A selection of the year’s best books for the science enthusiasts on your list, whether they are Manhattan naturalists, Scientific Revolution buffs, or lovers of microbial manga.

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Boyle: Between God and Science
By Michael Hunter (Yale University Press)

Of all the giants of the Scientific Revolution, few can rival the stature of Robert Boyle, the legendary experimenter who developed the basis of modern chemistry. But Boyle was also a deeply pious man who turned down a bishopric in order to pursue science, as we learn in the first biography of Boyle in 40 years. A triumph of historical research, this detail-packed, immersive account of Boyle’s life from cradle to grave features a fascinating table of his whereabouts and an index you can sink your teeth into (under “Boyle, Robert”: conscience, diet, investments, raving, mineral collection, secrecy, stutter). As intricately woven as a tapestry, the biography imparts the excitement of an era when science was very new, when accomplishing an experiment was, in Boyle’s words, “a kind of Elizium.”

A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age
By João Magueijo (Basic Books)

Ettore Majorana was a brilliant physicist—so exceptional, in fact, that his biographer João Magueijo contends that he should be awarded the Nobel Prize for predicting the behavior of the neutrino in 1937. Nobels, of course, cannot be awarded posthumously. But as Magueijo points out, we have no idea whether or not Majorana is alive. On March 26, 1938, the Italian physicist disappeared with his passport and $70,000 in hand, leaving behind a series of bizarre suicide notes. He boarded a ferry, apparently to drown himself, but the next day, he wrote a friend, “The sea has rejected me…tomorrow I’ll return.” He was never heard from again. A Brilliant Darkness excavates Majorana’s troubled life, explaining his contributions to physics and uncovering new clues about his peculiar disappearance more than 70 years ago.

NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children
By Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (Twelve)

Why don’t white parents talk about race? Why does praise produce underachievers? This blockbuster draws on years of psychological research to discuss how common knowledge about raising children does the opposite of what we expect. In 10 enthralling essays on topics such as how childhood sleep deprivation influences memory and why kids don’t outgrow lying, it manages to debunk tried-and-true parenting tenets as well as broach the bizarre world of childhood ethics: One study found that children thought that lying was the same as swearing, believing it to be an essentially harmless breach of etiquette rather than a possibly harmful moral transgression. But you don’t need kids to fall under the book’s spell. Combining the fascination of pop psych with rigorous application of science, NurtureShock is more people manual than parenting manual.

Moyasimon 1: Tales of Agriculture
By Masayuki Ishikawa (Del Rey)

The popular Japanese manga series Moyasimon has finally hit the US, as the stars and stripes on the cover announce. But look closer: The stars are actually anthropomorphized koji mold spores, which are used in the brewing of sake and to advance the plot of this pleasantly eccentric series. A cross between a boarding school adventure and a microbiology lecture, Moyasimon follows freshman agriculture student Tadayasu Sawaki, a human electron microscope who can see and identify all manner of microbes with the naked eye. With detours into geoengineering and the history of fermentation in world cuisine, Tales of Agriculture makes for an easy entry to both the world of manga and the lower branches of the tree of life. 

Nature’s Patterns: a Tapestry in Three Parts
(Shapes, Flow, Branches)

By Philip Ball (Oxford University Press)
Leonardo da Vinci famously studied lines, curves, and movement in nature to produce his timeless masterpieces. In these three books, veteran science writer Philip Ball explores the scientific basis of patterns, in effect rendering a fascinating verbal portrait of nature’s instabilities and constancies, its order and its disorder. The first, Shapes, surveys forms in the physical world—from patches of plankton, to honeycomb lattices, to the latitudinal bands in fruit fly embryos. The twisting and swirling of fluids, air, or objects—whether they be smoke, sand, or swarms of pedestrians on a crowded street—are explored in the second book, Flow. Finally, Branches revels in the complexity of webs and networks inherent in nature. Together, these books provide a window into all that’s fascinating in nature, skimming from pattern to pattern in prose and history, shedding light on the physical and chemical forces behind nature’s tapestry without losing readers in the math.

Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate
By Stephen H. Schneider (National Geographic)

Judging by the number of global warming books published since An Inconvenient Truth, you’d think climate change was discovered at the turn of the century. Scientists, of course, have been tracking greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere for much longer, and in Science as a Contact Sport, that history unfolds through the eyes of an insider. Physicist Stephen Schneider—whose credentials now include a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, a joint Nobel Peace Prize, and stints as advisor to six presidents—recounts the early days of climate modeling, when data analyses on mainframe computers involved stacks of punch cards. He recalls testifying before countless skeptical legislative committees and the decades of political infighting—and muzzling of scientists—that ensued. Sharply critical and yet edged with humility and wit, Schneider’s book is a must for anyone curious about what happened in the 30-year gap between scientists’ detection of a warming world and our newfound climate conscience.

Release date: Dec. 22
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This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape the Future
Edited by John Brockman (Harper Perennial)

The latest prophetic collection from John Brockman of Edge.org invites scores of the world’s most brilliant thinkers, including Richard Dawkins, Lisa Randall, and Brian Eno, to predict what game-changing events will occur in their lifetimes. Their speculations run the existential gamut, as some predict deliberate nuclear disaster or accidental climatic apocalypse and others foresee eternal life, unlimited prosperity, and boundless happiness. Between such extremes of heaven and hell lie more ambiguous visions: An end to forgetting, the creation of intelligent machines, and cosmetic brain surgery, to name a few. Pouring over these pages is like attending a dinner party where every guest is brilliant and captivating and only wants to speak with you—overwhelming, but an experience to savor.

The Animal Series
Series Editor: Jonathan Burt (Reaktion Books)

From the owl’s changing role in mythology to the various uses and abuses we’ve found for elephants in the past 5,000 years, The Animal Series explores the many ways in which sharks, ants, moose, and 33 other animals have influenced how we think, live, and understand the natural world. In Snail, we learn that the thriller author Patricia Highsmith carried pet snails in her purse and hid them under her breasts while traveling. And we discover in Eel that the slippery freshwater fish was so in demand in medieval London that thousands upon thousands of pounds had to be imported from Holland. Each of the 36 compact books in this series, released every few months since 2004, is satisfyingly bound and packed with colorful photos and lucid prose, a perfect gift for anyone who is curious about Dali’s obsession with rhinos or the fairy tale history of the swan.

Release date: Dec. 22
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The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe
By Theodore Gray (Black Dog & Leventhal)

Theodore Gray, co-founder of the software company Wolfram Research, loves elements. A lot. So much, in fact, that over the years he’s created several tributes to elements, including high-quality glossy posters, playing cards, and placemats. Gray even built a massive wooden replica of the periodic table to house his rare (sometimes dangerous) elemental samples. All these, however, pale in comparison to his latest project, a visual feast featuring lush photographs of all 118 elements in their purest possible forms. Who knew that oxygen, when chilled, becomes a light blue liquid, or that promethium glows with a sea-green luminosity? But it’s not just eye-candy: Each entry also discusses an element’s practical applications, its sources and history, as well as its vital physical characteristics. Gray’s romp through the material universe is so vivid, his enthusiasm so infectious, that readers may reach ununoctium and discover they love elements, too.

Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City
By Eric W. Sanderson (Abrams)

Four hundred years ago, when Henry Hudson came upon a hilly island at the mouth of a massive river, he and his crew of gold-hungry Dutchmen aboard the Halve Maen had no way of knowing the significance of the moment: This verdant patch of land, teeming with wolves, black bears, and trout would eventually become one of the greatest metropolises in the world. Through painstakingly detailed visualizations, historical maps, and colorful prose, landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson recreates the forgotten natural beauty of a tiny island radically transformed by hundreds of years of civilization.

Originally published December 1, 2009


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