No science in NYT’s list of year’s ten best books

November 22, 2019 • 1:00 pm

Here’s the New York Times‘s list of the ten best books of 2019. You can find the 2018 list here and the 2017 list here. I couldn’t be arsed to go back farther.

There’s not a pure science book in the lot, though there’s a sort-of-science book on the Chernobyl disaster, which is more dramatic history than science, and in 2018, Michael Pollan’s excellent How to Change Your Mind, which is science related but also about personal experience, made the list.

Over the last three years, there have been thirty NYT “notable” books, half fiction and half nonfiction, with the latter including history, biography, sociology, and autobiography. But there’s only one pure science book, The Evolution of Beauty by Richard Prum; the Times‘s review of that is here. (By pure science book, I mean a book that is wholly about science, without big swaths of autobiography or other non-science stuff. That is, books like those by Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Jay Gould.)

Sadly, Prum’s book, while it has lively writing and some good bits, is deeply flawed—to the extent that its main message, that we now understand well how sexual selection works in animals, is wrong. (See my posts, which also summarize critical reviews from the scientific literature, here, here, and especially here as well as the review discussed therein.) The reviewer of Prum’s book, David Dobbs, who clearly isn’t up on sexual selection, simply bought Prum’s thesis whole hog, and didn’t mention any criticisms of the “runaway theory” so beloved by Prum and so problematic to evolutionary biologists. It’s not a thoughtful or well-informed review.

Regardless, 3% of all best books being science books over three years is a pitifully low figure, for there have been some very good science books or science-related books published since 2016. This paucity of science literature on awards lists, however, is typical, and shows that we’re still stuck in the Two Culture stage.


33 thoughts on “No science in NYT’s list of year’s ten best books

  1. Well, I’ve gone back further. No notable science books in 2016, though that was when Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture” and Mukherjee’s “A history of the Gene” came out.

    2015 had a winner in “H is for hawk”,which is pretty sciencey. But since 2015, there’s been no pure science winners. I’ll review the science books that came out during that time.

    Still, Prum’s book was surely not one of the best books of the year, science or not, as its thesis was wrong. (Prum may be right after we know a lot more, but to represent the runaway hypothesis as the known or most likely cause of sexual dimorphism in ornaments and behavior is simply wrong.)

  2. “…there have been some very good science books or science-related books published since 2016.”

    I think NOT including that 2018 “Beyond Weird” by Philip Ball, which I got from the library after reading something different about Ball by Jerry, something related to biology, but which seems not to have appeared as an article in this non-blog.

    Ball seems from his writing to be a bit of an arrogant snob, and he’s no research scientist. But likely my negativity is based more than anything on the silly negative chapter about the Everettian (“many worlds”) quantum theory interpretation. Not only is it silly, I believe it is deliberately misplaced to near the book’s end so that several (not all) of these supposed weirdnesses of quantum theory don’t come up there, them being definitely UNweird in that so-called interpretation. I must admit that Natalie Wolchover gave it a review which some see as fairly positive, and Peter Woit (of “Not Even Wrong”) says it’s the best (of a sorry lot IMHO), both of whom are almost always well worth reading. Also, and there’s no accounting for taste, that book did get some kind of award from some physics group/periodical. But it was hard work to read a lot of repetitive unattributed second=hand metaphors, and a book which is totally lacking in either any math at all(??given the subject??) nor any indication that Ball knows any real mathematics, including what is really used in fundamental quantum mechanics and quantum field theory.

    On the other hand, surely to be INCLUDED in the list Jerry speaks of here, and a very good antidote to Ball, is the 2019 “Something Deeply Hidden” by Jerry’s friend Sean Carroll. Not much specific math, being a popularization, but some, as needed, by a scientist and an especially talented popularizer. His recent science work includes another derivation, within the Everettian version of quantum theory, of the probability rule, known as Born’s Rule. That probability question is undoubtedly the biggest source of serious criticism of Everett’s and similar further developed ideas.

    In his lengthy bibliography, Ball does include David Wallace’s now standard and deep (1912) text “The Emergent Multiverse”, but clearly does not engage it at all, just two superficial cutesy mentions of Wallace. Were he to debate either Wallace or Carroll on the topic, there might be a charge of an adult beating up on a proverbial infant. Ball seems utterly unaware even of the meaning of the word “Emergent”, as used in that title. It’s not that there are supposed to be many QUANTUM worlds!

  3. Well, no one asked, but my recommendation is Symphony in C by Robert Hazen. C in this case is the remarkable element carbon. Hazen explains its atomic properties including its isotopes used in archeological dating, its ability to form complex combinations with hydrogen and oxygen forming the basis for organic chemistry, and its importance for life on earth and perhaps elsewhere in the universe.

  4. The Washington Post has McKibben’s book Falter on its list of 10 best books. Can that be considered science? Its list of 50 non-fiction books at least has Jon Gertner’a Ice At The End of the World. Which is also part history, about Greenland. I found it very interesting.

    I’ve noted as well that these lists have very few science books. Disappointingly. I think I commented about this at the Washington Post before. Still, nothing changed.

    By the way, the book Midnight in Chernobyl is fantastic. Really, really good.

    1. Here’s an opinion that can be taken as positive towards NYT or negative towards WAPO or both, but relates to their science articles themselves, not to their book contests.
      I get a weekly list of their best science articles, and the comparison seems every week to be quite stunning, the WAPO being pretty pathetic, brief and many articles more about ‘scientist gossip’. And Carl Zimmer’s articles are a very positive side of NYT, though I’m hardly qualified to be opinionated on that, being a biological ignoramus myself.

  5. I don’t know how the NYT’s decides these things, but I am inclined to think they are wrong, and worse, wrong-headed to think it ok to overlook this category. My own vote for a recent book in the catagory is The Serengeti Rules by Sean Carroll (the biologist). This was recently the basis of a very good documentary on the PBS Nature series. Y’all oughta watch it.

    1. Thanks for the reminder, Mark. I have the book unread and the Nature show taped but unwatched. Had no idea it was based on Sean Carroll’s book. I really like that Sean Carroll. Went to a sort of seminar he gave a few years ago.

      1. Interesting that the Sean M… and the Sean B.. both come up here. At least their parents both used the correct Irish spelling, versus ‘Shawn’ which is the name of a close acquaintance of mine. I don’t think I know any Shauns.

  6. I just read David Shariatmadari’s “Don’t Believe a Word” (obtained from the UK, available in the US in a couple of weeks), refreshing and intriguing linguistics, including clear-headed “why Chomsky’s Universal Grammar is probably wrong. Totally recommended.

  7. We were lucky enough last week to hear, from the 2nd row, Lee Smolin talk about his latest book. I’ve ordered it in PB, due out in the Spring.
    Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum: Lee Smolin: 9780345809100: Books –

    1. Thanks; I better get busy and get my hands on a copy.

      Smolin works at the Perimeter Institute, just down the road from me, and ‘full’ of String Theorists (or it was). It is interesting how negative over the years he seems to have become to that, but also towards his (and Ashtekar’s and Rovelli’s) loop quantum gravity, the main string theory competitor. I assume this comes out in that book, which I’ve not had a chance to look at yet. One summer term about 15 years ago and my only real connection to him, we each taught a reading course to a certain brilliant young man who’d run out of decent undergrad courses to take before passing enough (usually with around 99% mark) to graduate. I seem to recall Smolin’s course was actually on string theory, mine was just pure math, no physics.

      1. Do/did you teach at Waterloo, @p? Smolin seems a very interesting guy and I was glad I was up close because he spoke very softly. (He also seemed as though he might possibly have the beginnings of Parkinson’s??) He actually spoke in Oakville and we dashed out to hear him after being glued to the impeachment hearings. I have only read small bits by him, possibly in John Brockman’s Third Culture, but I have now ordered both his new book and What’s Wrong with Physics?

        1. Yes, taught and did research from 1966 to 2010 in the Faculty of Mathematics, where I still have a (shared) office. They are good that way, and the library is handy. Physics is now more interesting to me in a pretty non-serious way, though I’ve not been to Perimeter for quite a while. Some deafness makes lectures hard to appreciate, and anyway the internet allows people to learn what others have been doing, though direct contact is valuable.
          I’m glad to hear how much you enjoyed Smolin’s talk down the 401. He used to have interesting questions and opinions at philosophy colloquia, maybe still does.

          1. McMaster used to have really good science lectures through their Origins program, but they seem to have been few and far between in recent years. I brought my High School programming students to Waterloo on field trips a few times maybe 20 years ago, but in later years chose to teach only Math (yay Math😀) As an aside, I was often disappointed when my strongest Math students wanted to study business in university. Another aside: I organized the Waterloo Math Contests at my high school (Iroquois Ridge in Oakville) for a number of years, and we came in on top for Ontario for a couple of years running.

            1. We might have, but likely didn’t, meet then, to do with Waterloo’s very prominent and successful recruitment and contest activities. I was not especially active in that, compared to many.

              I had many research connections with Hamilton/McMaster over some decades, and students who became profs there. And in fact my last year’s trip to Svalbard in the Hurtigruten ship (same cruise firm as Jerry of the Antarctic) was taken with a longtime Chair of Mac’s math department and our wives. And the latter women had written a joint very successful book about the Hamiltonian (no, not the mathematical object!) by the name of John Charles Fields, UToronto prof, who had founded the famous Fields Medal, the math ‘equivalent’ of the Nobel Prize.

              Maybe this is better using our emails (look me up under Pure Math at UWaterloo), since maybe this non-blog isn’t the right place for marginal interest to others!

              I had failed to realize that you were also an Ontarian.

          2. Smolin’s work on time is very interesting – I would hope that the philosophers of space and time are listening. (His _Time Reborn_ is on my shelf with stuff from the Canadian philosophers of time, Steve Savitt and Storrs McCall – who are in my intellectual history.)

  8. David Reich’s “Who We Are and How We Got Here” is one of the most important science books of the decade, but it committed the grave sin of stating facts that certain segments of the left disagree with on an emotional level. The ancient DNA revolution is enormously important in understanding both human pre-history and evolution. It has actually answered questions that anthropologists raised but, like many disruptive sciences, it has demolished many deeply-held but erroneous theories.

    1. I agree, for sure, Reich’s 2018 book, with his wife Eugenie, is terrific.
      I understand there’s some bit of ‘needle’ between some top people in ancient DNA studies. Hopefully there’s a Nobel Prize there reasonably soon, and it goes to exactly the right ones, including both European and USian people surely.
      Some ‘heart’s in the right place, but brain’s not’ people cannot tolerate anyone saying, with clear scientific truth, that there are some genetic differences between peoples living in different spots within spacetime, scientists who also know and say that the word ‘race’ is scientifically meaningless. You don’t counter the white supremacists by ignorant statements about science; you help them in the long run, unfortunately.

    2. Thank you for your thoughts. I read it and thought it was extraordinary book. Reich a very clear writer.

      Plenty of Youtube of his lectures and I recommend them.

      I am glad that I wasn’t the only one who sensed that he was stating facts that are not tolerable to the left.

      As example, Did I understand it correctly when he essentially suggests that there were people who migrated to the Western Hemisphere around 40K or 50K years ago? And maybe these people were, well, kinda displaced, by the more recent arrivals of around 15,000 years ago?

      1. I may be misremembering, but I don’t think any of the ancient DNA scientists, Reich in particular, think the date of first arrival of humans in America (North of course, now Alaska, entirely) was much different than anthropologists were conjecturing, namely, about half that 40 to 50K years ago. Pardon the long sentence; maybe I should have taken up philosophy. Reich does write about some difficulties with getting data there, and the bad behaviour of some scientists in dealing with USian indigenous people.

  9. David Reich’s “Who We Are and How We Got Here” is one of the most important science books of the decade, but it committed the grave sin of stating facts that certain segments of the left disagree with on an emotional level. The ancient DNA revolution is critical in understanding both human pre-history and evolution. It has actually answered questions that anthropologists raised but, like many disruptive sciences, it has demolished many deeply-held but erroneous theories.

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