Books of the year 2016 – a scientist’s reading list – The Guardian

The most irritating thing about the seasonal lists of the best books of the year that appear in the Guardian and other papers is that they are collated by people, writers mostly, whose lifestyles seem to allow them to read books as soon as they are published. Here’s Alan Hollinghurst, for example, being supremely annoying: “David Szalay’s All that Man Is was a revelation to me – not only of a brilliantly inventive and observant writer, whose three previous novels I then immediately consumed, but of …”

Wait…, what? He immediately read three more books? Where does he get the appetite? Or the time?

I can only muster a slow nibbling in my reading diet and remain almost completely trapped in catch-up mode, attempting to wind in the recommendations of recent years (and the occasional classic). It’s not winning that matters, I tell myself, it’s the taking part. So here, as I stumble exhausted across the finishing line of 2016, are potted reviews of the books that I read this year.

Following my review of 2015, a clear bias towards male authors was pointed out to me. As a result – and as an experiment – this time around I tried to mix things up. Almost half the books I read were by women (12.3 out of 27) and, with the guidance of a couple of friends and my English student daughter, I even managed to venture into different cultures. These were good moves.

1. What’s Left? Nick Cohen

Seeking to understand what might become of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn I turned at the outset of the year to Cohen’s typically muscular polemic on the hard left, which was first published in 2007. Deborah Orr might have picked a few holes in the fabric of his argument, but as 2016 wore on, Cohen’s book came to seem more and more depressingly prescient.

2. Home, Marilynne Robinson

Home, the second instalment of Robinson’s Gilead trilogy was never likely to repeat the surprise of the aching and enveloping beauty of her first novel in the series. But, by bringing new perspectives to the story of two families captured by place and religion, Home matches Gilead word for word in the brilliant intensity of its examination of the human heart. I have complete faith in Robinson’s gifts and look forward to Lila, the third and final book, as one of my highlights of 2017.

3. The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, Christopher Edge

With a laptop, a cardboard box and a radioactive banana, Albie trips through the multiverse in search of his deceased physicist mum and learns a smattering of science and some valuable life-lessons along the way. I found this a diverting children’s novel but, no longer sure of my bearings in the world of teen and pre-teen books, I asked my niece and nephew to check out the story. Their charming reviews gave it a total of four thumbs up.

4. How Economics Shapes Science, Paula Stephan

For devotees of science policy only perhaps, but Stephan’s forensic examination of the economics of science is a reliable guide to the forces that, along with culture and politics, shape and distort the business of research. Unfortunately, she cannot give a definitive answer to the question of how much governments should spend on science. But then again, nor can anyone else.

5. Hark! A Vagrant, Kate Beaton

Beaton’s simply drawn cartoons might seem to be aiming no higher than to poke gentle fun at history and literature, but every so often there’s the glint of sharp steel. Quietly but determinedly subversive.

6. Science that Changed the World, Tim Radford

This short but absorbing digest of four critical breakthroughs in science and technology in the 1960s – the discovery of the cosmic microwave background, the revelation of the plate tectonics that drive the geological mechanics of the Earth, and the launch of global satellite telecommunications and efforts to eradicate smallpox – bear testament to Radford’s breadth and skill as a science writer. It is little wonder that so many turn to him for guidance on how to transform complex ideas into pellucid prose.

7. Invisible, Philip Ball

What I most admire in Ball’s writing are the fresh angles of attack he brings to scientific subjects that might otherwise seem obvious. It would unfair to categorise his exploration of invisibility merely as popular science because he pulls the subject apart in so many different and intriguing directions. Invisible delves into the science, history, ethics and deep cultural impacts of things unseen that remain to this day a bridge between the material and the mysterious. Microscopes, X-rays, and MRI scanners might allow us to peer far beyond the veneer of the visible but, as Ball makes plain in this wonderful book, even these instruments cannot reveal every dimension of a world of endless fascination and possibility.

8. I Remember Nothing, Nora Ephron

Ephron, who died in 2012, is perhaps best remembered as the writer of the movies When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. The riotous wit that crafted those classic comedies rips though her reminiscences of her career in journalism and in Hollywood, and still has the time to reflect with hilarious candour on her struggles with ageing and modern life.

9. The Gifts of Athena, Jan Mokyr

Mokyr’s scholarly probe of the socioeconomic factors that have propelled the genesis and transmission of scientific and technological knowledge over the past two hundred years is a classic of the genre and should probably be required reading for anyone thinking seriously about the UK’s new-found determination to forge an industrial strategy within a knowledge economy. But it will probably not appeal to those who prefer to breeze through life unaided by experts.

10. Heart of the Original, Steve Aylett

Steve Aylett’s paean to originality is so elliptical that it’s almost a straight line. And if you think that’s a clever line, you’ll love it. I’m afraid I didn’t.

11. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard

What have the Romans ever done for us?” The Pythons may have been joking but their humour was hooked on a historical question that remains perennially engrossing. SPQR’s vivid tale of the rise of the Roman republic and its displacement by Imperial rule after the dramatic arrival of Julius Caesar is richly compelling. Beard has the knack of asking the right questions and her narrative, which spans the lives of rulers and ruled, is animated by telling details. But, like all historians of this distant era, she has to wrestle with the fragments of fragments that make up the archaeological record. While I suspect there is no better guide working today, I was still left feeling at one remove from our Roman forebears.

12. H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

In the prize-winning H is for Hawk Helen Macdonald tells the story of her efforts to train a goshawk – one of the fiercest birds of prey used for hunting – as the means to subjugate the disabling grief of losing her father. It is a raw book. There are soaring passages of heartache, while others brim with the love of union with the hawk and the countryside in which she hunts. H is for Hawk is artfully constructed, buttressed with a retelling of TH White’s parallel emotional entanglement with his own goshawk in the 1930s. At times I felt that it might be a little too artful – Macdonald seemed tugging too hard on the creances tying her to the various dimensions of her subject matter. But then I did not expect that I too would be pricked by the talons of death while reading H is for Hawk and was reminded that I lack the skill to calibrate the injuries of my own heart, never mind those of another.

13. We’re in Trouble, Christopher Coake

Coake’s short stories of love, loss, life and death are so beautifully and intensely sad that I must entreat you to take them in well dispersed doses.

14. Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz

My favourite science book of the year. Or at least I think it is. I don’t know – I could be wrong. Schulz ranges far and wide over our enormous capacity for error with great wit, learning and human understanding. It became a touchstone work for me during the anger and noise of the EU referendum. I only wish that more of our political leaders – on both sides of the great divide that Brexit has revealed – had read Being Wrong and taken it to heart.

15. Britain: Leading, not Leaving, Gordon Brown

Given the result of the EU referendum Gordon Brown’s book setting out the case for Britain’s continued membership seems destined to become a historical curiosity. But let me state for the record that it was a positive, impassioned argument for remaining in the EU, underpinned by the former PM’s characteristically firm grasp of political and economic detail. Brown’s book is particularly good at laying out the history of successive UK governments’ slow realisation during the 50s and 60s that the nation’s interests would be best served not by relying on America or the Commonwealth, but by developing stronger, more cooperative ties with its nearest neighbours in Europe. What was that line about those who forget history being destined to repeat it?

16. Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither, Sara Baume

Baume’s poignant first novel about one man and his dog – or rather about one man-child, Ray, and his fierce love of a small, half-blind dog – has won prizes and plaudits. It is a beautifully wrought reflection on the loneliness of human existence but I failed to achieve complete engagement with the novel’s first-person narrative. Perhaps I’m missing something (see No. 14 above), but ultimately I couldn’t square Baume’s lucid prose with the evidently limited education of her protagonist.

17. Chasing the Molecule, John Buckingham

Buckingham’s history of chemistry is, in a sense, another exploration of an invisible world. Chasing the Molecule provides a serviceable account of the surprisingly late emergence of the ideas of atoms and molecules in the 19th century and beyond, but the author undermines his purpose a little too often for my linking by being too sweeping and too judgemental. The famous alchemist Paracelsus is dismissed, for example, as “either an innovative scientist or a nut, or more probably both.” An interesting starting point, perhaps, but hardly the last word on the history of this important topic.

18. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, Ed Yong

In contrast to Chasing the Molecule, Yong’s book – yet another foray into an unseen world, this one populated by microbes – is superbly judged. It brilliantly synthesises the surprising and recently-revealed inter-dependencies of visible and invisible organisms, and accords a new and rightful prominence to the bacteria that have dominated the evolutionary roost for most of the history of the Earth. Look out for it on numerous book prize shortlists in 2017.

19. In the Light of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman

Rahman’s magisterial novel, which bulges with humanity and big ideas, was my favourite read of the year. As I have already written, “his story of two life-long friends – both students of mathematics, both from immigrant families – who find themselves variously caught up in the world financial crisis and the unravelling of post-9/11 Afghanistan, drills deeply and rewardingly into the grand themes of life: meaning, identity, loyalty, faith and family.”

20. The Cunning of Uncertainty, Helga Nowotny

M’learned college Jack Stilgoe picked this out as one of his best books of the year but I confess I got lost in the dry, academic prose of Nowotny’s inquiry into the uncertainties found at the heart of scientific inquiry. I couldn’t finish it. Which is a shame because the concept of uncertainty is central to the hard questions that governments and societies must face in figuring out how to support research. I can’t help wishing I were smarter, or that Novotny had written a more accessible book.

21. Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga

Dangarembga’s semi-autobiographical story of Tambu, a village girl growing up in 1960s Rhodesia, is beguilingly simple but nevertheless delivers a deep and moving testimony of the struggle for independence amid the unravelling tensions of a traditional and post-colonial society. Nervous Conditions might be nearly thirty years old but it still felt powerful and relevant.

22. Orlando, Virginia Woolf

After a slow start, this story of an Elizabethan nobleman who midway through his extraordinarily long life becomes a noblewoman eventually hits its absorbing and intriguing stride. Woolf’s novel is highly original and full of wit even if the invention cannot quite be sustained to the end, which unravels in rather fuzzy introspection.

23. The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science, Andrea Wulf

Humboldt, whose career as a naturalist and explorer straddled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, has long been for me only a dimly-lit figure from the history of science but he is brought to radiant life in Wulf’s magnificent biography. Of course one should be wary of the history of great men but Humboldt does appear to be genuinely pivotal. He bestrode not only the natural world and the courts of Paris and Berlin, but was also an inspiration to contemporaries such as Goethe, Bolívar and Darwin, and – as Wulf explains in the chapters on Humboldt’s long legacy – a succession of naturalists who seeded the conservation movement.

24. Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl

Frankl, a neurologist and psychiatrist, gives a lucid account of his detention in Nazi concentration camps during the war. The writing is determinedly matter-of-fact, Frankl instinctively understanding (as did that other scientific camp survivor, Primo Levi) that an unflinching eye is the only way to do justice to the horror of their experiences. We who never lived through such times struggle to grasp such realities, but the miracle of Frankl’s compassionate insight into the responses of brutes and brutalised to extremis provides a vital connection to the core of our humanity.

25. Aliens: Science Asks: Is There Anyone Out There? Jim Al-Khalili (editor)

As our technology puts us on the cusp of discovering habitable worlds within and beyond the solar system, nineteen scientists and writers explore the odds and implications of finding alien life. This is a breezy and fascinating romp through the latest thinking on planetary science, the origins of life, artificial intelligence, the future of humanity, and why Prometheus was such a dreadful, dreadful film.

26. Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is a jpeg of a book, compressing the grand sweep of human history for efficient transmission, but inevitably obscuring or distorting the source material in ways that can be hard to unpick. Harari tells his tale with considerable panache and makes for an insightful, if erratic, guide. But while Sapiens maps the broad outlines of the landscape of the human story (as it evolved from biology to history), the enthused reader would be best advised to search elsewhere for the grit of historical detail.

27. Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih

My second fictional foray onto the continent of Africa blazes more intensely than Nervous Conditions (No. 21 above) but illuminates the same territory: the complex relations between men and women, and between coloniser and colonised. Salih’s classic novel is vivid, earthy, violent and unwavering, and furnished this reader – who subsists largely parochially on the works of European and American authors – with a fresh and stirring perspective.

And that’s it for 2016. Books lined up for next year already include Gottlieb’s The Dream of Reason, Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café, and Randall’s Knocking at Heaven’s Door. Time to get started…

When not reading books @Stephen_Curry works as a professor of structural biology at Imperial College.

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