Top Science Books of 2016

While I planned to write about New Year’s resolutions for the first Promega Connections blog of 2017, I was sidetracked by some “best of 2016” lists—in particular, best science books. I realized though that these seemingly unrelated ideas overlapped at some level because every year I resolve to find time to read more books. What was once an easy and natural escape for me, like for so many others, reading for fun now requires a bit of effort and prioritization. With the continual distractions of Netflix, social media and online news stories, it’s a challenge to find time to read books the way I once did.

So, in honor of a new year’s resolution do more of what I like and less of what I don’t like, here is a list of what has been deemed the best science books of 2016. I culled through the lists of several of the most reputable science blogs and publications and looked for overlap among them. Between the Science Friday blog, New York Magazine’s blog, The Science of Us, Smithsonian Magazine, NPR, and the New York Times’ best of 2016 lists there are loads of suggestions to keep you reading until the start of the next decade. Below are eight recommendations that appeared on several “best of” lists.

Whether you’re inspired to read more, pass any of these suggested titles along to the science literature enthusiasts in your life, or pick up a copy of any of these top-notch books as a late holiday gift for 2016, enjoy!

Eight picks that graced multiple lists:

  • The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel
  • I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
  • The Unnatural World by David Biello
  • Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Grunt, The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach
  • The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

In The Glass Universe, author Dava Sobel, a veteran science journalist, recounts the story of the pioneering women astronomers who worked at the Harvard College Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Known as “human computers,” these women contributed to the classification system of stars and the calculations that became the basis for Hubble’s discovery that the universe is expanding. While these women were denied the right to vote, they were still hired  to interpret the telescope observations of their male counterparts. As it turns out, their contributions forever changed our understanding of the stars.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life offers a “groundbreaking, marvelously informative ‘microbe’s-eye view’ of the world.” The debut book by British science journalist Ed Yong tells the story of the complex partnerships between the familiar creatures, or microbes, of our world and those we never realized existed. He succeeds in showing how the microbiome is invaluable to human life and how microbes are not only ubiquitous, but vital to human health and the entire animal kingdom.

The Hidden Life of Trees, written by German forester Peter Wohlleben, presents the secret world of signals and sophisticated silent language of trees. Many don’t realize that trees communicate complex information through their smell, taste and electrical impulses. The author chronicles how his experience managing a forest in the Eifel Mountains in Germany taught him about the language of trees; and he shares his newfound appreciation of their “secret life” and the role they play in making life on this planet possible at all.

Grunt, The Curious Science of Humans at War by “pop science writer” Mary Roach delves into the scientific challenges of warfare. Across a range of chapters she discusses the many non-human enemies that soldiers face on the battlefield including exhaustion, heat, noise pollution, sickness, and panic, and she does so with humor and empathy. Roach introduces readers to the scientists who study these issues and educates us about the many unappreciated challenges faced by those in combat.

In The Gene: An Intimate History, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee presents a sweeping history of the gene, or what reviewers describe as a “biography” of the gene. Like his earlier bestselling book about cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, he weaves science with personal narrative and social history to tell the story of this biological entity. In a quest to explain and personalize the concept of human heredity and the influence it has on our lives, he draws on his own family history of mental illness.

The Unnatural World examines the uncertain situation we have created as our planet struggles to survive at a time of environmental crises such as mass extinction and global warming. Yet author David Biello, an award-winning environmental journalist, chooses to emphasize the “glimmers of hope emerging from the efforts of incredible individuals seeking to change our future.” Providing a historical perspective, Biello demonstrates a future where our population has found innovative solutions and is instead able to thrive. The author demonstrates that as humans we must apply our wisdom and restraint if our planet is to survive.

In Hidden Figures, author Margot Lee Shetterly brings to light the story of the black, female math teachers in segregated Southern public schools who were recruited to Langley to help NASA engineers. Their work served to free NASA engineers from hand calculations decades before the start of the digital age. With World War II raging and human rights still a challenge, these brilliant mathematicians played a critical role. and are only now receiving official recognition. Now a major motion picture as well, Shetterly’s book illustrates how their work was crucial to the U.S. winning the space race.

When Breath Becomes Air is a moving memoir by neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at age 36. He writes with heartbreaking honesty about how it felt to one day be treating patients, and the next day to become a patient struggling to live. Through his words he attempts to answer the question, what makes a life worth living in the face of death? Kalanithi’s philosophical reflections on his personal journey, woven through with stories of his own dying patients, serves to highlight our own shared mortality in a beautiful and meaningful way.


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Nicole Sandler

Nicole enjoys being a member of the Promega Connections blog team. A former molecular biologist, she earned her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania but realized that writing about science was a more fulfilling way to apply her knowledge and passion for the field. She's excited that her longtime writing career has now landed her at Promega, a company she once relied on for restriction enzymes and buffers as a research scientist.

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