Books

In praise of science books

The New York Times list of "The 10 Best Books of 2007" came out a few weeks ago. As usual, no science books made the cut. In fact, since the list's inception in 2004, no science book has been included. This year, the Times introduced another list, "100 Notable Books of 2007." Even with a 10-fold increase in number, only one science book -- Jerome Groopman's "How Doctors Think" (Houghton Mifflin, 320 pages) -- made the list.

What's going on here? Does the Times find science unimportant? Or do its editors believe that writers failed to produce even one science book worthy of their annual Top 10 lists? If the Times neglects science books for these reasons -- and it's hard to imagine any others -- then I have a bone to pick with its editors.

Science books are crucially important to the way we think and live. In their monumental 11-volume series "The Story of Civilization," historians Will and Ariel Durant identified three books that shaped the mind of modern Europe. All three were books about science.

In "On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres," published in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus showed that the Earth revolves around the sun, a revelation that led to the stunning conclusion that the Earth is not the center of the universe.

Isaac Newton invented physics in his masterpiece "The Principia" (1687). For the first time, using his laws of motion and gravitation, one could not only accurately predict the motions of the planets, but one also could understand why they move as they do.

Charles Darwin, of course, proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection in his book "The Origin of Species." To call this 1859 book important is to understate its impact. As one scientist put it, "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Another possible reason for the Times slighting science books this year might be a paucity of good ones. And though 2007 was not a landmark year for science books, some very good ones were published. I will mention just two.

Walter Isaacson's biography "Einstein: His Life and Universe" (Simon & Schuster, 704 pages) is as smoothly written as a good novel. The author traces the scientist's life from his youth as a freewheeling Bohemian rebel to his older years as a frizzy-haired, sad-eyed cultural icon.

More important (for a science book anyway), Isaacson shows how Einstein's theories changed our concept of space and time. Gravity, Einstein said, is the warping of the fabric of space-time by matter. As one physicist put it, "Matter tells space-time how to curve, and curved space tells matter how to move." Gravity was no longer a spooky, unexplainable force acting between distant bodies. This combination of good story, good writing and good science make this a notable book of 2007 -- despite its omission by the Times.

Another excellent science book published during 2007 was Jessica Snyder Sachs's "Good Germs, Bad Germs" (Hill and Wang, 304 pages). The science in this book is less exalted than that in the Einstein biography -- but more practical. She introduces the reader to an unseen world that exists all around us: the world of bacteria. Along the way, we learn a lot about these tiny single-celled organisms. For instance, only 10 percent of the trillions of cells that make up your body are yours. The rest are bacteria. Most of these bacteria are beneficial. But, Sachs points out, some are deadly, as recent headlines about deaths from MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) attest.

The biggest guns in medicine's antibacterial arsenal are broad spectrum antibiotics. However, these powerful drugs kill not only unwanted bacteria but also our good bacteria, the bugs that keep us healthy.

Sachs closes her book with several common-sense suggestions for dealing with bacterial diseases. Instead of declaring war on bacteria by overusing broad spectrum antibiotics, she advocates a gentler approach in which the treatment of disease is "less a war on an invisible enemy than a restoration of balance." This is surely a new idea to many Americans. But without the publicity from Top 10 (or Top 100) lists, the book will probably not get the wide readership it deserves.

Science books are as important today as they were when Isaac Newton penned "The Principia." And good new ones appear every year.

Why do they get so little attention from one of America's leading newspapers? Obviously, no one but the editors can answer that question. So I am sending a copy of this essay to those editors. But I'm not holding my breath waiting for an answer.

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