With classes coming to a close and winter break within reach, it’s time to start reading for fun again. If you’re looking for something to read over the break that isn’t on a course’s required reading list, consider one of these great science books. Each of these books is interesting in its own right—some are funny, others are timely. None of the books require previous scientific knowledge and they are suitable for a general audience (and make great gifts!). If you’ve never read a science book for fun, here is your opportunity to try one. You never know, you may enjoy it and you may be able to impress your friends with your newfound knowledge or at the very least, improve the look of your bookshelf. All of these books are available at most bookstores (the publisher’s recommended price is listed with each book).
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail But Some Don’t by Nate Silver Hardcover. Penguin. $29.50
We live in the “information age,” a time of fast news, fast numbers, and a myriad of talking head pundits that present information and opinions to the masses. With so much data at our disposal, how can we effectively use it? How can we determine whether a prediction is credible or not? Nate Silver made headlines recently when he predicted the results of the 2012 US Presidential Election, correctly predicting the outcome in every state, including the swing states. In his surprisingly fascinating book, The Signal and the Noise, Silver provides the basic tools necessary to understand predictions and models. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of math or statistics, or someone not afraid of numbers, shouldn’t have much difficulty reading The Signal and the Noise, as the book provides several examples and illustrations to ensure that the reader understands the concepts discussed. In looking at what makes a good prediction, examples are taken from a range of areas, including sports, poker, social sciences, weather, earthquakes, global warming, and terrorism. This book is a must-read for anyone wanting to be able to distinguish the important information from the noise. Silver doesn’t, however, share his poker-winning secrets.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen Hardcover. WW Norton. $31.00
In this engrossing and somewhat terrifying book, David Quammen tells stories of several zoonotic diseases (infections that get transferred from animals to humans), such as Ebola, SARS, and AIDS. The diseases are frightening and to us, seem to come out of nowhere. Like a mystery novel, the book sets up the scene of the crime (an outbreak) and then outlines the fascinating process of tracing the pathogen to its animal origin. A zoonosis can appear anywhere and at any time, making the subject of this book relevant to all of us. This book is quite gripping and yet not sensationalized or fear mongering. You will want to lend this book to others, but perhaps you should insist they wash their hands first.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson Trade Paperback. Illustrated. Doubleday Canada. $35.00 Non Illustrated Trade Paperback 23.00
Humorous travel writer Bill Bryson takes readers on a journey from the Big Bang to the origin of man in this best selling general interest science book. The book lives up to its name, providing an easy to understand history of the major branches of science and insights into the pioneers and discoverers along the way. With such a diverse range of subjects including astronomy, geology, evolution, genetics, chemistry, and the environment, there is something for everyone in this delightful book. The illustrated version would make a nice coffee table book, but having the illustrated version isn’t necessary to understanding the content. You will feel smarter having read this book and will probably learn more than you did in high school science classes.
Getting a rocket into space is hard enough—it’s even harder when you load the rocket with people who need to eat, drink, breathe, defecate, sleep, and be functional enough that they can operate the billion dollar equipment and not try to kill each other. Packing For Mars is a humorous look at what it took to prepare human beings for space. Since the 1960s, space programs around the world have been testing the limits of what a human can endure, in an effort to design spacecrafts that will allow for humans to survive with the barest of necessities. This is an entertaining book that explores the science behind putting living creatures up into space, and would be enjoyable to anyone with an interest in space travel, torturing people for science, or bodily functions.
The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons: My Obsessive Quest to Seek Out Alien Species by Glen Chilton Hardcover. Harper Collins. $29.99
Canadian author Glen Chilton traveled to several countries to investigate significant or interesting examples of introduced species. Part travelogue and part treatise on the implications of bringing an exotic species into a new environment, The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons is an engaging and often funny read. Some introduced species, such as the group of wallabies he found in Scotland, are amusing; others, such as the titular rhododendrons in Ireland, seriously threaten the environment they’ve been introduced into. Chilton’s book reminds us how much of an impact we have on the environment and how sometimes we screw things up for no good reason.