Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune .
Whether we realize it or not, we live in a world dominated by science. Science and scientific inventions are all around us—cars, planes, medicines and vaccines, genetically modified food, solar and nuclear power plants, to name a few. Although the majority of us might never understand the inner workings of a nuclear power plant or the details of stem cell research, it is important for us to understand their significance, the issues they raise and their political implications. This is why building bridges between the scientific community and the public becomes essential for scientific progress. In other words, it’s important for scientists to tell us what they’re working on and for us to understand their work.
Many scientists have educated us about their fields, including Isaac Asimov , David Attenborough , Richard Dawkins , Richard Feynman , Stephen Hawking , Steven Pinker  and Carl Sagan . Science writers and journalists do that, too. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ” by science writer Rebecca Skloot (Crown Publishers, 2010) tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old black mother of five who suffered from cervical cancer. In 1951, Lacks came to Johns Hopkins, and doctors took tumor samples without her or her family’s knowledge. These samples were used to create HeLa, the first “immortal” cell line, which has aided in developing numerous treatments—from the polio vaccine to AIDS. Henrietta died, but her cells live on, benefiting medical science and countless lives. Yet Henrietta’s family has never been financially rewarded for her “immortality.”
Mary Roach, author of “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex ” (WW Norton, 2008) and “Stiff: Curious Lives of Human Cadavers ” (WW Norton, 2003), takes her readers to the unique universe of space travel in “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void ” (WW Norton, 2010). Roach describes the physiological, psychological and emotional aspects of long-term space immersion as well as its prosaic realities: disposing of waste, bathing, eating, having sex and getting sick. Written in a matter-of-fact tone with a hint of wry humor, this book is not for the queasy.
Stephen Hawking (“A Brief History of Time, ” Bantam Books, 1998) and Leonard Mlodinow present “The Grand Design ” (Bantam Books, 2010), an exploration of the three central questions of philosophy and science: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? The authors employ no equations to explain the physics of the matter. Instead, they give an excellent overview of contemporary cosmology and physics by using word pictures and analogies to everyday experience.
Science editor and writer Manjit Kumar describes the early 20th-century clash between physicists who did and did not believe in quantum theory as a representation of “reality” in “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality ” (WW Norton, 2010). Filled with vivid characters and keen insights, this book makes for a great read even for those without a scientific background.
Speaking of colorful characters, figures of eccentric or outright mad scientists have loomed large in the popular imagination for centuries, for example Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein ” (1818), Dr. Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ” (1866), Dr. Moreau in H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau ” (1896) and others. The 20th century added real villains to that fictional list. “Doctors From Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans ” by Vivien Spitz (Sentient Publications, 2005) covers the trials of 20 doctors and three medical assistants charged with crimes against humanity and calculated genocide. Spitz recounts the suffering of concentration camp inmates, who were forced into high-altitude chambers and sent to 68,000 feet without oxygen, kept in tanks of ice water until they died, infected with malaria, exposed to mustard gas, coerced into drinking seawater and subjected to other so-called “medical” experiments.
“Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution“ (WW Norton, 2009) by Nick Lane (“Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life ,“ Oxford University Press, 2005) explores 10 significant milestones in the evolution of life: the creation of DNA, photosynthesis, the evolution of complex cells, sex, movement, sight, warm bloodedness, consciousness and death. Lane does a masterful job of explaining the science of each, while pointing out what is fairly well-known and what is currently a reasonable conjecture. This might not constitute leisure reading, but the effort is undeniably worthwhile.
Before we finish our science field trip, let’s peek into the future as projected by science writer Matt Ridley in “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves ” (Harper, 2010). Ridley does not buy into doom-and-gloom scenarios. He believes humanity is moving in a positive direction as it has done throughout the course of human history. The book weaves together economics, archaeology, history and evolutionary theory, leading its readers to the conclusion that humanity, as well as ecology, will be better off in the next century than it is today.