Making A List For Summer Science Reading

If you're planning some travels this summer (or even if you're just relaxing at home), why not bring a good book along? Authors Douglas Starr and Deborah Blum suggest their current favorite science reading material, and listen to listeners' suggestions.

IRA FLATOW, host:

Planning your summer vacation yet? Well, you might be debating whether to go to the lake or the mountains or the beach, or just have a staycation, stay at home. It's not too early to start planning your summer reading list.

And we're here to help you out doing that. What are you reading, and what should we be reading in the world of science, tech, medicine, environment? We want your suggestions. Give us a call: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri or leave a message on our Facebook page, and also go to our website at sciencefriday.com and tell us what you think. You can also see some suggestions folks have already had for us by looking at the hashtag scibooks.

Joining me to help talk about your suggestions and offer their own are two accomplished authors themselves. Douglas Starr is co-director of the Program in Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University. He's also author of "The Killer of Little Shepherds," published last year by Knopf.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor DOUGLAS STARR (Co-director, Program in Science and Medical Journalism, Boston University; Author): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi. Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of the recent book "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York." She's also professor in the Department of Journalism, University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Welcome back, Deborah. Oh, she can't hear us.

Let's start with you, Douglas. Have we got a - have you got a...

Professor DEBORAH BLUM (Journalism, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Author): Hello?

FLATOW: Deborah, are you there? Deborah? Well, she can't hear us. We'll start with Douglas. Douglas, have you got a suggestion on what would be at the top of your reading list?

Prof. STARR: Ira, it has been a banner year for summer reading for science, and I've got books in environment, computers, physics, medicine and porn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STARR: So where should we start? Where should we start, Ira?

FLATOW: Oh, you tempt me.

Prof. STARR: Let's start with environment. I believe that's what you...

FLATOW: That's what I was going to say. Absolutely.

Prof. STARR: There are a couple of wonderful offerings. One is called "The Magnetic North," by Sara Wheeler. And this is a British journalist who took a series of trips into the Arctic, and she portrays a vision unlike anything we've been seeing before.

You know, unlike the pristine white, she shows raggedy countryside, demolished cultures, and people were basically on the tail-end of every kind of pollution that the civilized world has thrown at them.

And then the other environment book I'd recommend is James Hansen's book, "Storm of my Grandchildren." Hansen, as you know, is one of the early warners about climate change, and he writes an impassioned book that conveys the dissonance between science and policy and the terrible frustration he feels that even expressing himself as a scientist, with all the appropriate caveats, gets misinterpreted by those who would misuse it. It's really quite touching.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Because he really weathered the storm on his...

Prof. STARR: It was terrible, and you could feel his frustration. And both these, I think, are terrific books, taking yet another cut into the important climate-change issue.

FLATOW: Deborah, are you there?

Prof. BLUM: I'm here. Hi, Ira. Yay.

FLATOW: I didn't think the Windy City had lost our signal. Welcome. Tell us what's on the top of your reading list.

Prof. BLUM: Well, I have - oh, I have such a long list.

FLATOW: Give us the first. We only have about a minute till the break, so just give us your favorite on the top.

Prof. BLUM: So my two favorite are in a group, Seth Mnookin's "The Panic Virus" and Carl Zimmer's "Planet of Viruses," because I love them together. You have people who don't understand viruses and won't use vaccines, and you have this gorgeous book that explains viruses. I absolutely recommend that, even if you're on vacation.

FLATOW: Yeah. We had that on a couple weeks ago, and it was just great. It was surprising to hear that viruses eat half the bacteria in the ocean every day. What an amazing...

Prof. BLUM: Yeah. They're busy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And they're getting fat. Stay with us. We're going to come back and talk more and get your book suggestions. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, our Facebook, scifri, and also our website, sciencefriday.com, all different ways to communicate with us.

Talking with Deborah Blum and Douglas Starr. 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us after the break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about augmenting your summer reading list and listening to you, to what you might have to suggest about good summer reading.

We've got a couple of authors with us, Douglas Starr, who is author of "The Killer of Little Shepherds," and Deborah Blum, author of "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York."

I know, Deborah, you love crimes of all kinds, right? So...

Prof. BLUM: I do.

FLATOW: Do you have any more books of choices in that genre?

Prof. BLUM: Well, there is one book that you - I think you all did this earlier, "Blood Work" by Holly Tucker...

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

Prof. BLUM: ...which is a wonderful story set way back in the 17th century that looks at animal transfusion of blood as a possible murder source. I mean, that's my current favorite - aside from Doug's, of course. It's wonderful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Doug, your next recommendation.

Prof. STARR: Well, other than Deb's book, which I love, why don't we move to computers? And there were a lot of screeds out about the world of computers. But the most interesting to me was the one written by Tom Bissell called "Extra Lives."

And he dissects the culture of computer games. And this started as an ongoing dispute between me and my sons, who play computer games, and I don't really approve. And Tom showed their richness and complexity and the absolute fascinating storylines and how they're put together.

Of course, he reveals in the last chapter that he's playing these games while on cocaine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STARR: But he is a fascinating writer with some fascinating insights.

FLATOW: Let's go to Lisa in Philadelphia. Hi, Lisa.

LISA (Caller): Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

LISA: A book that I've been reading that I really love is called "The Unsettling of America." It's by Wendell Berry. And it talks about the relationship between culture and agriculture, our use of energy and our use of the land. And I find it really interesting and also really meaningful.

FLATOW: In what way? What - how did it sing to you?

LISA: For me personally, I feel like I've always sort of struggled to really get a grasp on culture, on where I'm from and what's important to me and what I really want to build my life around. And this particular book talks about really building your life around a place, around the land, and really how we should be living on the land and how we should be using it and how to live in a sustainable way, and a way that's healthy both for the world and for people.

And I just thought there was something that really just struck me about it that seems - it just seems a little bit more like the way I want to live than other cultures or ways of living that I've seen before. It's something that I've been looking for that I really loved.

FLATOW: Well, you sold it. Great recommendation, Lisa. Thanks for calling in. Have a good weekend, and have a good summer reading all these books.

LISA: Thank you so much. Take care.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Are you familiar with any of those, Deborah or Douglas?

Prof. BLUM: I actually taught that book. I was - I think in this country, we don't understand agriculture well enough, as a country. And so when I teach journalism, agriculture's one of the things I teach.

Wendell Berry is a wonderful poet, philosopher, writer. I think, of American life. "Unsettling of America" kind of puts the way we live and eat and think about food and farms really within our 21st-century culture. But he's a great poet, too. You know, I'd almost recommend anything he wrote.

FLATOW: We have a - someone from Facebook suggesting - Matt Comstock says "The Ghost Map" by Steven Johnson, a demonstration of the amazing success of the scientific method, as well as a story about resistance to paradigm change.

Prof. BLUM: He's an unfairly good writer, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BLUM: Whenever I read his books, I think: No, no, no. You should have left that for me to say. Yeah, he's wonderful. And there's a book he did more recently called "The Invention of Air," which is built around the story of Joseph Priestly. It's gorgeous. I love him.

FLATOW: Yeah. Doug, what's next on your list?

Prof. STARR: Next I going to - go to physics, simply because I understand it so poorly. And the ones that came out this year that I like the most was "Present at the Creation," by Amir Aczel. And I think you had him on the show.

FLATOW: Sure.

Prof. STARR: And he visited the CERN reactor as they were doing some of the early experiments. And by simply talking about what he saw, I think he conveyed some of those principals very nicely.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. There have been a lot of physics books, a lot of - especially a lot of Richard Feynman books out in the last year or so. And...

Prof. STARR: I think part of the reason for that is physics is difficult to understand. And anytime people can connect science to a lively personality, it makes it terribly appealing.

FLATOW: Yeah. I've said this many times, and it continues to be true, that you have to keep reading physics over - especially quantum mechanics - over and over and over again until it sinks in. So there can never be too many.

Prof. BLUM: And then you still don't get it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, that's what Richard Feynman said. He said: If anybody tells you they understand it, they're lying, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: But it's true. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Kyle in Cape May, New Jersey.

Hi, Kyle.

KYLE (Caller): Hey, how are you?

FLATOW: Hey, there.

KYLE: Thanks for having me back. This is actually the second time I've called into the show. I love the show.

FLATOW: Oh, good.

KYLE: But I wanted to suggest a relatively new book by Bernd Heinrich, a professor at UC Davis, great entomologist, ornithologist, all-around naturalist.

He has a book called "The Nesting Season." It's about the peculiarities of sort of a whole range of birds' nesting and breeding behaviors and especially a lot about nest parasitism and - in the New World and Old World.

And it really just opens up a whole new view on one of our most notorious and underappreciated birds, the brown-headed cow bird, that, you know, every time you read one of Bernd's books, it really just - it opens your eyes to a new aspect of the natural world, whether it's plants, bugs, birds, anything.

FLATOW: Yeah. We've had that book and the author on the program. It is a very interesting book.

KYLE: Yeah.

FLATOW: Thanks for suggesting it to us, and have a good summer.

KYLE: Yeah. Thank you. And it's definitely, you know, as the summer goes, and you have the birds laying eggs in your backyard, it's something great to read.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Or read it to them. Thanks a lot, Kyle.

KYLE: All right. Thank you. Bye.

FLATOW: Bye. 1-800-989-8255. A letter, suggestion on our website from Gail Perez Davenport(ph). It says: I'm reading "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot. Everybody's reading that book. That was on the New York Times Bestseller List a long time. Is it still up there?

Prof. STARR: I think it's still up there.

FLATOW: It's still there. Yeah. Wow. Why do you think, Deborah and Doug, that hit such a note?

Prof. BLUM: Well, it's such a mix of a compelling story with medical ethics, with, you know, looking at kind of the history of the way medicine just treats human beings, especially poor people without power.

And you have Rebecca, who's a wonderful storyteller, kind of leading us through this story. So, you know, it's, like, just one of those books that pulls all the good elements together, I think. It's kind of irresistible.

Prof. STARR: And I think with all this, you have an underdog that people are ready to root for. And, you know, times have changed. Medical science used to treat people a little less considerately than they do now. So one has the luxury of rooting for an underdog and know that we're in somewhat better times, and things are improving.

FLATOW: OK, Doug. It's time for your suggestion for that book.

Prof. STARR: Oh, don't make me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STARR: Well, in terms of porn, there's a book that I would call surfer's porn, and if you're a surfer, as I am - as many of your listeners undoubtedly are - last fall, Susan Casey came out with a book called "The Wave."

And half of the book dealt with scientists trying to understand rogue waves and how climate changes are building waves. But the other half, and the half that most of us really read hard, was she followed the big-wave surfers around the world.

And she actually got to hang out with Laird Hamilton, who is the premiere big-wave surfer. And at one point, she actually sat on a WaveRunner, one of the motorized ones, while they took a big wave together, because those are the things that pull him in. And it was really quite thrilling.

To be honest, I think the science was light, but if you the sport, the surfing was absolutely captivating.

FLATOW: Would you say this is a niche book that you have to be a surfer to really...

Prof. STARR: I don't think so. I think if you like adrenaline - and I'm envious, because I think this woman - who, by the way is the editor of Oprah magazine - has more testosterone than I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STARR: She's amazing.

FLATOW: All right. Interesting, interesting. Let's go to the phones, to Suzanne in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Hi, Suzanne.

SUZANNE (Caller): Hi, how are you, Ira?

FLATOW: How are things in Cherry Hill today?

SUZANNE: Rainy.

FLATOW: Rainy, yeah. I know what you mean. Tell us what your pick is.

SUZANNE: My pick is "Founding Gardeners," by Andrea Wulf. She's a British author. She's written a book about founding - about (unintelligible) gardeners, how Benjamin Franklin and others exchanged seeds with people from Britain -John Bartram being one - and how the botanical interests of our founding fathers helped shaped not only our - the Revolution, but how we dealt with the country in the very beginning.

FLATOW: Oh, that sounds like a wonderful book.

SUZANNE: She writes beautifully, as well. And she's British. She didn't think anything botanically interesting was in the New World, was in America, until she came and visited Monticello and Mount Vernon and changed her views.

FLATOW: Huh. That's good to hear. I love historical science books, especially when they deal with the history of the U.S. and people's visions of it. Great suggestion. Thank you, Suzanne. Have a good weekend.

SUZANNE: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

SUZANNE: You too. Bye-bye.

FLATOW: Bye-bye.

Doug, any comment? Or Deborah?

Prof. BLUM: Well, I think stories of - I love poisonous plants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BLUM: I have to say that...

FLATOW: You're in that zone there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BLUM: I am. And so I love like the way - if you go to England, actually, you can find these fabulous poison gardens. There's actually poison gardens around certain castles in England where you can kind of explore all the poisonous plants. So this just shows how my mind works these days.

But there is a writer named Amy Stewart who wrote a book a couple of years ago called "Wicked Plants." It actually has, speaking of history, the story of the plant that killed Abraham Lincoln's mother, and she has a new book out this spring. It's called "Wicked Bugs," about poisonous insects. I actually haven't read it, but when I was looking at some of the comments people said, don't read this before you go to bed because you'll be worrying about what's creeping around under the sheets.

FLATOW: Ah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BLUM: So just a recommendation for - I don't know - daytime summer reading, I guess.

FLATOW: There you go. We've had a couple of Twitter folks recommending -several people mentioned "The Disappearing Spoon," a chemistry book. Are you familiar with that one?

Prof. BLUM: Sam Kean. And it's coming out in paperback next month. It's a gorgeous book.

FLATOW: And...

Prof. BLUM: It's interesting because when you talk to chemists, they'll argue that it's more physics than chemistry, but it is a beautiful book.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, I'm still looking and hopefully have found or hoping to find a chemistry book for myself that will teach me high school chemistry.

Prof. BLUM: Oh, oh, Ira, let me recommend one.

FLATOW: Yes.

Prof. BLUM: It's coming out tomorrow. It's by Theo Gray who did that beautiful coffee table book "The Elements."

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. BLUM: And it's called "Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do At Home - But Probably Shouldn't." And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BLUM: ...he walks through this whole book of fairly insane chemistry experiments. And in it, he explains how the chemicals work. There - I mean, there's some you could do at home. He uses an Oreo to create energy to power a rocket. And there's some you definitely shouldn't. He uses 500 pounds of quicklime to make a hot tub...

FLATOW: Wow.

Prof. BLUM: ...but it is really a fun book and a kind of great way to explore chemistry.

FLATOW: Now, this is dangerous stuff because you're talking to a guy who almost burned down my mother's bathroom when I was a teenager doing a biology experiment, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BLUM: Did you?

Prof. STARR: Ira, to that idea, a kids' book that's come out. It won one of the AAAS Awards. It's called "The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science" by Sean Connolly.

FLATOW: Ah.

Prof. STARR: And it's interesting. A couple of years ago, Wired did a feature on what a shame it is that chemistry sets are no longer dangerous.

FLATOW: Yeah. I'll second that.

Prof. STARR: You'll vouch for that. You made it, right?

FLATOW: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BLUM: It's true.

FLATOW: Yeah. You can't find sulfur in any bottles. They don't have bottles anymore. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY on NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Deborah Blum and Douglas Starr, and we're talking about your summer reading list.

And let's see if we can go to the phones and get a couple more suggestions. Let's go to William in Saint Louis.

Hi, William.

WILLIAM (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

WILLIAM: I've got a book here I think it's very near and dear to the hearts of many scientists that I know, especially those under 30. It's called "Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World" by Jane McGonigal. Apparently, she explains why this mass exodus to the world of videogames is happening and why we really didn't feel guilty about it.

I initially discarded it as sort of a fluff piece, you know, to speak to, you know, so gamers won't feel guilty about spending so much time on their games. But she's got a lot of really good research in here, and I'm really impressed.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Prof. STARR: You know, it sounds like it could be a good companion piece to Bissell's book - I don't know if you've read that - "Extra Lives," but it really could...

WILLIAM: Not yet, no.

Prof. STARR: ...persuade - yeah. I'm really a skeptic on the whole computer games thing. I think it destroys people's attention span. But when Bissell explained the complexity of it and all of the plotting and thinking that goes into it and how it's been such an immersive experience for him - and he's quite an accomplished writer - I must say he opened up a window for me to understand this, and I think it's worth your reading.

FLATOW: I think a good companion book would be Sherry Turkle's "Alone Together."

Prof. BLUM: Mm-hmm.

Prof. STARR: Also yes. Yes. And I'm sorry. What was the one about how the computers are shortening our attention span? "The Shallows." I think there's a whole body of literature emerging around this technology.

You know, I have to say something. The other day I was rereading Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." And some colleagues and I had been talking about we're really worried about all these eBooks, how it might destroy literature. And he has a whole chapter in there how he was worried that the printing press would destroy architecture because in the old days, architecture, these great cathedrals, were all the expressions of a society's intellect and artistic feeling, and the book was so much easier to produce.

So it seems that there's always been this tension between the new technology and the old technology and how we can express ourselves in an interesting way.

FLATOW: That is - I didn't know that, really? Victor Hugo thought that the printing press would destroy architecture.

Prof. STARR: Don't forget that the book was set in the 1500s when the printing press was relatively new. It's a fascinating analogy.

FLATOW: And now, we have computer 3-D printers that can make architecture.

Prof. STARR: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: Interesting. Any last ones for you, Deborah, that you want to throw on the pile here?

Prof. BLUM: There's a couple of quick ones. One is - and this is actually by a colleague of yours, "Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us" by Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman. I love that probably because I'm constantly annoyed but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BLUM: ...that's a...

Prof. STARR: That's not true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BLUM: Only - you know? Not too publicly but constantly annoyed.

FLATOW: But you are a journalist, so you're allowed.

Prof. BLUM: You know, we're journalists. We aren't supposed to be annoyed.

Another one I just want to mention, it doesn't come out till next month, but I love the - I got an early copy, and I love the idea. It's called "The Story of Charlotte's Web." It's by a writer I like named Michael Sims, and it goes through the life of E.B. White as a naturalist. And it actually goes back into his notebooks and looks at the way he researched spiders to work out the life of Charlotte and looks up the way he studied the natural world around that farm and that children's story that he created. And it is really a lovely book.

FLATOW: Well, I want to - it sounds great. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us, and you both have your own books out. Deborah Blum is author of "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York," a really interesting, good read. Thank you, Deborah, for coming back and talking with us. And...

Prof. BLUM: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Douglas Starr, co-director of the program in science and medical journalism at Boston University. He's also the author, "The Killer of Little Shepherds." So there are two good list to put right there on the top of your list.

We're going to take a break, and when we come back, we're going to talk about cicadas. They're back, and you'll know if they're here. So stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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