Summer reads for the science-inspired

Time to wrap your brain around some books — we asked scientists for their recommended seasonal reads

“I’ve got my summer reads!” The young child settling into the airplane seat could barely contain the excitement of having fresh pages to devour. As the parents handed over the treasured tomes, the child’s exuberance prompted smiles from passengers within earshot, including me.

For who among us has not relished the prospect of having new books to discover and time to do it? If you are wondering what books to pack or download this summer with a science theme, keep reading for some suggestions.

For new perspectives on living creatures, An Immense World by science writer Ed Yong is an extraordinarily good place to start.

In his characteristically engaging, storytelling style, Yong takes us on a tour of how non-human animals perceive their sensory environments, or Umwelten. From the comma-shaped nostrils on dogs’ snouts that funnel air in for olfactory sampling to deep-sea squid vision that detects bioluminescence, from turtles that track magnetic fields to spiders that pick up on minute vibrations, we learn about the bizarre (to us) ways in which animals encounter the world.


Make sure to balance the scales with a dive into Planta Sapiens by Paco Calvo with Natalie Lawrence, who discusses the challenging and often divisive notion of plant intelligence.

The authors contend that our animal-centric view of the world leads us to overlook or not recognise how plants sense and respond to good and ill in their surroundings. Sometimes this happens hidden deep underground, where roots sense and decipher resources, friends and foes.

Sometimes plants respond over time-frames that we humans are too giddily impatient to notice unless we focus on looking. Interesting and often challenging, this book might help to remove the scales of “plant-blindness” from human eyes and make us think twice about the photosynthesising powerhouses all around us.

Fictional bonds

If fiction is more your thing this summer, Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is a gripping read, and you don’t need to swot up on the periodic table before you jump in. The novel tells the story of talented chemist Elizabeth Zott who has to deal with the sexist attitudes of 1950s science while finding creative outlets for her chemical brilliance.

“It has science and it’s also a great story about equality, empowerment, about being yourself and how if you are brave you will convince other people to be brave,” says Dr Ruth Freeman, director of science for society at Science Foundation Ireland, who recommends the book.

“Elizabeth is not the traditional heroine, she does things like dismantle a kitchen to build a lab. There’s a strong message that it’s okay to be different, that you don’t always have to adapt to what other people want you to do. She also forges bonds with others, like her neighbour where she lives, they end up as this amazing team.”

Freeman recommends another book too about unexpected and rich relationships, this time set in Japan and forged through maths in The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa.

“It’s a very slim volume, a story of a maths professor who has lost his memory, so he only has 80 minutes of memory,” she explains. “His housekeeper comes in to help him, and each day he can’t remember her from the previous day, so to make it work they come up with a system for when he can remember.

She comes from a different background, she is a single mum and she hasn’t had the chance to have an education, and it is a beautiful story of characters being brought together. It shows that with real empathy and good intentions, you can give people access to worlds they never had before just by caring.”

Another human-centred story, of how the Oxford AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine came to be, is told in Vaxxers, and Freeman appreciates the honesty of authors Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green.

“They talk about the impact on their families, and the day-to-day of it all, how even though they were doing something momentous they still had to think about the washing and the kids and what was everyone going to have for dinner,” she says.

“I think it was generous of them to have unveiled that so honestly, and it’s a really well-written book. It takes you back to that time of making difficult decisions in the pandemic and I am glad in a way I came late to the book, you can start to think about that time now with some distance from it.”

Freeman has also recently been enjoying books by Easkey Britton and by astrophysicist Brian Cox ahead of interviewing the authors on stage at the Dalkey Book Festival and has lined up Undoctored by Adam Kay and Emily Pine’s Ruth & Pen for later reading this summer.

Magic reads

For Prof Luke O’Neill, reading about magic has been very much on the cards, particularly as it relates to the history of science. The History of Magic by Chris Gosden has had him under a spell.

“You might be surprised by me reading about magic, but really it’s a history of humans being curious, and the book shows how there were strands of religion, magic and science through history and how they separated,” says O’Neill, an immunologist and professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin. “The magic of alchemy turned into chemistry, and like religion, science is trying to explain why we are here and what is going to become of us. And in a way magic and science are about uncertainty and control.”

In keeping with the supernatural, or maybe the supernaturalist, O’Neill also recommends The Ghost in the Garden by Jude Piesse, the story of Charles Darwin’s Shrewsbury home and the garden to which he remained connected during his exploratory travels and as he developed his thoughts on evolution.

“It’s the most obscure thing, but she describes what Darwin does with natural history, and how the garden is interwoven with it,” says O’Neill. “It’s very well written, a beautiful book.”

Then for something completely different, he recommends trying Project Hail Mary by Andrew Weir. More religion? Not quite. “It’s a science fiction book about the sun dimming because it is being eaten by an alien life form called astrophages, and humanity is in trouble,” explains O’Neill. “The race is on to get to another solar system and the world unites to develop a spaceship powered by astrophages to escape.”

Brain food

It’s probably not a surprise that books about brains are on Dr Linda Katona’s recommended reading list. The University College Cork researcher is exploring how signals in the gut bacteria might link with mental illness through the gut-brain axis, and she admits she is, of course, biased towards gripping books about the area.

In The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, professor, lawyer and psychiatrist Elyn R Saks tells the true testimony of lived experience, and Katona could barely put the book down. “It’s so well written and it’s very unusual, a completely new perspective, helping to shred the stigma around people with serious mental illness,” she says.

Katona also recommends Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition by Patricia Churchland. “It’s a great read, and it discusses fascinating ideas at the interface of philosophy and neuroscience.”

A book that does not age, according to Katona, is In the Shadow of Man by primatologist, conservationist and humanitarian Jane Goodall. And if you want to just wrap your brain around a whole bunch in one go, Katona recommends The Royal Society’s Science Book of the Year A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters by Henry Gee. “It’s super-digestible and to the point,” she says. “I just loved it.”

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation