Summer reading 2016: Science

Clive Cookson picks his books of the year so far

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The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters, by Sean B Carroll, Princeton £18.95/$24.95

Carroll, a molecular biologist and geneticist, describes how biological systems are regulated on vastly different scales, from wildlife on the great African plains to microscopic cells within a living organism. These “Serengeti rules” are not hard and fast, like those in physics. But they can help predict, for example, the effect of reintroducing extinct species into an ecosystem.


Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, by Janna Levin, Bodley Head, RRP£17.99/ Knopf, RRP$26.95

Levin, a professor of astronomy and physics at Columbia University, describes the scientific background to the first detections of gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space-time — announced this year. Her account of the human relationships and political arguments behind the research is excellent, too.


Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Our World, by Greg Milner, Granta, RRP£14.99/ WW Norton, RRP$27.95

The riveting story of how the Global Positioning System evolved from a US military project to make bombing more accurate into a global utility underpinning the world’s communications and transport infrastructure. Milner also makes fascinating side excursions, for example into the ancient navigation systems that guided Polynesians around Pacific islands and into the way satnav affects the human brain.


The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, Bodley Head, RRP£25/ Scribner, RRP$32

Mukherjee follows up The Emperor of All Maladies, his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on cancer, with a sweeping history of genetics that takes us from the pioneering work of Gregor Mendel through early 20th century eugenics, the Watson-Crick discovery of DNA and on to the current “gene editing” revolution. He looks ahead with some ethical trepidation to the future use of artificial intelligence for reading and writing DNA.


Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe, by Lisa Randall, Bodley Head, RRP£25/ Ecco, RRP$29.99

Randall, another physics professor with a gift for storytelling, links the demise of the dinosaurs to the sun’s passage 66m years ago through a thin disk of “dark matter” in our Milky Way galaxy. That dislodged a gigantic rock from its orbit in the outer reaches of the solar system and hurled it towards the sun, until Earth got in the way. The theory is speculative but Randall tells it with great verve.

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