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Science Reads for Summer Vacation

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Seven people, students at the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School, sitting on three sofas, with books on their laps, in a large room with windows, desks, tables and chairs.
Richard Gilder Graduate School students reading in the school's lounge.

Heading to the beach this month? So are some of the Museum’s graduate students, who are studying for their Ph.D.s in comparative biology at the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School. As they get ready to head out on their vacations, three students recently shared their favorite science books—for a light read, for a deep-dive into a topic, and for kids.

Meet our recommenders:

Zac Calamari holding a bony crest.
Zac Calamari
© AMNH/A. Paasch

Zac Calamari studies the evolution and diversity of horns, antlers, and the other strange bony crests that even-toed hoofed mammals (antelopes, deer, giraffes, and so forth) grow out of their heads.

Aki Watanabe
Aki Watanabe

Aki Watanabe is a paleontologist who investigates the evolutionary and developmental changes in the anatomy of archosaurs, a group that includes crocodilians, dinosaurs, and birds.

Allison Bronson
© T. White

Allison Bronson studies fossil fishes. Her current research focuses on the anatomy of ancient sharks.

Science Books to Bring to the Beach:

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, recommended by Zac Calamari

The book is easier to follow than the movie of the same name. Arthur C. Clarke had an amazing ability for predicting future technology, including tablet computers. If you have time, read this and the sequel 2010: Odyssey Two. If you have a lot of time, read all four books in the series.

Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould, recommended by Zac Calamari

A book of short essays on natural history and evolution that showcases Gould's talent for popular science writing. Great for when you need a short, entertaining read.

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, recommended by Aki Watanabe

Memory is a fascinating subject, but Foer takes it further by adding his personal experience of training for the U.S. Memory Championship. He provides tips for remembering the order of a deck of cards and long grocery lists. If you need to improve your memory, you can build an impressive memory palace by coming to the Museum.

Ignorance: How it Drives Science by Stuart Firestein, recommended by Allison Bronson

We often think of science as a process for seeking answers, but Firestein shows us that it’s really the pursuit of better questions. This is a short and informative book, and a perfect window into the way science really happens.

Letters to a Young Scientist by E.O. Wilson, recommended by Allison Bronson

This book is a quick read but a great way for young people to approach a life (or a dabbling) in biology. Emphasizing science as a vocation rather than simply a “job,” Wilson’s book will inspire readers to pursue their curiosity for the natural world. 

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach, recommended by Aki Watanabe

The summer before taking human anatomy at medical school, I had the pleasure of reading Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. In her popular book, Mary Roach takes the gross subject of what happens to dead bodies and makes it engrossing by adding just the right amount of humor to her witty writing style. You can listen to Roach read a bit of the audiobook in the video below.

Science Books for Serious Reading:

The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us about Being Alive by Brian Christian, recommended by Aki Watanabe

Brian Christian writes about his unique experience being a judge in the annual Turing test, where programmers compete by building artificial intelligence that can have "normal" conversations with humans. Not only does the book explore the historical development of AIs, but Christian completely alters the the readers' perspective by describing how advancements in making human-like AIs informs us about what makes us humans "human." Are we becoming less "human" as we depend more on computers?

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, recommended by Aki Watanabe

In my opinion, his best and most profound work. Since its publication, scientists have argued about the validity of his claim that natural selection occurs at the gene level as opposed to a macroscopic level. Either way, the book forces us to reconsider our own existence, an experience for the reader that remains fresh even after 40 years!

Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin, recommended by Allison Bronson

An approachable primer on evolutionary developmental biology, but also on paleontology. As the title implies, it’s a look into human evolutionary history, with a focus on the many features we share with lobe-finned fishes.

What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz, recommended by Allison Bronson

This book is a remarkable insight into the life of a plant and reminds us of the myriad means organisms have for making a living. There was a companion show, “What Plants Talk About,” on PBS, that you can watch online. 

Science Books for Kids:

Dinotopia series, James Gurney and others, recommended by Zac Calamari

The art in the original books is beautiful (if a bit outdated), and the various short novels were some of my favorite books as a kid, especially Sabertooth Mountain and River Quest. Not scientifically accurate, but fun reads for any dinosaur-loving child.

Fish Faces by Norbert Wu, recommended by Allison Bronson

This is a book of photographs with simple text for kids, but also a great number of marvelous fishes. Some can look a little scary, but it really captures the extraordinary array of morphologies in the ocean.

My Visit to the Aquarium by Aliki, recommended by Allison Bronson

This was one of the picture books that first got me interested in fishes, and it expresses the joy of seeing live animals in an aquarium. It’s full of facts about each creature and beautifully illustrated.