Our favorite books of 2020 covered climate change, Mars, the end of the universe and more
A good read became a cherished distraction this year as many of us stayed home more than ever during the pandemic. Biographies of scientific legends and lesser-known luminaries, tales of amazing animals and stories of exploration captivated Science News staff. Find in-depth reviews of our favorite books here.
Galileo and the Science Deniers
Simon & Schuster, $28
The story of Galileo’s life, including his famous trial for heresy, has been told many times, but this new biography still feels relevant as opposition to science remains a threat (SN: 8/15/20, p. 26).
Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars
St. Martin’s Press, $27.99
Living atop a Hawaiian volcano for several months as part of a simulated Mars mission gives a writer perspective on what life might be like for future Red Planet denizens, plus a chance to examine isolation, exploration, love and other themes (SN: 7/4/20 & 7/18/20, p. 32).
The End of Everything
The universe will one day cease to exist, and an astrophysicist takes a look at the various ways it could end. The author’s humor and awe of physics transform a bleak notion into a captivating read (SN: 8/1/20, p. 28).
What Stars Are Made Of
Harvard Univ., $29.95
In the 1920s, astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin determined the chemical composition of stars. Her biography illuminates the persistent work that was required to make the discovery and the challenges she faced as a woman in science (SN: 2/29/20, p. 26).
The Future We Choose
Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac
The world is already suffering the consequences of climate change, but it’s not too late to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, the authors argue as they outline the steps readers and society as a whole can take (SN: 5/9/20 & 5/23/20, p. 38).
Johns Hopkins Univ., $27
An expert guides readers through the field of dendrochronology, revealing the wealth of historical and climatic information recorded in tree rings (SN: 6/6/20, p. 30).
The Alchemy of Us
MIT Press, $27.95
By surveying clocks, lightbulbs and other momentous inventions, a materials scientist demonstrates how humans have bent materials to their will and how those innovations have shaped humankind (SN: 4/25/20, p. 28).
Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism
Anne Case and Angus Deaton
Princeton Univ., $27.95
Five years after introducing the concept of “deaths of despair” (SN Online: 11/2/20), two economists tie the rising number of U.S. deaths due to suicide, drug overdose and alcoholism to a string of economic and social stressors harming the working class.
Some Assembly Required
For centuries, fossils were the main clues to past life. But as a paleontologist explains, advances in genetics over the last few decades have helped fill in new details about how life has evolved over the eons (SN: 3/28/20, p. 28).
Princeton Univ., $27.95
From offering his arm to an electric eel to setting up a little fight club for wasps and cockroaches, a neurobiologist recounts what his sometimes unconventional experiments have uncovered about some of the world’s most remarkable creatures (SN: 10/10/20 & 10/24/20, p. 34).
William Morrow, $32.50
A journalist documents the intriguing backstory of one of the most significant, and controversial, discoveries in the field of paleoanthropology: the unearthing of the 4.4-million-year-old hominid skeleton known as Ardi in the 1990s. The book also describes how the fossil’s physical features challenged traditional ideas about how hominids evolved (SN: 11/21/20, p. 28).
The Idea of the Brain
Basic Books, $32
The human brain has been compared to plumbing pipes, telegraph wires and computers. By learning how these concepts of the brain have changed over time, readers get a sense of how scientists came to understand the organ — and how much about the brain remains a mystery (SN: 4/25/20, p. 28).
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