Seed Picks 2008

Seed Picks

Seed selects the year's outstanding book releases, from Mary Roach's sex book, Bonk, to E.O. Wilson's ant colony opus, The Superorganism.

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Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique
By Michael S. Gazzaniga (Ecco)
We take for granted the uniqueness of the homo sapien. In Human, neuroscientist Gazzaniga both complicates and clarifies this view, examining topics from empathy to transhumanism through the lens of human distinctiveness. Using primate research as a foil for the newest advances in human cognitive neurosciences, such as work identifying six commonalities between human and chimp art, he makes an eloquent case both for the sophistication of our nearest relatives and for the biological singularity of humanity. Buy

Icarus at the Edge of Time
By Brian Greene (Knopf Publishing Group)
Time’s strangeness, with its brutal indifference, lies at the center of Brian Greene’s Icarus at the Edge of Time, in this, his first book for children. It is a moving and successful fiction, but as important, Greene offers a solution to one of the perennial questions of his trade: What attracts a popular audience to science in general, and in particular to the difficult abstractions of modern physics?  Read the full review. Buy

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
By Michael Pollan (Penguin Press)
Pollan’s last book,  Omnivore’s Dilemma, sparked a nationwide conversation about the environmental and ethical consequences of what Americans eat. Here, he returns with a surprisingly simple prescription: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Charting the rise of so-called “nutritionism” — a reductionist ideology, not a science — he reveals how Americans have gotten fatter and unhealthier despite being the most food-obsessed culture in the world. After digesting this compact manifesto, you may never want to read the Nutrition “Facts” again.  Buy

The Invention of Air: A Study of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America
By Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books)
Natural philosopher Joseph Priestley’s insatiable curiosity led to his discovery of oxygen, as well as to his flight from Britain after a mob burned down his house and his Unitarian church. Johnson takes frequent side trips into how scientific insight changed the politics and religion of Priestley’s day and meditates on why science, faith, and politics should not be considered in isolation from one another. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams were all huge fans of Priestley’s relentless enthusiasm and his reasoned approach to religion — begging the question of whether politicians today could find scientists, and science, so compelling. Buy

Jetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (But Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was
By Mac Montandon (Da Capo Press)
From Bell Labs to Boba Fett, the jetpack has long been a holy grail of geekdom. Journalist Mac Montandon chases down this futuristic flying machine and introduces us to the motley crew of garage-based tinkerers devoted to keeping the dream aloft. While scientific reality may write the jetpack’s obituary, Montandon delivers a fine ode to what makes a lot of us fall in love with science in the first place: a future where the impossible is possible. Buy

The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces
By Frank Wilczek (Basic Books)
The Lightness of Being is a detailed account of the physics governing our universe, from minuscule quarks to massive dark matter. Wilczek delves into the origin of mass, the nature of gravity, and the potential for a unification of forces. With a command of both concept and language that few can rival, he weaves witty commentary into eloquent explanations. Heavy on physics but light on math, this book offers an accessible though sophisticated look at the central ideas of modern physics. Buy

The Living Cosmos: Our Search for Life in the Universe
By Chris Impey (Random House)
Existential musings never go out of style: What are we? What is our origin and our fate? Are we alone? These questions are timeless, but with the advent of astrobiology — the study of life in the universe — we have begun to better understand ourselves empirically within a cosmic context.  The Living Cosmos delivers a thorough introduction to this exciting field, masterfully surveying the foundations of our knowledge and the limits of our imaginations. Buy

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
By Simon Winchester (Harper)
Until recent decades Westerners were blissfully unaware that China, not Europe, was the civilization behind scores of history’s great inventions, from gunpowder to mechanical printing and the magnetic compass. It was in the 1950s that perceptions began changing, largely due to the work of one distinctive figure: Joseph Needham, an English biologist, diplomat, explorer, libertine, and, not least, historian of science. Now he is the focus of Simon Winchester’s revealing biography. Read the full review.

Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life
By Carl Zimmer (Pantheon)
For a single-celled organism,  Escherichia coli lives a surprisingly complex life. In Microcosm, Carl Zimmer delves into the microbe’s unique universe, highlighting the species’ role in groundbreaking experiments that laid the foundations of modern biology. From the discovery of bacterial sex to genetic engineering,  E. coli has provided answers that have reshaped our very definitions of life. Zimmer succeeds in engendering a healthy respect for the bug that lives inside us all. Buy

Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them
By David Anderegg (Tarcher)
Are you a nerd? According to David Anderegg, we should all be so lucky. Deftly weaving sociological research with anecdotes from his own practice as a child psychologist, Anderegg documents the charming innocence, unselfconsciousness, and passionate interests of the much-maligned “nerd.” The book provides an enlightening and highly entertaining look at a world that both shuns nerds and desperately needs more of them.  Buy

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