By Caitlin Kossmann
It’s almost the end of summer, and your summer reading goals have fallen woefully by the wayside. But it’s not too late to start now! Are you looking for something fun, something science-y, something deep and and insightful into what it means to be human? We’ve gathered a few of this summer’s releases to fulfill all three criteria:
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong
HarperCollins (Ecco), August 2016
Just released today, August 9, I Contain Multitudes is the first book of renowned and prolific British science writer Ed Yong. He has written for Wired Magazine, Nature, The New Yorker, Scientific American, National Geographic, and The Atlantic, among others. Those familiar with his work will know that Yong has long been interested in the role of microorganisms in human health for a while, and this book is his deepest dive yet. Learn about all the roles microbes play in our health—not just in digestion, but in our immunity, providing immunity to infants via mother’s milk, our moods, and even our genetics. And we’re not the only organisms to have such intimate relationships with microbe. But I’ll let him tell you about that. Written in Yong’s accessible and humorous style, this hot new read will remind you that we’re all connected, and you’re never alone, even in your own body.
The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life by Rodney Dietert
Penguin (Dutton), July 2016
Ok, so you respect Ed Yong. But if you want to go further into the science of this microbiome thing, try The Human Superorganism by Rodney Dietert. Dietert is a professor of immunotoxicology at Cornell University with several academic books on disease and immunity to his name. The Human Superorganism addresses much of what we’ve heard through the media grapevine regarding modern ailments—obesity, allergies, depression, even cancer—from a practicing scientist’s perspective. We aren’t just in a symbiosis, we’re an ecological system. And as any ecologist can tell you, diversity and species distribution matter for the ecosystem’s overall health. Dietert wants to tell us what we can do with this information, too, focusing on changes that could be made in health care as well as do-it-yourself tips for maintaining a happy community. Wow your friends with your new medical knowledge—and feel free to start using the Royal We.
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Scribner, May 2016
This one came out a bit before summer, but no science summer reading list would be complete without it. Mukherjee is a distinguished physician, scientist, and author of one of the most-read and best-written books on cancer out there, The Emperor of All Maladies (Scribner, 2010). He returns six years later for an equally moving and comprehensive look at the concept of the gene. It’s a carefully researched work of scientific and medical history, but it’s also deeply personal. Mukherjee weaves in stories of familial mental illness, and how their conditions drove his interest in understanding genes—what they are, what they do, how they do it. He also focuses on ethical and philosophical questions. If that sounds too heavy for a summer read, don’t get scared away! Mukherjee is one of our truly talented science writers. Not only does he have a firm understanding of science and medicine, and communicate it clearly, but he’s a good enough writer to scratch that literary reading itch. This one’s a tome, but, really, it’s worth it.
Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich
Random House, August 2016
Another of today’s releases, Patient H.M. tackles the oft-cited but not deeply known story of Henry Molaison, a factory worker who became the most-studied subject in all of neuroscience. Known in studies as simply “H.M.”, Molaison suffered complete amnesia after undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy. Like Mukherjee, Dittrich writes about his personal connection to the story: Dittrich’s grandfather was one of the surgeons who operated on Molaison. If the previous suggestions weren’t soul-searching enough for you, give this one a try. Dittrich tackles the science of memory as well as the emotional resonance of memories through generations, melding a history of science with modern science writing and memoir. He raises thorny questions about human subjects in science—what do we do if taking inappropriate advantage of one subject led to important advances in neuroscience and subsequent patient care? This story is eerie and fascinating, with a touch of the tabloid exposé (the seedy underbelly of neuroscience’s history!), and it will keep you reading into the night like a good thriller.
Want to learn more about the science of human nature? Join us at the Science Media Awards and Summit in the Hub (SMASH) this September, where Graham Townsley will be leading a session on “Being Human.” Check it out here: http://www.sciencemediasummit.org/programming.html. To register for the conference or learn more about SMASH, check out our website at http://www.sciencemediasummit.org. Find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @scienceSMASH, #sciencemedia.
Caitlin Kossmann is an assistant producer for SMASH.
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As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.