It seems fitting that an eventful year in science — discovering the Higgs boson particle, landing the Curiosity rover on Mars, Superstorm Sandy — should also bring a rich crop of books about science and health for the general reader. Here are five titles that show up on many a “Best of 2012” book list:
Hallucinations, by Oliver Sacks (Knopf)
Columbia University neurologist Oliver Sacks began writing about medical cases in his first book, “Migraine,” in 1970. Now, in “Hallucinations,” he gathers cases of people who have seen, heard, smelled and felt unusual things — from a reappearing dead grandfather to, in one case, Kermit the Frog. Unlike most of his peers, Sacks is not reticent about including his own experiences — with LSD, morphine, amphetamines and sleep drugs — in the mix. The result is a literate and readable account of his research into the curious doings of the human mind. Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times.
Nate Silver impressively used his statistical models of polling results (fivethirtyeight blog) to predict the 2012 presidential election results. In this book he assesses the (often worthless) state of the art of prediction, as applied to finance, baseball (another Silver specialty), politics, health, weather and the economy, and suggests how we might improve predictions of global warming, terrorism and market bubbles. Washington Post reviewer John Allen Paulos finds the strength of the book to be the data-rich detail Silver provides about each field, and his analysis of why predictions are generally much better in some than others.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen (W. W. Norton & Company)
Nearly two-thirds of the infections we fear most as a species — influenza, West Nile virus, H.I.V., bubonic plague — begin in the bodies of animals. In “Spillover,” nature writer David Quammen documents the convergence of animal science with human medicine as he recounts adventures with microbe hunters trapping bats in China and hysterical monkeys in Bangladesh. NYT reviewer Sonia Shah calls Quammen “vivid and erudite,” but also “cheeky and incisive” in describing how science really works. Above all, Quammen is an exuberant storyteller.
The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World, by Sean Carroll (Dutton Adult)
Singled out by Science as Breakthrough of the Year, the confirmation of the elusive Higgs boson particle — “an intellectual, technological, and organizational triumph” — was the subject of much media hoopla in 2012. In this book, reviewed here by Oxford physicist Frank Close, Caltech scientist Sean Carroll takes us behind the scenes at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. The author himself comments here on the PBS NOVA blog.
Darwin’s Ghosts, by Rebecca Stott (Spiegel & Grau)
When Charles Darwin finally published “On the Origins of Species” in 1859, he struggled to credit other thinkers who had contributed to his theory of evolution. Rebecca Stott, in her second book on Darwin, chronicles those contributions, from Aristotle to Diderot to Lamarck, in this engaging history of an idea. Reviewed in the New York Times by Hugh Raffles.
Also worth a look is a medical detective story published in 2010 but still going strong on the best seller list: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (Broadway), which recounts how tumor cells taken (without permission) from a poor black woman lived on in thousands of laboratories and become a foundation of modern medical science.