Our 20 selections for the best science books of 2020 has a little of everything: a book that will teach you to breathe differently; an intense look at mushrooms and their impact on our world; a real-life medical thriller about the development of chemotherapy, which had it’s origin in an aerial bombing in World War II; a scientific history of our migratory patterns and how they will help us survive climate change, and so much more.
These books are stand-outs not just for the science you will learn but for the thrilling and gripping stories that these authors have written. Here are a few of our favorite science books of the year, but be sure to check out the complete list here.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor
Our number one pick for the Best Science book of 2020, Breath will literally make you breathe differently. Breath, Nestor argues, and our resulting lung capacity, is the best indicator of one’s lifespan, which is why we need to pay attention to it. Conversational, amusing, and practical (there are exercises throughout), Breath is actually life changing.
Entangled: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake
From tromping through the woods to count flowers for a mushroom network, to bathing in a fermentation bath (think decomposing wood and mushrooms), to tripping on psychedelic mushrooms, Merlin Sheldrake takes readers on a scientific adventure to learn more about “metabolic wizards,” otherwise known as mushrooms. It’s a lot of fun and there’s so much to learn about mushrooms and how they impact the natural world as we know it.
Part World War II history, part medical mystery, part conspiracy thriller, The Great Secret is a gripping narrative of one the twentieth century’s greatest breakthroughs in medicine: chemotherapy. Jennet Conant traces the history of the development of chemotherapy—a killer (in the case of the thousands of servicemen and hundreds of civilians that died in a 1943 bombing in Italy) and a cure for those battling cancer.
The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another by Ainissa Ramirez
The Alchemy of Us is a fascinating exploration of how technologies changed and shaped culture—both intentionally and accidentally. From railways accelerating the commodification of Christmas to how the staccato and brief format of telegrams influenced Ernest Hemingway's writing, Ainissa Ramirez reveals the history of how inventions came to be and their domino effect on culture. In sifting through the history, she also examines how race, privilege, and gender impacted the use of certain materials or the adoption of a particular technology.
Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
Barrett’s pithy exploration of the mysterious brain is breezy, fun, and, most important, delivers information with a vividness that will make it actually stick in readers’ memories. This popular science book packs a lot in a small space—much like a person’s brain, appropriately. —Adrian Liang
From the jungles of Hawaii to the Himalayas, Sonia Shah takes readers on a trip around the world to study the science and history of migration and argues that migration is the key to combating climate change. No stone is unturned in this riveting portrait of how people—whether refugees or those seeking adventure—have always moved from one location to the next and in doing so pollinated new culture, society and biology across the globe. A hopeful, shape-shifting view that looks to history in an effort to survive the future.
Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano
Pulling on eyewitness accounts from firefighters, fleeing citizens, police, and medical personnel, Fire in Paradise does not sensationalize. It doesn’t have to. The first sighting of the fire, the chaotic emptying of the town, a boy swimming across a lake to safety with a cat in a cage on his shoulder, a woman giving birth in the middle of a hospital’s evacuation…all these moments, and more, are extraordinary enough. The humanity and bravery exposed in the middle of unexpected catastrophe shine in this narration, even as tragedy destroys families and 85 people perish in the deadliest wildfire in California history. —Adrian Liang
From books about the discovery of chemotherapy to books about mushrooms and how to breathe, these are our best science books of the year.