Scottish pioneer, who was noted not only for his innovative surgical techniques but also for his investigations into organ transplantation (he implanted a cock's testicle into a hen's belly) and animal dissection (he carved up a giraffe and several whales). 

Vanishing Act Art Wolfe; Bulfinch Press, $50

The animals in Wolfe's striking photographs are as carefully camouflaged as the patterns in an Escher drawing. Is that a chameleon or a stretch of mossy tree bark? A Malaysian mantis or a fragile yellow orchid? Buff-colored plover eggs or lichen-covered pebbles? A puzzle of perception, such tactics are crucial to the animals' survival, concealing them from predators and from unsuspecting prey. 

What's Out There: Images From Here to the Edge of the Universe Mary K. Bauman and others; Foreword by Stephen Hawking Duncan Baird Publishers, $29.95

From the blazing 3,600,000 degree Fahrenheit corona of our sun—a halo of hydrogen that stretches millions of miles into space—to the iron-rich pebbles of Mars and the glowing red ring of an exploding supernova, this handsome book chronicles in rare photographs the marvels and oddities of our universe, with a rich and scientifically detailed text to accompany each of the 180 high-definition images. 

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