Brain Pickings’ choice of best science books of 2016

December 8, 2016 • 2:15 pm

The good news is that somebody’s put together a list of “The greatest science books of 2016.” The bad news is that it’s Maria Popova of Brain Pickings.  Don’t get me wrong: her suggestions seem pretty good, comporting with what I’ve heard about the books—or, in the case of Sean Carroll’s book, with what I’ve read in the book—and Popova works hard to put together her site. I’m just not a fan—and I may be being a curmudgeon—because Popova seems like Krista Tippett for Intellectuals: all too often she puts out feel-good, self-helpy stuff with words of philosophy to console you.  And I really dislike Popova’s pretense that she doesn’t take money for advertising. She used to trumpet that long and loud, proclaiming that she was supported solely by donations from readers, and then was called out because it was discovered that, without telling anyone, she got tons of dosh from sites like Amazon as kickbacks for linking her site to theirs.

That story is on GigaomI won’t repeat it except to show one of the tw**ts from Mathew Ingram, a writer at Fortune, calling Popova out—and her lame response.

Well, go over to the donation page and see if you can find the “note” about commissions. Here’s what you see at the top, where Popova asks readers for money and saying the blog is “ad free”.


Do you see any note about commissions? Well,





     scroll. . .

and you’ll see this, in tiny gray type at the bottom of a big bunch of blank space:

Enlarged: Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated.

I wonder what that fraction is? It could be 3/1, which is, after all, a fraction, and Popova ain’t telling. I call the hiding of that announcement blatantly dishonest.

But that aside, here’s Popova’s list (she also has summaries and excerpts) of the best science books, and excuse my digression (I’m not including Popova’s links):

  • Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin
  • Time Travel: A History by James Gleick
  • Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time by Marc Wittmann
  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi
  • The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time by Maria Konnikova
  • The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • The Polar Bear by Jenni Desmond
  • The Big Picture:On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself  by Sean Carroll (Official Website Physicist™)
  • The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben
  • Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz (seriously???)
  • I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong
  • Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
  • The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel
  • For younger readers: Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignatofsky

I’ve read only one of these: Sean Carroll’s book, which I liked, but I also intend to read Kalinithi’s book, the autobiography of a surgeon who got terminal cancer (he’s now dead). It’s supposed to be excellent.

h/t: Barry

26 thoughts on “Brain Pickings’ choice of best science books of 2016

  1. I saw in a tweet from Sean M. Carroll (the one you read) another list of science books, and his appeared right next to Sean B. Carroll’s book (Sean B. is a biologist, as you probably already know).

    Sean M. Carroll is my favorite living science communicator, but I also like you and Sean B too. I have yet to read Sean M.’s latest book. I’m happy to hear that you liked it.

  2. I didn’t know Popova was a suspicious character in any regard. You’re certainly correct about the gooey self-help tone of some of posts. That said, I continue to see what she does (or wait for something to show up in my Twitter feed), as it’s more often the case than not that she posts something interesting.

  3. For the hardcore chemists, and they’re probably aware of this anyway, Derek Lowe at “In the Pipeline” has a list of chemistry books for the novice and expert.
    He does get credit at Amazon if you go through his blog, and has said so in the past (and he promotes his own book on a separate page for that reason).
    But he doesn’t ask for donations, it’s a labor of love like WEIT.

  4. I discovered The Big Picture by Sean Carroll through this site. I’m about half way through, and greatly enjoying it. I would classify it as philosophy though, not science – which is not meant as a criticism. It is very good philosophy.

      1. The boundary between science and philosophy is not sharp.

        I doubt, though, if many scientists would claim metaphysics and epistemology as scientific disciplines. However, everyone, including every scientists, has a metaphysics and an epistemology, acknowledged or not. One of the most interesting features to me about Carroll’s book is that he addresses these topics explicitly and lucidly.

  5. It would be interesting if some day someone would do this for books just on mathematics, but I don’t know that there is enough of a market for pop books on math. There may not be enough published in a year to make a 10 list.

    Still, stuff by Clifford Pickover (who also writes on physics) is good. And 2011’s “Here’s Looking at Euclid: From Counting Ants to Games of Chance – An Awe-Inspiring Journey Through the World of Numbers” by Alex Bellos I would recommend to anyone.

    1. Also ‘The Music of the Primes’ by Marcus du Sotoy (who took over from Richard Dawkins as Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford)

  6. Just to say that I concur with PCC(E)’s take on Popova and “Brain Pickings”: “Popova seems like Krista Tippett for Intellectuals: all too often she puts out feel-good, self-helpy stuff with words of philosophy to console you.” I was quite excited when I first heard her interviewed some years ago, so signed up for notices, but was quickly disappointed and unsubscribed. Did not know about the money for advertising.

    1. An interesting list, but for my money the best cats in literature appear in Haruki Murakami’s, Kafka on the Shore. Woven into the plot is the story of an old man who is a finder of lost cats, (the unanny ability to talk to the cats is a big advantage). Murakami is a fascinating writer.

      1. You are right, I had completely forgotten Murakami, there are a lot of cats (and sheep) in his books, even a short story ‘Town of Cats’ which was in the New Yorker.
        “You know what I should do?” Hoshino asked excited. “Of course,” the cat said. “What’d I tell you? Cats know everything. Not like dogs.” – Kafka on the Shore
        Other obvious omissions are ‘I am a Cat’ by Soseki Natsume and ‘For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry’ from Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart, made famous in it’s setting by Benjamin Britten

  7. Her site is perhaps like a virtual coffee-table at best, or native advertising for books at worst. Generally many readers seem more interested in a “point” and one that feels useful (as in self-improvement), rather than being interested in ideas for their own sake. Appealing to this is probably a good business decision.

    While I agree with your criticism, I found it uncharacteristically sharp. She does her work, and I follow occasional links, but it’s clearly an advertisement site. It doesn’t bother me if she gets a cut.

    What about this book, on her list: “The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee” — I got away with the impression it’s bunk, also due to the kerfuffle around its theses?

  8. A friend turned me on to Brain Pickings a couple years ago, and I got on the email list. Can’t say I read it much anymore, though, since you’ve gotta thresh a lot of chaff there to find much wheat.

  9. I have found Brainpickings to be useful in turning me on to books I wouldn’t otherwise know about. If this is how she makes her living, I’m OK with that. I also think the person who called her on the Amazon disclosure thing acted appropriately. I think there’s nothing wrong with asking for donations–Wikipedia does it–but that entails full disclosure for the Amazon thing.

  10. Now Jerry, just because it is a book about d*gs don’t be so quick to dismiss Alexandra Horowitz’s book about canine olfaction! I have not read this book yet but I have read earlier work and enjoy her writing. She has a joint appointment in Psychology and English at Barnard, and runs a dog cognition lab there. She is particularly good at showing how d*gs are not just pets (or little kids in fur coats) but unique animals with unusual abilities. But I find canines fascinating, too, so I’m inclined to like the topic. I’d be interested in what others think.

  11. I am more ‘distressed’ that there are people who don’t realise when buying a book after clicking on an Amazon link at a blog that the blogger most likely gets a tiny bit of the profit. In the distant past, some bloggers would disclose with the intent to encourage you to buy a book that way but nowadays not so much as it is considered common knowledge. Therefore disclosure would be mostly redundant and even a bit rude.

    Regardless, I find Brain Pickings to be boring in its repetitive focus on its unwavering filter of creativity. I would say that usually I feel exceedingly less creative after reading her posts because this rigid focus of her’s. You know, you can’t sing a song when someone demands it. And there are many other ways of finding good book links including curating a list of interesting folks to follow on Twitter.

  12. I am reading Pritamvada Natarajan, The Radical Scientific Ideas that Reveal the Cosmos, Mapping the Heavens.
    This brought home to me the amazing fact that we can actually be reading and learning about the beginning of space and time and the kicker, where we actually come from and how we came to be here.
    It is not that it is all new information but how this was accomplished, the machinations of science, how to get a result without fooling oneself, the role of self doubt and preconceived ideas. No one is immune and it is just as well.
    But now i know how we have arrived thus far and as question popped into my head it was read on and subsequently answered which made it a good and satisfying read by my account, so far that is, as i have not reached the end…
    and not likely too, we have, we being the science disciplines of the cosmos have a ways to go yet.

  13. I read “When Breath Becomes Air”–beautifully written, thought-provoking, and, of course, very sad; but not really what I’d call a science book.

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