As you probably know by now, this week is National Science Week in Australia. We’re continuing the celebrations today with four of the best new books in science writing for adults.
Thomas Hobbes once wrote that “Science is the knowledge of consequences, and dependence of one fact upon another.” The following books show us how humans have struggled to understand the basis of certain processes in the natural world. Through persistence, observation, and experimentation, clarity emerges, allowing the scientists to improve the quality of life for all humanity. These are great stories about humans finding the answers they seek.
I hope you enjoy this selection, and I highly recommend them all as Father’s Day gifts.
Symphony In C: Carbon and the Evolution of (Almost) Everything
by Robert M. Hazen
The Geological Society (UK) chose 2019 as their Year of Carbon. Why not celebrate it by reading this splendid collection of carbon (the main constituent of a paperback)?
Esteemed scientist, author, and classical musician Robert M. Hazen sees carbon as the symphony that weaves together the themes of the many other chemical elements, giving them the chance to become beautiful forms. Symphony in C explores these forms through its sections on earth, air, fire, and water; all ‘movements’ being crucial to life and ubiquitous. The narrative of the book ranges widely: from the ancient origins to the latest in complex polymers, from the building blocks of our bodies to our biggest environmental threat. Our challenging times have emphasised how little we know about carbon, and how we had better get on with the job of finding out more.
This fascinating book is timely, jargon-free, and very readable. Tipped by many to be the science book of the year, it is a great read for Father’s Day too, full of fun facts and anecdotes.
Buy it here.
The Basis of Everything: Rutherford, Oliphant and the Making of the Atomic Bomb
by Andrew Ramsey
Step back to the Cambridge college days of 1927 when two great minds met: Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), the New Zealand-born physicist known as the father of nuclear physics, and his new protege, Marcus Oliphant (1901-2000), a younger Australian physicist and pioneer-to-be of nuclear fusion.
This is a world of eccentric polymaths in grimy lab coats hunched over their cutting-edge experiments, where two ill-suited friends from the Antipodes created an enduring partnership. The results of their work leads to the development of atomic energy, the Manhattan Project, and the tragedy of Hiroshima. But it also leads to atomic medicine, radiocarbon dating, microwave radar, and cathode ray TV screens.
The Basis of Everything is an endearing biography of boffins obsessed, a smart telling of an unlikely partnership, and also of the corruption of science.
Buy it here.
The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World
by Amanda Little
The world is changing. As it heats up, the population is growing, while the amount of arable land we have is shrinking. With global water scarcity threatening to create wars, the challenge is to secure food supply for the future. The Fate of Food explores the options and comes up with some surprising responses, not of all them to my taste but still highly fascinating.
Beginning with an informative and compelling tour through current issues of climate change, drought, soil degradation, animal production, and food waste, Amanda Little then addresses each one further. From genetic tampering to increase yield and the cloning of cattle, the author moves on to more radical ideas: farmscrapers, eating insects, artificially printed meat, and more. Along the way we meet the great minds and mavericks that are looking to solve the problem of feeding more people in a changed environment.
This is a thought-provoking snapshot of the cutting edge of science, and a deep dive into the pragmatic processes that we may all rely on.
Buy it here.
The Enchantment of the Long-haired Rat: Rodent History of Australia
by Tim Bonyhady
You might guess from the title that this is a loving book about odd pets, but you’d be wrong. This is a history of the ‘plague rat’ in Australia. This beastie ran riot in rural colonial areas, eating crops, supplies, and even boots. At the same time, it became a viable food source for indigenous people who feasted happily upon them.
Environmental and cultural historian Professor Tim Bonyhady tells the story of this much maligned mammal and how its booming plague changed our society over the centuries. Now listed as a ‘vulnerable’ species, the long-haired rat actually manages to be enchanting once you get more acquainted with it, coming across as quite an intriguing character. There is a bounty of surprises in this book, much humour and wonder, and there’s even a cameo appearance of the doomed Burke and Wills. Nevertheless, the sweep of years within a changing environment brings climate change and ecosystem into sharp central focus, making this a landmark book in natural history!
Buy it here.