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The best of the year

On science: Best books of the year

When people ask for book recommendations I say this: Do some math. If you read one book every week for the rest of your life, and if you’re lucky enough to live for 50 more years, you’re only going to get to 2,600 books. When you consider that the Boston Public Library’s collection is counted in the millions, or that hundreds of thousands of books are published every year, 2,600 sounds pretty meager. So be careful. Don’t finish something you don’t love. Herewith: my super-idiosyncratic best science-y titles of 2011. Use as inspiration.

“Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science’’ by Michael Nielsen (Princeton University)


The lone white-coated scientist working late, eye pressed to the eyepiece? That trope is no more. Nowadays impressive science (in mathematics, genetics, astronomy) is being accomplished by crowds using the tools of the Internet. Nielsen believes that mass collaboration is the future of science, and his book may be the most interesting piece of nonfiction I read this year.

“The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood’’ by James Gleick (Pantheon)

Gleick surveys the various technologies humans have used through the centuries to transmit information, from long-distance communications sent by drums along the Niger River to the boundless entanglements of Wikipedia. “The Information’’ is lyrical, patient, impeccably researched, and jammed with interesting - um, well - information.

“Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain’’ by David Eagleman. (Pantheon)

Here’s neurological support for Freud’s belief in the power of the unconscious. “Incognito’’ is popular science at its best; these may not all be original observations, but they’re beautifully synthesized. In Eagleman’s words, “the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.’’

“Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis’’ by Cynthia Barnett (Beacon)

We Americans are churning through fresh water at an alarming and unsustainable rate. Barnett offers an evenhanded plea for a new water ethic, something that will “help Americans see that our future ecological - and economic - prosperity depends on how well we take care of the water flowing under our feet, down our rivers, and through our wetlands.’’


“For the Love of Physics: From the End of the Rainbow to the Edge of Time - A Journey through the Wonders of Physics’’ by Walter Lewin, with Warren Goldstein (Free Press)

Why can’t we snorkel with snorkels longer than a couple of feet? Why is a rainbow an arc and not a straight line? Retired MIT physics professor and YouTube sensation Walter Lewin delivers a charming and readable jaunt through elementary physics.

“The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos’’ by Brian Greene (Knopf)

Greene makes cutting-edge theoretical cosmology something a plucky and well-rested reader can apprehend; he remains one of our best living intermediaries between the sparkling, absolute-zero world of mathematics and the warm, clumsy world of human language.

“John James Audubon’s Journal of 1826: The Voyage to the Birds of America’’ by John James Audubon (University of Nebraska)

This is the diary of a lovesick, grandiloquent woodsman who travels to England in 1826 to see whether a European publisher will transform his gorgeous and startling paintings of American birds into the greatest art book ever made. It’s a compelling reminder that the stories about how scientific or artistic achievements come to light are usually as interesting as the achievements themselves.


“Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe’’ by Roger Penrose (Knopf)

Penrose, a mathematics icon at Oxford, suggests that the universe endlessly succeeds itself. That is, in the ultra-distant future, our universe will start to look like the universe just before the Big Bang. Space and time, he argues, are continually reborn in endless repetition. The hyper-density of this book made my brain feel simultaneously wiped out and dazzled.

“Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100’’ by Michio Kaku (Doubleday)

Live for another 90 years and you might be able to download movies onto your contact lenses, control stuff with your mind, and visit Neanderthals in a zoo. Physicist Kaku’s prose is often robotic, but the predictions he collates here are absorbing, plausible, and often totally alarming.

“The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive’’ by Brian Christian (Doubleday)

Now that my children regularly ask my iPhone questions like, “What are you wearing?’’ it’s safe to say that concerns about the increasing sophistication of computers are more relevant than ever. Christian’s charming book wonders how close artificial intelligence can get to seeming human, and how we can all be more human humans.

Anthony Doerr, author of the story collection “Memory Wall,’’ can be reached at adoerr@ cableone.net.