The best science writing leaves us humbled and inspired. Humbled by the vastness, strangeness, and wondrousness of the natural world, and inspired by the ingenuity and passion with which scientists (and citizens) have tried to understand and protect it. David Quammen and Sy Montgomery’s writing does this. And that’s why I was thrilled to speak with them about their craft at the American Writers Museum on August 16, 2018. These folks are giants of the field!
I asked them to share a few works of science writing that have humbled and inspired them.
For a complete list of Sy’s picks, check out her new book How to be a Good Creature (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
This is a classic account of animal behavior by the man who founded the field now known as ethology. His careful and detailed observations of graylag geese, crow-like jackdaws, and even cichlid fish are not only scientifically revealing, but also filled with respect and affection for each animal as an individual.
This title introduced me to an author whose work helped found the modern environmental movement. I bought this, her third book, as a discard at a library sale the first year I began work as a newspaper reporter. I wasn’t yet an environmental reporter, but I wanted to learn about seaweeds and snails. I became a devotee of Carson’s sharp eye and lyrical voice and sought out her later works, including Silent Spring, her sweeping expose of the chemical poisoning of the natural world.
This was an important book for me at the very beginning of my career as a science writer. It’s a history of molecular biology told in 600 pages of small print, filled with characters like Francis Crick, Francois Jacob, and Rosalind Franklin. When it was published in 1978, I was given it to review by The Christian Science Monitor. I’d just started writing non-fiction and wasn’t capable at the time of appreciating how great it was. It’s magnificently challenging, detailed, lucidly reported, and does not pander to the lazy reader.
Lewis Thomas was a physician at Sloan-Kettering. He was a very humane, literate man, and he was invited to write a column for The New England Journal of Medicine. He wrote these wonderful little essays on health and humanness. The Lives of a Cell collects 29 of these essays, one of which is titled “An Earnest Proposal.” It’s just six pages long, and it’s about the importance of humility in the face of scientific advances, in particular computational advances. He writes about how powerful computers had become — that they could run trajectories for numberless, nameless nuclear-armed missiles at once, poised to fly at a second’s notice. His earnest proposal is that our missile systems should be programmed such that they couldn’t be launched while our knowledge of life’s diversity and dynamics is so incomplete. He spotlights the case of one termite species, containing one bacterial symbiont in its gut. The bacterium is a spirochete. It attaches somehow in the gut lining of the termite and makes possible the digestion of cellulose. Thomas takes this case from his readings of Lynn Margulis. At the end of his essay, combining termite biology with thoughts of nuclear apocalypse, he imagines the computer system’s response, clacking out of the printer: “Request more data. How are spirochetes attached? Do not fire.”
Alexander von Humboldt was a globetrotting explorer, scientist, environmentalist, and the second-most famous man in Europe after Napoleon. So why haven’t you heard of him? Writer and historian Andrea Wulf’s fabulously entertaining book aims to restore Humboldt to his rightful place in science history. Not only did this singular polymath pioneer the idea that nature is an interconnected system, but, Wulf argues, he was also the lost father of environmentalism.
In 2016, scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) announced that they’d finally measured gravitational waves. They’d detected a tiny ripple in the fabric of spacetime, caused by a long-ago cataclysmic collision of two black holes. The detection required a billion dollars and more than a thousand scientific collaborators.
But as astrophysicist Janna Levin tells it in her history of LIGO, that ain’t the half of it. Over its 50-year-plus existence, LIGO was threatened by personality clashes, management missteps, and the sheer scope and difficulty of the project itself. The book is a beautiful look into the personalities and passions that drive science forward, through the eyes of a black hole scientist.