15 absorbing nonfiction books to inspire your inner scientist

The Invention of Nature
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.
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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 the Species, and shaped the field of paleontology.
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This RUSA Notable Book (Nonfiction) tells the story of more than two dozen women who made their living painting luminous watch faces in the early twentieth century. Many were charmed by the "shining substance"—radium—that gave the watch its glow, but as we now know, radium is deadly. Moore uncovers what happened next. This is a story with heroes and villains, and can be hard to read (because the truth of history is sometimes painful), but it's a good story, well told. From the publisher: "Written with a sparkling voice and breakneck pace, The Radium Girls fully illuminates the inspiring young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium, and their awe-inspiring strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives."
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I'm in the middle of this one right now. This is the story of the American female code breakers whose vital work helped win World War II, but whose work has gone unsung for decades. 10,000 American women served the U.S. Army and Navy as cryptanalysists; their call to action came in the form of a letter that asked them two short questions: did they like crossword puzzles, and were they engaged to be married? A fascinating, thoroughly researched, and well-told true account.
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This slim book is just what the title says it is—seven brief lessons on physics—about Einstein's theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, elementary particles, black holes, probability, time, and humans. Rovelli's writing is elegant and poetic, and attainable for the non-scientist. If you're a hardcover lover (or gifter), the book itself is beautiful. On my TBR because a wide variety of readers with great taste have raved about it. Originally written in Italian and translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Preston writes widely in the genre of historical nonfiction, but not always in the realm of science. In <em>Before the Fallout</em>, 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.
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This genre-defying narrative combines history, science, memoir, and biography. You’ve been affected by the HeLa cells derived from Maryland woman Henrietta Lacks, called “immortal” because they thrive in the lab: they’ve 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.
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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.
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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.
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WSIRN guest 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.
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The true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. 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.
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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.
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