There’s a misconception that some carry around after tossing their graduation caps and cleaning out their high school lockers that reading about science is boring. And while, yes, the subject matter in the wrong hands can be tedious and dull, some of the best stories come out of scientific serendipity, odd foot notes, and tangential study. One of my favourite genres to read is what some refer to as “cocktail-party science”. Likely, this is intended as a disparaging remark, conjuring up a vision of a 1960s affair where the ladies have long drapey silk scarves that they toss about saying, “Psshaw, science! I don’t even know the meaning of the word!” and the men all have oddly tight-fitting suits and giant cigars stuffed into the corners of their mouths as they guffaw themselves into a thick cloud of smoke.
So, here’s a short (hah!) list of some of my favourite nonfiction (science) authors and titles; the ones that will have you bothering those in your immediate vicinity with bursts of, “Did you know…?” and, “Listen to this…” until they sigh heavily, gather up their things, and find somewhere else to sit/work/live:
Sam Kean: Look, I’m not even going to pretend that this whole blog post wasn’t initially a thinly veiled love letter to Sam Kean’s writing. He tops out all my lists of accessible, fun to read nonfiction, exploding with facts that I have to read aloud to my cat because my husband has had, in his words, “enough, already”. Kean’s first book, The Disappearing Spoon, covers the curiosities of the periodic table (stay with me), his later books delve into genetics (The Violinist’s Thumb), neuroscience (The Case of the Dueling Neurosurgeons), and coming out this July a title about the most captivating topic of all: air! (Caesar’s Last Breath).
Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. Mary Roach is another science journalist who grabs onto a subject and shakes it until all the fun stuff falls out. She then slams that fun stuff between book covers and makes a million dollars*. If you’re not interested in the details, dangers, and possibilities of space travel, Roach has also covered the topics of digestion (Guts), the alimentary canal more generally (Gulp), sex (Bonk), human cadavers (Stiff), the afterlife (Spook), and, most recently, the history of warfare (Grunt).
If the word “cadavers” up there sparked your interest, you should also check out Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Dr. Judy Melinek. This title follows Dr. Melinek’s years working as a forensic pathologist (she started her training in New York City just two months prior to September 2001), as well as countless bizarre and fascinating cases of investigating and determining cause of death.
If you’ll permit me to stretch this macabre topic a little further: there’ve also been a few books written about those trying out employment at crematoriums and funeral homes. Try out The Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty, and Curtains: Adventures in Undertaking by Tom Jokinen which takes place at a local Winnipeg funeral home.
Okay, let’s lighten things up a bit with a little ornithology: The Thing with Feathers: the surprising lives of birds and what they reveal about being human by Noah K. Strycker. If you’ve ever wanted to cross the threshold into the realm of bird journalism, you’ve found your entry point. It’s a thoroughly engaging, almost poetic look at the lives of our winged friends. But, caveat lector: this one comes with a high likelihood of bombarding those around you with factoids aplenty.
Want something lighter still? Amy Stewart covers the understated and quietly terrifying world of both plants (Wicked Plants) and bugs (you guessed it, Wicked Bugs). If you’re interested in never taking another hike without incessantly glancing around as though the whole world was trying to take you out, these are books you’ll want to devour. If you’d rather examine plants for their more useful qualities, try Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist for how to incorporate your yard/park/local plant conservatory (don’t try that last one, it probably won’t end well) into your next nightcap.
If bugs aren’t small enough for you, I suggest you try I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong. Yong examines the world of microbes and their critical importance for all life on earth, both large and small. Thoroughly readable, this study of all the microscopic beings that take up residence in and on our bodies will have you rethinking the concept of ever being truly alone.
Lastly (because I have to stop this rambling at some point), for those who may “psshaw” their way through a discussion of scientific merit, take a peek within the pages of ASAP Science: answers to the world’s weirdest questions, most persistent rumors & unexplained phenomena by M. Moffit and G. Brown. With a title like that, I’m sure it needs further explanation. Based on the successful YouTube channel (AsapSCIENCE), this book covers important topics like if your eyeballs could really fly out of your head when you sneeze and why we tend to hate photos of ourselves, all while using science! It’s also filled with cartoony illustrations to help break up all those darn words. For an ever-so-slightly more sophisticated mash-up of science and graphics, you simply must get your hands on The Infographic Guide to Science by Tom Cabot which is pretty much a never ending picture playground for nerds. It’s chock-full of brightly coloured and immaculately designed infographics starting with the Big Bang and concluding with Artificial Intelligence which, if Hollywood has taught me anything, is truly where we will all meet our end.
I guarantee** if you get a few of these titles under your belt you’ll have ample fodder for your next cocktail party. Would you pick up a science nonfiction title the next time you pop into the library? Have a favourite title I missed? What should I read next? These are all engaging questions.
*This may be both a gross oversimplification and exaggeration
**absolutely not a real guarantee