Let me first welcome all my readers to 2020. Casting my gaze back over last year, 2019 was an exceptionally productive year where I managed to read and review 107 books. Although I fully intend to bring you many more book reviews this year, I am not sure whether I will match that output again.
For those who do not feel like trawling through that many reviews, here is my personal top 5 of the most impactful, most beautiful and most thought-provoking books I read during 2019.
This is a travelogue the likes of which you do not find often. It tells of historian David Gange’s audacious journey, kayaking the length of the Atlantic coast of the British Isles over the course of a year. His motivation was to challenge established historical narratives that tend to be land-centric and focused on big cities. Wishing to become a more rounded and responsible historian, he literally immersed himself in a different perspective. The Frayed Atlantic Edge seeks to salvage the histories of coastal and island communities and show they have played a far larger role in British history than they are normally given credit for.
If you do not like the idea of reading a book review of a self-help book written by an author who hates self-help books. Or if you cringe at expletive-laden language. Stop. Seriously, move on. If that is not you – author, thinker and popular blogger Mark Manson is back with another book full of counterintuitive wisdom, razor-sharp observations, and vulgar humour. I imagine most of my readers will have an academic background, or at least value critical, logical thinking and a healthy dose of scepticism. Manson’s writing might just be for you. Why? Because scientists are people too.
Many works of popular science claim to be histories of almost everything or everyone, but earth scientist Robert M. Hazen might actually be in the position to stake that claim. Whether you are talking stellar evolution, the origin of life, organic chemistry, synthetic materials, or hydrocarbon fuels – the multifaceted atom carbon is ubiquitous and pervasive. Symphony in C is a whirlwind tour through geology, biochemistry, and evolutionary biology that is an incredibly absorbing read, although in places it almost comes apart at the seams under the intensity of its enthusiasm.
Beware the virus. If there is one message physician and evolutionary biologist Frank Ryan is hammering home with this book, it is this. Viruses are absolutely everywhere and more numerous even than microbes. So much so that Ryan speaks of the virosphere rather than the biosphere. But more than harbingers of disease, they are also agents of evolutionary invention. Now why does that sound familiar?
After I recently finished Carl Zimmer’s new book She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, I noticed there was one mechanism of heredity he mentioned only ever so briefly: horizontal gene transfer. Since it does not play a large role in humans, it is understandable he left it aside. And doing it justice would have required almost another book. Luckily, science writer David Quammen is here to give us that book.
It should have been a straightforward expedition. As a young career palaeontologist, Nick Pyenson found himself in the Atacama desert of Chile, tasked with mapping rock layers to establish a continuous chronology that would help dating fossils found in the area. Whale fossils, Pyenson’s speciality, are rarely found complete, which is true of most fossils. So what do you do when a colleague takes you to the construction site of a new highway and shows you not one, not several, but literally dozens of complete fossil whale skeletons? It represented a treasure trove for science, but retrieving the material before the highway constructors would move in was also a daunting, labour-intensive task that could make or break careers. I almost found myself standing next to Pyenson in the dusty clearing, the Chilean sun beating down on me as he faced this dilemma. This is just one of several immersive narratives recounted in Spying on Whales, which successfully blends travelogue and popular science.
Every academic discipline has a few, the contrarian naysayers who steadfastly believe their idea is true, even it flies in the face of natural laws and mountains of evidence to the contrary. Physicists have to contend with inventors of perpetual motion machines, astronomers and geographers have to put up with the growing legion of flat-earthers, and palaeontologists are now faced with this. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Brian J. Ford and his amazing aquatic dinosaurs.