Story in Science : latest picks

Scientific writing can take many forms, and these latest arrivals to the collection are evidence of a happy marriage of science and story-telling. Muse on personal stories behind big inventions, the biographies of three very different scientists, or the challenge of explaining complex stuff using only the 1,000 most popular words in our language.

Syndetics book coverHouston, we have a narrative : why science needs story, by Randy Olson.
“Hollywood has a lot to teach scientists about how to tell a story – and, ultimately, how to do science better.” In this book Olson sketches out a blueprint to turn the dull into the dramatic. He first outlines the problem that when scientists tell us about their work, they pile one detail on top of another. But they need to understand the core of narrative – momentum (“And”), conflict (“But”), and resolution (“Therefore”) (or ABT). Taking this approach, audiences sit enthralled for hours (watching TED talks on youtube?).

Syndetics book coverThe invention of science : a new history of the scientific revolution, by David Wootton.
We live in a world made by science. How and when did this happen? This book tells the story of the extraordinary intellectual and cultural revolution that gave birth to modern science, and mounts a major challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy of its history. … “[this] is a truly remarkable piece of scholarship. His work has an ingenious and innovative linguistic foundation, examining the invention and redefinition of words as tracers of a new understanding of nature and how to approach it. His erudition is awesome, and his argument is convincing.” Owen Gingerich, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and of the History of Science at Harvard University.

Syndetics book coverThe human side of science : Edison and Tesla, Watson and Crick, and other personal stories behind science’s big ideas, by Arthur W. Wiggins and Charles M. Wynn Sr. ; with cartoon commentary by Sidney Harris.
“”This lively and humorous book focuses attention on the fact that science is a human enterprise. The reader learns about the foibles and quirks as well as the admirable ingenuity and impressive accomplishments of famous scientists who made some of the greatest discoveries of the past and present. Examples abound: Robert Hooke accused Isaac Newton of stealing his ideas about optics. Plato declared that the works of Democritus should be burned. …book takes the reader behind the scenes of scientific research to shine new light on the all-too-human people who “do” science.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverPenguins, pineapples & pangolins : first encounters with the exotic, by Claire Cock-Starkey.
Can you remember the first time you saw an elephant? In these modern times every child has seen a video clip, or a photo at the very least, of far away animals or plants. But, if we travel back in time a few hundred years, to the age of exploration or before trades routes became more frequented, people were discovering new animals, food or other cultures for the first very first time – with absolutely no frame of reference. Based on stories gleaned from the British Library archives, this new book reflects the awe and wonder these fresh encounters.

Syndetics book coverThe man who knew infinity : a life of the genius Ramanujan, by Robert Kanigel.
“In 1913, a young unschooled Indian clerk wrote a letter to G H Hardy, begging the preeminent English mathematician’s opinion on several ideas he had about numbers. Realizing the letter was the work of a genius, Hardy arranged for Srinivasa Ramanujan to come to England. Thus began one of the most improbable and productive collaborations ever chronicled. With a passion for rich and evocative detail, Robert Kanigel takes us from the temples and slums of Madras to the courts and chapels of Cambridge University, where the devout Hindu Ramanujan, “the Prince of Intuition,” tested his brilliant theories alongside the sophisticated and eccentric Hardy, “the Apostle of Proof.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverProf : Alan Turing decoded : a biography, by Dermot Turing.
If you enjoyed the Imitation Game, dip into this biography of Alan Turing by his nephew, Sir Dermot Turing. We meet him in the film as mathematician, codebreaker, computer scientist, and as a war hero underestimated and mistreated by his own country. This is a fresh look at the influences on Alan Turing’s life and creativity, and the later creation of a legend. This is a unique family perspective drawing on sources only recently released to the UK National Archives, including photos.

Syndetics book coverA numerate life : a mathematician explores the vagaries of life, his own and probably yours, by John Allen Paulos.
“In this fluid and varied memoir, Paulos, professor of mathematics at Temple University, calls into question the accuracy of the stories people craft about others’ lives and their own. From a mathematical standpoint, he tackles subjects such as the deceptiveness of the concept of normal, the nuances that exist within one’s sense of self, and the inevitability of encountering coincidences. Delving into psychology, philosophy, statistics, and logic, Paulos reveals the far-reaching applications of mathematical thought in people’s lives as well as how they record and remember past events. Rather than adopting the pointed structure of a persuasive essay, Paulos chases down tangents and relates his own experiences, with nostalgia.” (drawn from Publishers Weekly, courtesy of Syndetics)

Syndetics book coverThing explainer : complicated stuff in simple words, by Randall Munroe.
Randall Munroe has set himself a tricky task – to explain things using only drawings and a vocabulary of only our 1,000 most common words. Yes, that’s right, only 1,000. So although it fits into the ‘How do things work?’ answers reading shelf, this approach is worth reading for his choices of words and language. If you’ve ever had to explain how a micro-wave really works to a young child, then you’ll recognise the book’s value.

Syndetics book coverServing the Reich : the struggle for the soul of physics under Hitler, by Philip Ball.
Many scientists had to make compromises and concessions as they continued to work under the Nazi regime, such as world-renowned physicists Max Planck, Peter Debye and Werner Heisenberg. This is a tale of moral choices – the dilemmas, the failures, the interference in their work, questions of responsibility and three very human stories of people struggling to navigate living in a very different world than they imagined.

Syndetics book coverA survival guide to the misinformation age : scientific habits of mind, by David J. Helfand.
“We live in the Information Age, with billions of bytes of data just two swipes away. Yet how much of this is mis- or even disinformation? A lot of it is, and your search engine can’t tell the difference. As a result, an avalanche of misinformation threatens to overwhelm the discourse we so desperately need to address complex social problems such as climate change, the food and water crises, biodiversity collapse, and emerging threats to public health. This book provides an inoculation against the misinformation epidemic by cultivating scientific habits of mind. Anyone can do it – indeed, everyone must do it if our species is to survive on this crowded and finite planet.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverThe secret life of space, by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest.
The authors share stories that Stonehenge was built to celebrate the winter solstice rather than the summer, the telescope was not invented by Galileo, Einstein did not predict the presence of black holes or the Big Bang. Read about the sanitary engineer who found evidence of life on Mars, and other little known scientific heroes.