Favorite Reads of 2015: Science Edition

My goal this year was to read 75 new-to-me books, and I’m  nearly there.  I thought I’d take this week and next to highlight a few favorites.  I listen to nonfiction audiobooks a fair amount during long car rides and chores, so I’ll make note of which ones I listened to versus read, and maybe comment on the narrator.  Also, these are books that I read in the past year, but a fair number of them were published pre-2015. Science books first!  Next will be fiction, followed by history/social sciences. 

Song of the Dodo by David Quammen (1996)

David Quammen, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Carl Zimmer are probably my favorite science writers.  Quammen, especially, does a magnificent job of weaving scientific theory, field anecdotes, and biographical notes of eminent scientists together into one seamless story.  Song of the Dodo, written in the mid-1990s, is the story of island biogeography and extinction.  Quammen jumps from Darwin and Wallace inciting “a shitstorm of resentment in Victoria’s England” to isolated patches of Amazonian forest amongst Brazilian plantations, and everywhere in between.  We learn how evolution, and its close cousin biogeography, developed as disciplines – and what these theories will ultimately mean for species survival in a fractured landscape.  One of my favorite books, ever.  I’d also recommend Spillover, Quammen’s more recent book on zoonotic diseases, and once again one of my all-time favorite  books.

Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey (2008) 

Richard Fortey was director of the British Natural History Museum for years, in addition to being a trilobite expert and writing quite a few popular science books on natural history.  This time, Fortey dwells less on the science and more on the people.  He gives a chatty, gossipy look behind the scenes of the BNHM.  Sure, there’s science.  But this book is mostly a description of the quirky individuals and sometimes controversial developments inside the museum.  Anyone in science will recognize a few personalities.  The stories reveal not just the comings and goings of people and ideas, but also the sometimes cut-throat politics of science at a public institution.  Fun, enlightening, and well-worth the time.  I read it shortly before actually going to the BNHM, and enjoyed knowing a bit of what was going on beneath the surface. 

Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth by Alan Weisman (2013) 

I actually switched between audiobook and the hardback (signed by author!) for this one.  I had the hardback first, but found that I never quite got around to finishing it, so the last half I listened to.  Weisman wrote World Without Us previously, imagining what would happen to Earth if humans disappeared.  He now tackles the opposite end of the spectrum: what are the consequences of too many humans, and how can we control populations?  Using on-the-ground interviews in places as different as India, Iran, and Israel, Weisman addresses what works and what doesn’t to limit population size.  What are the obstacles to accessible birth control?  Are the economic, cultural, political? The answers are surprising.  I found the section describing Iran’s successful family planning program – and how it was later dismantled – the most interesting and informative.

How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro (2015)

How does cloning – or rather, de-extinction - work?  What species (plant, animal; extinct or near extinct; charismatic or keystone) should be revived? What happens then?  Should we even try to bring back species that no longer have an ecological niche?  Shapiro addresses each of these questions in turn, or attempts to answer them.  As with anything in science, there are no easy solutions, and multiple ways to achieve any goal.  Even trickier than the scientific obstacles are the ethical ones, though.  The recently extinct (or near-extinct) species that would be easiest to revive mostly lack a home – their native habitats are gone or greatly reduced.  That applies even more so to mammoth and their ilk.  The great steppe tundra that mammoth perpetuated has gone the same way as the ice-age megafauna – Pleistocene Park notwithstanding.  There are no easy answers to these issues, but Shapiro has a fun and fast-paced style laying out all the complications de-extinction faces.

The Strange Case of the Ricketty Cossak by Ian Tattersall (2015; Audiobook) 

Science does not progress forward in a linear fashion.  There are leaps and bounds, sidepaths and backtracks.  Similarly, evolution itself does not progress forwards towards a particular goal.  Evolutionary trees are bushy, with many branches that diverge again and again, or end abruptly.  Tattersall demonstrates the complicated nature of both evolution and scientific progress through primate paleontology.  There may now be only one species of human, and a few Great Apes, but that wasn’t always the case.  Paleoanthropology sometimes had a hard time accepting that there were other Homo species, that humans are not the result of a regular ascent towards some apex.  Hence, the Ricketty Cossack  whose bones actually belonged to a Neanderthal, not a bow-legged horseman.   Tattersall tracks the scientific developments that led to our discovery and acceptance of a bushier family tree with anecdotes, biographies, and criticisms of those who tried to force scientific results to fit their own theories.

The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures by William deBuys (2015; Audiobook)

 I started listening to this on my way to Austin over Thanksgiving, and did not want to stop.  William deBuys narrates his own book, which can be hit or miss – this instance is definitely a hit.  He details the search for saola, a rare ungulate in the mountainous forests of Laos and Vietnam.  Somewhere between antelope and cow, the saola was only noticed by Western science in 1992.  Faced with poaching and habitat destruction, the already rare beast is likely dwindling even further.  DeBuys accompanies a wildlife biologist, a couple of Laotian students and officials, and a rotating team of local guides on grueling treks through unpopulated (except for Vietnamese poachers) forests.  The subject and writing both harken to Peter Matthiesson’s search in The Snow Leopard, complete with quirky ecologists, exhausting hikes through remote Asian wilderness, and an elusive quarry, with occasional asides about the author’s personal life.  The Last Unicorn is less personal than The Snow Leopard, but the writing is engrossing and the science explained in a cogent, clear manner.