Summer reading is often light and airy, but those are qualities that don’t usually apply to science books. Now that school’s out, summer blockbusters are showing up in the theaters, and the vacation season has begun, here are a few recently published books that provide a completely different kind of “light reading,” plus some heavy-duty science to balance things out.
Light in fiction and fact: ‘The 100 Year Miracle’
Seattle author Ashley Ream’s novel, “The 100 Year Miracle,” centers on a biochemist who’s investigating a snippet of Northwest Coast tribal lore, about tiny sea creatures that light up with bioluminescence only once every century. When they glow, the creatures are said to hold the power to cure injury and illness – and the biochemist wants to find out if the story is true, for personal as well as scientific reasons.
The sea creatures (of the species Artema lucis) and the tribe (the Olloo’et) are totally fictional. But the setting in the San Juan Islands is totally familiar, and so is the bioluminescence. Dinoflagellate swarms known as Noctiluca scintillans (or “sea sparkle”) inhabit the waters around the San Juans and Hood Canal. When the waters are disturbed, the critters light up like wisps of northern lights. You can book a bioluminescence tour this summer through Discovery Sea Kayaks.
‘Light’ for your coffee table
This is an unprecedented time for astronomy, thanks in large part to the variety of observatories that span the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves, to infrared, to visible light, to ultraviolet and X-rays, to gamma rays. “Light: The Visible Spectrum and Beyond” celebrates the beauties of all those wavelengths.
The authors of the coffee-table book are Kimberly Arcand, visualization lead for NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory; and Megan Watzke, press officer for the long-running Chandra mission (and a Seattleite). Arcand and Watzke explain how scientists came upon the invisible bands of the spectrum – and show off the discoveries that those wavelengths have revealed, from the structure of atoms to the farthest frontiers of the universe. “Light” is a treat for the mind as well as the eyes.
Shedding light on ‘Star Trek’ science
“Star Trek Beyond,” opening this month in theaters around our corner of the galaxy, can serve as a teachable moment for scientific subjects ranging from exoplanets to faster-than-light travel. “Star Trek: The Official Guide to Our Universe,” written by Andrew Fazekas (a.k.a. the Night Sky Guy), takes references from decades’ worth of “Star Trek” shows and relates them to real-life astronomy. The foreword is provided by the original Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner.
This official guide is suitable for science fans from middle school on up, but if you want to read the story behind the making of “Star Trek,” check out “The Fifty Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years.” And if you’re into that other multi-movie space opera, you may want to put “The World According to Star Wars” on your summer reading list.
Light as air: ‘The Wrong Wrights’
Smithsonian Books kicks off its new graphic novel series, “Secret Smithsonian Adventures,” with a tale for 9- to 12-year-olds about time travel and the origins of aviation. In “The Wrong Wrights” – by Chris Kientz, Steve Hockensmith and Lee Nielsen – four middle-schoolers help put the Wright Brothers back into their rightful place in history. Along the way, young readers learn a thing or two about aerodynamics and other principles of aviation.
For a more grown-up version of the story, older readers might want to check out “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough. And there’s a new coffee-table book out from Tim Grove and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, titled “Milestones of Flight: From Hot-Air Balloons to SpaceShipOne.” The book’s publication is timed to coincide with this weekend’s opening of the museum’s Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall.
Dark secrets revealed: ‘Black Hole Blues’
This year’s revelations from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory about gravitational waves and black hole mergers are sure to rank among the top science stories of 2016. To get the inside scoop on black hole science in general, and on LIGO in particular, read “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space,” written by Barnard College astrophysicist Janna Levin.
For a wide-angle view of black hole physics that’s heavier on history but lighter on LIGO, check out Marcia Bartusiak’s book, “Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein, and Gambled on by Hawking Became Loved.”
Light touch on a heavy subject: ‘The Big Picture’
What’s the meaning of life, the universe and everything? It’s hard to think of a heavier subject to tackle, but Caltech physicist Sean M. Carroll does it with a light touch in “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself.” Carroll’s day job is to theorize about things like the nature of time and the structure of the universe, but in this book he focuses on the scientific view of cosmic origins and its philosophical implications.
The way Carroll sees it, our picture of the universe isn’t yet finished – but it’s complete enough to rule out the discovery of any new particles or forces that would be relevant to everyday life. Carroll’s philosophy, which he calls “poetic naturalism,” leaves little to no room for time travel, paranormal phenomena, life after death or the existence of God. But it does allow for morality and purpose as important human constructs. “The Big Picture” will be unsettling for some, but if you stick with it, the book provides enough deep thoughts to keep you going well into winter.
Special thanks to Floris van Breugel, the biologist who captured the image of sea sparkle at Shaw Island. To learn more about van Breugel’s photography and how the image was created, check out ArtInNaturePhotography.com. To learn more about van Breugel’s day job, check out his bio at the website for Caltech’s Dickinson Lab.