Summer is here, which means vacations for lots of people, which means “beach reading”– trying to read a book or two while kicking back somewhere. The ideal beach read is something that isn’t so heavy as to bring you down or demand too much attention, but is also serious enough that it’s not embarrassing to be seen in public reading it.
Clearly, the best choice for beach reading this summer is How to Teach Physics to Your Dog– it’s got real, solid physics, but also a talking dog. What more could you want?
What if you’ve already read How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, though? Are there other scientist-approved books for beach reading that you should be checking out? Well, the Washington Post is here to help, with a list of books recommended by scientists (for some value of “scientists, anyway”).
What do we learn from this list? Well, basically, we learn that scientists don’t read new books. Only 22 of the 28 books on the list were written in the last ten years. The split between fiction and non-fiction was exactly even– 11 of 14 fiction books were pre-2000, as were 11 of 14 non-fiction books. Admittedly, this has a lot to do with the phrasing of the question (“We asked several of them to name their favorite beach reads over the years, both novels and nonfiction with scientific themes.”), but still, this isn’t exactly selling scientists as cool and up-to-date individuals. A couple of them list only fiction written in the 1960’s or earlier– I’m not sure if this is because they haven’t liked anything more modern, or because the last time they read a novel on the beach was in 1968.
In the interests of establishing a little pop-culture credibility for scientists, though, let’s throw this open to the wise and worldly readers of ScienceBlogs:
Recommend two books written in the last ten years, one fiction and one non-fiction, that have some science element and would be good beach reading.
I’ll put my choices below the fold; you leave yours in the comments. Between us, we ought to come up with a better list than the Post did.
On the fiction side, my first choice would be to recommend Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books, which are science fiction novels in which the main character progresses through the plot by thinking like a scientist– she reasons her way to some surprising conclusions about the nature of her world, and the people and creatures inhabiting it. That would be cheating, though, because while two of the four books were written after 2000, the first two were significantly earlier.
Sticking to the strict rule, then, I’ve got two recommendations, one serious and one frivolous. The serious one is Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, which won awards and thus shouldn’t really need me to publicize it further. The frivolous one is Charlie Stross’s The Atrocity Archives, which is a deeply silly Lovecraft-meets-Dilbert sort of thing– not to all tastes, but if you like this sort of humor, it’s good fun.
On the non-fiction side, aside from How to Teach Physics to Your Dog (also available in Portuguese, in case the beach you’re reading on is near Rio), I can recommend another physics book that I really did read on a beach, or at least on a patio overlooking the Caribbean while on vacation in the Virgin Islands: The Theory of Almost Everything, Robert Oerter’s book on the Standard Model. It’s a great popular-level introduction to the fundamental physics that we know to be true, without racing off into speculative stuff that might not work out in the end.
So, those are my science-themed beach read recommendations. What are yours?