Water, torture and weirdness: great science books for curious minds
Stocking fillers for science lovers
In The Water Book, Alok Jha takes us on a journey from the Antarctic to the monsoons of India (above)
If you are looking to give a curious mind a present this festive season, or if you are looking to feed your own curious mind, then a science-related book could be just the thing.
Good science writing can often help us see the complex in the everyday, and in The Water Book: The Extraordinary Story of Our Most Ordinary Substance, Alok Jha does so nicely. Jha, who is science correspondent for ITV News and who spent a decade working at the Guardian, takes us on a journey from the Antarctic to the monsoons of India and out into space on a quest to understand more about this abundant but oddly behaved molecule, without which we wouldn’t exist.
In Smashing Physics: Inside the World’s Biggest Experiment by Prof Jon Butterworth (a physicist working with the Large Hadron Collider) manages to elegantly demystify explorations and discoveries at Cern about the fundamentals of particle physics. The book was shortlisted for the UK’s Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books this year.
While you are there, check out Gaia Vince’s Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made. Vince, who won the Winton Prize, explores the human impact on our planet and our chances of survival in this new geological age being ushered in.
In another book shortlisted for the Winton, Alex Through the Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers, and Numbers Reflect Life, Alex Bellos enthusiastically digs into the beauty behind numbers and patterns and offers new perspectives on our everyday encounters with them.
And if you want to get more hands-on, Bellos and Edmund Harris have brought out a colouring book of mathematical patterns for all ages, Snowflake Seashell Star: Colouring Adventures in Numberland, which might offer some welcome calming activity over the holiday season.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a relative oldie but still very much a goodie, is a gripping must-read about the origin and ethical controversy around hela cells, a remarkably productive “immortal” cell line used widely for research that originated in a cancer the eponymous Lacks developed.
Sticking with tough subjects, in Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation Prof Shane O’Mara of Trinity College Dublin takes a scientific look at how the brain operates – or doesn’t – under stress, and points to more humane ways of getting information.
To lighten the mood at the dinner table or fireside, how about a selection from the long-running New Scientist book series that compiles entries from the magazine’s Last Word column? These compendiums answer important questions, and editions cover such important topics as Will We Ever Speak Dolphin?; Why Can’t Elephants Jump?; Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze? and Does Anything Eat Wasps?
You can always start a conversation by asking “what if?”, but Randall Munroe has done some of the heavy lifting for you. His book What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Scientific Questions rolls up the intellectual sleeves and digs in.
And don’t forget many science books can be given as gifts in the form of ebooks and audiobooks.