7 Books SciAm Recommends So Far in 2024

7 Books SciAm Recommends So Far in 2024

Here are seven fiction and nonfiction books we recommend from the past few months. They involve broken hearts, killer robots and epic failed experiments

By Brianne Kane

Credit:

Ekaterina Budinovskaya/Getty Images

After a long day of landing on the moon and discovering new fossils, it can be hard to wind down enough to enjoy a sleepy girl mocktail, but a good book can do the trick. Featuring some failed experiments, a few broken hearts and real answers on how we can save the world, here are seven recent fiction and nonfiction reads you don’t want to miss. Happy reading!

1. Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science

by Benjamin Breen

Grand Central Publishing

January 2024

Nonfiction

(Tags: History, Psychedelics)


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In his book Tripping on Utopia, Benjamin Breen provides a unique dive into an often ignored history and asks a question that is typically only whispered: Where do drugs come from? Breen’s answer focuses specifically on LSD and other psychedelic drugs that supposedly free the mind and expand consciousness. Rather than just being a historical account of pharmacologists and chemists, Breen’s book is an introduction to the psychologists, anthropologists and even CIA operatives of the 1940s, 1950s and beyond who attempted to explore people’s psyches. Some of the most memorable moments in the book are interesting factoids you can share, such as anthropologist Margaret Mead’s many relationships with women; others however, are stark reminders of the ways that suffering was ignored for the pursuit of science. (What does drug research have to do with torturing a dolphin?)Without shying away from the reality of scientific inquiry, grueling nights spent in labs or scientists’ accidental tripping, this book offers the good, bad, ugly and silly stories that make up the history of psychedelic science. This is one of the few history books that will make you laugh at least once, possibly cry and, either way tell everyone you know about it.

2. Your Utopia

by Bora Chung, translation by Anton Hur

Algonquin Books

January 2024

Fiction

(Tags: Science Fiction, Short Stories)

Don’t let dreams of utopia and adorable robots distract you from the rot exposed in this short story collection: it’s time you thought critically about the future of sentient technology and the way you feel about it. Though not every reader will enjoy the gruesome and tragic deaths among these pages, even the squeamish will catch themselves laughing at the book’s unsuspecting humor and cultural critique. You may recognize Bora Chung from her previous work Cursed Bunny, also translated by Anton Hur, but her latest collection introduces American readers to a whole new world of horror science fiction. “The Center for Immortality Research”is a strong opening for such an inconspicuous-looking book; it eases the reader in with a workplace dramedy before twisting into the second story, “The End of the Voyage,” which yanks off the veneer of literary fiction to show readers they’re in the splash zone for some guts and gore. By the time readers get to “A Song for Sleep,” however, the jig is up: This is no ordinary romp of collected science-fiction stories. Rather, it’s a gut-punch reminder of our own humanity or lack thereof. It urges readers not only to be kinder, but also to be wide-eyed about the technological world around them. This is a book to slip into your friend’s hand with a knowing nod and a wordless “trust me” implied.

3. Why We Remember: Unlocking Memory’s Power to Hold on to What Matters

by Charan Ranganath

Doubleday

February 2024

Nonfiction

(Tags: Memory, Psychology)

Forgetfulness can be an infuriating experience. Where in your mind are those memories? How can you find them faster? And why did they get lost in the first place? In narrative prose, neuroscientist Charan Ranganath invites readers into various memory labs, explains his own and others’ research and discusses what’s next for the field of memory science. Everyone knows mnemonics can help us remember the planets in our solar system, but did you know that studying in multiple locations, in addition to blocks of time, can help you better remember material? With robust notes and sourcing, Ranganath gives a deeper understanding of how and why our brain stores the information it does and why we can or cannot retrieve that information. The book is required reading for everyone with a brain—or just people who wish it worked a bit faster or was a tad nimbler or who can never find their keys.

4. The Exquisite Machine: The New Science of the Heart

by Sian E. Harding

MIT Press

February 2024

Nonfiction

(Tags: Health, Biochemistry)

Hearts “skipping a beat” sounds romantic—until your chest hurts. What do we really know about this powerhouse of an organ? How can we understand and help the heart of our loved ones? Sian Harding, a leading authority on cardiac pharmacology, introduces readers to our precious heart in a whole new way—from the tiny cardiomyocytes that make it contract to the role it plays in one of the biggest causes of death in the U.S. Harding dexterously uses metaphors and sparse but clear illustrations by Matt Holford, along with more than 40 years of experience in the field, to make this a surprisingly approachable read. Readers get a glimpse into the study of heart wall cells in a lab, the incredible and terrifying reality of heart surgery and the ways in which people can better understand what their medical history could mean. Harding opens the book with a reminder that we all have a heart and we likely all love someone affected by heart disease, so we all have a vested interest in better understanding this organ. This is a book you’ll find yourself scribbling and highlighting all over. Then you’ll make some doctor’s appointments and call your friends and family to say you love them and their incredibly designed and masterfully hardworking heart.

5. Plastic: A Novel

by Scott Guild

Penguin Random House

February 2024

Fiction

(Tags: Climate Change, Science Fiction)

Being made of plastic might sound fantastic—until you’re melting in a nuclear apocalypse. Erin is a totally normal girl who goes to work, eats boring dinners and wishes she had a boyfriend, but she also has a hollow head, can bend only at her hinges and doesn’t have skin. She’s literally a plastic girl living in a plastic, ad-obsessed, terrorism-filled, virtual-reality-bending world. The plot escalates quickly from seemingly random glitches in the matrix that definitely aren’t signs from Erin’s long-lost sister to a series of increasingly alarming and life-threatening events that the world, and Erin, can’t ignore any longer. There’s a certain childlike joy to this book that can make readers feel as if they are playing with dolls and stuffies to reenact the reality around them. Guild even has readers tune in to a TV show that Erin is obsessed with called Nuclear Family, where a waffle is president and her father’s past is explored. Fiction readers will delight in exploring Erin’s world, especially its comedic “newspeak” and not-so-subtle social commentary, which create a uniquely enjoyable and illuminating reading experience. You’ll catch yourself saying, “That’s so wow wow,” before you’re even done unfolding these nested metaphors.

6. Space Oddities: The Mysterious Anomalies Challenging Our Understanding of the Universe

by Harry Cliff

Doubleday

March 2024

Nonfiction

(Tags: Space, History)

If you ever wondered what it’s like to get the hot gossip from a physicist or what it even means to “break” physics, this book is just what you need. Harry Cliff uses a friendly-neighborhood-physicist narration to keep readers clear-eyed amid the muons and neutrinos flying around. At the center of the book is the important reminder that when you find yourself making an extraordinary claim, you must be confident in your extraordinary evidence—especially when debating the origins of the universe or the question of whether we live in a simulation. One of the most exciting aspects of this book is how recent these examples are. Some from just a few years ago and bring readers to the cutting edge of physics that is still being questioned in lecture halls and at conferences. Cliff sometimes laughs or winces from secondhand embarrassment but mainly offers compassion to researchers who are misled by their own ambition or imperfect numbers. It is shocking how many anomalous findings come down to a misplaced decimal point or a smudged positive or negative sign! The book breaks these recent examples of weird physics into chapters that can be read as standalone stories, making this a great chapter-a-day read. This is a great way to take your mind to far-off places, explore the biggest questions of our universe and reflect on what you would do if you were on the edge of being the next Albert Einstein.

7. H Is for Hope: Climate Change from A to Z

by Elizabeth Kolbert, illustrations by Wesley Allsbrook

Ten Speed Press

March 2024

Nonfiction

(Tags: Climate Change, Technology)

This book is not what you think it is, and neither is climate change. Brilliantly illustrated essays reveal the vast scale of climate change now and what our future climate will likely be without major action. With chapters entitled “Blah, Blah, Blah”for B and “You” for Y, there’s no hiding that this book is a direct callout of its readers’ hypocrisy, avoidance and ignorance of climate change. But even if this book is not here to make friends, Elizabeth Kolbert doesn’t want to make enemies either. By pointing out the systems at play and the options before us, Kolbert reminds readers that it’s not too late—it’ll never be too late—to do everything we can to save our one and only planet. Kolbert doesn’t hold back in saying that small and convenient changes to our daily life will not be enough to garner the change we need; we can’t simply rideshare in gas-guzzling cars; we need to reimagine a world that is no longer reliant on fossil fuels. If the Paris climate accord’s goals are to be reached by 2050, not only do you need to read this book, but you need to make your local representatives read it, too.

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Brianne Kane