Still looking for that perfect summer beach book? Science might offer the answer — pitch your umbrella, relax in the waves and delve into the latest from the frontiers of science.
•Stop worrying about sharks at the beach with The Science of Fear: Why We Fear Things we Shouldn't and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger by Daniel Gardner (Dutton, $24.95). The author shares insights from psychology and neuroscience into how our gut instincts scare us stupid about the wrong things. "We have, in effect, two minds working semi-independently of each other," Gardner writes, our gut instincts and our rational minds. Both are error-prone, sadly, leading to exaggerated worries over crime (falling) and disasters (rare), but apathy over climate change (likely) and measles (which kills almost 300,00 children worldwide annually). Gardner intersperses talks with scientists with episodes from news events to make his points. "There's Never Been a Better Time to Be Alive," sums up his final chapter.
•Or if your trashy thriller isn't giving you enough scares, ponder Armageddon with A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry by Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger (Bloomsbury, $24.95), an unusual travel book that took the married military writers from the U.S. atom labs to Soviet test sites in Kazakhstan to Iran's Esfahan Uranium Conversion Facility. "Nuclear history is still being written" in labs worldwide where nuclear capabilities, not just Iran's, are being upgraded. Perhaps for a sequel they'll travel to North Korea, they write.
•If it's a mystery you are after, you might try 13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time (Doubleday, $23.95) by Michael Brooks. The New Scientist writer tackles the big ones, such as the Dark Energy pulling the universe apart at an accelerating rate; the perplexing, such as the apparent illusory nature of "Free Will," where neuroscientists find we only become conscious of our actions after our unconscious has already started them; and (of course) sex. "There are better ways to reproduce," he confides. Each chapter tackles the questions separately, perfect for drying off from a dip in the pool or arming yourself with cocktail party chatter at a Mensa event.
•A black hole is about as far from a day at the beach as you can imagine, but a safe way to approach one can be found in Leonard Susskind's The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics. "The Black Hole War was a genuine scientific controversy — nothing like the pseudodebates over intelligent design, or the existence of global warming," Susskind writes. He takes readers on a tour — not skipping the stories of how scientists really joust over ideas — of the brawl over whether black holes truly destroy matter, violating one of the fundamental rules of physics. The tale begins at a wacky guru's home in 1983 and concludes at Stephen Hawking's 60th birthday party decades later, with his concession of matter's invincibility.
•For a look today at the science you'll be reading about in the next two years, you could curl up with The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces (Basic Books, $26.95) by Frank Wilczek, the 2004 Nobel Prize winner in physics. A student of Richard Feynman, Wilczek leavens his enthusiastic explanations of why (from a physics standpoint, not just because of all those hot dogs and ice cream bars on the boardwalk) things weigh something. "Matter is not what it appears to be," he writes. "The mass of ordinary matter is the embodied energy of more basic building blocks, themselves lacking mass." Heavy, huh? Don't worry, the chapters are short, fun and larded with historical points that offer readers the payoff of understanding all the excitement in the scientific world over Europe's Large Hadron Collider, just getting warmed up in its operations.
"We're at a special time in history, I'm sticking my neck out here, but I think we are going to find out a lot of beautiful things about our world," says Wilczek in an interview about his book. Normally, Nobel Prize winners write autobiographies after they take home the big prize. "But I'm too young for all that," he says. "Besides, I might want another prize."
One of the most skeptical physicists around when it comes to new theories, Wilczek feels optimistic that a flurry of new particles will be uncovered at the Swiss-French atom-smasher in the next few years, re-invigorating particle physics. "I think science has a lot to offer the world," he says. "And we'll see some glorious results in months, not decades."
With promises like that, we can look forward to reading lots more science books at the beach in summers to come as well.