What I Learned from Reading a Science Book A Month in 2016

science, books, 2016, resolution, scientists, how stuff works, book reviews, planet, universe, time, life, biology, epigenetics, Henrietta Lacks, Andrea Wulf, sea, planet

So. I finally did it. I stuck to my new year’s resolution and read a science book a month for 2016. 12 science books. 12 months. Done and dusted. Mission accomplished.

I have to admit, I was really surprised that I managed to achieve this! I thought I’d give up halfway through, that I’d forget about it or find the books too hard to follow – or bother trying to follow -and eventually instead return to another re-read of Harry Potter. (Which I ended up doing too, but I also managed to finish my science books aka my homework of 2016! ūüėČ )

But that’s the beauty of today’s popular science books, though. One thing I’ve learned this year is just how many popular science books there are out there and how they manage to explain everything in nice, easy-to-understand layman metaphors. ¬†And believe me, this is coming from the girl who struggled through algebra and didn’t touch one science subject outside of the general science classes – no physics, no geometry, no chemistry, no nothing. I somehow managed to scrap through school while understanding¬†nearly¬†zero¬†about science.

It also made me realised that, honestly, science textbooks do really need to be rewritten. In A Short History of Nearly Everything,¬†Bill Bryson commented on this very tendency of textbook authors to ensure their material never roused the slightest hint of interest in students and how this insipidity dampened his first youthful interest in finding out how stuff¬†works. I must say I agree with him on this. However, if they dealt out popular science books in class rather than the dull old textbooks, I think I would have found the subject a hell of a lot more interesting and fallen in love with science far, far sooner. I mean, where else would I find out that scientists in the Royal Society once attempted to trap a spider in a circle of unicorn’s horn powder or about the French mania for ballooning in the 1970s? Or that Mendeleyev, the Russian chemist who created the periodic table, was inspired by the game of solitaire or that the first Danish colonists in Greenland may have survived the harsh winters if they had only asked their Inuit neighbours for help?

In fact, it was Bryson’s book that kind of started this whole thing by becoming my first science book of 2016. It remains one of my favourite books of 2016 and one which I would enthusiastically recommend as a starting point for anyone who is interested in learning more about science.

Once I had earned a basic understanding of science from Bryson’s book, I decided to go back to the very beginning and turned to learning about¬†time and the origins of our world¬†from two great modern scientists, Stephen Hawking and Sean Carroll. From there, it was a skip and a hop to¬†the oceans, where the very first signs of life began¬†(Rachel Carson’s¬†The Sea Around Us) to the continents (with Andrea Wulf as she traced the footsteps of Alexander Von Humboldt), before returning to Paul Hoffman’s theory of Snowball Earth. From there, I turned to the subject of humans on earth with Jared Diamond’s insights into why ancient civilisations like the Mayans and Vikings collapsed before looking to present and future with Gaia Vince to see what we are trying to do to safeguard the precious resources and fragile ecosystems of our planets.

I then left Earth briefly to head into space for a little bit of asteroid mining with John S. Lewis. It’s an intriguing subject with many implications for the ways we mine our future resources, but one which I think needs much further exploration before enough weight can be lent to the subject to create a truly satisfying book. From there, I returned to Earth to study biology, first looking at the scientific achievements created with the help of Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells, then at what the future holds for us in terms of epigenetics and modern biology.

I finally finished the year off with a collection of essays written by scientists and writers summing up the various scientific achievements and highlights of the Royal Society, a collection put together and edited by none other than Bryson himself, the man whose book I first began the year with.

It has been an illuminating and entertaining journey, a pilgrimage of sorts into the heart of the world that we live in, and one which I believe everyone should attempt to undertake at least once in their lifetime. After all, is it not our duty and responsibility to at least try¬†and make an effort to understand the world around us? The world that we were born into and to which we belong and which belongs in turn to us? To ponder the questions of who we are, where we came from and where we’re going? Are not these some of the most fundamental questions in the universe?

We might not have all the answers, but the ones we have are pretty amazing. To follow along on this journey of science is to seek to grapple with just what time is, and to understand the concepts of space-time and imaginary time (yes, the latter does exist – just ask Stephen Hawking!). To know that when we hear the crackle of white noise, we are also listening to the remnants of the Big Bang that created the universe, or that when we look at the stars we are looking at light that has travelled thousands, even millions of years from the past to reach us where we are today. To know that scientists have now detected the sound of two black holes colliding and future genetic research could be the key to discovering the cure for cancer and dementia.

There is also a cautionary tale which plays like a refrain upon this journey, the warning signs of the effects our actions have on the planet we live on. As Gaia Vince writes in¬†Adventures in¬†the Anthropocene,¬†we have¬†entered a new epoch – the titular Anthropocene – in which humanity¬†has become the main driving force of changes in Earth’s climate and environment. The melting of icecaps, the growing deforestation and desertification in countries all over the world, the rising ocean levels that is¬†steadily reclaiming masses of land in countries like the Maldives and Bangladesh,¬†the changing of the seasons which is occurring later and later each year, the droughts and unexpected frosts that have devastated acres of agricultural crops, the extinction of certain species and biological modifications of others, these all and more are being driven by a certain force and that force is man.

But it is not all bad news. Mankind has survived this long throughout the years because of our ability to adapt and innovate. It may be that humanity will have to look to the skies, as many are doing now, to attain the resources we need to survive. Or we could turn to other Earth-bound innovations such as the people who are attempting to stop glacier warming by painting mountains white or turn landfill into artificial islands or create artificial coral reefs to aid marine biodiversity. Jared Diamond has already outlined the environmental and societal reasons why civilisations fail and the ways in which we can avoid following this path, and Gaia Vince has shown us a cautiously optimistic view of the future in which the Earth we inhabit might not look like what we’re used to now, but at least it would be an Earth where humans can still survive and propagate.

Because in the midst of our arrogance in shouldering aside climate change warnings, in pointing out that the Earth has experienced plenty of sharply contrasting seasons of ice and heat, we forget the key point – our planet will endure. It has undergone many transformations and will keep on enduring in spite of climate change and global warming. But humanity might not necessarily have the same luck. Because though our planet will endure, despite rising oceans, shrinking continents, drying rivers and lakes and mass desertification, humanity itself, with our need for drinkable water, fertile land for crops, a protective atmosphere to shield us from¬†harmful radiation and enough landmass to keep us from being overcrowded and potentially killing each other in mass genocide to claim what few resources remain, may not. The Earth will survive all this – but we and our children and our children’s children may not.

And that is why it is so important that we take care of the planet where we live, not least of all because it is our planet and the only one we have. And to take care of our Mother Earth, we need to first understand and learn all we can about it. And that’s not a difficult task at all, but one which will certainly capture our hearts and our imagination with all its wonders and marvels.

As Hamlet said, “There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” There is truth in this, for as any scientist will tell you, there are more things on heaven and earth than we could ever dream of. Things which are worth striving to discover and to understand, to crack the code of the universe and to hold in our hands the secrets of the stars, the earth and of our world.

Stay tuned for a future post on what my reading resolution for 2017 will be!

Below are the list of my 2016 science reads and their reviews:

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll

The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

Snowball Earth by Gaia Vince

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond

Adventures in the Anthropocene by Gaia Vince

Asteroid Mining 101 by John S. Lewis

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey

Seeing Further: Ideas, Endeavours, Discoveries and Disputes РThe Story of Science Through 350 Years of the Royal Society by various contributors; collected and edited by Bill Bryson

 

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