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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The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life
By Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot (Gotham)
Drawing on examples from popular news outlets, Blastland and Dilnot’s short, punchy book carefully unravels the ways in which statistics are distorted and misrepresented — often unintentionally — in media coverage of important and controversial issues. The book is a necessary companion for anyone looking to make sense of the percentages, probabilities, averages, and large dollar amounts making headlines on any given day. As the authors explain, “if we are the least bit serious about any of these issues, we should attempt to get the numbers straight.” Buy

On the Surface of Things: Images of the Extraordinary in Science
By Felice Frankel and George M. Whitesides (Harvard University Press)
In the ten years since Frankel and Whitesides created a stunning new way to envision science, Frankel’s images have appeared in over 300 journals. In this reissue, the authors include several new images and fresh digital scans of the old. Yet, they write, the spirit of the original remains. “We chose the subject — surfaces, and the light that illuminates them — because they are important in the two great technologies — information and biology — that are now remaking the world.”  Buy

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
By Dan Ariely (Harper)
Any economic model based on perfect human rationality is undoubtedly flawed. But that doesn’t mean people behave unpredictably. In this exuberant book, behavioral economist Dan Ariely contends that our irrational behavior is wholly consistent, and that we can learn to capitalize on it. Ariely backs up each claim with examples from his own inventive research — subjects include unwitting MIT students and unsuspecting trick-or-treaters — forming an argument as charmingly anecdotal as it is convincing.  Buy

Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food
By Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak (Oxford University Press)
Genetically-engineered versus organically-grown. It’s a choice often framed as being between science and nature, but it’s a false one, says this wife-husband team. In a literal marriage of two entrenched camps, Ronald, a plant genomics researcher at UC Davis, and Adamchak, an organic gardener, shed light on the unfounded fears of gene modification and the merits a more-holistic approach to agriculture. Recipes include “Sticky Rice with GE Papaya” and “Isolation of DNA from Organically- Grown Strawberries.”  Buy

The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA
By Mark Schultz, Illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon (Hill and Wang)
With the graphic novel gaining status as a form of serious storytelling, The Stuff of Life makes a case for the graphic-novel textbook. A sentient alien sea sponge professor makes the case for sexual reproduction (and thus genetic diversity) to the leader of its species, and in the process, explains the basics of molecular biology, Mendelian inheritance, and evolution. The illustrations are simultaneously cute and explanatory, and the text’s oversimplifications and techno-utopianism are justified for a cartoon treatment of one of most complex stories in science. Check out a Stuff of Life animated lesson here. Buy

The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strageness of Insect Societies
By Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson (W.W. Norton)
In this sequel to their 1990 Pulitzer-winning The Ants, the authors focus on new research demonstrating that in social insects (bees, termites, wasps, and ants), natural selection works not on individual members but on the colony as a unit. These “superorganisms,” according to Hölldobler and Wilson, occupy a distinct — and overlooked — biological niche halfway between an organism and entire species. Sure to rekindle the group-selection debate, this magnum opus on six-legged societies offers a provocative twist to the evolution of complex behavior. Buy

The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature
By Daniel J. Levitin (Dutton)
Following up on his bestselling This is Your Brain on Music, musician and cognitive scientist Levitin argues that we evolved to produce and consume music for six reasons: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. Drawing on personal anecdotes, conversations with greats such as Sting and Joni Mitchell, and his own knowledge of evolutionary history, Levitin creates a rich account of how music has allowed humans to thrive even when faced with war, loss, and dwindling romance.  Buy


Originally published December 23, 2008

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