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Best Popular Science Books of 2018

Highly accessible, consistently interesting popular science writing.



An exceptionally reader-friendly introduction to human evolution.

Lee (Anthropology/Univ. of California, Riverside) bases her book largely on a series of essays published simultaneously in a Korean newspaper and science magazine for the general public. To engage the widest general audience, the author writes in a refreshingly conversational style, eschewing the jargon of paleoanthropology so that the topics are “understandable to someone without a background in” the discipline. Because of their origin as separate essays, there is some repetition in chapters, but this is minimal and often adds to the clarity of the subject being discussed. Chapter titles reflect the tone of the essays—e.g., “Big-Brained Babies Give Moms Big Grief,” “Granny Is an Artist,” “Got Milk?” and “A Gene for Snow White.” The approach is not chronological, so chapters can be read in any order, and they often begin with a question or an anecdote. Many chapters conclude with a brief section labeled “Extra,” which brings a fresh perspective such as an update or a personal note. The author introduces readers to both the knowns and the unknowns, controversial issues that plague scientists trying to untangle these roots. How do the Neanderthals and the Denisovans fit in, and what about the tiny Hobbit-like hominins who lived in Indonesia thousands of years ago? There is some humor here but no flippancy. Lee demonstrates clearly how research continues to add to our understanding of the complex roots of human origins, roots that “are becoming more complicated and tangled than we ever thought before.” As the author notes, “humanity did not agonize over the best long-term course development. We proceeded by making the best decision possible at that moment, within our specific environment.” Full-page black-and-white illustrations of tools, fossils, and locations add to the book’s appeal.

Highly accessible, consistently interesting popular science writing.

Pub Date: Feb. 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-63482-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2017

Less a work of scholarship than an enthusiastic popular-science tour of technological marvels, and readers will love the...



An ingenious argument that the dazzling advances that produced the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and the revolutions that followed owe their success to a single engineering element: precision.

Early on in this entertaining narrative, bestselling journalist and historian Winchester (Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators and Fading Empires, 2015), whose father “was for all of his working life a precision engineer,” points out that James Watt (1736-1819) invented a vastly improved steam engine, but John Wilkinson (1728-1808) made it work. Watt’s pistons generated enormous energy but moved inside handmade sheet metal cylinders that leaked profusely under the pressure. After years of frustration, he was rescued by Wilkinson, who had invented a machine that bored a precise hole through a solid block of iron. It had already revolutionized cannon manufacture, and it did the same for Watt’s steam engine. Human precision made the Rolls-Royce, which earned the reputation “for precision products made beyond consideration of price,” expensive, but engineering precision made the Model T cheap. An assembly line must stop if one mass-produced part doesn’t fit perfectly into the next, so Henry Ford spared no expense to ensure that it did. Winchester tells the story of a series of increasingly impressive inventions, usually introduced by a journalistic “hook” to engage readers—e.g., an account of an explosion aboard the world’s largest commercial airliner in 2010 precedes his history of the jet engine. In the final chapter, the author does not deny that something vital is lost when human craftsmanship bows before technical perfection, but it’s clear where his heart lies. He sought some answers in Japan, which displays “an aesthetic sensibility wherein asymmetry and roughness and impermanence are accorded every bit as much weight as are the exact, the immaculate, and the precise.”

Less a work of scholarship than an enthusiastic popular-science tour of technological marvels, and readers will love the ride.

Pub Date: May 8, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-265255-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2018

An expert romp through urban natural history, which, despite the absence of glamorous megafauna, turns out to be a...



An appealing argument that “we must embrace and harness the evolutionary forces that are shaping novel ecosystems right here, right now, and work toward allowing nature to grow in the hearts of our cities.”

In this delightful account by Schilthuizen (Evolutionary Biology/Leiden Univ.; Nature's Nether Regions: What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell Us About Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves, 2014, etc.), the senior research scientist at Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands, readers who assume that pigeons, cockroaches, and rats are the only representatives of city biology will learn that it is far more complex. Typical British mosquitoes feed on birds, mate in swarms, and hibernate during winter. When the London underground appeared 150 years ago, many moved down into the tunnels, adapted, and evolved into species that feed on humans, mate as individuals, and remain active throughout the year. Darwin believed that natural selection works too slowly to be observed, but this “drives home the fact the evolution is not only the stuff of dinosaurs and geological epochs. It can actually be observed here and now!” This is the first of a steady stream of ingenious examples and research results that bolster the author’s point that cities produce a unique, accelerated evolutionary environment. For example, birds adjust their calls to a higher pitch to be heard over the low-frequency roar of traffic. Awash with unfamiliar foods, shelters, and dangers, cities reward imagination, exploration, and problem-solving, so creatures normally shy in the wild become bold. The author points out urban ecosystems are becoming increasingly homogenized—e.g., 80 percent of herbs growing in the tiny islands of soil around street trees are identical to those in Europe.

An expert romp through urban natural history, which, despite the absence of glamorous megafauna, turns out to be a turbulent, hothouse ecosystem whose life is evolving before our eyes.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-250-12782-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

As he has done in previous books, Gazzaniga easily draws readers into one of the most fascinating conversations taking place...



One of the world's leading cognitive neuroscientists upends binary theories of consciousness and argues that it is manifested throughout the brain by localized circuits, an idea backed by emerging scientific data and resonant with philosophical ideas that have been around for centuries.

Director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute, and founding director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Law and Neuroscience Project, Gazzaniga (Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience, 2015, etc.) is unquestionably one of the top experts in his field. In his latest book, the author surveys the history of the mind/body problem and explains how 50 years of research led him to develop a transformative new theory of consciousness. He argues convincingly that “consciousness is not a ‘thing.’ It is the result of a process embedded in an architecture, just as a democracy is not a thing but the result of a process.” Noting that consciousness persists despite all types of brain injuries and diseases, implying that it does not emerge from one area of the brain, the author makes the novel argument that consciousness is instead borne from a network of “modules” located throughout the brain, each with a hyperspecific function and each contributing to the “flow of consciousness.” Referencing scientists and thinkers from William James to Niels Bohr to Steven Pinker, Gazzaniga explains how his theory works with the laws of physics and the latest neuroscience and also resonates with ideas put forth by pioneering philosophers. Because he uses straightforward language and contextualizes his research in familiar ideas, this is a book for readers of all ages who are intrigued by consciousness and how it works.

As he has done in previous books, Gazzaniga easily draws readers into one of the most fascinating conversations taking place in modern science.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-374-71550-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

A trip well worth taking, eye-opening and even mind-blowing.

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Noted culinary writer Pollan (Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, 2013, etc.) makes the transition from feeding your body to feeding your head.

The lengthy disclaimer on the copyright page speaks volumes. The author, well-known for books on food and life such as The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has been opening some of the doors of perception with the aid of lysergic acid, its molecular cousin psilocybin, ayahuasca, and assorted other chemical tools. His journeys are timely, since, “after several decades of suppression and neglect, psychedelics are having a renaissance.” For one thing, LSD and its kin have proven potent tools in treating depression, anxiety, addictions, post-traumatic stress, and other ailments. Through the use of neuroimaging technologies that were not available to the pioneers of psychiatric psychedelia, we can see that in interrupting ordinary patterns of thought and helping regroove the brain, these drugs are in fact mind-expanding, as the “hoary 1960s platitude” would have it. Pollan traveled deep into the woods to undertake acid-laced spirit journeys with people who are off the grid, and perhaps a touch off their rockers as well; at the Esalen Institute, he learned the latest from a place that served a historic role in spreading the psychedelic gospel. As Pollan notes, there are risks in unguided forays into the dustier corners of the mind, but the old scare tactics of chromosomal damage and going blind after staring at the sun are just that—though, as he also writes, “once introduced into the culture, these urban legends survive and, on occasion, go on to become ‘true.’ ” The author’s evenhanded but generally positive approach shoos away scaremongering while fully recognizing that we’re out in the tall grass—and, as he notes, though credited with psychological evenness, he’s found himself “tossed in a psychic storm of existential dread so dark and violent that the keel comes off the boat,” reason enough to seek chemical aid.

A trip well worth taking, eye-opening and even mind-blowing.

Pub Date: May 15, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-59420-422-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2018

A thoroughly enchanting tour of big questions, oddball ideas, and dazzling accomplishments of researchers searching to...



A fascinating journey through the history of heredity.

Books on the current revolution in genetics are not in short supply, so New York Times columnist Zimmer (Science Writing/Yale Univ.; A Planet of Viruses, 2011, etc.) casts his net more widely in a delightful history of efforts to discover why offspring resemble their parents but sometimes don’t and how scientists are learning how to change matters. “Very often genes cannot give us what we really want from heredity,” he writes. “Each of us carries an amalgam of fragments of DNA, stitched together from some of our many ancestors.” As a journalist, the author believes that readers want to hear a story through the eyes of an individual, so he chooses one: himself. After having his genome sequenced, he showed the results to researchers so that they could interpret them. It turns out that he carries genes for two serious diseases; luckily, his wife does not. Zimmer shares many identical genes with a typical Nigerian and typical Chinese person. In case readers are in doubt, every expert agrees that genetics disproves the existence of traditional races. The inheritance of intelligence has made impressive progress despite no agreement on a definition. Though IQ tests don’t measure it, per se, they do measure something worth having. People with a high IQ do better in life and live longer. Zimmer does not ignore famous historical oddities such as the Elephant Man, but he pays more attention to how humans inherit common diseases, height, skin color, aging, intelligence, and other traits. It’s a search that begins with hokum—Jews were once considered disease-prone and unintelligent—and ends with captivating knowledge. A brief glossary will help readers with such terms as “endosymbiont” and “pluripotent.”

A thoroughly enchanting tour of big questions, oddball ideas, and dazzling accomplishments of researchers searching to explain, manipulate, and alter inheritance.

Pub Date: June 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-101-98459-8

Page Count: 672

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

Calling this a classic like Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987) may be slightly premature, but it’s definitely a...



From the Pulitzer and National Book Award winner, a magisterial history of “how human beings…[have] confronted the deeply human problem of how to draw life from the raw materials of the world.”

The modern world consumes gargantuan quantities of energy, a process made possible by the Industrial Revolution that began 300 years ago. In his latest, prolific veteran journalist and historian Rhodes (Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made, 2015, etc.) casts his expert eye on the subject. The breakout century for energy was the 18th, its birthplace Britain, and its basis coal, a more concentrated source of power than wood, increasingly cheap, and—no secret at the time—a source of smoke far more irritating than that of wood. Energy’s breakout technology was the steam engine. After the traditional nod to the Greeks, the author delivers a lucid but not dumbed-down explanation of how it works, from the first, clunky Newcomen engine suitable only for raising water from mines to James Watt’s spectacular improvements, which made steam engines the dominant power source until around 1900, when the steam turbine, electric motor, and internal combustion engine took over. Invention accelerated after 1800 when Watt’s patents (ironically a drag on progress) expired, and Rhodes takes readers on an exhilarating ride through the following two centuries, mixing narratives about the new sources of energy (electricity, oil, natural gas, the sun, and the atom) and the marvels that they made possible. He devotes entire chapters to their downsides (smog, radiation, toxic waste) but shows little sympathy for anti-technology activists. Humans are problem-solvers, he maintains, and the same genius that produced technological wonders will solve the problems that accompany them—although his optimism flags in the face of global warming.

Calling this a classic like Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987) may be slightly premature, but it’s definitely a tour de force of popular science, which is no surprise from this author.

Pub Date: May 29, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-0535-7

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

A consistently engaging collection of vivid portraits of brilliant, driven, quarrelsome scientists in the process of...



A masterful history of a new field of molecular biology that has wide-ranging implications regarding “human identity, human individuality, [and] human health.”

In their evolution from a common ancestor, multiplying species branch and branch again, forming a “tree of life”: a mainstay of biology teaching for two centuries that turns out to be wrong, writes bestselling National Geographic contributing writer Quammen (Yellowstone: A Journey Through America's Wild Heart, 2016, etc.) in this impressive account of perhaps the most unheralded scientific revolution of the 20th century. It’s the result of a new area of study called molecular phylogenetics, which involves “reading the deep history of life and the patterns of relatedness from the sequence of constituent units in certain long molecules, as those molecules exist today within living creatures. The molecules mainly in question are DNA, RNA, and a few select proteins.” After admitting that this is a mouthful, the author describes three surprising discoveries that paved the way. The first revealed that genes don’t always move from parent to offspring. Sometimes organisms pass them back and forth, which is called horizontal gene transfer. Then researchers, led by the book’s central figure, biophysicist Carl Woese (1928-2012), while comparing bacterial RNA, identified a group so different that they weren’t bacteria at all but an entirely new kingdom: the Archaea. Finally, studies kept showing that bits of hereditary material simply float independently inside cells and regularly move to neighbors, other species, or even other kingdoms. No exception, the human genome is speckled with bacterial and viral DNA. The tree of life looks more like a web. An indefatigable journalist covering a revolution whose participants are mostly alive is an irresistible combination, and Quammen seems to have interviewed them all.

A consistently engaging collection of vivid portraits of brilliant, driven, quarrelsome scientists in the process of dramatically altering the fundamentals of evolution, illuminated by the author’s insightful commentary.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-7662-0

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

Once again, Ananthaswamy delivers a book that has all the intrigue of science fiction while remaining rooted in the...



A thrilling survey of the most famous, enduring, and enigmatic experiment in the history of science.

First conceived in the early 1800s, the so-called “double-slit experiment” has provided essential clues to the nature of the quantum world. Briefly, the experiment shows that light behaves both as a particle and a wave. The mechanics of this seemingly impossible quantum behavior have confounded every scientist who dared attempt an interpretation—and yet the experiment remains among the most powerful available to physicists and has been reimagined in ways that push our notions of reality to the very edge of belief. In this remarkable telling, Ananthaswamy (The Man Who Wasn't There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self, 2015, etc.) traces the experiment as it evolved from a heady thought experiment—famously used by Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg as they grappled with an early understanding of quantum theory—to the pioneering experimentalists who have augmented it to demonstrate never-before-seen quantum properties. If the subject matter sounds intimidating, fear not. The author is a brilliant scientific storyteller, and he makes sense of even the most nonsensical concepts in clear, compelling prose. Combining archival research and first-person interviews, Ananthaswamy deftly navigates both the foundational principles of quantum mechanics and the many iterations of the two-slit experiment with such ease that readers of any scientific acumen can revel in the implications without being bogged down by the math. It is no exaggeration to say that the results yielded by the two-slit experiment are among the most fascinating to ever be recorded, and the author does an exceptional job of conveying their profound effect on our understanding of reality.

Once again, Ananthaswamy delivers a book that has all the intrigue of science fiction while remaining rooted in the scientific real, however bizarre. A fantastic book for anyone interested in the quantum and what it reveals about the world around us.

Pub Date: Aug. 7, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-101-98609-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: May 28, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2018

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