Note: I originally wrote this post in a bit of frustration, and so I’ve drawn a line through much of the latter half that has more to do with science education and not the list. I still find it a bit strange than not one science book made it to the list when there were, in my opinion, some “notable” science books out this year, but some of my reaction to this was more of a rant than anything else. I’m not saying that there should be X number of science books on the list, but it’s hard to believe that in a list of 50 books (being that half the list was fiction) not one science book was picked. Perhaps what makes a notable science book is different from what makes a good history book or a biography and that is what makes the difference, but I don’t agree that 2007 was simply a “bad year” for science books and there wasn’t anything worthy of the list. Also, the list of Top 10 Books for 2007 has been released and (as I expected), no science book made that list either.
I don’t often get the chance to read new books as they hit the shelves ($24 and up for a 200 page hardcover is out of my price range) and so I’m often a bit out of the loop when it comes to what new books are out, but I find it hard to believe that there was not one notable science book published in 2007. At least, that’s what the New York Times says.* As fellow Scibling Chad Orzel notes, I would have at least expected Natalie Angier’s The Canon, and I’ve heard good things about Bernd Heinrich’s The Snoring Bird and Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, too. Even among books that are not directed at the most casual of readers, this year saw the publication of Prothero & Foss’ The Evolution of the Artiodactyls, Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu’s Evolution, and Cheny & Seyfarth’s Baboon Metaphysics. (Two “new” Stephen Jay Gould books also came out this year, Punctuated Equilibrium and The Richness of Life, although both were compiled from material published previously.) Are we to believe that none of these books were “notable”?**
If science is missing from the non-fiction section of the list, what made the cut? I haven’t read any of the books on the list, but there is a lot of politics, history, medicine, religion, and biography, but the closest thing to a science book is Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure (hat-tip to the anonymous commenter). The New York Times cannot have missed all the science books released this year as it has reviewed a number of them, and even Amazon.com was able to pick out a list of good science books that were published this year (most notable among the Amazon list being The Last Human by Sawyer, et al. and Proust Was a Neuroscientist by fellow Scibling Jonah Lehrer of The Frontal Cortex). Still, even though science books at least make an appearance on the Amazon.com list of 100 editor’s picks they’re in a slim minority
, and the absence of science books in general, I think, speaks to the poor understanding of science so prevalent in America. Indeed, while science is often seen as useful in developing medicine or technology, most people just don’t care about science that cannot be so directly applied to making their lives “better”, even being resentful that their tax dollars are funding a study the mating habits of a particular insect (or so it was once put to me by someone who held such a view). Despite the vast library one could accumulate on any given scientific subject, most people simply are indifferent to science, and for some reason science books are often thought to be more boring than any other given work of non-fiction. Perhaps I represent the other end of the spectrum, only taking a break from popular and technical scientific books to read Terry Pratchett now and again***, but it is disheartening to see that so many people have opinions on scientific issues (i.e. evolution, anthropogenic global climate change) but don’t want to be bothered to educate themselves on those very subjects. As I’ve said before, this absence of any science books from the NYT is an illustration of the paradoxical image many people have of science in America and reflects the sad state of science comprehension in this country.
As yet another Scibling, Carl Zimmer of The Loom, notes in the comments, the top 10 list for 2007 has not come out yet and a science book may yet make the cut, so it would be dishonest to say that science has been overlooked altogether (I was not previously aware that a top 10 is published after 2007 is officially closed).
**For some given value of “notable.” What makes a notable science book likely differs in a number of ways, especially since there are always some things in a science book that other authorities will disagree with, and perhaps it’s this fact that makes it difficult for scientists who review books to truly write raves. What makes a work of fiction, or even a biography, notable is going to differ substantially from what makes a science book notable, and I think this could be part of the reason why no science books made the list. Then again, I’ve got my own bias and maybe there really weren’t any notable science books this year, and if that’s the case then I guess I’ve got no reason to complain, but I don’t think that this is the case.
***As Carl Zimmer notes in the comments, my own reading stack is “woefully imbalanced” and I make no apologies for this. Just to be clear, however, I am not suggesting that everyone should only read science books and that the list should have at least X number of science books on it, but it is a bit disappointing to see that science is not represented at all on the notable list. Indeed, I mentioned my own reading habits if for no other reason to illuminate the other end of the spectrum, and what I read is mostly directed by what I’m interested in. If I wanted to learn about WWII, I would guarantee that my reading list would be dominated by history books as I would want to give myself a firm grounding in that subject. My “science overdose” doesn’t mean that I think that only science is worthy of study but because I am genuinely interested in the topic and there is a lot of information that I want to know, but I’m not suggesting that science books are the ONLY books. We all read based upon our interests, and I try to answer questions that I have about certain topics rather than seeking a balance between different varieties of nonfiction.