Back in March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic first swept around the world, I reviewed David Quammen’s 2012 book Spillover for background reading. It looked at the risk of zoonosis: the spilling over of an infectious disease from animal into human populations. Quammen warned, and gave voice to many others who similarly warned, that the next big disease outbreak might very well be viral, in particular RNA viruses such as coronaviruses. Other authors quickly wrote books within the first year of the pandemic (I reviewed some of them), but not yet Quammen: “early in 2021 I decided to keep quiet for a while and listen” (p. 282). Finally, in October 2022, his book Breathless provided us with his insights into COVID-19 and the virus SARS-CoV-2.
8-minute read keywords: ethology, popular science, sensory biology
Imagine you are a Pulitzer Prize–winning science journalist for your reporting on the pandemic for The Atlantic. What do you do in your downtime? How about cranking out a New York Times bestseller? An Immense World is a multisensory exploration of the many ways in which animals perceive their environment. Some of these senses are familiar to us, others are utterly alien, all of them reveal that the world humans perceive through their senses is only a slice of a much larger world.
This year will probably go down in history as the one we would all rather forget. Fortunately, there were many amazing books being published to take your mind off things for a moment. As I expected, this was a somewhat less productive year, where I read and reviewed 74 books.
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 2020.
One objection sometimes raised against the search for extraterrestrial life is that our planet is rich with bizarre life forms that we still poorly understand. As a biologist, you are usually so close to the subject that you sometimes forget just how otherwordly our home planet can be. With his beautifully written book Entangled Life, biologist Merlin Sheldrake shook me out of that daze by offering a truly mind-opening book on fungi. Excitingly, he does so without floating off into speculative or esoteric territory.
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.
I thought I knew of the horrors to be found on the open ocean.
I was wrong.
New York Times investigative reporter Ian Urbina has spent five years, three of which at sea, documenting the stories told here. What began as an award-winning series of articles has now been turned into a book by the same name: The Outlaw Ocean. In turns nail-biting and gut-wrenching, this brutal reportage shows the open ocean to be a dystopian place of crime and exploitation that is hiding in plain sight.
Checking the weather forecast is like flushing your toilet. A banal activity we all engage in a few times a day. But does anyone of us really know what goes into making it? Andrew Blum is fascinated by infrastructures. His previous book Tubes explored the physical infrastructure that keeps the internet running. Here he delves into the infrastructure that enables weather predictions. Most of us might have an inkling it involves satellites and computer models, but that does not begin to describe the globe-spanning collaborative network that hides under the bonnet.
Origins asks one question: how did the Earth make us? More accurately, like a six-year-old whose curiosity cannot be sated, there lies a series of recursive “why” questions at the heart of this book. Astrobiologist and science communicator Lewis Dartnell takes a big history look at human evolution and especially civilization, seeing how far down the explanatory rabbit hole he can go. Time and again, he grounds his answers in geology and geography. You would be forgiven for thinking this sounds like what Jared Diamond attempted more than two decades ago, but calling it Diamond-redux would not do it justice.
If you follow science news, chances are you will have heard of CRISPR as a promising new way to modify DNA. It has been hailed as a breakthrough discovery. I knew little about it, and seeing that this book is written by one of the co-inventors, it seemed like a good place to start reading about it.