It is hard to hold onto the fading season when we are bombarded by commercials for school supplies. Embrace the contradiction and take one last stab at summer reading with these nonfiction titles, each offering educational illumination with an infusion of fun.
From sand that sings to moaning trees to a sewage tunnel that wraps speech into a sound spiral, acoustic engineering expert Trevor Cox provides a global excursion through peculiar, puzzling, and astounding soundscapes in The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World (Norton. 2013. ISBN 9780393239799. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393242829). With a gift for vivid description, clear research, and an endless excitement for the topic, Cox encourages us all to listen more attentively to the world. As he tours London, the Mayan pyramids, the American West, and more, he shares the delights of various sounds and reveals the ways they are created—from naturally occurring phenomena to human-made resonances.
Mathematics professor Jordan Ellenberg answers the age-old question, “When will I ever use this?” in a charming fashion in his clever and deeply engaging How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking (Penguin Pr. 2014. ISBN 9781594205224. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698163843). Math, as Ellenberg makes abundantly obvious, is not the dry and oddly disconnected set of rules many of us were taught in school. Rather it is fundamental to understanding the world, practical for living in that world, and profound in its application. Ellenberg describes the glories of the science by working through commonplace problems—such as when to leave for the airport—and uses it to explain everything from politics, the lottery, and uncertainty itself. His book, both demanding and rewarding, delivers a refreshing take on math reimagined.
With gory cheer and great wit, Sam Kean gives a fascinating history of brain science in The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery (Little, Brown. 2014. ISBN 9780316182348. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780316242257). Through a series of intriguing stories, Kean explores how those in the field learned about the brain by studying it in various states of traumatic injury or diseased decline. He begins with Henry II, King of France, whose death from a jousting wound helped early scientists understand concussions. He ends with the most famous account in neuroscience, that of Phineas Gage and what his spectacular circumstances revealed about consciousness and personality. In between are dozens of tales, each building on the last to paint a vibrant and enthralling portrait of the brain.
Another meander through science is Mark Miodownik’s absorbing Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World (Houghton Harcourt. 2014. ISBN 9780544236042. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780544237049). In chapters that address such ordinary resources as steel and plastic to those that deal with the marvels of paper and foam, Miodownik weaves a story-rich examination of the materials that shape our lives. For example, he discusses a foam that looks like a block of solid smoke used by NASA to capture star dust and glass made by meteors—so valued it was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. His winning tone and brisk style serve readers well as they are ably led through explanations of what stuff is, how it came to be, and what it represents.
The costs of national security take an environmental turn in Joshua Horwitz’s engrossing War of the Whales: A TRUE STORY (S. & S. 2014. ISBN 9781451645019. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781451645033). With strong storytelling skills and great heart, Horwitz writes about how a marine biologist and an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council took on the U.S. Navy in a hard-fought and fraught attempt to stop practices that caused the mass deaths of whales. Top navy and defense brass stonewalled investigations and brought all the power of the George W. Bush administration to bear, but the lawyer and biologist never gave up. Through his gripping report, Horwitz takes his audience deep undersea, into the halls of the Pentagon, and, finally, to the nation’s highest court.
The stranding and death of whales is not one of the many examples of species loss treated in Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Holt. 2014. ISBN 9780805092998. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780805099799), but it well could have been as she surveys how humans are changing the environment. From increasing carbon dioxide levels to the deliberate annihilation of whole species, we are altering the planet, impacting global wildlife, and, as Kolbert argues in her evenhanded and well-evidenced scrutiny, approaching the point of ecosystem collapse. Kolbert’s writing is muscular and riveting as she brings readers to visit various canary-in-the-coal-mine locales and interviews scientists in the discipline. She details what is happening with rigor and insight and remarkably, based on her grim findings, with a touch of hope.