The Best Popular Science Books of 2016 are...

January 27, 2017 | Carolyn

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In December I often post about the best popular science books of the year (see the lists for 2013 and 2015). I look for books that appear again and again as I check lists of the best non-fiction published in the past year. Here, better late than never, is my list for 2016.


The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's new world. Book, Audiobook, eBook, eAudiobook, Talking Book

The Royal Society's science book prize for 2016 was awarded to Andrea Wulf for The Invention of Nature, a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, a German explorer, naturalist and philosopher. Humboldt's theory that all forms of life are connected influenced scientists such as Darwin, as well as Thoreau, Goethe, Thomas Jefferson and others. According to the Royal Society, "In The Invention of Nature Wulf resurrects the reputation of Humboldt as a visionary polymath who made science accessible and popular".


Here are some other titles that appeared on several "best books of 2016" lists:


The Gene: an intimate history. Book, eBook, large print book, audiobook, eAudiobook, Talking BookMukerjee follows up his 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning "biography" of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, with this history of the gene and genetics - from Mendel's experiments to the mapping of the human genome. He explains the complex science in an accessible manner and places his story in a broader social context. If you've enjoyed Mukherjee's earlier books you're in for another treat.


The Genius of Birds. Book, audiobook, eBook, eAudiobook, Talking BookPopular science writer Jennifer Ackerman explains what new research is revealing about the remarkable intelligence of birds. Traveling the world to observe birds and meet those who study them, she learns about their abilities to navigate, communicate, build communities and use tools. The verdict from Library Journal: "Highly recommended for all interested in natural history, behavior and eco-travel".


Grunt: the curious science of humans at war. Book, audiobook, eBook, large print book, Talking BookBest-selling science writer Mary Roach (Stiff, Spook, Bonk, Gulp) tackles the military in her latest book. She explains the everyday science behind all things military (rations, uniforms, munitions, etc.) in her usual fast-paced and irreverent style. Roach points out that issues that are minor irritants to us, such as fatigue or body odor, can be deadly to military personnel. Her respect for the behind-the-scenes work of scientists and medical professionals to make the lives of soldiers as safe and comfortable as possible is obvious.


I Contain Multitudes: the microbes within us and a grander view of life. Book, eBook, audiobook, eAudiobook, Talking BookThis is the story of the micro-organisms that live on and in our bodies. The author examines the symbiotic relationship between these microbes and their human and animal hosts, describing the many ways in which they are essential to our health and even our survival. A timely book considering our concern about the rise of antibiotic-resistant microbes. Yong is a science writer and blogger.


Lab Girl. Book, eBook, eAudiobook, talking bookBook List calls this book an " exceptionally compelling and enlightening memoir". Jahren's father was a college teacher and her love of science began during the many hours she spent playing in his lab. Chapters about her labs and field studies and her relationship with her research partner alternate with chapters about the plants she has spent her career studying. She conveys her wonder at the marvels of the plant world and her concern for how our actions are endangering it. Beautifully written with humour and heart, this book has been called a must-read for anyone contemplating a career in science.


Weapons of Math Destruction: how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. Book, eBook, eAudiobookDescribed in one review as "the stuff of technophobes' nightmares", this timely book reveals that, rather than making life more fair, the mathematical models that govern our lives reinforce existing biases and privilege. The author calls upon us to demand greater transparency from the organizations responsible for producing these models and better oversight from regulators.


When Breath Becomes Air. Book, eBook, large print book, audiobook, eAudiobook, Talking BookI get a lump in my throat thinking about this beautiful book. Literature was Paul Kalanithi's first love and he dreamed of being a writer. But his interest in biology eventually led him to Yale Medical School and a residency in neurosurgery at Stanford. In the last year of his residency Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. He wrote to a friend: "The good news is that I've already outlived two Brontes, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven't written anything". In this memoir, published after his death in 2015, he reflects on his life as a son, a husband and a father, and on his time as a doctor and a patient. It's a moving story, simply and beautifully told.