Season’s readings in science

Peter Hoey

Looking for a science book to give? We have a whole bushel basket of recommendations, ranging from picture books for kids, to cosmic brain-teasers for grownups.

This is the big season for books — and not only because of the holidays: Lots of year-end book awards are decided at this time of year, including the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. The prizes were established in 2005 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with sponsorship from Subaru, to celebrate outstanding science writing and illustration for children and young adults.

I was honored to find out that my book about the planet debate was nominated in the young-adult category this year. All the nominees were impressive, as you’ll see below. And so, without further ado, here are the winners and other nominees in each of the SB&F (Science Books & Films) categories:

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Young adult science books:

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot is the winner in this category. Skloot’s highly acclaimed book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman with cervical cancer who had a sample of her tumor removed in 1951. Neither she nor her family knew that the sample was used to give rise to the immortal HeLa cell line, the first successful tissue culture. The HeLa cells have played a vital role in a wide range of medical research projects. Skloot focuses on the science and the ethics of the HeLa saga, as well as the personal story of Lacks (who died just months after her diagnosis) and her family. The book is being adapted into a film project for HBO.

Other young-adult finalists include:

“The Case for Pluto,” my little volume about the centuries-old quest to identify and classify planets, with particular attention given to America’s favorite dwarf planet.

“The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of Elements,” by Sam Kean.

“Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discovery, Deductions and Debates,” by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw.

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Children’s science picture books:

“Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge,” by Joanna Cole with illustrations by Bruce Degen, is the winner for picture books. Program manager Heather Malcomson says this is a well-researched and balanced look at “the potentially controversial and polarizing subject of global climate change.” Ms. Friz uses hippos, sunbeam slides and “microscope-goggles” to explain the greenhouse effect, carbon footprints and other complexities of climate science in a way that elementary and secondary-school students will understand. “I wish many adults would read and understand even this much about the science of climate change,” Malcomson said.

Other finalists include:

“Bones: Skeletons and How They Work,” by Steve Jenkins, which uses kid-friendly illustrations based on cut-paper collages to show how skeletons are put together.

“Lizards,” by Nic Bishop, a colorful book that traces the capabilities and peculiarities found among the world’s 5,000 species of lizards.

“Why Do Elephants Need the Sun?” by Robert E. Wells. This tale of an elephant illustrates the interconnectedness of the natural world and reveals the many roles played by our closest star.

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Middle-grade science books:

“The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe,” by Loree Griffin Burns with illustrations by Ellen Harasimowicz, is the winner here. “This beautifully illustrated book describes the organization of an artificial beehive and how beekeepers care for their bees and extract honey from the hives,” Malcomson said. “Much of the text focuses on colony collapse disorder and how a team of scientists is working with beekeepeers to understand the nature and cause of the disease.”

Other finalists include:

“Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot,” by Sy Montgomery with photographs by Nic Bishop. This 80-page book traces efforts to stave off the extinction of the kakapo parrot on a small island off southern New Zealand.

“The Secret of the Yellow Death: A True Story of Medical Sleuthing,” by Suzanne Jurmain, recounts the work of scientists and volunteers from Cuba and the United States to find the cause of yellow fever.

“The Story of Snow: The Science of Winter’s Wonder,” by Mark Cassini with John Nelson, uses drawings, photos and easy-to-understand prose to explain why snowflakes are the way they are.

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Hands-on science books:

“The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science: 50 Experiments for Daring Young Scientists,” by Sean Connolly, is the winner. It’s intended for upper elementary and/or middle-school students. Each of the experiments is rated on a 1-to-5 scale, with 5 being the most potentially hazardous. No scientific apparatus is necessary. One experiment makes use of popping popcorn kernels to illustrate the concept of radioactive half-life. Another experiment lets kids calculate the speed of light by using the published frequency of a microwave oven and the melting of marshmallows. It sounds as if one of the hazards may have to do with all those calories!

Other finalists include:

“Insect Detective,” by Steve Voake with illustrations by Charlotte Voake. The Voake cousins team up to produce an easy-to-read guide to bugs you can find close to home: wasps, ants, solitary bees, moths, caterpillars and the like. Seven activities are laid out for detectives who want to continue their neighborhood sleuthing.

“Nature Science Experiments: What’s Hopping in a Dust Bunny,” by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen with illustrations by Edward Miller. This book outlines the scientific process and delves into topics ranging from the DNA in cheek cells to the hiding places of dust mites.

“You Are the Earth: Know Your World So You Can Help Make It Better,” by David Suzuki and Kathy Vanderlinden. Suzuki is a well-known Canadian environmental activist who teams up with Vanderlinden to outline activities that demonstrate the connections linking cultures and ecosystems.

The prize winners in each category will receive $1,500 and a plaque during the AAAS’ annual meeting in Washington in February. There’ll be other announcements as well: AAAS and Subaru will award $5,000 worth of science books to public schools in the District of Columbia, the Kids’ Choice Award will be revealed, and Subaru will kick off a book donation program.

For more about the SB&F finalists, check out the roundup in this week’s issue of Science.

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More books for grownups:

Even adults will enjoy some of the books listed above (including, ahem, that Pluto book), but here are 10 more suggestions that include prize-winners, personal favorites and books I haven’t yet read but want to:

“The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science” by Richard Holmes. (Winner in 2010 Communication Awards announced by National Academies.)

“Brain Cuttings: Fifteen Journeys Through the Mind,” by Carl Zimmer. This collection of essays traces weird and wonderful experiments in neuroscience — and is something of an experiment itself. It’s available exclusively in e-book formats.

“The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse,” by Jennifer Ouellette with illustrations by Jason Torchinsky.

“The Grand Design,” by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. I’ve already written a couple of postings about this mind-bending book.

“How to Teach Physics to Your Dog,” by Chad Orzel. If my dogs can learn quantum mechanics, maybe I can too. But what was it that Richard Feynman said? “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Arf!

“Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution,” by Nick Lane. (Winner of 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books.)

“Normal at any Cost: Tall Girls, Short Boys and the Medical Industry’s Quest to Manipulate Height,” by Susan Cohen and Christine Cosgrove. (Winner in 2010 NASW Science in Society Awards)

“Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” by Mary Roach. Check out my Q&A with Roach.

“Portraits of the Mind,” by Carl E. Schoonover. This looks like the year’s coolest coffee-table book for science types. Check out the slideshows offered by The New York Times and The Guardian.

“Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception,” by Charles Seife. Even MSNBC comes in for a ding or two in Seife’s examination of mathematical fallacies that have found their way into society’s meme machine.

Are there other recently published science books on your wish list, or on your list to give to others during the holidays? Old favorites with a scientific flavor? Feel free to add your recommendations in the comment section below.

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The illustration from the journal Science’s book roundup is republished here with the kind permission of Peter Hoey.

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