Adam Rutherford Picks the Best Science Reads of 2017
The author of the Wellcome Book Prize-longlisted A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Adam Rutherford is used to joining the dots between science, history and storytelling, turning detective to unravel the many and various ways we make sense of our lives. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, he offers his pick of 2017’s most illuminating reads. From a history of plague and damnation that reads like a page-turning novel, to a love letter to outer space and a graphic novel that charts mankind’s progress from the Big Bang to hip hop it’s a genre-defying selection of books that dig into the secrets of our past and look towards its possible future.
What is a science book? I’m not so keen on this type of taxonomy. In biology, the boundaries between closely related species are frequently breached. In my most recent book, I rail against some of these definitions that obfuscate the reality of life moving through time and space, rather than being set immutable in aspic, created not begotten. I use bookshops as a way to demonstrate the sometimes-arbitrary distinctions that we apply to satisfy our natural urges to classify and categorise – Richard Dawkins calls this very human condition ‘the tyranny of the discontinuous mind’. I’ve spent much of the last few years listening to historians, and thinking on the ways we might know the past, as DNA has emerged as a historical source. Like science, history is nothing if it is not evidence based; science also has much to learn from history about how to tell stories. And so, my first choice is the tale of eighteen months that shook the foundations of London and Britain – 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire by Rebecca Rideal. This is also a book that defies categorisation. It is non-fiction, but begins with a cast list like a Restoration play, and reads like a novel. The foundations of my city are laid out as warships explode, pustuled citizens die, and London burns. Rideal lyrically draws a juicy sketch of the coffee shops and society in an age of Milton, Pepys, Wren, Newton, plague and war.
Alice Roberts is one of our very best scientific storytellers. Her latest, Tamed: Ten Species that Changed Our World, is also a history book. She has taken a frequently ignored theme of human evolutionary history, which is how we crafted our own world. The boundaries between natural and artificial selection have been jumped by humans for tens of thousands of years, and her premise is ten organisms that have been modified, designed and evolved by us. She mixes fiction with science with history (and her wonderful sketches) and shows how we are not apart from nature – we are part of it. Humans are embedded in a continuous symbiosis with a living world that we have also sculpted – dogs, apples, wheat, horses and six more.
Angela Saini has written a book long overdue. Inferior: The True Power of Women and The Science That Shows It charts the continuous misrepresentation of women in the history of science. She shows how research is prosaically biased against women – ‘studying men is cheaper’ – and how the culture and politics of science is systemically biased against women. Aside from the obvious societal damage that underwrite these two scenarios, Saini also points out that neither of these are beneficial to research, to understanding the natural world. It’s sharp and elegant, journalistic and important, and necessarily ruthless. My hero is Charles Darwin, I believe the most important thinker we have ever known. I am enamoured with him, as he was also fun, and neurotic, and a family man and an abolitionist and generally an all-round decent guy. But Saini points out that for all those admirable traits he was also an integral part of a systemic, endemic and seemingly perpetual misrepresentation of women. A figurehead he remains, but he was also casually and arrogantly dismissive of women’s intellectual potential.
You’ll all have already bought the latest LEGO® set, Women of Nasa, which celebrates three of the women who made our exploration of the universe possible. Of the many books on space that are out there, none is more joyous in its celebration of our continuing mission than in Ad Astra: An illustrated Guide to Leaving the Planet. Dallas Campbell has written a deeply knowledgeable, meticulously researched, witty and passionate love letter to our attempts to get into space. It is beautiful in words and images.
And for the biggest historical sweep of all, in Out of Nothing, illustrator Daniel Locke and artist David Blandy have crafted an epic graphic novelisation of the entire story of the universe and human creativity. Full disclosure: this emerged from an art-science project that I was involved with, and I helped out with some of the ideas in Out of Nothing, but it is their work, and it is magnificent. Where else can you find a beautifully illustrated story that ranges from the Big Bang to the future of humankind in space, via evolution, chimaeras, the Manhattan Project, genetic engineering, hip hop and the birth of rap, and just as in Alice Roberts’ book, the story of the apple.