During the past couple of summers, I read quite a few science-themed books and blogged about them here. This summer, I stayed pretty busy with family adventures, a lot of outdoor pursuits, professional development, and other writing projects instead. However, I did find some time to read for pleasure—relaxing with both beach fiction (yay!) and a few other books that gave me more to think about than whether it was time to apply more sunscreen.
A new academic year of teaching has already begun, so in the spirit of a quick “what I did on my summer vacation” essay, I present my summer book reviews for 2019. Only a couple are truly “science books.” The others stuck with me for other reasons, as you’ll see.
Last year, I wrote a blog post called “Scientist fiction,” in which I explored the idea of scientists as main characters in fiction stories. I was pleased to discover a new title in this category published this past spring, called Lost and Wanted. Author Nell Freudenberger explores themes of friendship, love, death, and spirituality through the eyes of her main character, a woman named Helen Clapp, who just happens to be an acclaimed MIT physicist and author of books on physics for a general audience. Freudenberger inserts enough details of Clapp’s mindset and daily scientific work to create a compelling picture of a full and complex woman who navigated her education and career, family and friendships, romantic relationships, and the death of a good friend with the same challenges as if she might have worked in a non-scientific job. But Clapp’s scientific knowledge and approach is at the heart of how she navigates through what unfolds, and they contribute to the plot in unique ways.
Clapp’s character both personifies and humanizes “women in STEM” stereotypes, even as the author explores more existential plot elements. This complicated character added a new layer of interest for me in the traditional genre of women’s fiction. Women and men who study and work in science are people, too, and stories about their (fictional) lives add to the value of such stories in helping us understand circumstances similar to and different from our own. Plus, fiction pairs well with long summer evenings!
Stuff Matters is a non-fiction book about materials science. But it’s also a book about how people interact with the things they’ve invented, such as concrete, glass, paper, and—my favorite—chocolate. I read Mark Midownik’s 2015 book recently as part of a community science book club that pairs reading, conversation, and a guest scientist to provide context about the book in relation to their work.
I really enjoyed this book, as did the people I talked to at the book club event. Midownik is a gifted writer who brought each selected material to life with personal connections and anecdotes, historical context, and a consideration for not just science, but also functionality, beauty, and the sheer complexity that living in the modern world bears on our relationship with the things around us. Thanks to Midownik, I tried eating a dark chocolate by letting it totally melt on my tongue rather than chew it. We can learn more about the chemistry and manufacture of chocolate in a book, but can only experience the wonder of chocolate first-hand. I was impressed with the readability of Midownik’s approach and learned quite a few things along the way. I’ve since discovered he has a newer book called Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives. I think I’ll add it to my list of things to read!
Pleased to Meet Me is also a non-fiction science book. But it’s a science book disguised as a self-help book of sorts. Bill Sullivan has written a book for any curious reader about how various aspects of human behavior—from taste, to addiction, to love, to political preference and a lot of in between—may have genetic, microbial, or even parasitic causes. He uses copious analogies, pop culture references (okay, they’re mostly pop culture references for Gen Xers), and the occasional bad pun to inject his treatment of science with humor and relatability.
As a trained geneticist and long-time science educator, I was already “in the know” about many of the themes and examples Sullivan introduces (although there were enough new tidbits to keep me motivated to find them and maybe share with my students). For me, reading the book was more of a more personal venture. I have come to know Bill through science engagement events in which he has participated in our shared city of Indianapolis. As a senior biomedical researcher at the Indiana University School of Medicine, Bill takes his role in communicating science beyond the lab quite seriously (despite his penchant for pop culture references).
Through our many conversations around Indianapolis—and through opportunities and personal support Bill and his colleagues have created for me and others to learn about and participate in broader science communication strategies—I jumped on the bandwagon and dipped my toe in the “SciComm” waters. From this perspective, it was interesting to see how Bill expanded his reach from his short-form blogs, articles, and presentations to capture a complex biological theme in an easy-to-digest book. I’m not really the target audience…and yet, I of course learned a thing or two. I think Bill hopes anyone could learn a thing or two and engage in follow-up conversations about science by reading his book. So here we are. Thanks, Bill!
Mary Norris: Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen and It’s Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen
My final selection is not a science book. It’s actually two books, which are memoirs by author Mary Norris. I discovered her work through recommendations on Twitter in the editing and writing communities I follow there. I’m a former scientific copy editor, and so my own love of the puzzle of language and editing still sneak out from time to time. Norris’s 2015 book, Between You and Me, chronicles her own interest and professional work in the world of language, primarily as a copy editor at The New Yorker magazine (where she also is a contributing writer). Throughout the book, she also shares interesting tidbits about elements of punctuation and grammar that even a non-stickler for the English language can enjoy.
Her follow-up book, Greek to Me, takes a more holistic approach to language by exploring the contributions of Greek language through history and in modern English. Notably, Norris shares these ideas with readers through the lens of her lifelong personal side interest in all things Greek–from the language, to the geography, and its culture (both ancient and modern). I learned some little things that made me happy. For example, omega means “big O” (“o-mega”) and omicron is “little O” (“o-micron”). Mega- and micro- define the scale of units of measurement in science, too. I never made that connection to the Greek alphabet before, though it seems obvious in hindsight. Little “a-ha moments” like these and Norris’ personal enthusiasm for Greece both appealed to me as a reader.
In a larger sense, though, reading both of Norris’s books this summer reminded me of the multiple professional and personal interests we all have lurking behind what is visible to everyone else based on a job title. Mid-summer, I attended a science communication workshop, in which we scientific folks were encouraged to identify different facets of ourselves that we use to connect with others, such as hobbies, or whether we have dogs or cats (or both, like me). Like Norris, I too love language (and the proper use of punctuation!), among many other things, such as playing music and riding my bike. Each of us has many interests beyond our work that enrich our lives and connect us in new ways to people around us. Mary Norris and I even had a brief Twitter conversation about the proper formatting of the term “screen porch,” when I was enjoying her book in that relaxing space at home. That wasn’t science, and it didn’t have to be. Words are fun, too!
So whether it was reading for pure escapism and pleasure (thanks, books with beach chairs on the cover), exploring new scientist fiction, expanding my own scientific understanding through the help of a friend, or exploring my other interests and learning more about language and world cultures, I enjoyed my stolen moments of time on the couch, resting up after summer days filled with many other things. I’ve started a couple of other books this month and look forward to sharing them with you…eventually. If you have other recommendations, I’m always happy to hear them! Thanks for reading my writing, too, and enjoy the change to a new season.