Our Favorite Science Books of 2014

Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Amanda Moon

Last week, we asked FSG staff to share their favorite books of the year. This week, authors and editors from our Scientific American imprint expand the list with their favorite science books from 2014.

opens in a new windowInfintesimal

Amir Alexander, author of Infinitesimal:

How Not to Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg—A popular book on mathematics that manages to be smart and sophisticated, yet appealing and entertaining. Ellenberg is a wonderful storyteller, as well as a natural teacher. You read along for the fun and the anecdotes, and by the time you’re done you’ve learned how to look at the world in a new way.

Starlight Detectives by Alan Hirshfeld—Hirshfeld tells the story of a little-known astronomical upheaval which changed our knowledge of the universe as profoundly as the Copernican revolution. As late as the mid-nineteenth century, the fixed stars were mere pinpricks of light in the sky. Their nature was unknown and rarely considered outside the bounds of astronomy. Yet by 1930 these stars were known to be distant and complex suns, aggregated by the billions in massive “island universes” called galaxies, which were themselves receding from each other in a rapidly expanding universe. Hirshfeld brings to life the people, both amateurs and professionals, who built the instruments and made the scientific discoveries that transformed our understanding of the universe.

opens in a new windowFrankenstein's Cat

Emily Anthes, author of Frankenstein’s Cat:

Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman—A historian of science, Braitman became interested in animal minds after her beloved Bernese Mountain dog began to lose his own. In Animal Madness, she explores mental illnesses in animals and discovers that they suffer in many of the same ways that humans do. It’s a fascinating, compassionate read.

Laird Gallagher, Editorial Assistant at Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux:

On Immunity by Eula Biss—While Eula Biss’s fantastic book-length essay has appeared on nearly every Best of 2014 list worth its salt, it’s rarely categorized as a science book. But mixed in with Biss’s searching reflections on motherhood and inventive exercises in literary criticism are a fascinating, in-depth exploration of the history and language of immunology, and a forceful yet measured response to the anti-vaccine movement. On Immunity has it all.

opens in a new windowThe Improbability Principle

David Hand, author of The Improbability Principle:

GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, by Diane Coyle—This book opens with the quote: “In Greece, statistics is a combat sport.” The quote comes from the head of the Greek National Statistics Institute, who faced criminal charges for acting against Greece’s national interest even though all he did was report the statistics accurately. GDP traces the history of the development and use of GDP, the most commonly used measure of national economic performance and progress.

The Martian by Andy Weir—Science fiction in the classic, golden-age model—fairly light on characterization but inspiring in the way the protagonist solves a series of threats through painstaking thought and science. It reminded me of the Apollo 13 incident.

opens in a new windowPersonal Intelligence

John Mayer, author of Personal Intelligence:

Dataclysm by Christian Rudder—As a founding partner of OKCupid with current responsibilities for data analytics, Rudder has a front row seat in the theater of big data—the massive amounts of data social media sites, search engines, and internet providers collect on their users. He has examined a variety of OKCupid’s data, including the characteristics and behaviors of its members. In Dataclysm, he invites us to join him in observing human behavior as manifested by the denizens of his own site and those of Match.com, Facebook, Twitter, and other online venues. I’m most used to seeing big data from the census bureau, government, and supra-governmental organizations such as United Nations surveys. Rudder drew me into the world of commercial big data and addressed phenomena I hadn’t seen before. Rudder was a companionable narrator I enjoyed spending time with.

Amanda Moon, Senior Editor at Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux:

We are celebrating another exciting year of science and nature books here at Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Our books published in 2014 have received incredible attention and praise—thank you to all of our wonderful authors for such a special year. Here are just a few of the books published by other houses that have inspired me in 2014, and a few that are on my nightstand to read this month. Here’s to a joyful 2015.

Animal Weapons by Douglas J. Emlen
What If? by Randall Munroe
The Edge of the Sky by Roberto Trotta
H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald
The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman
The Best American Infographics 2014 edited by Gareth Cook
On Immunity by Eula Biss
The Thing With Feathers by Noah Strycker
Gotham Unbound by Ted Steinberg
Superstorm by Kathryn Miles

George Musser, author of the forthcoming Spooky Action at a Distance:

Serving the Reich by Philip Ball—Ball lays out the story of how so many German scientists in the 1930s were complacent about—or even complicit with—Nazism. You can count on one hand how many stood up to defend Einstein, let alone other Jews. And it wasn’t just a matter of being afraid, but a deep-rooted political conformism that led many to scorn Einstein’s supranational politics. Nor was the problem confined to Nazi Germany. Ball makes a compelling case that the story reveals a broader problem with scientists’ relationship to culture. Scientists have a sense that they rise above petty concerns, which can be noble, but can also serve as an excuse to look the other way.

The Time Traveler’s Almanac edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer—A really great anthology of time-travel science-fiction that includes some nearly forgotten stories that started the genre and predate even H. G. Wells.

Jon Palfreman, author of the forthcoming Brain Storms:

The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally—Like her book, The First Word, The Invisible History of the Human Race is thoroughly researched and masterfully executed.

As for fiction, I recommend Red Joan by Jennie Rooney