Today’s a big day for me. A book I’ve had my eye on for a few months is finally coming out in paperback; Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life. In truth, I have a “to read” pile two feet high, so I shouldn’t be buying any more books for a while, but I’m sure I’ll scoop it up in the next two weeks.
As I’ve probably mentioned here before, I’ve been reading a lot of science lately. My current writing project is a science-fiction novel, and I’m trying to keep it as realistic as possible. It’s set in the very near future and addresses issues of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. While I don’t necessarily expect everything in my book to come true, it’s important to me that anything in the book could happen, so it won’t require too much suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.
Now, my educational background is not very heavy on science. I can remember high school biology nearly bringing me to tears with concepts like Eukaryotic cells and the Kreb Cycle. And the curriculum at my college (COM) was so light on the sciences that it was affectionately known around the University as the “College of Optional Math”. (At the time I was feeling smug for being clever enough to choose a major light on memorization, but now I wish I’d challenged myself more when my brain cells were young and absorbent.)
So, all this is to say that I require a certain level of accessibility in science texts. When the greek symbols and tiny letters show up, my eyes cross and the book (or magazine) goes back on the shelf. At the same time, I’m skeptical of the popular-science self-help genre that spends the first 30 pages relating hard science about the brain and body, but then throws it all out the window in the rest of the book explaining how we can meditate or concentrate away what ails us. (Michael Paul Mason’s “Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath” includes an excellent take-down of this phenomenon in Malcom Gladwell’s books) The search for an informative science book can be daunting given these limits, the short shelf-life of “current” science, and especially with the average bookstore’s protracted science section (the downtown Boston Borders' alphabetized science section is the worst - astronomy mixed in with evolution, mixed in with chemistry, mixed in with archeology)
But, in spite of the challenges, I’ve been lucky to discover a few sources that consistently inspire and inform. Here are four off the top of my head:
WNYC’s Radiolab - while I think they focus a little too much on style over substance, Radiolab does a great job of raising interesting questions and pointing listeners in the direction of experts in a variety of scientific fields. They use innovative sound manipulation and music to make science fun and welcoming to the general audience.
Carl Zimmer - (as mentioned above) is prolific and terrific. Check out his site: http://www.carlzimmer.com/ . It’s worth viewing for the collection of science-themed tattoos, alone. While Zimmer’s articles can sometimes be a little dense for someone (me) not familiar with whatever topic he’s discussing, they’re worth taking an extra swig of coffee and applying yourself. They’re written with a playful excitement that makes formerly boring subjects interesting, and you never for a moment doubt that every word is backed up with cold hard facts and a deep understanding of the forces at work.
Michael Paul Mason – as far as I know he only has one book out, but it’s a gem. “Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath” explains the brain through the stories of people who’ve experienced its limitations. This book is equal parts informative and emotionally intense.
Ray Kurzweil - you didn’t think I’d leave him out, did you? I read the entire “Age of Spiritual Machines” with my jaw on the floor. What Kurzweil lacks in beautiful sentences he more than makes up for in audacity. By the end of the book you’ll not only believe your body will be replaced by a machine, you might even be looking forward to it! (ok, maybe not, but you might accept it at least)
(Pointedly absent from my list: Matt Ridley, Douglas Hofstadter, Oliver Sacks. Enough said.)
Of course I'm always looking for more "True Science" to read, so if you know of a good book on DNA, genetics, or neurology then please clue me in! I still have a long way to go on this novel, and haven't discovered a way to create immortality, yet.