Holiday Reading for Scientists

Donald Prothero - Evolution

I’ve allowed a stack of books to accumulate on my desk over the last few weeks, some of them I’ve glanced through, others I’ve devoured over the course of a few days in snatched moments between writing, researching, blogging, and fixing web site servers. Some of them are inflammatory others are a bit of a damp squib, nevertheless ahead of the US holiday, Black Friday, and looking forward to Christmas (other winter solstice festivals are available), I thought I’d cite a few of them on Sciencebase to give you some holiday reading ideas.

First up is Don Prothero’s “Evolution – What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters”. In this book Prothero, a specialist in ancient North American rhinos tears into the evolution deniers with great vigour. He sets up his position from the start, pointing out that theory is not a derogatory word in science. He emphasises that scientists do not deal in facts as the lay person would understand them. Instead, scientists work with observations (evidence) and hypotheses (explanations). This does not, of course, imply that scientists have any doubts about certain facts. Apples will fall towards earth when detached from their tree. An almost spherical earth orbits around the sun. The fossilised remains of animals long extinct reveals that evolution takes place.

Next up is my former colleague at New Scientist Gabrielle Walker with An Ocean of Air, a natural history history of the atmosphere. Air is not only about breathing. At ground level air is converted directly into solid food and without it every living thing on earth would starve. Its outer reaches, despite the occasional hole, soak up cosmic rays that would otherwise fry us all. And, yet it is a fragile and complex system, we would do well to understand better.

Elias J Corey is the granddaddy of organic synthesis, in Molecules and Medicine, he and co-authors Barbara Czakó, and László Kürti take us on a whirwind tour of drug discovery and the search for medicinal molecules. One hundred of the most significant molecules currently in use are discussed, the discovery, application, and mode of action revealed. Structures for all the molecules described are given as well as pertinent crystallographic results, it would have been nice, but added to the price to have included a disk with the mol and cif files for use by educators and others.

Other books on my desk that deserve another mention include Toby Freedman’s Career Opportunities in Biotechnology & Drug Development, which does what it says on the tin and, Steven Pinker’s fascinating The Stuff of Thought

A late arrival for this list is The Best of Technology Writing 2007 edited by Newsweek technology columnist Steven Levy. I remember reading the last volume of this series on a plane headed for a vacation in Italy, it was an excellent holiday book, from a quick glance at the contributor list, this latest edition looks like it could be the same.