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Read This! Book Recommendations For Kids And Armchair Researchers

Great books for your shopping list or your wish list...

I think it is important to get the general public – and kids – interested in research. It’s never too late to get grown-ups excited about science. And maybe the child you encourage today will be a future Albert Schweitzer, Marie Curie or Steve Jobs. With the holidays approaching, now’s your chance to go buy a book on science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) that will fire their imagination.

With that in mind, I asked several researchers to send me suggestions for great (not necessarily new) STEM books that are accessible to the general public – for grown-ups or kids. Some gave recommendations for both. Here’s what they sent me:

Heather Patisaul, associate professor of biology:

Adults – “I’d have to go with ‘Slow Death by Rubber Duck,’ by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie. It tells the story of two environmental scientists who holed up in a hotel room and, by doing things we do every day (like heat canned food in a plastic bowl in the microwave), tried to alter the soup of chemicals in their bodies. It’s entertaining and informative.”

Kids – “For little kids I like ‘Animals That Nobody Loves,’ by Seymour Simon. The photographs are beautiful and it brilliantly brings kids face to face with creatures like fire ants, tarantulas and piranhas. For older kids my son likes a book called ‘True Facts’ by John Guest. He likes it because it ‘greatly improves his storehouse of random trivia’ and is easy to read. It’s simply a list of wild and wacky facts from a broad range of fields.”

Michael Escuti, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering:

Adults – “‘Where Good Ideas Come From,’ by Steven Johnson, is a delightful look at creativity, innovation, and scientific progress from a different point of view. Wow.”

Kids – “‘The Way Things Work,’ by David Macaulay, is a very fun – and surprisingly accurate – illustrated guide illuminating our modern world’s most important engineering devices and systems. It is very appropriate for 4- to 94-year-olds.”

Larry Silverberg, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering:

Adults – “‘The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance,’ by Henry Petroski. The title says it all! A popular classic that captures what engineering is about.”

Kids – “‘What is Mathematics,’ by R. Courant, is a classic for any kid who loves math and is in 10th grade and up – a real inspiration as a gift. It develops basic mathematics in easy-to-understand language with an eye toward why instead of how – written by a famous mathematician. It was my favorite book when I was in 10th grade – and given to me as a gift (from my math teacher).”

Derek Aday, associate professor of biology:

Adults – “‘Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold. Great writing, great scientist, great science popularizer (if that’s a word?!).”

Kids –  “‘The Lorax,’ by Dr. Seuss, is a fun read and a simple but effective message. I meet a lot of people that became ecologists in part because of the Lorax!”

Bill Hunt, associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering:

Adults – “‘The Control of Nature,’ by John McPhee, is actually three short stories about how engineers battle what are inevitable natural forces to win temporary relief. It’s a quick read for engineers and non alike!”

Kids – In addition to another vote for “The Lorax,” Hunt recommends “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. “How many ecosystem services can you name that are highlighted in this book?”

Nadia Singh, assistant professor of genetics:

“My favorite science book is ‘Lives of a Cell’ by Lewis Thomas. It’s a collection of short essays on a variety of topics. The prose is beautiful, and the essays, while originally published in a scientific journal, are accessible to scientists and non-scientists alike.”

Jiri Hulcr, post-doctoral research associate in biology:

“My favorite science book for a general audience is “Nonzero” by Robert Wright. It is the best account of how much of humanity was shaped by the most fundamental laws of nature: game theory, the physical nature of economy, natural selection of social entities. It shows beautifully how human inventions, business transactions, mutual collaboration, etc., are the essences in the brewing pot of human culture that incrementally build towards increasing complexity. Peacefulness, cooperation, and general well-being have been mostly increasing not because we are some miraculous species, but simply because it pays off to the individuals.”

Michael Dickey, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering:

“‘Plastic Fantastic,’ by Eugenie Samuel Reich, is a page turner that explores some ethical violations that occurred at Bell Labs.”

James Bonner, associate professor of environmental and molecular toxicology:

Bonner submitted both “Cosmos” and “Pale Blue Dot” by Carl Sagan. “I like these because they give you the overall feeling that there is so much more than our everyday lives, and that we are only a small part of the big picture.”

I’ll conclude with a couple recommendations of my own (even though I’m not a researcher). For grown-ups, I recommend “Every Living Thing” by Rob Dunn. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve worked with Rob (he’s an associate professor of biology at NC State). But that’s not why I’m putting this book on the list. Simply put, it’s one of the best science books I’ve ever read that was written for a lay audience. It’s a page-turning overview of life on Earth, and our species’ ceaseless attempts make sense of it by organizing it into categories. It’s also quite funny, which is a plus.

For kids, I’ll recommend “Paleo Sharks: Survival of the Strangest” and “Paleo Bugs: Survival of the Creepiest,”  both by Timothy Bradley. Why? Because my kids love them. And these books have led my kids to ask all sorts of questions about geology, climate, insects, fish and ecology which have led us to other books, jumpstarting the cycle of learning.

I hope this gave you some good ideas for this year’s shopping list!

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  1. Looks like I will have to update my reading list!

    I would recommend “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Green. It is a great introduction to Superstring Theory and why it evolved in the first place. He definitely writes in an attempt to let non-physicists understand this theory. I think Green has recently come out with an updated version with another title.