From a dancing epidemic to the future of sex dolls: Science reads for everyone

One of the many joys of science is that it’s applicable to so many elements of our lives. That means even those not particularly interested in the subject will, without realising it, come into contact with fascinating science and technology every single day.

When it comes to science reads, this translates into a vast array of titles ranging from the impenetrably in-depth to accessible science for all.

The books below focus on the latter, covering a variety of topics but all equally engaging and entertaining.

From championing forgotten women to rare wildlife, the space race to a dancing epidemic, science has it covered – as do these picks for World Book Day 2023. 

12 Bytes by Jeanette Winterson

Do you know where the term computer bug comes from? Or what Wi-fi actually stands for? Whether you want fun facts like these to store away for pub quizzes or an endlessly fascinating history of how technology got to where it is now – and where it might go next – look no further than Jeanette Winterson’s latest offering. 

The future of sex dolls? Covered. What religion might AI choose for itself? It’s in there. Cyborgs? Obviously.

Add in some long overdue recognition for the many women who’ve made enormous contributions to the field, starting of course with the mother of computer programming Ada Lovelace, and reading this you’ll learn more about AI than you thought possible without even realising it. All without a piece of code in sight.

P.S. The answers are Grace Hopper and absolutely nothing.

Humans: A Brief History Of How We F*cked It All Up by Tom Phillips

If you’re after a glorious mix of science and history to stoke up laughter, horror and incredulity, this is the book for you. On a whistle-stop tour of human history, Tom Phillips highlights just some of the bad ideas and weird occurrences along the way, from moving species from one continent to another with disastrous effects, to polluting rivers so badly they burst into flames.

However, it’s not just one long telling-off – there’s plenty of curios in here too. For instance, did you know that, since the 1960s, epidemics of unstoppable laughter have spread across schools in Africa? Similarly between the 14th and 17th centuries, outbreaks of uncontrollable dancing were common across Europe. No one knows why.

And that’s before we even get to the mass panic over potential penis theft…

The Importance Of Being Interested: Adventures In Scientific Curiosity by Robin Ince

Those familiar with Robin Ince’s comedy radio series The Infinite Monkey Cage, hosted alongside Brian Cox (the professor, not of Succession fame) will know he likes to cover a broad range of subjects in his search for knowledge.

The same is true of this wonderfully curious and thought-provoking read, which kicks off with musings on skepticism and flat-Earthers before moving on to religion, time travel, the universe and beyond. What could be beyond the universe you might ask? Well for starters, philosophical musings on what will happen at the end of the universe which will bamboozle you more than what might be beyond it (if it’s always expanding, what’s it expanding into?!).

And after that, several more chapters, each of which will have you scratching your head and turning the page, it being impossible not to read on.

A Life On Our Planet by David Attenborough

National treasure Sir David Attenborough reliving his life in front of the lens alongside nature’s most wonderful creatures – what’s not to like? Well being honest, it’s not the most cheerful book on the list, given it details the shocking decline in biodiversity witnessed by Sir David during his decades observing our natural world. He also describes what future may lie in store for us and the planet if we don’t address the combined ecological and climate crises – and it isn’t pretty.

But while many would quickly fall foul of this tightrope traversing both preachy and doom monger, Sir David’s unimpeachable authority and affable tone make this book difficult to take issue with – much like the man himself. 

Although essentially a paper version of his 2020 Netflix documentary, it’s well worth taking the time to absorb his message the old-fashioned way. 

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

More stories of the women forgotten by science – who knew there were so many? Well, all the women working in science and making huge discoveries for starters.

Of course, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson finally did receive due credit for their role in landing man on the moon when Hollywood came calling, turning Margot Lee Shetterly’s book into an Oscar-nominated film. But like Sir David Attenborough’s story, this story is better when it is given the time it deserves, to fully appreciate its many nuances and layers.

And more importantly, to understand all the infuriating and nonsensical hurdles and racism these three brilliant women overcame.

Vaxxers: A Pioneering Moment In Scientific History by Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green

If the space race was a defining moment of the 20th Century, the race for a Covid vaccine will forever be a similarly momentous achievement of the 21st. In less than a year after patients were first struck down with a potentially deadly new virus, three major vaccines were poised to be deployed around the world, and on Tuesday, January 4, the first recipient of Oxford’s AstraZeneca vaccine – Bryan Pinker, 82 – received his jab.

However, it took the two women at the heart of the vaccine, Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green, just weeks to develop the groundbreaking mRNA jab that would go on to save lives.

In this open and engaging account of their journey, the pair share insights into their family lives and daily work, the rollercoaster of emotions as their discovery faced intense scrutiny by the press, and dealing with anti-vaxxers in person and online.

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