Science: Reach for the stars...or you could just settle for Dr Cox
Books Of The Year
Sunday 11 December 2011
Popular science books range from complex theoretical texts to glossy coffee table tomes, but it's unusual to have an example from each end of the spectrum contributed by the same author.
Brian Cox is the country's highest profile scientist thanks to his television appearances, but any novices coming to The Quantum Universe (Allen Lane, £20), co-written with Jeff Forshaw, are in for potential brain freeze. It's a well written account of contemporary quantum theory, but even without lots of explicit maths it's uncompromisingly highbrow and if you're looking to give it as a present, make sure that the recipient has some knowledge of modern physics already.
A more mainstream gift would be Cox's other book, Wonders of the Universe (Collins, £20), co-written with Andrew Cohen. A tie-in to his television series, it's a big, shiny hardback made with the same high production values; sumptuous, cinematic in scope, and often mind-blowing. Covering astronomy and cosmology, it works as both a companion to the series and as a good stand-alone introduction to its subject matter.
Even better looking is The Magic of Reality (Bantam, £20) written by Richard Dawkins and illustrated by Dave McKean. Here, Dawkins takes time out from bothering religious types to do what he does best: writing lucidly and enthusiastically about science. The book is primarily aimed at teenagers, but plenty of adults will get a kick out of it too, as Dawkins asks, and then answers, big questions such as "What are things made of?" and "Why do bad things happen?". McKean's drawings bring the text to life brilliantly, and while the chapter on evolution – inevitably given his background – is the best, Dawkins writes convincingly about everything from chemistry to statistics.
Consensus these days is that earth and humanity are heading for hell in a handcart, but two of this year's finer books argue otherwise. The first is Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature (Allen Lane, £30), subtitled "The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes". It's a whopping 700-page hardback but worth diving into, not least because Pinker is one of our deepest thinkers yet is able to tackle complex ideas clearly and with precision. Backed by lots of statistical evidence, Pinker argues that, contrary to what you might think while watching the news, humanity is enjoying the most peaceful and benign period in its history, and he delves into why that might be and what it says about our evolving psychology. Eye-opening in terms of research and analysis, it's another quality offering from a great science writer.
Taking a more holistic approach is Tim Flannery in Here on Earth (Allen Lane, £14.99). Flannery is a highly acclaimed ecological scientist and his book is billed as a dual biography of our planet and our species. It's a neat idea that allows Flannery to put humanity's struggles through the ages into perspective, as well as suggest a way forward. Taking in everything from geology and genetics to pollution and climate change, it's fascinating and informative in equal measure.
From a biography of the Earth and humanity to "A Biography of Cancer", which is the subtitle of Siddhartha Mukherjee's Pulitzer-winning The Emperor of All Maladies (Fourth Estate, £9.99). Written more like a thriller than a science book, it's a brilliant and moving examination of one of the world's big killers. Drawing on a lifetime's experience as a doctor and cancer researcher, the author places our ongoing battle against the disease in historical context, as well as driving home the personal pain and tragedy it can cause.
And finally, a wee stocking filler in the shape of Mary Roach's Packing for Mars (Oneworld, £8.99). Packed with juicy informative nuggets, it's a look at the more logistical side of space travel, from toilet etiquette to full crash tests with human cadavers. Weird, wonderful and very funny.
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