Books to Read Now

Seed Picks

September releases on the history of language and writing, displaced citizens of virtual worlds, and the need for global resiliency.

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The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom
By Graham Farmelo (Basic Books)

The late 20th century physicist Paul Dirac predicted the existence of antimatter, founded the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and literally wrote the textbook on quantum mechanics, but it was his bizarre and taciturn behavior that made him most memorable to his peers—and most vexing to future scholars. Unlike other titans of physics, whose multiple biographies could fill bookshelves, Dirac’s detailed life story has remained largely untold until now. Farmelo spent five years ferreting out undiscovered documents, interviewing Dirac’s few still-living friends, and visiting the physicist’s hometown of Bristol, and the result is a tour de force filled with insight and revelation. The Strangest Man offers an unprecedented and gripping view of Dirac not only as a scientist, but also as a human being.

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The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth
By Dianne Dumanoski (Crown)

According to Dumanoski and the legions of scientists she sources, the benign climate in which humans evolved and culture arose is highly anomalous. And now that humans have entered the “planetary era” where our actions have undisputable global effects, our disruption of the Earth’s geophysical cycles is bringing this “long summer” to an end. How we adapt in the aftermath may well determine the fate of civilization, perhaps humanity. Successfully telling this story requires marshaling material from disparate fields like planetary science, anthropology, and economics, which Dumanoski achieves with aplomb. But though her storytelling deftly skims across the complex depths of these weighty topics without bogging down in excess detail, her zeal for simplicity sometimes implies certainty where none exists. That minor quibble aside, The End of the Long Summer is a timely and hopeful synopsis of how our civilization arrived at its current precarious position—and what this circumstance means for our future.

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The Math Book: From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension, 250 Milestones in the History of Mathematics
By Clifford A. Pickover (Sterling)

Beginning with the computational power of the 150-million-year-old ant brain, The Math Book presents 250 of history’s most fascinating mathematical findings, theorems, and observations in a handsome, image-filled volume. Pickover, a bona fide polymath who has written more than 40 books, elegantly sums up each mathematical feat (like the discovery of varying sizes of infinity) in a single page. Beyond serving as an entertaining introduction to many strange and surprising ideas—such as how to approximate the irrational number, pi, by dropping a needle onto a sheet of lined paper—the book lets readers glimpse the history and development of mathematics and leaves a sense of awe at just how far the field has come.

Release Date: Sept. 22
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The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
By Richard Dawkins (Free Press)

After sparking global controversy even among atheists with The God Delusion, Cambridge biologist Richard Dawkins takes a more emollient and fact-based approach in dismantling his latest foe, creationist-fostered opposition to modern evolutionary theory. Dawkins clearly hopes that the burden of evidence (he culls from an astounding number of sources) will change minds, eloquently and carefully walking readers through the facts. However, with more than 40 percent of Americans rejecting evolution, the book may best serve to strengthen the position of the already converted.

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On the Death and Life of Language
By Claude Hagege, trans. Jody Gladding (Yale University Press)

Languages are among the most powerful expressions of culture, recording our histories, beliefs, and behaviors, yet more than 25 go extinct each year. These “deaths” need not be permanent, though, if dedicated scholars and willing potential speakers exist, says Hagege, the chair of linguistic theory at the Colle[è]ge de France. Hebrew was resuscitated in the first half of the 20th century, starting with a single family that spoke only Hebrew in the home. Cornish, now up to 1,000 speakers, is a much smaller (but similarly vigorous) success. Hagege’s meticulous, engrossing study of the life, death, and rebirth of tongues is a hopeful reminder that failing languages can be saved.

Release Date: Sept. 15
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The Sibley Guide to Trees
By David Allen Sibley (Random House)

When the Sibley Guide to Birds came out in 2000, it transformed the world of North American birding. The products of more than a dozen years work, David Sibley’s breathtaking and lively paintings are the most comprehensive—not to mention beautiful—depictions of the continent’s avian inhabitants. Now, Sibley has turned his formidable skills to the arboreal life of North America. The new guide has all the hallmarks of his earlier masterpiece—it’s engagingly written, clearly organized, and lush with informative paintings of trees from alder to zelkova—and he achieves a sensitivity that is beyond what cameras could capture.

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