Science History in All Its Guises | Wyatt’s World

As readers of Stephen Jay Gould (The Mismeasure of Man) and Mary Roach (Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers) well know, science books don’t have to be dry and dense to qualify as illuminating reading. This fall a number of science history books further prove that point, offering readers such delights as the development of ballooning, the vast history of paper, and the detection of a chemical that points a finger at murderers.

  • On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History by Nicholas A. Basbanes (Knopf, Oct.). We think of paper as something to write on or upon which text has been printed, but Basbanes takes readers on a smart, delightful, and deeply engaging tour of the multifaceted history and uses of paper—from its origins in China 2,000 years ago and the role it played in the development of mathematics to the creation of tea bags and its uses in the production of literature.
  • Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize by Sean B. Carroll (Crown). In one of those wonderfully odd convergences, French biologist Jacques Monod and author Albert Camus—both would go on to become Nobel Prize winners—met and worked together during World War II, collaborating on the production of the French Resistance newspaper Combat. Carroll’s dual biography vividly evokes their relationship, as it explores the period’s setting and the duo’s wartime, scientific, and philosophical contributions.
  • The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science by Sandra Hempel (Norton, Oct.). If you’ve ever wondered how the Victorians determined when poison was used in a crime, Hempel offers a fascinating, lively, and detailed account of the creation of tests employed to detect the presence of arsenic in murder victims—a substance that had long gone undetected. Adding to the interest of her fine history of murder and forensic science, Hempel frames her investigations around a gripping true crime case of a wealthy man who died under mysterious circumstances in 1833.
  • Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air by Richard Holmes (Pantheon). The history, science, and technology of ballooning make for a charming and captivating subject as Holmes surveys the many ways balloons have been used for military, expeditionary, entertainment, and scientific purposes. There is the French aeronaut who entertained with aerial acrobatics, the military planners who spied the benefits for reconnaissance, and the dreamers and explorers who had visions of lofty, floating flight. In this winning work, Holmes captures them all as well as the spirit of the times.
  • Wicked Intelligence: Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London by Matthew C. Hunter (Univ. of Chicago). Set in the late 17th century, Hunter’s work mixes art and science as it explores how members of the Royal Society created various kinds of images as a way to understand and visualize the philosophy of the science they were pursuing. He also explores how, in the process of their investigations, the scientists formed extraordinary collaborations with artists. Hunter’s book is an academic achievement but is also for anyone interested in the convergence of science and art and the subject of visualization. A wicked work on intelligence within the experimental culture of Restoration London.
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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at