Angela Saini's Favourite Reads of 2020
A celebrated science journalist, broadcaster and bestselling author, Angela Saini is known to many for dismantling the pseudo-scientific theories supporting misogyny in her book Inferior, and for tackling destructive untruths about race and eugenics in her latest, Superior. We are delighted to have Saini recommend her favourite popular science reads of 2020 in this exclusive piece.
Recommendations for my five top popular science books of 2020
For more than a decade I’ve been running a non-fiction science book club in London, and we’ve been trying to find more science writers from Asia and Africa. Whenever we have, we’ve been richly rewarded, most recently enjoying the powerful memoir The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by engineer William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, published in 2009. But it’s frustratingly difficult to find more books like this one. I’m disappointed that in the twenty-first century still only a tiny minority of published science books are written by people of colour, and even fewer by writers outside Europe and the United States. It’s a loss to us readers to not be able to share in the stories of those with different perspectives, inhabiting different worlds of knowledge. How else are we to know that science is not just a Western endeavour but has always been a global one?
That said, there have been some gems in science writing this year. My first unreserved recommendation is Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias by behavioural scientist Pragya Agarwal, a thoughtful and detailed investigation into bias and the subtle ways in which it plays out in all our lives. It is jam-packed with clear and referenced data, warning us that we need to be smarter in the ways we fight our battles for equality because bias manifests even in those who believe themselves to be completely free of it.
A perfect companion to Sway is Sexing the Body by gender scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling, which was first published twenty years ago, but has been re-released this year in a revised edition. Astoundingly, it hasn’t lost an ounce of relevance. It is a testament to how ahead of its time this book is, and I would particularly urge those trying to navigate the current contentious debates around sex and gender to read it. No scholar has been immersed in this topic more deeply and for as long as Fausto-Sterling has. As she shows, even many of the basic assumptions we make about sexuality and sex differences are more complex than they seem. It is a perfect antidote to the rash of essentialist books we’ve seen lately about women’s bodies and health that often fail to acknowledge the true scope of individual human variation.
It was a second-hand book about inventions that first got me into science and engineering as a child, and I felt the same tingle of excitement reading The Alchemy of Us by materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez. She lucidly explores eight well-known inventions from a leftfield perspective, drawing in lesser-known characters and tangential stories. There’s a lovely story here about how the railroads helped commercialise Christmas by making it easier to transport cards and presents, turning it into a popular holiday in the United States in the nineteenth century. Ramirez’s beautifully written book is the perfect reminder that science and engineering sit firmly within society, both affected by culture and in turn affecting it.
We rarely see science written from a personal angle, but in The Smallest Lights in the Universe, leading astrophysicist Sara Seager offers a glimpse into how work can sometimes provide solace when faced with extraordinary personal heartache. Her startlingly raw and matter-of-fact memoir, documenting the death of her father, then her husband, and having to suddenly face life at forty as a single mother of two children, is interlaced with her ground-breaking research looking for other planets able to sustain life. As her book reveals, no great scientist becomes great on their own. There is often a supporting cast of family, friends, colleagues and household help, allowing genius such as hers to have the space to flourish.
The introduction to Shikake: The Japanese Art of Shaping Behaviour Through Design, a fun and easy read by former artificial intelligence researcher Naohiro Matsumura, asks us to stop depending on data and computers, and instead focus on the spaces around us and how we relate to them. I feel we sometimes have dysfunctional relationships with our built environments, surrounded as we in cities and towns by street furniture and signs. Matsumura’s design philosophy takes a step back, and looks at the gentle ways in which our spaces can be shaped to elicit better behaviour or offer up happy new experiences, from rubbish bins that make us want to use them, to public staircases we would rather climb than taking a lift. As we enter a post-Covid world, it may even provide some inspiration about how to socially distance without feeling rotten about it.
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