Got a memory like a jellyfish? The best science books this Christmas


James Vincent
Sunday 15 December 2013 01:00

The best writing on science and technology always does far more than explain a given subject; it should explain it in such a way that our new knowledge rebounds upon us, helping us not only to better understand the world we live in, but how and why we are living in it.

This year’s selection of writing does all that and more, starting with Charles Fernyhough’s Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory (Profile Books, £9.99), a book that blends scientific exposition and anecdotal evidence to illuminate the difficult and personal concept of memory. Fernyhough invites artists and writers into the text, confirming some of our preconceptions about memory (such as the “first is strongest” principle) while dismantling other stereotypes (such as the notion that false memories are distinct from “real” ones). Although Fernyhough perhaps leans a little too heavily on the memoir aspect of the text, the overall experience is delightful and thought-provoking. Material scientist Mark Miodownik is another writer who looks at his subject matter through the lens of personal experience. In his brisk and engaging Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape our Man-Made World (Viking, £18.99) Miodownik explores the hidden ingenuities of the substances we have created. Unfortunately, his own experience seems to be of the gorily intimate encounter sort. From a 13-centimetre stab wound inflicted with a steel razor to a car crash, Miodownik’s scrapes and bumps bring his subject to life.

Of course, not all scientific writing focuses on the everyday, and in Lisa-ann Gershwin’s eye-opening book Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean (University of Chicago Press, £19.50), the subject matter is distinctly alien. Although the book is unmistakably aimed at academics it’s the jellyfish themselves that make it fascinating. Our overfishing and pollution of the ocean have created perfect conditions for mass jellyfish spawns and now these creatures, unchanged biologically for half a billion years, are staging a potentially deadly comeback.

If you watched the recent BBC special on Amazon’s warehouses and wondered at the ruthless efficiency on display, then Brad Stone’s The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (Bantam Press, £18.99) will answer some questions for you. Stone traces Amazon’s journey from haphazard beginnings to its current $177bn (£107bn) market valuation. At the heart of the story is Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos, who one company exec evaluates as being “bound only by the laws of physics”.

It is Bezos’s drive to “eliminate gatekeepers”, such as the publishing industry, that makes him one of the many targets of Evgeny Morozov’s brilliant To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don’t Exist (Allen Lane, £20). Morozov is the most intellectually thorough adversary of those he derides as “solutionists” and “internet-centrics”, the apostles of big data and transparency. One of Morozov’s worries – that we will simply embrace transparency for its own sake – is taken to its logical conclusion in Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), a satire of the near-future in which an internet company attempts to integrate and publicise all human activity. The effects of reading it are similar to the blending of memoir and science in Pieces of Light, causing us to think twice about the world around us.

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