Non-fiction


Phasers on Stun: A fun and informative tour of the ever-expanding Trek universe

Phasers on Stun! by Ryan Britt

Phasers on Stun!,
by Ryan Britt, is a breezily informative and fun look at the many (and I mean many) incarnations of Star Trek over the decades since it first appeared on television in the late 60s. While it’s true there isn’t a lot new to say about the original series, and to a lesser extent The Next Generation, Britt still manages for find a few nuggets to offer something fresh to fans, while the later materials covers ground that is far less trodden.

Moving chronologically, Britt begins with several chapters on the original series — its creation, the writing, its politics, and finally its cancelation and the “birth of Star Trek fandom.” From there he moves between the creative output of the franchise and its relation to American society (each being shaped by the other). Included in the discussion are ... Read More

Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of Our Human Senses

Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of Our Human Senses by Jackie Higgins

In Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of Our Human Senses, Jackie Higgins smoothly and successfully merges what could have been two popular science books — one on animal senses and one on human perception. Instead of separating the two subjects, here Higgins uses one as a vehicle for exploring the other.

More precisely, by examining a dozen animal species and focusing on a single sensory trait they possess, Higgins casts a clarifying light on our own sensory abilities, including those we may not even be aware of.

Each chapter focuses on a single creature and sense, as follows:

Peacock Mantis Shrimp: color vision
Great Gray Owl: hearing
Star-Nosed Mole: touch
Common Vampire Bat: pleasure/pain
Goliath Catfish: taste
Bloodhound: sme... Read More

How to Build a Human: In Seven Evolutionary Steps

How to Build a Human: In Seven Evolutionary Steps by Pamela S. Turner and illustrated by John Gurche

I often tell my first-year college students that when they start out doing research, they should begin not with the academic journals, which so many of them do, and not with the newspaper or magazine articles, but with books written for young readers. Because what they want is something that is brief, broad, shallow but informative, easy to understand. Something that strips out the overwhelming details and provides them a strong foundational understanding of the major points so that when they do eventually research more deeply, the details will make a lot more sense to them, will be “fitted into” an intellectual framework they’ve constructed for themselves. I add as well that they are lucky in that they’re currently living in a golden age of non-fiction for young readers, not only in terms of quantity but quality as well.

E... Read More

The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World

The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World by Oliver Milman

I’ve spent the past 27 summers minus two driving from New York out west to hike/camp with my family for 4-6 weeks. That’s 25 cross-country trips (including twice to Alaska but not counting the two I took before meeting my wife) and lots of driving during those trips as well. So much so that I often end up driving as many miles in June and July as I do the other ten months out of the year. Because most of those years I was driving a Prius, I didn’t have to stop a lot for gas. But I still frequently pulled into gas stations. Why? To clear my windshield and headlights of the mass of splattered bugs that were obscuring my sight and dimming my beams.

But I’ve noticed something disquieting the last 10 or 12 years — I no longer need to do that. Sure, I clean my windshield when I fill up the tank, but I no longer have to stop just to do ... Read More

Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds

Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds by Thomas Halliday

I’m going to say something I don’t think I’ve ever said in my reviews of non-fiction works. One of the best things about Thomas Halliday’s science book Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds (2022) is the lack of science in Thomas Halliday’s science book Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds. Let me ‘splain.

What I mean by “lack of science” is a near-absence of the oft-used popular science go-tos, such as: “In fill-in-the-date, researcher X found that …” or, “A recent study published in fill-in-the-date revealed that …” Now, given that this is a popular science book, and Halliday himself is a scientist (a paleontologist), clearly there is science here. And up-to-date science as well, with a slew of citations from 2019 and... Read More

This Way to the Universe: A Theoretical Physicist’s Journey Into Reality

This Way to the Universe: A Theoretical Physicist’s Journey Into Reality by Michael Dine 

This Way to the Universe: A Theoretical Physicist’s Journey Into Reality (2022) is Michael Dine’s worthy contribution to the popular physics/cosmology bookshelf, though readers may have to work a little harder at this one than similar books. That extra work is worth it, though, for this up-to-date and engaging exploration of modern science.

Dine moves between the very large and very small, covering particle theory, quantum theory, the Standard Model, dark energy and dark matter, gravity waves, the expansion of the universe, time’s arrow, Einstein’s various theories, the Big Bang, black holes, the Higgs Boson, string theory, and more. It’s about as comprehensive a book as one could want. And for the most part as lucid as one would want, as well. Though, as noted, not quite as eas... Read More

Dark and Magical Places: The Neuroscience of Navigation: You won’t get lost

Dark and Magical Places: The Neuroscience of Navigation by Christopher Kemp

Once, driving with a friend from Rochester to New Orleans, I woke for my turn at the wheel to have my friend excitedly tell me we’d been making great time, as we were “less than an hour from Philadelphia.” Considering when we had left home, it was indeed “great time,” I told him. Unfortunately, I also had to tell him that Philadelphia was not even close to on the way to New Orleans, and that he’d been speeding in the wrong direction for the last few hours. Similarly, on another trip down south, I woke up to my wife very proudly informing me we were just coming into the city limits. Which would have been wonderful news, save for the minor detail that the city was Louisville, and we were going to Lexington.

I learned two things from these (and multiple other similar situations either driving or hiking). One, don’t ever... Read More

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth by Henry Gee

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters (2021), by Henry Gee is a, stay with me here, concisely told history of life on Earth. Really, it’s all in the title there. So you pretty much know upfront what you’re going to get. A broad, but not deep, fast-paced glide through the major elements of how life evolved from its earliest bacteria days to the more complex (if not “better”) days of, well, us. So put the goggles on and tie down any loose items, because billions and millions of years are going to fly by in a matter of a few pages.

The first chapter, after dispensing with the formation of the solar system and our planet in about five pages, covers the first few billion years on the planet: its atmosphere and geology, and the surprisingly early appearance of life in the form of cyanobacteria followed by eukaryotes an... Read More

Understanding Genes: Might be tough reading for some, and too easy for others

Understanding Genes by Kostas Kampourakis 

Understanding Genes (2021), by Kostas Kampourakis, sits in a sometimes-awkward position betwixt and between a popular science book and a textbook. As such, lay readers looking for simple, smooth, easy-to-follow explanations may want to look elsewhere or be prepared to struggle and/or skim. Those with some background in biology (beyond their high school/early college courses) will fare better.

The intent of the book is a caution against genetic essentialism or fatalism and against the over-simplification, over-aggrandization, and over-simplification of the role genes play in human development generally, but especially (and mostly) with regard to disease. Here’s where the betwixt and between is a bit awkward, because while those who read about genetics only via the newspaper or online/TV news might be subjected to such ... Read More

12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next

12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next by Jeanette Winterson

In 12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next (2021), Jeanette Winterson offers up a dozen essays on Artificial Intelligence divided into four sections: “How we got here” (a dip into the history of computing), “What’s Your Superpower” (a philosophical/religious change in vision of matter), “Sex and Other Stories” (AI’s potential impact on love and sex), and “The Future” (what will change and what might not with the advent of AI). The essays are generally interesting and well written; there’s really not a “bad” one in the bunch. They do, however, still range somewhat in impact; in her introduction Winterson notes her “aim is modest,” and some of the essays, admittedly, don’t exceed that relatively humble goal.
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All of the Marvels: He read all of Marvel so you don’t have to

All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told by Douglas Wolk

I have to confess that I went into Douglas Wolk’s All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told  (2021) with a certain set of expectations, leading to some early disappointment as I read. But once I realized that my expectations were askew, and then eventually (admittedly a bit grudgingly at first) set them aside, I was able to settle in and enjoy Wolk’s work for what it was as opposed to being annoyed by what it was not. And what it was turned out to be pretty good.

Wolk’s book is based on an incredibly stupid idea. And if that sounds harsh, well, it’s only what Wolk himself says about his decision to read all 27,000-plus issues Marvel has put out since 1961, what he labels “the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created.” As he says, about the foolhardines... Read More

The Icepick Surgeon: An intriguing rogue’s gallery of scientific criminals

The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science by Sam Kean 

Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.

~ Albert Einstein

Sam Kean is my favorite pop science author, ever since I read Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us in 2017. Kean has an engaging voice, a solid understanding of science, and a talent for telling stories, making complex subjects both intelligible and interesting to non-scientific readers (tellingly, he studied both physics and English literature). In his latest book, The Icepick Surgeon (2021), Kean turns his attention to the many ways in which science has been twisted to sinis... Read More

Spacecraft: Not exactly what it says on the tin

Spacecraft by Timothy Morton

I’m sure there is an audience for Timothy Morton’s Spacecraft (2021), one of the OBJECT LESSONS series titles. Unfortunately, I wasn’t it. I’m also thinking that based on the title, a number of people might find themselves in my position, a problem perhaps more of expectations than substance.

The OBJECT LESSONS, which I’ve generally been a big fan of, “start from a specific inspiration ... and from there develop original insights and novel lessons about the object in question.” And there lies the expectations problem because from the title, one would imagine the inspiration is, well, spacecraft. And at least at the start, it seems to be the case, as Morton offers up his youthful love of spacecrafts, his clear enduring enthusiasm, an insightful distinction between spaceships and space... Read More

The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars

The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars by Simon Morden

Simon Morden’s The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars (2021) is a detailed look at the history of Mars’ geology, and there lies both its appeal and, for some, perhaps, its lack of appeal. As fascinating as much of the book is, I confess it sometimes got a little too deep into the weeds (or the rock formations) for my own preferences, though having “too much information” is hardly a major indictment for a non-fiction work. And certainly the questions about how much water Mars had and when/for how long are fascinating, as is their connection to the possibility of life on the supposedly “dead” planet.

Morden begins, well, at the beginning. Or technically, if we’re talking about Mars, before the beginning, starting instead with the formation of the solar system and then explaining how the various planets, including Mar... Read More

Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution

Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution by Elsa Panciroli

Let’s face it. When it comes to discussion and portrayal of ancient/extinct life in modern culture, dinosaurs rule. They rumble, lumber, sprint, pounce, trumpet, and roar across our screens and pages, across bedspreads and pajamas. Their names trip merrily across the tongues of children as they reel off Latinate terminology and eras like an auctioneer at a livestock sale. The “Rex” in T-rex may as well refer to the King of the Lizard’s place in our collective minds as much to its role as an apex predator of its time.

Pity then the poor early mammals, who can’t help but be overshadowed (literally and figuratively) by their massive cousins. Well, no more. Paleontologist Elsa Panciroli speaks for the mammals! And luckily for us, she does so in fantastic fashion. In sharp, concise, vivid prose, she’s here to tell us to forget everything we... Read More

How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch: In Search of the Recipe for Our Universe

How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch: In Search of the Recipe for Our Universe by Harry Cliff

Harry Cliff takes the title for his wonderful non-fiction work, How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch (2021), from the TV series Cosmos, the original one narrated by Carl Sagan, not the most recent Neil DeGrasse Tyson version (you should watch both, btw). Early on in his book, Cliff recounts how in one of the episodes Sagan “turns to the camera and with a twinkle in his eye says, ‘If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.’” Well, in the 40 years since Cosmos, humans have managed to figure out a few more ingredients and a few more steps in the recipe, and Cliff is here — with his own stylistic twinkle — to explain it to those of us who aren’t astrophysicists, particle physicists, theoretical phys-, well, let’s just say those of ... Read More

Asteroids: How Love, Fear, And Greed Will Determine Our Future in Space

Asteroids: How Love, Fear, And Greed Will Determine Our Future in Space by Martin Elvis

Asteroids: How Love, Fear, And Greed Will Determine Our Future in Space (2021), by Martin Elvis, is a thorough and wonderfully detailed exploration not of asteroids as objects (which he does do to some extent), but of the possibility of our interacting with them in order to a) prevent them from killing us off as one did (maybe) to the dinosaurs, b) exploit them for resources, and c) use them as a stepping stone for further exploitation of space. If you thought the idea of asteroid mining belongs only in the realm of science fiction, Elvis will (probably) convince you otherwise.

Elvis opens up with the required concise overview of just what asteroids are: what their composition is, the different types, where they are found, etc. He then divides the book into three sections: Motive, Means, and Opportunity. Each broad cat... Read More

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures (2020), by Merlin Sheldrake, is an always informative and often fascinating look at the (mostly) hidden world of fungi. There’s a lot more to them than those shitakes you’re adding to your stir-fry and Sheldrake makes for an enthusiastic tour guide to all that lies beyond the edible mushroom (though he touches on those too).

Sheldrake begins with truffles (he goes on a truffle hunt with a couple of dogs and their trainer) and uses this early part to introduce us to the basics of fungal life and their development on Earth. Like the entirety of the book, this section is filled with choice details (a 2 to 8000-yr-old fungus in Oregon taking up ten square k... Read More

A Short History of Humanity: A New History of Old Europe

A Short History of Humanity by Johannes Krause & Thomas Trappe, translated by Caroline Waight

A Short History of Humanity: A New History of Old Europe (2021) is, as one might expect from the title, a surprisingly concise volume covering a lot of ground. It is also, thanks to the combined efforts of its co-authors — Johannes Krause, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology; and Thomas Trappe, a science journalist — an authoritative, informative, accessible, and engaging work of non-fiction.

The focus of the book is archaeogenetics, a recent field that uses newly created technology and new discoveries to “decode ancient genomes, some of which are hundreds of thousands of years old … uncovering not only the genetic profiles of the dead, but also how their genes spread across Europe … [and] sift[ing] out DNA from bacteria that cause deadly disease.”

Migratio... Read More

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human by Jeremy DeSilva

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human (2021), by Jeremy DeSilva, is an eminently readable non-fiction work. I read through it in as single sitting, propelled forward by DeSilva’s prose and enthusiasm, and I was captivated throughout, as well as ending up much better informed about our species’ evolution and bipedalism (along with learning why I’ve ended up with so many sprained ankles, inflamed Achilles, bad knees, and a bad back).

DeSilva is a paleoanthropologist, but more than that, he’s an expert in the foot. More than that, he’s an expert on the ankle. If that sounds an absurdly narrow focus, I’ll let him explain it:
We are trained this way [hyper specialization] because paleoanthropology is a science of fragments. In six weeks at a fossil site, we may find a couple of hominin teeth, and if we are lucky, a hom... Read More

Einstein’s Fridge: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe

Einstein’s Fridge: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe by Paul Sen

At some point in your schooling you learned the Laws of Thermodynamics. And then, at some point shortly thereafter (or at least, shortly after the test on them), you promptly forgot them. And even if you later in life you kept up with reading about science, well, there was always something sexier to read about: black holes, new particles, rovers zipping around on Mars. But in Einstein’s Fridge: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe (2021), Paul Sen is here to argue thermodynamics deserves both your attention and your respect, seeing as how it lies at the foundation of just about all our technological advancement. And darn if he doesn’t make the case.

On the one hand, the Laws (Sen really focuses mainly on the first two), are pretty simple to formulate: energy can neve... Read More

Life’s Edge: Searching for What It Means to be Alive

Life’s Edge: Searching for What It Means to be Alive by Carl Zimmer

In the past year alone, humans have landed multiple devices on Mars, retrieved samples from the Moon and not one but two asteroids, delved ever deeper into the Earth, and shattered records for the recovery of DNA from ever-older specimens. Meanwhile, plans are being hatched to zip a helicopter around Titan to examine its pools of liquid hydrocarbons, fly a probe through the geysers of Enceladus to collect samples, scoop surface ice off Europa, and use the next generation of space telescope to examine the atmospheres of exoplanets light-years away. All in the search for life.

Given all that time, effort, and money, one could be forgiven for assuming that we know what we’re looking for. But, as Carl Zimmer makes explicitly clear in his newest popular science work, Life’s Edge: Searching for What It Means to be Alive (2021), that’s ... Read More

The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves

The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves by Arik Kershenbaum

Usually, when one thinks about “universal laws,” the first disciplines that come to mind are mathematics and physics. Pi, or the law of gravity, for instance. But in The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves, Arik Kershenbaum makes the case for “universal laws of biology.” And then further argues that said laws, which we can formulate based on our experiences and observations here on Earth, can be extrapolated to consideration of just what sort of alien life we may encounter out there in the vast reaches of the universe. And methodical and logical as Kershenbaum is in making his case, he never loses touch with the sheer wonder at its core, making for an utterly enjoyable and absorbing read.

At the center of Kershenbaum’s c... Read More

First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time

First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time by Emma Chapman

In First Light (2021), Emma Chapman covers the earliest eras of the universe’s existence, particularly focusing on what astronomers, due to their lack of information, call the “Dark Ages,” from about 380,000 years to one billion years after the Big Bang occurred. Even more specifically, her interest lies with the creation of the first stars and the current attempt to find out more about them.

Despite the focus, Chapman manages to bring in a host of other astronomical discoveries/investigations: the Cosmic Microwave background, inflation, dark matter, space telescopes, radio astronomy, Fast Radio Bursts, black holes, the Great Oxygenation Event, and others. She also goes on a variety of non-astronomical tangents involving King Tut’s tomb and pigeons (yes, pigeons).

Chapman does an excellent job explaining some compli... Read More

Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media

Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media by Valerie Estelle Frankel

Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media (2020), by Valerie Estelle Frankel, pretty much lays it all out in the title. Starting in the earliest days of comic books and progressing through the decades to the present, Frankel explores a boatload of characters, the famous and expected (Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Black Widow, Storm, Catwoman) and the lesser known and unexpected (Rulah Jungle Goddess, Pow-Girl, Veda the Cobra Woman). The breadth is a definite strength of the book, though I found myself wanting more depth, especially as when it was there it was insightful.

After a brief introduction, Frankel first moves chronologically through “The Classic Super Eras,” discussing Sheena, The Wasp, the Powerpuff Girls, and Captain Marvel, amongst others. Then the sections ar... Read More