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Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee
McPhee was first drawn to geology by his love of the land, but he found himself captivated as well by the personalities of the scientists he befriended. Ultimately, this master of pristine creative nonfiction filled four books chronicling his geological journeys across North America, books now legendary for rendering a technical discipline alluring enough for even the most science-phobic of readers to revel in: Basin and Range (1981), In Suspect Terrain (1983), Rising from the Plains (1986), and Assembling California (1993). In this now classic volume, McPhee updated those outstanding works and added Crossing the Craton to create an unforgettable portrait of the continent.
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach
Roach is bold, whipsmart, imaginative, and hilarious. She also has a gift for choosing delectably intriguing and alarming subjects: cadavers in Stiff (2003), ghosts in Spook (2005), our digestive system in her most recent, Gulp (2013), and here, sex. Roach explores sexuality from myriad perspectives and even gamely jumps in as a research subject, which results in some uniquely intimate and revealing science writing.
Dawn Light: Dancing with Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day, by Diane Ackerman
As distinctive a stylist as John McPhee, albeit more exuberantly poetic, Ackerman contemplates the many faces of dawn, “always a rebirth, a fresh start,” by way of her inimitable mesh of science and art. Birds of all kinds get top billing, but here, too, are spiders and honeybees, milkweed and lotuses. Ackerman also writes of our dawn rituals and divinities and two artists inspired by “dawn’s half-open doorway between dream and wakefulness”: Japanese painter and printmaker Hokusai and impressionist Monet.
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, by Bill McKibben
McKibben postulates that because today’s planet is so much hotter, stormier, and more chaotic with droughts, increased wildfires, floods, vanishing ice, dying forests, encroaching deserts, and acid oceans, it merits a new name: “Eaarth.” Although his meticulous chronicling of the current “cascading effects” of climate change is alarming, it isn’t utterly devastating. That’s because McKibben reports with equal thoroughness on the innovations of proactive individuals and groups seeking to convince us of the benefits of giving up fossil fuels.
The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, by Brian Greene
Best-selling theoretical physicist and writer Greene explains with exceptional clarity the multiverse concept. Puzzling over gravity, the wave function of electrons, and values of physical constants, physicists have devised daughter universes budding off our own or hovering nearby in higher dimensions postulated by string theory. Greene’s elucidation encourages readers to ponder these astonishing mind-benders.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen
In his finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, exemplary science writer Quammen schools us in the fascinating—and terrifying—facts about animal infections that sicken humans, such as rabies, Ebola, influenza, West Nile, SARS, and AIDS. Quammen profiles brave and stubborn viral sleuths and recounts his own hair-raising field adventures, including helping capture large fruit bats in Bangladesh. Along the way, Quammen explains how devilishly difficult it is to trace the origins of zoonotic diseases and reveals the hidden processes by which pathogens “spill over” from their respective reservoir hosts (water fowl, mosquitoes, pigs, bats, monkeys) and infect humans. An essential tour de force.
The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World, by Carl Safina
MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow Safina illuminates the wondrous intricacy and interconnectedness of life in his account of his travels to places where the impact of climate change and environmental abuse is starkly evident. Safina’s exacting descriptions of coral reefs and polar bears, of the acidification of the oceans, and of melting glaciers are matched by bold observations regarding the consequences of our failure to grasp how nature actually works.
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, by Terry Tempest Williams
In Refuge (1991), ecologist Williams wrote about losing her mother to cancer, and of the realization that her family’s high incidence of the disease was traceable to their being atomic-bomb-test “downwinders.” At 54, Williams continues to grapple with her mother’s death at age 54 in a meditative memoir in 54 parts, each an inquiry venturing into the lives of birds and various environmentalists, including conservationist Mardy Murie and Green Belt Movement leader Wangari Maathai. Williams is transcendent in her piercing, musical, elegiac, and loving reflections on women’s lives and wilderness, light and shadow, words expressed and words unspoken.
The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, by Richard Preston
Writing with clarity and drama, Preston profiles champions of the world’s tallest trees, the redwoods, “the blue whales of the plant kingdom.” Botanist Steve Sillett developed acrobatic techniques for reaching the crowns of redwoods more than 300 feet tall. There he discovered an unknown world—the teeming temperate forest canopy—which Preston describes as “coral reefs in the air.” Maverick Michael Taylor has discovered redwood giants in nearly impenetrable wilderness areas. So important are his finds that the locations of these redwood groves, some 3,000 years old, are kept secret. Preston himself learned how to climb these giants to assist in gravity-defying studies. Preston’s hands-on perspective, suspenseful chronicling of redwood adventures, and glorious descriptions of the tall trees’ splendor and ecological significance make for a transfixing read.
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