Science Is Not Notable

Scott Eric Kaufman draws my attention to the fact that the New York Times has posted its Notable Books for 2007 list. The list is divided into “Fiction & Poetry” and “Non-Fiction,” and Scott correctly notes that the “Fiction & Poetry” books all have terrible blurbs, but I’d like to point out a much larger problem with the list, relating to the “Non-Fiction” category:

There is not a single science book on the list of “Notable Books” for the year.

There are books on history, books on politics, personal memoirs, collections of critical essays, but nothing about science. There are biographies galore, but no biographies of scientists.

If nothing else, I wouldn’ve thought Natalie Angier’s The Canon would’ve made the list– it got mixed reviews hereabouts, but she works for the Times. But, no. They don’t even list Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein, which has drawn raves.

So, what the hell? Is this some draft version of the list, including everything but science books, or would the Times have us believe that there were no “notable” science books written in the past year? I find that a little hard to believe, given that Amazon managed to find a few, and the Times has reviewed a fair number of them.

If you read any notable science books this year, leave the titles in the comments, so if the Times manages to stumble across this, they can see what they’re missing.

To paraphrase Brad DeLong, why, oh why can’t we have a better Paper of Record?

Comments

  1. #1 Carl Zimmer
    November 27, 2007

    Chad–

    There are a couple points to consider here–

    1. The Times also published annual list of the ten best books, which comes a couple weeks after the 100. The top ten for 2007 hasn’t come out yet, so you can’t say yet that they have left science completely out.

    2. Why, a priori, must the list contain science books? I looked over the reviews of science books in the Times from the past year, and I haven’t found any big raves. If their reviewers weren’t impressed, then why would you expect them to include the books, save for some sort of quota system for science books? I’m stuck by the fact that you did not mention a 2007 science book that you thought was fabulous and should have been on their list.

    Full disclosure: I’ve written a few reviews for NYTBR over the years, and have been reviewed a few times.

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    November 27, 2007

    1. The Times also published annual list of the ten best books, which comes a couple weeks after the 100. The top ten for 2007 hasn’t come out yet, so you can’t say yet that they have left science completely out.

    So the ten best books are not also “Notable” books? That’s counterintuitive…

    2. Why, a priori, must the list contain science books? I looked over the reviews of science books in the Times from the past year, and I haven’t found any big raves. If their reviewers weren’t impressed, then why would you expect them to include the books, save for some sort of quota system for science books? I’m stuck by the fact that you did not mention a 2007 science book that you thought was fabulous and should have been on their list.

    I thought Angier’s book was terrific, and should’ve been on the list. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful in what it’s trying to do, but it’s certainly notable for making the attempt. I’ve heard lots of good things about the Isaacson biography of Einstein as well, though I haven’t read it myself.

    Basically, my feeling is that if they had room on their list for yet another goddamn Princess Diana book, they should’ve been able to find a science book worthy of inclusion.

  3. #3 Stuart Coleman
    November 27, 2007

    My roommate and I saw that list, and given how much I read he figured I’d have read something on it, but no, nothing.

    As for science books, besides The Canon, which I enjoyed thoroughly, there’s Quirkology by Richard Wiseman, and The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo that I read, and all three were quite good.

    It’s also surprising that God is not Great wasn’t on there, given that it was a best-seller for so long. I really wonder what the criteria for that list are, but they’re clearly slanted toward biography and fiction.

  4. #4 estraven
    November 27, 2007

    There is at least a book about scientists in the list, namely The Indian Clerk, a novel inspired by the life of Hardy and Ramanujam. I haven’t read it, but you can’t write a book about these two guys without mentioning some of their mathematics.

    That is, assuming you think mathematics is part of science :-).

  5. #5 Jennifer Ouellette
    November 27, 2007

    It’s saddening, but not surprising… the “paper of record” hasn’t really been my “go-to” place for book recommendations for almost a decade, precisely because it’s so insular and limited in scope.

    And I hear you on the Princess Diana biography… It speaks volumes about what passes as “culture” these days…

  6. #6 TFox
    November 27, 2007

    From the list:

    HOW DOCTORS THINK. By Jerome Groopman. (Houghton Mifflin, $26.) Groopman takes a tough-minded look at the ways in which doctors and patients interact, and at the profound problems facing modern medicine.

    THE INVISIBLE CURE: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS. By Helen Epstein. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Rigorous reporting unearths new findings among the old issues.

    I take it you don’t consider medicine to be a science…

  7. #7 RickD
    November 27, 2007

    Re: TFox

    “HOW DOCTORS THINK. By Jerome Groopman. (Houghton Mifflin, $26.) Groopman takes a tough-minded look at the ways in which doctors and patients interact, and at the profound problems facing modern medicine.”

    No, that doesn’t really sound like a book about science to me. Sounds like a book about doctors.

    “THE INVISIBLE CURE: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS. By Helen Epstein. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Rigorous reporting unearths new findings among the old issues.”

    Looking through the review of this book, I would say it’s more about public health than about science.

    Sure, there are no bright lines between medicine and science, but a lot of discussions of public health issues are not considered “science”, unless you think counting how many men use condoms is science. It’s science-like, certainly.

    I am interested to hear why Chad thinks these two books wouldn’t qualify. My personal opinion is that the second book would be considered borderline while the first is definitely not “science”. The sociology of doctors is not science.

    To the general question “Is medicine a science?” I think it depends on what facet of medicine you are considering. Science is involved in medicine, but the day-to-day business of treating patients is not “science” any more than running an assembly line is “engineering”.

  8. #8 Harry Abernathy
    November 27, 2007

    I would say David Lindley’s “Uncertainty” was one of the best science books of the year. The NYT even gave it a favorable review.

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    November 27, 2007

    Regarding the two medical-themed books, what RickD said. The first of those is about relations between doctors and patients, which is potentially fascinating, but not really about the science of medicine. The second is about the poltiics of AIDS in Africa, which again is a potentially fascinating topic, but not about science. (In a similar vein, I wouldn’t count Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science as a science book– it’s a book about politics, not science per se).

    I would say David Lindley’s “Uncertainty” was one of the best science books of the year. The NYT even gave it a favorable review.

    I wasn’t sure whether that was a 2007 book or a holdover from 2006. a little Googling turns up a 2007 release date, though, and I would certainly agree it should be on the list. I posted a review back in June, and bought a copy for myself after initially borrowing it from the library. It’s an excellent book.

  10. #11 jason
    November 27, 2007

    It would be interesting to look back at the last few years of NYT book reviews and see if this holds. Someone else can do it, though. I don’t want to sully my hands with that rag.

  11. #12 Thomas
    November 27, 2007

    Chad how about the best Science books of 2007 from you as a response. Frankly I am new to your site, via Instapundit, but realized there are a few people I’d like to give a holiday present to and a good recent science book would be perfect.

  12. #13 Shannon Love
    November 27, 2007

    I note there are also no books related to business.

    I think I we are seeing a list that reflects the parochial interest of intellectuals educated solely in the humanities.

  13. #14 Chad Orzel
    November 27, 2007

    Chad how about the best Science books of 2007 from you as a response.

    The single best science book I read this year was a 2006 book, new in paperback this year, The Theory of Almost Everything by Robert Oerter. It’s probably the best, most concise explanation of modern physics that I’ve ever read.

    That was followed closely by David Lindley’s Uncertainty, and Natalie Angier’s The Canon, whose reviews are linked above. There are some other book reviews available via the “Science Books” category in the left sidebar, but those three stand out as the best of the lot.

    Honestly, I was kind of hoping to use this thread to get other people to suggest good science books to me…

  14. #15 Daddy
    November 28, 2007

    It appears to be happening across the pond as well. I visit Paris generally once or twice a year. Shakespeare’s New/Used English Language bookstore, just across the river from the front door of Notre Dame Cathedral is my favorite in the City. Was unhappy to see the 3 or 4 shelves of Science had vanished when I stopped in last week. The clerk said they didn’t have a Science section anymore, the Science books instead were “just sort of scattered all about in other sections”. Depressing.

  15. #16 Caledonian
    November 28, 2007

    The fad of science popularity seems to be coming to its end. The fact that science requires a lot of unpopular and/or inconvenient stances on various fashionable and important issues is likely involved as well, but all fads end sooner or later.

  16. #17 bibliobibuli
    November 28, 2007

    i really enjoyed daniel gilbert’s “stumbling on happiness” and alan weisman’s “the world without us”

    i’m a very lay reader, never took science to any high level at school, and am so grateful to writers who can interpret science for me … and do it entertainingly

    thanks for your other recommendations on this page

  17. #18 Mark Cody
    November 28, 2007

    I’m reading Chances Are…: Adventures in Probability by Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan. Just finished This is your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin.

  18. #19 Nick
    November 28, 2007

    How about “Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming,” by Bjørn Lomborg or “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” by Gary Taubes (a NY Times writer).

  19. #20 RickD
    November 28, 2007

    re: 16
    “The fad of science popularity seems to be coming to its end.”

    Fad? Was there a fad of science popularity? For as long as I can remember, science has been at best modestly popular. I see no bumps in recent years.

    “The fact that science requires a lot of unpopular and/or inconvenient stances on various fashionable and important issues is likely involved as well, but all fads end sooner or later.”

    Translation: Caledonian has some non-science opinions that he justifies by calling them “science”.

    Science doesn’t “require a lot of unpopular and/or inconvenient stances”. Not as far as I can tell.

  20. #21 ech
    November 28, 2007

    Also, as an aside, there was no SF on the list and only one Fantasy novel – the last Harry Potter novel.

  21. #22 Carl Zimmer
    November 29, 2007

    In comment #1, I suggested we wait till the top ten books were also announced. Well, here they are. Once more, no science love.

  22. #23 Chad Orzel
    November 29, 2007

    In comment #1, I suggested we wait till the top ten books were also announced. Well, here they are. Once more, no science love.

    All ten are also on the “Notable” list, so it didn’t add to any category.

  23. #24 Caledonian
    November 29, 2007

    Science doesn’t “require a lot of unpopular and/or inconvenient stances”. Not as far as I can tell.

    The absense of a comforting deity? The evolution of life? The utter wrongness of young Earth hypotheses, which are required for certain scriptural texts to be accepted as literally true?