Thursday, December 08, 2016

Books for Christmas 2016 - It's life Jim, but not as we know it: festive thoughts on life, consciousness, and the future of humanity!

Abingdon sits in the middle of one of the most exciting parts of the world for science - and we mean, anywhere. Within a few miles of the shop door, we have fusion reactors, cyclotrons, satellite assembly buildings, and state of the art facilities for making everything from radiation protection equipment to deep-space optics.

So it's fantastic that we're involved in the Abingdon-on-Thames Science Festival (ATOM!) which next year takes place March 24-26. You can find out more here - but to whet your appetite, here are some of our favourite science and nature titles which we think make great gifts for the curious this Christmas.

13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution - Colin Stuart with a forward by Tim Peake
Anyone of a certain age will remember the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures - but it may surprise you to learn that they started in 1825 (by Michael Faraday) and continue to the present day. In this gem of a book, with it's beautiful space-time warping cover, space and science Journalist Colin Stuart has curated thirteen 'Journeys Through Time and Space', including Carl Sagan's 1977 'The Planets' and abingdonian Frank Close's 1993 'The Cosmic Onion'. Concluding with Kevin Fong's 2015 'Surviving in Space' (when he was joined by Tim Peake, who writes the forward) this is a little book with a big impact - and a wonderful gift for astronauts young and old!

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow - Yuval Noah Harari
Anyone who has come into the shop in the last couple of years will have had a copy of 'Sapiens' by Yuval Noah Harari pressed into their hands. There aren't many books that get universally recommended in our shop, we think everyone deserves personalised recommendations, but with 'Sapiens' (like 'The Martian' or 'Pride and Prejudice') we make an exception: everyone should read. It featured in Mark's essay on 'How Reading Shapes Our Realities' and is no less than the epic story of our species. But the ending finished on a bit of a cliffhanger - what's going to happen next to our species?

In 'Homo Deus' Harari sets off to find out, along the way taking in a variety of post-apocalyptic and frankly frightening scenarios, mostly involving the end of the world as a whimper rather than a bang, with a few spectacular Jeff Bezos-style winners, but the vast majority not losers as such, but managed, monitored, little more than biochemical systems plugged into a global network relieving boredom in ever more immersive virtual-reality fictions to save our fragile mental states.

If all this sounds depressing, it isn't. Harari offers plenty of 'it doesn't have to be that way' alternatives which actually makes this book surprisingly upbeat and inspiring. After all, the big thing about the future is that it hasn't happened yet.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness -
Sy Montgomery
In 2011 Sy Montgomery wrote a feature for Orion magazine entitled 'Deep Intellect' about her friendship with a sensitive, sweet-natured octopus named Athena and the grief she felt at her death. It went viral, indicating the widespread fascination with these mysterious, almost alien-like creatures. In this frankly incredible - and very thought-provoking - book, Sy discusses the nature of personality and intelligence as her appreciation of the octopus deepens.


Octopuses have varied personalities and intelligence they show in myriad ways: endless trickery to escape enclosures and get food; jetting water playfully to bounce objects like balls; and evading caretakers by using a scoop net as a trampoline and running around the floor on eight arms. But what thoughts might they have? The intelligence of dogs, birds, and chimpanzees was only recently accepted by scientists, who now are establishing the intelligence of the octopus, watching them solve problems and deciphering the meaning of their colour-changing camouflage techniques.

By turns funny, entertaining, touching and profound, The Soul of an Octopus reveals what octopuses can teach us about consciousness and the meeting of two very different minds.

Reality is Not What It Seems - Carlo Rovelli
Last year, Carlo Rovelli's 'Seven Brief Lessons on Physics' was an unexpected hit, a little gem of a book, which purported to offer no less than a complete explanation of all the big theories of modern physics. Rovelli has now written 'Reality is Not What It Seems' an at-times mind-bending look at nothing less than our understanding of reality. From Democritus to loop quantum gravity, he invites us to imagine a whole new world where black holes are waiting to explode, spacetime is made up of grains, and infinity does not exist.

Aliens: Is There Anyone Out There? - Jim Al-Khalili
Professor Jim Al-Khalili is one of our most celebrated science broadcasters and communicators, and two years ago spoke at the ATOM! Festival on the chequered and still-controversial area of quantum biology. He will return to Abingdon for the 2017 festival, so to celebrate, we're recommending 'Aliens', a collection of twenty articles from some of our most esteemed thinkers on the subject of aliens, and whether or not they exist. Contributors include Martin Rees, Ian Stewart and Adam Rutherford, and cover every aspect of the subject, from alien consciousness to the neuroscience behind alien abductions. And along the way he'll cover science fiction, the probability of us finding extra-terrestrial life, and whether the explosion in the number and variety of recently-discovered exoplanets might support life.

How the Zebra Got its Stripes - Leo Grasset
Billed as a set of Darwinian 'Just So Stories', this is a collection of sparky, wondrous stories from Leo Grasset, one of France's brightest natural scientists - with an equally engaging translation by Barbara Mellor.

Why do giraffes have such long necks? Why are zebras striped? Why are buffalo herds broadly democratic while elephants prefer dictatorships? What explains the architectural brilliance of the termite mound or the complications of the hyena's sex life? And why have honey-badgers evolved to be one of nature's most efficient agents of mass destruction? Deploying the latest scientific research and his own extensive observations on the African savannah, Leo Grasset offers some answers to these and many other intriguing questions. Showing that natural phenomena are rarely simple, he brings evolutionary biology and lateral thinking to explain the mysteries of animal behaviour in terms that everyone can understand and marvel at.

The Earth and I - James Lovelock et al
For once, a book that is both brilliant and urgent. In our post-truth world, no subject seems to attract more attention from commentators keen to drown out the increasing consensus that humans are significantly - and irrevocably - altering the planet. Insults are hurled and facts pile up until even the most engaged and informed feel overwhelmed.

This wonderful book, rather than adding to the data load, aims to offer real understanding. James Lovelock leads an all-star cast of contributors to describe how human beings are extraordinary creatures, and how we have adapted and invented our way to becoming the most important species on the planet. So great is the extent of our influence, that many speak of a new geological era, the Anthropocene, an age defined by human-induced change to the blue and green globe we call home. Our lofty status comes with responsibility as much as possibility: How should we approach our present and future?

Conceived by James Lovelock, and delving into everything from stellar explosions to neuroscience, contributors include quantum physicist Lisa Randall, astronomer royal Martin Rees, Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson, Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel - all illustrated by British artist Jack Hudson, Across 12 chapters, they take in both the intricate details and immense structures of our species and our planet, from our ever-expanding universe to our minuscule but mighty cells.

Messy: How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World - Tim Harford
Mixing science and business, this is one of Mark's favourite books of the year, and is a constant delight to read, as well as containing inspiration to both understand and engage with our ever complex world. With Big Data on the march, and faceless corporation increasingly nudging us into better - or rather, different - behaviour, the urge to label, tidy, straightjacket and optimise human activities has serious and far-reaching implications for us, particularly when it comes to being creative.

Tim Harford is a journalist and economist who looks at the surprising science, economic theories and latest discoveries that look at everything from musical genius, to self-driving cars, from how to manage email to how we raise our children. This really is a must-read. The algorithms that control our lives are only going to increase - we need to be ready to respond.

Can You Solve My Problems? A Casebook of Ingenious, Perplexing and Totally Satisfying Puzzles - Alex Bellos
Are you smarter than a Singaporean ten-year-old? Can you beat Sherlock Holmes? If you think the answer is yes - Alex Bellos challenges you to solve his problems. Spinning out from a puzzle he set on the Guardian website in 2015 which went viral across the globe, Bellos here tells nothing less than the story of the puzzle, one of mankind's oldest and greatest forms of entertainment and enlightenment, told through 125 of the world's best brainteasers from the last two millennia.

It takes us from ancient China to medieval Europe, Victorian England to modern-day Japan, with stories of espionage, mathematical breakthroughs and puzzling rivalries along the way. Pit your wits against logic puzzles and kinship riddles, pangrams and river-crossing conundrums. Some solutions rely on a touch of cunning, others call for creativity, others need mercilessly logical thought. Some can only be solved by 2 per cent of the population...

The Cyber Effect - Mary Aiken
We know the wonders of technology, and of course there are whole industries out there extolling the virtues of an always-on, app-powered, mobile enabled Internet-of-everything. At the same time, there are increasing numbers of people who are drawing attention to the downsides - the damaging effect the Internet is having on everything from our attention spans, to ability to form relationships.

In 'The Cyber Effect' - once you get past the US-style self-promotion on the cover (!) - psychologist Mary Aiken provides a measured and sober analysis of the effect the cyber world is having on us, our brains, our relationships and - most worryingly - our children. It makes the point that we all have to take responsibility in ensuring that the ease with which disturbing (and warping) content on the Internet is shaping the minds of both us and our children.

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