You don't have to turn your brain off for vacation: A summer break is the perfect time to open a book and let your imagination fly through exotic scientific realms.
The best science books for summer reading are those that take you to another place or time — locales that offer adventure and fun while providing insights into how our cosmos works. And because we're talking about vacation reading, they shouldn't be too weighty or worrisome. There's a time and a place for books like "Superbug," or "Annoying," or "Quantum" — but that may be after you come back from the beach.
Here are 10 recently published books that capture the mix I have in mind for summertime reading: a little science, a little travel, and little or no math required:
- "Almost Chimpanzee: Searching for What Makes Us Human, in Rainforests, Labs, Sanctuaries and Zoos":Considering that this summer's crop of movies includes "Project Nim" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," I've got to say this is the season to read Jon Cohen's exploration of the differences that separate us from our closest relatives in the animal world.
- "Boltzmann's Tomb: Travels in Search of Science": Miami University geophysicist Bill Green revisits the scenes of his science, ranging from his boyhood hometown of Pittsburgh to his favorite stomping grounds in Antarctica. Kirkus Reviews: "Green is an exquisite writer, and his fierce focus and mastery of style are reminiscent of the biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas."
- "The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good": With a subtitle like that, who needs a book description? NPR's Michael Schaub says the author, Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden, "is incredibly smart, but comes across as the funny, patient professor you wish you'd had in college."
- "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks": If you liked Shark Week, you'll love this book by Washington Post environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin. Who knew that sharks predated the dinosaurs, or that they were revered by the Aztecs a millennium ago, or that they now face their greatest threat ... from us? The University of York's Callum Roberts says Eilperin "draws the reader along easily in a tale rich in color and character."
- "An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science": Pepperdine historian Edward J. Larson traces the grand adventures and the little-known stories behind the exploration of Earth's most alien continent. Booklist: "Larson succeeds ... by wrapping the science in plenty of dangerous drama to keep readers engaged."
- "On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves)": English science writer Jonnie Hughes takes a novel approach to the subject of cultural evolution by following Darwinian principles as he travels across the American West. Publishers Weekly: "This ambitious book braids together studies in biology, psychology, history, linguistics, geology and philosophy into an impressively succinct and readable taxonomy of human culture."
- "Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100": Well-known physicist Michio Kaku takes you on a tour of the technologies that will change the world over the next century. "The distance between 1900 and today is actually rather small, compared to the distance that we will cover between now and 2100," Kaku told me during an interview in March. Take a test drive by reading this excerpt from the book.
- "Space: From Earth to the Edge of the Universe": This coffee-table book isn't the kind of thing you'd take to the beach, but on a rainy day, it's nice to have it waiting for you on a bookshelf at the cabin. Like most DK books, it's chock-full of pictures and illustrations. The Coalition for Space Exploration's Leonard David says it provides "a picture-perfect look at the origins of human space exploits, current status, and the unknown unknowns awaiting discovery and investigation within the universe at large."
- "Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System": This book by the University of Toronto's Ray Jayawardhana provides a far-out field trip to the frontiers of planetary science and exobiology. The SETI Institute's Jill Tarter: "Read this book if you want a picture of how modern astronomy and astrobiology are helping to calibrate our place in the universe."
- "Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time": Mark Adams retraces the steps of Yale professor Hiram Bingham III, who is credited with discovering the remote Andean city in 1911. This book is virtually certain to appeal to fans of "The Lost City of Z." The Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Adams deftly weaves together Inca history, Bingham's story and his own less heroic escapade."
This post couldn't come at a better time, because I'll be taking a few days off myself. So what'll I be reading? "Turn Right at Machu Picchu" is definitely on my list, as "The Lost City of Z," "1491" and "Cahokia" were in past years. But for starters, I'm engrossed in something completely different: "A Dance With Dragons," the latest installment of the "Song of Ice and Fire" fantasy series from George R.R. Martin, the guy who's been called "The American Tolkien."
What are you reading? Feel free to pass along your recommendations as a comment below. I'll pick out some of the recommendations to feature when I'm back in office, a little more than a week from now. If I really like your recommendation, I just might send you a free book — maybe one of the volumes on the list above, or maybe a signed copy of my own book, "The Case for Pluto." Until then, here's wishing you happy reading and relaxation!
More book recommendations:
- 2010: Season's readings in science
- 2010: Tales for summer science odysseys
- 2009: Science by the book
- 2009: Books for an Apollo summer
- 2007: Season's readings for grown-ups
- 2007: Season's readings for kids
- 2007: Escape into summer sci-fi
- 2005: Literary adventures (scroll down)
- Cosmic Log archive on books
- Cosmic Log Used Book Club