In 1943, Virginia’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory had a problem: It needed computers to help engineer better airplanes to guarantee American success over the aerial battlefields of World War II. The computers required were not the electronic devices we use today; instead, they were women with comprehensive mathematics backgrounds. Women who have largely been forgotten by history despite their role in shaping it.
And a core group of these "hidden figures" were black.
Using research and interviews, Margot Lee Shetterly highlights the lives of three “human computers” in particular — Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson — who worked at Langley during the war and, once it was established, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In doing so, she returns these women and their fellow “computers” to their proper place in the tale of one of mankind’s greatest achievements: space travel. The intertwined stories of each woman provide a deeper insight into the ingenuity, hard work and determination from all involved — male or female, black or white — that took us from airplanes to space shuttles.
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race isn’t just about a group of mathematicians and engineers whose efforts helped break the sound barrier and put a man on the moon. Shetterly also delves into how the environment these women worked in was impacted by the racial and sexual politics and tensions of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s and what it meant for each woman to gain the position she did. She celebrates these women and what they achieved despite the discrimination they faced due to their skin color and gender.
When you’re finished with the book, you can check out the movie, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, in theatres January 5, 2017. Also, readers wanting more information on the contributions of African Americans and women to the space race should check out We Could Not Fail by Steven Moss and Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt.
While biological research is continually making new discoveries into how much we know about animals, there is one aspect in which scientists scrupulously avoid speculation: animals’ minds. In Being a Beast, Charles Foster attempts to rectify this disparity by immersing himself in the “neuro-alchemy” of wild creatures. Not only does he study the latest veterinary neurological research, he tries to live like them too. In a tradition of ersatz, immersive experimentation also seen in the works of Bill Bryson and A.J. Jacobs, he models his behavior to live as a badger, an otter, a fox, a red deer and a swift.
Foster’s experiences are variously uncomfortable, degrading, bizarre and sublime. While his scientific method would not hold up under much scrutiny, the objective of his writing is more ontological. Foster attempts to position himself counterpoint to humanity’s historical position as a “conqueror” of nature. He uses nature to escape — sloughing off modernity in an attempt to define and describe wildness and autonomy. His research is doomed to failure, and he begins the book by acknowledging that the challenges he sets for himself are impossible, but there is insight to be found in his quixotic experiment. Foster’s doctorate in medical law and ethics, plus his qualifications as a veterinarian, help to back his credibility even when his experiences and arguments verge on the esoteric.
Edward O. Wilson has spent many decades explaining science to the multitudes. His passion for natural history rings true in all of his books. From his very first book The Ants (his specialty is myrmecology — the study of ants) to The Social Conquest of Earth, up through his most recent, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, Wilson spends his words to ignite in every human passion for the Earth that equals his own.
This 86-year-old myrmecologist starts off huge: Humans need to set aside fully half the Earth for nature, no exceptions. Why do they need to do this? Because only something that startling in scope can offset the magnitude of what people have been doing to the planet. His ultimately hopeful conclusion inspires the reader to action. This world can get better. The Earth can heal. But Wilson believes that the inhabitants of the Earth cannot sit by and dream of a better place — they have to make it. All life is interdependent, and in this Anthropocene Era, the era of humanity, humans are best-equipped to begin the healing process.
Believe him or not, there is absolutely no arguing with the man’s passion or his commitment to making the world safe for generations to come. Anyone interested in climatology, biology, or any of the life sciences, and those who enjoyed The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us by Diane Ackerman or Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming should read this book right away.
Entomologist Justin O. Schmidt shares his lifelong passion for pain-inducing insects in The Sting of the Wild, recently published by Johns Hopkins Press. According to Schmidt, despite a universal, innate fear of stinging insects, only about 50 people a year die from the combined sting of all stinging insects, including wasps, honey bees and fire ants. The first half of this surprisingly entertaining book provides scientific theory and background, while the second gives in-depth looks at particular groups of insects. Schmidt encourages readers to skip around as they read; each chapter can be read as a stand-alone essay.
As a piece of anatomy, the stinger itself evolved from the ovipositor, or egg-laying tube, of the sawfly. Its ingenious three-part design — two sliding channels inside a third immobile tube — allow a tiny insect to impart a wallop of pain to its much larger victim. The addition of venomous fluid provides an additional layer of defense for most species, although sometimes that venom is used for capturing prey. If you understand that the stinger was once an egg-laying tube, you’ll know why only female insects sting. But Schmidt is quick to point out that while male bees and wasps lack stingers, they feature hardened genitalia which they use to “pseudo-sting” would-be threats.
Schmidt has a particular passion for harvester ants, and lucky for him his wife is also a zoologist who helps to collect them by the bucket load so they can study their venom. You really don’t want to be stung by a harvester ant. There are five things that make harvester stings unique: 1) delayed reaction to the sting, 2) sweating around the sting site, 3) hairs in the sting area stand up, 4) the lymph nodes nearest your sting become hard and tender and 5) the pain is excruciating, coming in waves that can last from four to 12 hours.
One of the most enjoyable features of the book is the inclusion of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, developed by the author himself. Schmidt allowed himself to be stung by 78 species of hymenoptera so that he could record the nature of the pain and rate it on a scale of zero to four. Don’t let anyone tell you that entomologists don’t have a sense of humor. The sting of the club-horned wasp, for example, is described as a .5 — “Disappointing. A paperclip falls on your bare foot.” While the warrior wasp rates a 4 for a sting that is “Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano.” Readers who share my fascination with the natural world, and particularly those who revel in unusual animal facts, will love The Sting of the Wild.
Hair: A Human History proves the rule that even the most mundane topics become fascinating in the hands of an author who is passionate about their subject matter. A former professor of pathology and dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine and a once-director of skin biology at Johnson & Johnson, Kurt Stenn has particular expertise as a follicle man. His enthusiasm for the subject matter translates to the page in this engaging microhistory.
Hair offers what the author refers to as a “panoramic view” of the natural fiber, including whiskers, pubic hair and mammalian fur. Stenn provides readers with a modicum of simple science and lots of cocktail party-worthy facts and anecdotes worth sharing. He begins with a description of the follicle growth cycle, spending time on causes of extreme hair loss and explaining male pattern baldness. Hair follicles don’t disappear; they become smaller and smaller until they’re microscopic. Who knew that bald men really do have hair?
The author shares the reason that Abraham Lincoln grew his famous beard, and explores how tonsorial choices reflected both beauty and power throughout history. Did you know that the iconic barber pole is a vestige of the time before the 18th century when barbers performed bloodletting? Barbers of the time doubled as surgeons, since hair and body care were seen as one and the same.
Hair touches on the history of hair styling, chemical processing and even hair removal. Stenn takes a look at depictions of hair in art, and at artists that make a statement by including actual human hair in their work. He points out the sentimental and spiritual value of a lock of hair, and describes the once-common custom of wearing jewelry made from a deceased loved one’s hair — a memento mori. Dozens of illustrations add to the book’s appeal. At just 169 pages (plus a glossary and extensive notes), Hair is a fascinating, worthwhile read.
Lauren Redniss’ latest book is an odd duckling among graphic novels. Rather than following any kind of paneled format, it contains passages of text interspersed with vibrantly-colored photogravure etchings and atmospheric pastel drawings that take up the entire surface of the page, resulting in an effect that is more like a book of hours than Peanuts. Those who enjoyed Cynthia Barnett’s book Rain will find an evocative companion in Thunder & Lightning.
In Thunder & Lightning, Redniss seeks to depict how weather has shaped our world and how we have adapted in a constant attempt to better predict and manipulate the weather. She has gathered the research of a wide variety of historians, scientists and environmental activists, and heavily peppers the text with their quotations, always opting for clear, plain-spoken statements from the mouths of experts rather than a summary of their findings. From this, fantastic stories emerge — of how the US military experimented in making their own rain during the Vietnam War, of hidden utopias in an Icelandic archipelago covered in permafrost year round, of the outdoor air conditioning engineered to cool the Kaaba in Mecca — along with poignant anecdotes of the natural disasters that are still fresh in our memories — Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Irene, the Chilean mine collapse, the summer wildfires in California. Through these tales, one becomes infected with Reniss’ wonder towards the sky and what it might bring, for even as we deepen our understanding of the climate and learn to create clouds, the forecast remains mysterious.
After his success with What If?, Randall Munroe is back to tackle yet another aspect of science in everyday life — exactly how is the world around us constructed? In Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, Munroe delves into the workings of our world, from the insides of our cells to our solar system and a lot of what’s in between.
Munroe states in the introduction that “…there are lots of other books that explain what things are called. This book explains what they do.” So this book won’t help you pass a vocabulary test or memorize the terminology, but it will explain in simple terms how a lot of the world around us functions. And this is on purpose — Munroe crafted a list of the “ten hundred” most used words in the English language and then restricted himself to only using those words in the book. So instead of the Curiosity Rover diagram or Human Torso diagram, Munroe breaks down the Red World Space Car and Bags of Stuff inside You (by the way, this book has forever changed how I view bags).
It may seem slightly ridiculous or humorous to be discussing boats that go under the sea (submarines) and food-heating radio boxes (microwaves), but Munroe is known for balancing scientific fact and innovation with humor, and this book is no different. His blue and white sketches of the items he’s discussing include funny little asides from his stick-figure illustrations on almost every page.
Even still, his depictions of these engineering marvels are anything but ridiculous. Thing Explainer is a fascinating and stimulating read for all ages, letting us remember to appreciate the world around us because it’s a lot more complicated than it may seem on the surface. Even if we can explain it in ten hundred simple words.
In his lifetime, Alexander von Humboldt was a superstar — a fearless adventurer, penniless aristocrat and brilliant polymath. He befriended and collaborated with many of his illustrious contemporaries, including Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He was the personal hero of Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, and his work was the basis for their great achievements. But he is largely forgotten in the English-speaking world, despite lending his name to numerous places and even species. In her latest book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, author Andrea Wulf seeks to reestablish Humboldt’s celebrity and pay homage to his genius.
In keeping with a biography of a man whose curiosity knew no limits, Wulf’s take on Humboldt’s life is multi-faceted and includes detailed, interwoven narratives of the scientific fields his work impacted. She examines how his personal relationships, politics and ethics were formed and how he used his beliefs, in turn, to enact change in the turbulent world around him. Humboldt undertook two major expeditions — one to South America and another stretching across Southern Russia into the Mongolian steppes. The product of these voyages emerged as theories he developed about the interconnectedness of the natural systems that are the foundation of our understanding of biology today. His major work Cosmos can easily be seen as the precursor to the major documentary phenomena of 2006, Planet Earth. And yet Humboldt also famously brought a sense of wonder and poetry to his work that helped to form the Romantic and Transcendental movements in the arts. Reading about Humboldt’s remarkable achievements and the fantastic experiences of his journeys instill one with a sense of wonder and curiosity about what is outside.
This book has been released alongside a spate of literature on the natural world, including the 2015 edition of The Best of American Science and Nature Writing (edited by Rebecca Skloot), and many of these new titles will be make for good pairings alongside this denser read. The Curious Nature Guide and Cabinet of Curiosities will be particularly useful to any budding naturalists inspired to get out and explore the world around you, like Humboldt did.
The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs is the output of more than two decades of Tristan Gooley’s experience being in tune with the land and helping others learn to do the same. Sometimes I question Gooley’s sense — like when he gets himself lost in an abandoned underground slate mine — but I cannot question his fortitude or his know-how. When stuck in the aforementioned abandoned slate mine, he was resourceful and used the “dip” of the rocks underground to find his way. For those with no idea what “dip” is, or how to use it, he explains in a way that anyone can understand. Obviously, he found his way out, or he would not have been able to write this book. His techniques must work.
Lost Art is at times laugh out loud funny, but Gooley has all the gravitas of any scientist when he is explaining the finer points of how not to die in the wild — even something as simple as figuring out how to tell when approaching civilization. He explains all of his how not to die lessons in language that is easy to understand and fun to read. His love for the wonders of the world around him bleeds through the page. Soon, the reader will be locating tracks of mice and deer, and they, too, will feel his passion for the glory of the natural world.
This book is a must for any fan of the outdoors. Gooley’s passion for wonder and knowledge is infectious. Also look out for his previous book, The Natural Navigator, in which Gooley explains how to find one’s way just by using the world around them.
Automatons! Higher mathematics! World domination! The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua contains everything inquiring minds could ask for. A history of the nascent development of computing, it contains a detailed and thoroughly researched account of the collaboration between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in their creation of the Analytical Machine (now known as a computer). Not limited to just explanations of the mechanical and theoretic processes, Padua also delves into contextualizing the machine’s creation with profiles of the people, culture and time period that had an influence on its formation. Any dryness you might expect of such subject matter is diverted by speculation of what Sherlockian adventures could have happened if the groundbreaking machine actually managed to be produced in the Victorian era of its imagining.
Padua’s zeal for her subject is infectious and her research has yielded amusing vignettes of the characters who were involved in the creation of computation, including cameos by George Eliot, Lewis Carroll and Queen Victoria. Despite her frequent demurrals to expertise, she concisely breaks down the complex engineering of her subject (with diagrams!) so that it is understandable for those of us who aren’t engineers, mathematicians or wizards. Be warned: It is text heavy for a graphic novel, primarily because the number and density of footnotes rivals those of the late Terry Pratchett. Like The Great Pratchett, however, the footnotes contain amusing digressions whose levity make them worth the effort.