I’m no science expert, but I love a good book about groundbreaking discoveries, untold stories, or how the world around me works, as discussed in episode 155 of What Should I Read Next. Ashley and her father Brent didn’t think their taste in books overlapped, until they discovered a common interest in science-related books, both fiction or nonfiction. I was pleasantly surprised to hear how many of you shared their interest.
Many readers responded to that episode with enthusiastic recommendations and fervent requests for more science-y titles, and I’m happy to share these 15 absorbing titles with you today. Whether you prefer nonfiction about space, technology, medicine, or the environment—there’s something here for your TBR.
15 absorbing nonfiction books to inspire your inner scientist
This genre-defying narrative combines history, science, memoir, and biography. Henrietta Lacks was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who entered Johns Hopkins hospital in the 1950’s for treatment of cervical cancer. Without her permission or knowledge, her cancerous tissue was biopsied and shipped to labs all around the world for scientific research. Scientists named the cells HeLa, and they became the first “immortal” human cells, called such because they thrive in the lab, and have been used to develop the polio vaccine, cure cancer, and fight the flu. But her family didn't discover anything about the cells until more than twenty years after her 1951 death. Skloot unearths the incredible story of how that happened, weaving the tale of the HeLa cells together with Lacks' personal narrative. Skloot investigates and unfolds the far-reaching impact of Lacks’ cells, as well as the sociological and cultural connection to the treatment of African Americans in medicine, the murky waters of bioethics, and the question of consent in scientific research. More info →
A fascinating (and at times, disgusting) look at the 1854 cholera epidemic that swept London with tragic force. At the time of the epidemic, London was a thriving metropolis, but lacking in infrastructure to address issues of clean water and waste removal. When the cholera outbreak begins, scientists and doctors were baffled by the disease and the rate at which it spread, thinking that perhaps it originated in noxious odors. Dr. John Snow, now renowned as a heroic figure in the field of epidemiology, was at the time considered unorthodox in his approach to solving the mystery. Fair warning, readers: Johnson’s descriptive attention to London’s ineffective handling of human waste may make you squeamish. More info →
Like the women in The Glass Universe, the women in Hidden Figures were employed as calculators at NASA during the Space Race era. These women were segregated from their white counterparts and were the object of ruthless discrimination, despite their important work calculating flight paths for space missions. They ultimately worked their way up to highly influential positions in science, physics, mathematics, and technology; this book highlights their triumphs and the struggles that came first. Shetterly touches on the culture of the United States at this time relating to the Space Race, the civil rights movement, the Cold War, and the women's' rights movement. More info →
Though you may not recognize his name, Alexander von Humboldt was the father of modern environmentalism and the most famous scientist of his age. Born in the late 18th century, he had a deep love for outdoor exploration and traversed the globe in search of unusual environments. Von Humboldt was friends with Thomas Jefferson, inspired Darwin and Thoreau, and was passionate about helping humans understand our relationship to the natural world. In this biography, Wulf captures the man as endlessly passionate, progressive, and impactful. More info →
Not long after the Curies discovered the miracle element of radium, the stuff was everywhere: in beauty products, tonic water, even toothpaste. Women employed in U.S. factories used it to paint luminous clock dials for military planes. The radium-laced paint caused the women to actually glow in the dark, granting them the nickname “the shining girls.” Others envied the shining girls, until those same women started to experience mysterious and terrifying health issues. The factory owners denied the connection between the paint and the radium girls’ illnesses, and the resulting conflict resulted in a headline-worthy scandal that had long-term implications for worker safety. An incredibly researched, captivating read. More info →
We talked in Episode 155 about the unfortunate overuse of “girls” in titles these days, but make no mistake: the women behind this story were truly remarkable and their contributions to cryptanalysis significant. More than ten thousand women worked as codebreakers for the U.S. Army and Navy during WWII. Despite their critical role in protecting the Allies and exposing the plans of the Axis powers, their work in cryptanalysis was kept secret. Mundy conducted extensive research to capture their story, including interviews with surviving code girls. More info →
When Rovelli included the word “brief” in this title, he meant it. In under 100 pages, Rovelli guides readers through seven of most revolutionary breakthroughs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including accessible and enthralling descriptions of general relativity, quantum mechanics, elementary particles, gravity, black holes, and the role of humans in the greater universe. This slim volume is hailed by readers as an introduction to physics for the average human, in stylish, and sometimes even gorgeous, prose. More info →
The riveting, behind-the-scenes story of three astronauts who bravely took on NASA’s Apollo 8 mission to the Moon in late 1968. Just a few months before the Apollo 8 launched into space, NASA abandoned its customary slow and methodical approach to space exploration because they were desperate to beat the Soviets in the Space Race. Kurson weaves together the daring and suspenseful journey to the Moon, the impact of the Apollo 8 mission on the families of the astronauts, and the cultural mood in America at the time of the launch.
In Episode 155, Brent loved this untold story of the women who were employed as calculators by the male astronomers working at the Harvard Observatory in the mid-nineteenth century. They worked to interpret the displays captured on glass photographic plates, categorize the stars, and measure distances in space by starlight. The collection of half a million glass plates made up the “glass universe” of the Harvard Observatory, and these women became groundbreaking scientists in various fields.
The relatively unknown story of thirteen women who underwent astronaut training at the legendary Lovelace Foundation, though they never had the opportunity to journey into space with their male counterparts, widely known as the the Mercury 7. The women underwent the same tests and rigorous programming, sometimes with higher scores than their male colleagues. Though never recognized, these women women nevertheless went on to do great things in a wide variety of fields. More info →
Preston writes widely in the genre of historical nonfiction, but not always in the realm of science. In Before the Fallout, Preston explores the "human chain reaction" that led to the nuclear fission bomb, beginning in 1898 with Marie Curie’s discovery of radium and its connection to atomic energy, and ending with the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. The book features key players like Albert Einstein, Hitler, and Robert Oppenheimer, and also highlights lesser-known scientists who contributed to the incredibly fast development of atomic technology. More info →
Brent read this for work and enjoyed it for its own sake; Rhodes addresses the key players in developing the atomic bomb, the discovery of atomic structure, and the eventual development of the bombs that would change the scope of World War II. Nuclear energy was first discussed in theoretical terms less than three decades before the Trinity nuclear test; the book takes readers from the speculative interest in nuclear technology to the biggest moments in nuclear history and its far-reaching implications. Brent found it captivating and page-turning, and his enthusiasm left Ashley and me eager to pick it up. More info →
Ashley called this a favorite because it “read like a fascinating podcast,” with factual information conveyed in a conversational, engaging way. Our microbes are part of our immune systems, protecting us from harmful bacteria and contributing to our overall wellness. Yong describes the microbes that exist in every organism and the connections they forge between all living creatures. Ashley said practically every page of her copy is dog-eared and underlined; we’ll take that as high praise. More info →
Mary Roach is widely known for her popular science nonfiction. In Stiff, Roach explores the history of human cadavers and their role in various scientific discoveries. With engrossing information on the process of human decomposition, organ donation, and various uses for human cadavers, Roach approaches the subject with humor. If your HSP tendencies include a weak stomach, this one may not be a great choice for you, but my HSP self found this fascinating. More info →
If you’ve ever heard (or attempted) the tongue twister, “She sells sea shells by the sea shore,” you may be interested in the story of the woman who inspired it, Mary Anning, who was only 12 years old when she made her first important scientific discovery. In 1811, she was a burgeoning naturalist who enjoyed searching for “treasures” on the cliffs of England; she stumbled upon the fossil of an of an ichthyosaur. Anning’s discoveries led to a career in fossil hunting, inspired Charles Darwin in writing The Origin of Species, and shaped the field of paleontology. More info →
Do you have any favorite books to share? Tell us all about them in comments!