For three reasons, fans of science are living in an exhilarating time. First, as the general media reports every day, science has never been more busily deciphering the universe around us, from hurricane patterns to interstellar physics to bioterrorism agents. Second, fortunately for nonscientists the majority of humanity some of the most intelligent and stylish writers of our time devote themselves to explaining how science works. And third, thanks to computers and other technological advances, and also to the sheer sophistication of graphic design, nonfiction books have never been more beautiful. Three new volumes prove this point.
Because science is such a big-picture field, even the most narrowly focused of the three books turns out to be about huge, world-changing actions. Technology is applied science observed principles made to serve us in our endless tinkering with the world. Our mastery of it is almost the very definition of Homo sapiens. In a handsome new book, James Tobin looks at Great Projects: The Epic Story of the Building of America, from the Taming of the Mississippi to the Invention of the Internet. Although the book focuses primarily on our own country, the issues discussed affect everyone on the planet. Tobin cleverly tells the fascinating stories behind huge modern issues such as how to hoard and transport (and protect yourself from) water; the invention and spread of electricity; the metropolitan dependence upon bridges and subways; and even, as the subtitle declares, the creation of a revolutionary means of connecting and transporting information. The stories are epic, but Tobin keeps them human and fascinating.
Next in our survey is a book that addresses the most exciting question in science: Why are we the way we are? Recently PBS aired a fine new documentary series on evolution. Carl Zimmer's companion book, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, is fully worthy of the TV series. A columnist for Natural History and author of several science books, Zimmer writes clearly and enthusiastically about this largest and most important of all topics in biology. Naturally he tells the requisite (and still wonderful) stories of Darwin's Beagle voyage and Mendel's quiet experiments in genetics. He also addresses many important issues, from the origins of sex and especially of human sexuality to the co-evolution of plants and animals. Zimmer writes beautifully about the ongoing evolution all around us for example, of bacteria resistant to antibiotics and of insects that scoff at pesticides. AIDS, a disease unknown two decades ago, already infects 36 million people worldwide; it is difficult to treat because the virus causing it evolves so quickly. Evolution is the cornerstone of biology and ecology, and it deserves fine books such as this one.
What's the only topic in the world more comprehensive than biology? Physics. Physical laws underlie every substance and every action in the universe. It takes powerful minds to delve into such basic mysteries, and apparently, there are few brains with more horsepower than Stephen Hawking's. The author of A Brief History of Time hasn't been wasting his time in the 13 years since his surprise bestseller. His new book is The Universe in a Nutshell. It would be an understatement to say it's wide-ranging. In his quest for what commentators can't resist calling "the big TOE" a Theory of Everything Hawking looks at new discoveries made since Brief History. He includes such challenging topics as time travel, the reconciliation of Einsteinian relativity and quantum theory, and even the frightening possibilities in the inevitable co-evolution of biological and technological life. And yet the book is fun and accessible. Like James Tobin and Carl Zimmer, Stephen Hawking makes us forget how arcane these topics seem without such good explainers.
Michael Sims' next book will be Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Body, from Viking.