Best Books of the Year: Science and Nature

Jon Foro on December 08, 2017
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A few of our selections for the best science and nature titles of 2017, along with some thoughts about why we liked them. See all 20 picks, or browse all of our Best Books of the Year across 15 categories.

BOTY-Apollo.jpgApollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluger

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 50 years since NASA’s Apollo program first landed a man on the moon. Since passing decades tend to filter out everything save the highlights, that epic effort has been boiled down to a couple of missions: Apollo 11’s triumphant landing, and the near calamity of Apollo 13, which we might not remember were it not for Tom Hanks and Ron Howard. Lost is all (or most) of the daring preamble, when the United States and the Soviet Union repeatedly swapped positions in the Space Race, recklessly shooting manned aluminum cans - packed with all the computing power of a scientific calculator - into orbit. You won’t have to be a rocket scientist to enjoy Jeffrey Kluger’s Apollo 8 (though it’s pure candy for aficionados). Kluger - who previously documented the Apollo 13 crisis with Commander Jim Lovell, also the pilot aboard Apollo 8 – recounts the first manned mission to orbit the moon, marrying technological and historical perspectives with eyewitness accounts to spin a brisk, thrilling, and informative tale. Kluger writes, “The Saturn V engines had only one speed, which was full speed.” So does this book.


BOTY-Learn-Better.jpgLearn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything by Ulrich Boser

I recently tested my family’s patience for weeks as I announced during dinner, “I discovered something today,” and then related a new technique for learning I’d read in Learn Better. What my family didn’t realize at the time was that by teaching them what I’d learned, I myself was absorbing the lesson better than I would have if I’d just reread it again. That was only one of dozens of methods I’d consumed in Learn Better to help me understand, retain, and connect information better than through the old (and less effective) systems of highlighting and rereading. Boser’s smart and approachable writing style engaged me at once as he laid out six methods for becoming an expert at whatever you like, whether it’s basketball, parenting, or quantum physics. Experiments, data, and anecdotes back up his techniques, but almost as important, he explains learning in such a clear way that aha! moments abound. “Learning does not have a comfort zone,” he says, following up later with: “To develop a skill, we’re going to be uncomfortable, strained, often feeling a little embattled.” He emphasizes that expertise is not the most important quality of an effective educator: “We need instructors that know their subject—and know ways to explain their subject.” Boser even puts himself of the spot, suggesting that readers should question whether they believe an author’s arguments in order to bring analytical thinking to a subject, which will cement that knowledge (or their rejection of the author’s thesis) deeper in their brains. There’s a lot to absorb here, but happily you have an expert teacher guiding you now on your own path toward effective learning. --Adrian Liang


BOTY-Upstream.jpgUpstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table by Langdon Cook

A few years back, Langdon Cook wrote The Mushroom Hunters, an unusual book about the underground economy of fungi foraging and the weirdoes and outsiders who fuel it, which we leveraged for this little boondoggle. His latest, Upstream, does the same for salmon, following the paths of these essential fish from spawning grounds and hatcheries to the tables of exclusive restaurants – a voyage spanning history, culture, adventure, politics, and commerce. [Full disclosure: Lang is a former colleague who occasionally pulls Chris and me out to the river for some tortured attempts at fly fishing. It’s not that he’s a bad teacher.]


BOTY-Gene-Machine.jpgThe Gene Machine: How Genetic Technologies Are Changing the Way We Have Kids--and the Kids We Have by Bonnie Rochman

As the father of a preteen boy, I've seen enough Godzilla movies to understand that our capability often outpaces our foresight, and genetic manipulation opens the door to unimaginable possibilities. Where once parents could choose to know the gender of their unborn baby, our understanding the human genome can now forecast disabilities and predisposition for particular diseases later in life, including cancer. The science is complex and confusing, and the ethical dilemmas are self-evident. Bonnie Rochman has witnessed the advance of gene technology first-hand - as both a journalist and a mother - and her recent book, The Gene Machine, expertly unravels this brave new world of family engineering, from both scientific and human perspectives.


BOTY-Big-Chicken.jpgBig Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats by Maryn McKenna

Ever wonder where all the chicken is coming from? I do, and as I always suspected, I'm not sure I feel better knowing. In Big Chicken, McKenna - a journalist who who reports on public health and food policy - tracks the path of this most common fowl and food source from backyard coops to the (let's face it, horrible) antibiotic-soaked "industry" that fuels our hunger for cheap wings and nuggets. Bwok-bwok.



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