This list was first published by Booklist on March 1, 2022.
The past several years have delivered one of the most exciting periods of scientific discovery in the modern era. New technologies have fostered fresh revelations that upended old understandings. Biology, evolution, psychology, sociology, cosmology, climatology: all these fields and more are expanding in fascinating and compelling directions. These past years have also seen a proliferation of science books written for popular audiences. This is a wonderful time to dive in and learn!
Climate Chaos: Lessons on Survival from Our Ancestors. By Brian Fagan and Nadia Durrani. 2021. PublicAffairs, $30 (9781541750876).
Paleoclimatology—our ability to discern ancient climate conditions by examining physical traces left behind—has expanded our understanding of Earth’s climate both into deep time and with greater detail. This is a compelling exploration of how climate change has influenced the history of human beings from our expansion across the globe to the rise and fall of empires, with an eye toward learning how past adaptation strategies might help us cope with climate change today.
The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us.By Richard O. Prum. 2018. Anchor, $17 (9780345804570).
Darwin originally proposed two mechanisms by which evolution operates: natural selection and sexual selection. However, virtually all of our subsequent understanding of evolution has focused exclusively on natural selection. Prum revisits the idea of sexual selection and offers a passionate argument that it must be independent from—but just as important as—natural selection.
First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human. By Jeremy DeSilva. 2021. Harper, $27.99 (9780062938497).
Few other areas of research have experienced as much upheaval recently as paleoarchaeology. New discoveries have vastly complicated our understanding of human evolution and our spread across the planet. DeSilva offers a one-stop summary of our current best knowledge in the field.
The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. By Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach. 2017. Riverhead, $17 (9780399184369).
A provocative assessment of how the human mind actually understands the world around us. Spoiler alert: Individual understanding is less effective than collective knowledge. Knowledge is communal and social: we know more as a group than any one person can know. This perspective has important ramifications for everything from our educational systems to social media to politics.
Life Is Simple: How Occam’s Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe. By Johnjoe McFadden. 2021. Basic, $32 (9781541620445).
Occam’s Razor—”Do not multiply entities beyond necessity”—is more than just an oft-quoted rule-of-thumb. It formulated a revolutionary new way to understand the medieval world and helped spark the scientific revolution. This is a fascinating reassessment of the historical context behind this axiom and how it continues to prove its value to science.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World. By Stephen Brusatte. 2018. Morrow, $18.99 (9780062490438).
Incorporating the newest discoveries and cutting-edge theories, this work is a wonderful introduction to what we currently know about the evolution and near-extinction of the dinosaurs. Perhaps most impressive is Brusatte’s play-by-play of the Chicxulub impact, which wiped out most of life on Earth.
Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World’s Most Successful Insects. By Jonathan Balcombe.
The order Diptera—which includes flies, mites, and mosquitoes—tends to be derided as including annoying pests of little value. Balcombe begs to differ: these two-wing insects are major players in a wide range of complex ecologies, with significant benefits for environmental health. They also help unlock a deeper understanding of life itself.
Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in An Evolving Universe. By Brian Greene. 2020. Knopf, $17.95 (9780525432173).
Greene has been one of the leading lights in cosmology for the past two decades. In this meditative work, he explores various theories about the origin, evolution, and possible end of the universe, with an eye toward the rise of human consciousness, searching for the meaning of life, and our place in existence.
Where Did the Universe Come From? and Other Cosmic Questions: Our Universe, from the Quantum to the Cosmos. By Chris Ferrie and Geraint F. Lewis. 2021. Sourcebooks, $17.99 (9781728238814).
Two leading physicists discuss the current state of our understanding of how the universe came to be, how it operates, and where it’s going. Of particular value is the exploration of the intersections and contradictions of the major components of the Standard Model: quantum mechanics and Einsteinian relativity.
John Keogh is a library manager, a life-long library lover, and a Booklist reviewer who grew up to be a scientist in another life.