Science for Summer

Science for summer: Beach reads for curious minds

Washington PostJune 29, 2014 

Reading about neuroscience may not sound like the ideal way to lounge at the pool, but Michio Kaku is one of those rare science writers who appears to be just as comfortable on the set of “The Daily Show” as he is in a traditional academic setting.

ANDREA BRIZZI

For this summer’s reading list, these books – all published in 2014 – explore the future of innovation from different perspectives. Some of the authors are YouTube stars with devoted online followings; others are academics or researchers who are just now crossing over into the mainstream. All share the ability to explain advances from sometimes arcane scientific fields – neuroscience, genetics or synthetic biology – in a way that generates a broader public discussion about the future we want as a society.

“The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind,” by Michio Kaku (Doubleday, $28.95). Reading about neuroscience may not sound like the ideal way to lounge at the pool, but Kaku is one of those rare science writers who appears to be just as comfortable on the set of “The Daily Show” as he is in a traditional academic setting. His earlier books – “Physics of the Future” and “Physics of the Impossible” – made him a YouTube favorite. Now now he’s back with an overview of what might be possible in the future for the human brain: uploading memories, telekinesis, and playing our thoughts and dreams the same way we might a motion picture.

“Super Cells: Building with Biology,” by Nina Tandon and Mitchell Joachim (TED, $1.99/Kindle). If you’re a fan of TED talks, check out one of the latest entries in the TED Books series. Tandon and Joachim take us on a whirlwind tour of the latest developments in bioengineering and synthetic biology. At under 100 pages, it is a quick way to get updated on the latest advances in an emerging field the authors refer to as “bio-design” and maps out the amazing future of the cell, as it is used for everything from creating personalized human tissue replacements to growing new types of food.

“The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age,” by Astra Taylor (Metropolitan Books, $27). There’s a sense, increasingly expressed online, that something is just not quite right with digital technology – we give so much power to huge Internet giants such as Google and Facebook that all the former utopian potential of the Web remains unrealized. We were promised a “revolution” and ended up with something more like a “rearrangement” of power and influence. Taylor argues that the Internet is actually contributing to the types of inequality that we observe throughout society and changing how we think about art and culture. If you’re wondering why the Internet is full of stories about cats instead of deep investigative journalism, this may be the book for you.

“The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt, $28). At first glance, Kolbert’s book – with a woolly mammoth on the cover – would appear to be a book more about the past than the future. The title refers to the five great extinctions in the world’s history. The sixth is humanity’s own, brought about by radical changes to the planet’s ecosystem. Kolbert asks a poignant question: How is it possible that a technologically advanced society is slowly but methodically destroying itself? She brilliantly explains why such factors as biodiversity matter and why humanity needs to change its future by first realizing what it is doing to the planet. She draws on the latest thinking in fields ranging from geology to marine biology to explain how and why extinction happens.

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