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10 science sagas for a pandemic holiday season

‘Tis the season for holiday books — but this season is like no other in the 13 years since we began offering gift guides for science books.

This year, gift giving isn’t the only reason for the season’s reading recommendations: With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, it’s useful to have a good book by your side as you weather the winter in relative isolation. It’s still possible to get a healthy dose of science fact (or fiction) while we’re waiting for the vaccine (and for science writer David Quammen’s future book about the pandemic).

I’ve put together a list of 10 recently published books that should be well-suited for these unprecedented pandemic holidays. Some provide diversion. Others offer food for thought (for example, what happens once the pandemic ends?). Still others suggest experiments you can do with your kids in the kitchen, or curiosities to look for as you take holiday strolls with your pandemic podmates. All of them are worth considering for your gift list — or your own winter reading list.

Nonfiction books

Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World: The pandemic may still be with us — but Fareed Zakaria, who hosts a news show on CNN and writes for The Atlantic and The Washington Post, is already looking ahead to the lessons learned. Those lessons have to do not only with virology, but also with the way society works.

Zakaria argues that the post-pandemic world will be markedly different from the pre-pandemic world, due to even bigger paradigm shifts that have gotten an extra push from COVID-19. “It is unlikely that we will ever fully go back to the past,” he writes.

The Body

The Body: A Guide for Occupants: More than a decade ago, Bill Bryson made Cosmic Log’s holiday book roundup for “A Really Short History of Nearly Everything.” Now Bryson brings his sense of wit and wonder to a similarly sprawling scientific subject: the body.

Bryson’s guide takes you through human anatomy, including a discussion of the “nether regions” that’s smart rather than smutty. He touches upon big subjects such as the war on cancer, as well as small subjects such as the microbes that inhabit our innards. And yes, “The Body” gives ample attention to the immune system and how it fights off viral infections like the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

The End of Everything

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking): If you need to put the pandemic in perspective, there’s nothing like contemplating the fate of the universe. Astrophysicist Katie Mack delves into the various theories about how the universe arose, and where it’s going.

Just as Bryson guides you through the ins and outs of the human body, Mack guides you through the ins and outs of the Big Bang, the Big Crunch, the Big Rip, the Big Bounce and other models for the universe’s evolution. Who knew that the end of everything would be so readable?

Naturalist book cover

Naturalist: A Graphic Adaptation: Author Jim Ottaviani has carved out a comfortable niche for science-minded graphic novels, including a biography of physicist Richard Feynman that earned a place on 2011’s Cosmic Log holiday book roundup, and a Stephen Hawking biography that we highlighted in 2013.

This year, Ottaviani keeps the streak alive with an adaptation of naturalist E.O. Wilson’s autobiography, featuring illustrations by C.M. Butzer. “Naturalist” traces Wilson’s life, beginning with his Alabama boyhood and building up to his groundbreaking studies of social behavior in species ranging from ants to humans.

Coffee-table books

99% Invisible City book cover

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design: There’s nothing like a walk to relieve the stress of being cooped up by COVID-19, especially if you can get out into the countryside. But what if you’re stuck in the city? “The 99% Invisible City” — written by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt of the 99% Invisible podcast — delves into urban design features that rarely get noticed but reveal much about how America was built.

Kohlstedt earned his master’s degree in architecture from the University of Washington, so you’ll find several references to Seattle curiosities — including the artwork on the city’s manhole covers and the deeper significance of the Market Theater Gum Wall.

Interior Space book cover

Interior Space: A Visual Exploration of the International Space Station: Photographer Roland Miller and Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli join forces to present a selection of photographs that show the International Space Station inside and out. Alice Gorman, Jeffrey S. Nesbit and Justin St. P. Walsh supplement the pictures with essays about space history and archaeology.

It’s particularly appropriate to have “Interior Space” on your coffee table in 2020, a date that marks 20 years of continuous space station habitation. But the book is sure to be an eye-catcher for space geeks long after this winter’s pandemic has passed.

Science fiction

Dune book cover

Dune: The Graphic Novel: Frank Herbert’s masterpiece is brought to life in a new medium by a team that includes the late author’s son, Brian Herbert; science-fiction author Kevin J. Anderson; illustrators Raul Allen and Patricia Martin; and cover artist Bill Sienkiewicz.

A new movie version of “Dune” was set for release next month, but its debut had to be delayed a year because of the pandemic’s impact. It’ll take even longer to complete this three-volume graphic adaptation. Book 1 came out last week, and Book 2 is due in 2022.

The Ministry for the Future

The Ministry for the Future: The global climate crisis gets real in Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest sci-fi novel, which is set during a period beginning just five years from now. The plot incorporates novel strategies ranging from geoengineering to carbon-coin currency and data trusts.

During our Fiction Science interview, Robinson noted that he had to turn in his manuscript before the pandemic hit.

“I think we’ve learned things in the pandemic that I could have put to use in ‘Ministry for the Future,’ and in a way I’m glad I didn’t have to,” he said. “It was already going to be a big, messy beast of a book. And I’m hoping that it still works even in the age of the pandemic, because it’s sort of about the same issues that are still confronting us.”

Kids’ books

These science books for children are among the finalists for the 2021 AAAS-Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books.

Mario and the Hole in the Sky

Mario and the Hole in the Sky: This picture book, written by Elizabeth Rusch and illustrated by Teresa Martinez, tells the story of Mario Molina, the Mexican-born chemist who played a key role in the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole and shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995. (Grade level: 1-4)

Research by Molina and his colleagues led to the adoption of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which banned the use of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons. Molina’s story shows how science can raise the alarm about global threats ranging from climate disruptions to disease outbreaks. Molina died last month at the age of 77 due to a heart attack.

Chemistry for Kids book cover

The Kitchen Pantry Scientist: Chemistry for Kids: The subtitle tells it all: “Homemade Science Experiments and Activities Inspired by Awesome Chemists, Past and Present.” (Grade level: 2-7)

Liz Lee Heinecke’s handbook not only outlines eminently doable experiments such as crystal growth and soap making, but also traces the stories of experimenters ranging from Tapputi, a perfume-maker who lived in Mesopotamia 3,200 years ago and is considered the first chemist recorded in history, to 21st-century chemist Raychelle Burks.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

The End of OctoberAs a bonus, I’m adding “The End of October,” Lawrence Wright’s novel about a killer flu epidemic that touches off a wave of crises. Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker, draws upon meticulous research into real-life epidemiology. Be prepared for a wonky ride through a fictional pandemic in the company of characters who’d be right at home in a Tom Clancy or Dan Brown thriller.

Consider “The End of October” our end-of-the-year selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which focuses on books with cosmic themes that have been in print long enough to show up at your local library or used book store.  The amazing thing about Wright’s 400-page novel is that it came out in April, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was reaching the crest of its first wave. That led The New York Times to describe the novel as “eerily prescient.”

Wright followed up on that feat with a 40-page article in The New Yorker that traces the rise of COVID-19 and the flawed response. Because “The Plague Year” is available online as well as in the magazine section of your local library, that adds up to a solid double selection for the CLUB Club at the close of this year of the pandemic.

This report was updated on Dec. 31 with the double selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. For still more science book recommendations, check out last year’s holiday book roundup, or catch up with the CLUB Club.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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