“I haven’t got around to reading Richard Dawkins until now because I thought of him as primarily a rabid atheist. But in The Greatest Show on Earth, he not only marshals the evidence for evolution but describes the processes and nitty gritties of how species adapt with an eloquent enthusiasm that I found both exciting and moving. From cutting-edge detail (including his reports on ongoing work and still-controversial debates) to the grander bird’s-eye view, Dawkins is superbly persuasive, and he makes the world sound more magical rather than less. My favourite detail is the way he describes how cells form into lines and then structures through a movement called ‘invagination’: the world creating itself not with a phallic thrust but with a vaginal pull!
“The savvy, funny doctor Ben Goldacre takes on both woo-woo quacks and Big Pharma in Bad Science. How he’s managed to make a book about statistics, data mining, randomized double-blind studies and meta-analysis such a page-turner, I’m still not sure. But I think it’s a matter of tone: he sounds as if he’s talking directly to me, a fairly intelligent person who is really not sure why she’s buying homeopathic cold remedies for her children. He makes sense of such outrages as the anti-MMR-vaccine movement and the misreporting of a tiny increase in British children reporting having tried cocaine as ‘Cocaine floods the playground: doubles in a year’. In distinguishing between truly scientific research and reportage, and the merely ‘sciency-sounding,’ Goldacre has taught so many readers how to take shock headlines with a pinch of salt and ask the necessary questions.
“It could be partly because I haven’t read anything about chemistry since I was sixteen (and my teacher back then was a real dud) that I was so stunned by Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon. But I do think this particular chatty study of the periodic table has both punch and charm. Kean portrays the 112 elements out of which we and everything are made as real characters, with dominant traits and oddities, histories and anecdotes of their own. And the relationships between them are in some ways even more interesting: I was left with a sense of the universe being conjured out of the desires and aversions of elements for each other’s company.
“What authors have I discovered lately? Two new writers who shape their novels around scientific issues, giving readers the kind of intimate, moment-by-moment, embodied understanding of something that perhaps only fiction can. Laline Paull’s dystopian debut The Bees turns the pollination process and environmental damage into a gripping, sensual story you’ll remember longer than any article about colony collapse disorder. And Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing, an unlikely mystery about a seventy-year-old murder, told by the most unreliable of narrators, is the most convincing portrayal of the mental loops and eddies of dementia I’ve read.”