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Summer Reading List: True Tales That Will Inspire and Educate You

Opinion

Xconomy Boston — 

OK, you’ve already read the latest hot science bestsellers—Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (both terrific, by the way)—and you’re wondering what to grab next. I’ve suggested below a number of remarkable science books that I’m fond of, and that you might find interesting as well. They’re organized by topics to help you find one to dive into during a lazy summer day by the pool, or on the plane as you make your way to your next conference.

Interested in the intersection of politics and healthcare? Some of these books may be tough to stomach because they illustrate the ugly, sausage-making side of some of our largest healthcare institutions. A great example: America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Back-Room Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System by Steven Brill (2015) traces in great detail the horse-trading and deal making that ultimately led to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). If you like this one, follow it up with Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans by former CIGNA public relations spin-meister Wendell Potter (2011). He explains the many tricks the industry uses and may dispel your naïve notions that insurance companies put patients before profits. Finally, if you want to see just how disadvantaged the poor are when it comes to receiving healthcare, check out How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America by Otis Webb Brawley (Executive vice president of the American Cancer Society) and Paul Goldberg (2012).

How about the intersection of science, politics, and religion? Check out Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul by Edward Humes (2008). It’s the story of a courtroom battle (Kitzmiller vs. Dover) that’s reminiscent of the Scopes monkey trial because the subject once again is the teaching of evolution in U.S. schools. The book also nicely explains one of the key points of the trial: How the discredited concept of “creation science” morphed into “intelligent design.”

If you took a psychology class in college, you likely read about the experiments done at Yale University by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s. These studies purported to show how ordinary people, when pushed by authoritarian figures, were capable of inflicting what they thought were painful and even potentially dangerous shocks on strangers. The studies were thought to help explain the evil acts of German citizens during the Nazi era. The real story is much more nuanced and complicated as described in Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments by Gina Perry (2013).

Already read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and still concerned about the dangers posed by the foods we eat? Try Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss (2013), a terrific exposé that details how major food company executives employed the nation’s top sensory scientists to create foods that are wildly appealing to our taste buds, but are anything but healthy. If you like this one, follow it up with Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food by Steve Striffler (2007), which also delves into the exploitation of foreign workers by the food processors.

Infectious diseases are still a significant health problem in the 21st century, nearly a hundred years after the first drugs to treat these diseases were discovered. How did the first antibiotic compounds come into being? Let’s start with the discovery of sulfa drugs, as beautifully recounted in The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug by Thomas Hager (2007). If you like that one, move on to the story of dedicated scientists trying to develop a new antibiotic in World War II England while facing the very real possibility of a Nazi invasion. The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle by Eric Lax (2004) captures the tension involved in doing drug discovery work on a shoestring budget during wartime. The title refers to the fact that the researchers, who were ready to flee their labs on a moments notice, rubbed penicillin mold spores into their clothes so they could begin their work anew in a different country if the need arose. The discovery of streptomycin also makes a good read in Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug by Peter Pringle (2012). Much of the focus of this book is on the issue of fairness regarding who did (future Nobel prize winner Selman Waksman), and who did not (Albert Schatz, his graduate student), get sufficient credit for this groundbreaking work.

If after reading these you want to check out the benefits of not using antibiotics, take a look at Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues by Martin J. Blaser (2015). This book illustrates the positive benefits the bacteria that occupy our bodies bring to us.

At the end of the 19th century there were significant concerns by many world leaders that farmers would not be able to produce enough food to feed a growing population, and that mass starvation was on the horizon. The solution turned out to be the discovery of a way to take atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into fertilizer (and just as importantly, explosives). This fascinating story was beautifully recounted in The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler by Thomas Hager (2009). If you like this book, continue reading on topic by picking up a copy of Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine by Diarmuid Jeffreys (2010). This book details how the industrial Haber-Bosch process that I refer to above played a big part in the industrialization and economic growth of Hitler’s Germany, and how IG Farben’s business leaders were tried after the war for mass murder and the exploitation of slave labor.

Mass starvation was also widely anticipated to occur at the end of World War II. How do you safely and effectively supply food to people who have been starving? Efforts in the U.S. to figure out how to combat this impending problem forms the basis of The Great Starvation Experiment: The Heroic Men Who Starved So That Millions Could Live by Todd Tucker (2006).

There are many books that capture how brilliant scientists made key discoveries that resulted in a wide variety of healthcare breakthroughs (see the antibiotic discovery books above). Unfortunately, not all scientists and doctors worked in an ethical fashion while pursuing their scientific interests, and this has led to some fine exposés that shine a spotlight on the guilty. Here are three well-written examples: Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment by James H. Jones (1992) is a searing historical account of how doctors in the American south wanted to study the effects of advanced syphilis, but failed to treat their black patients with effective drugs when they became available. Unethical treatment of prisoners of war in Word War II Japan is the subject of Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45 and the American Cover-Up by Sheldon Harris (2002). Think a similar thing could never happen in the good ‘ole USA? Check out Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America by Allen M. Hornblum, Judith Lynn Newman, and Gregory J. Dober (2013). Finally, read how inmates at a notorious Pennsylvania prison were coerced by doctors and jailers into participating in a long-running series of painful experiments from the 40s through the 70s in Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison, also by Hornblum (1999).

Looking for some science reads written in a lighter vein? Try Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock (2009). It focuses on the career of a “doctor” who earns a fortune by transplanting goat testicles into older men in order to restore their sexual function. Sort of like the first sildenafil (Viagra), except that there was no evidence the technique worked, and lots of men (not to mention goats) were injured or killed by the surgery. Follow this one up with a tale of a teenager whose quest to impress his girlfriend leads him to pull off the theft of the world’s most valuable rocks in Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History by Ben Mezrich (2012). Finally, check out the accurately titled What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (2014), which will tickle your funny bone while simultaneously expanding your brain.

Best humorous science writer? My vote is for Mary Roach, whose books never fail to leave a smile on my face. Ms. Roach combines her natural curiosity on a wide variety of topics with strong science reporting with a personal spin. Start with Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2009), then move on to Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010) and then Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2004).

If you’re mathematically oriented, check out The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day by David J. Hand (2014). If you enjoy this one, follow it up with Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers is the New Way to be Smart by Ian Ayres (2008). If you’re looking for explanations about the mathematically challenged, check out The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t by Nate Silver (2012) or Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences by John Allen Paulos (2001).

Are you a big fan of CSI and its various spinoffs? Check out The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (2011). This is where all of the cool scientific detective work began.

Looking for some books that will scare the crap out of you? Put aside those Stephen King novels, which are so yesterday. You’ve got more important things to worry about than rabid St. Bernards or prom queens that have mastered psychokinesis. Try Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen (2012) about deadly emerging viruses, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser (2013), which documents how lucky we are that there haven’t been more nuclear accidents (and that the ones that did occur didn’t do more damage), or The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry (2005). Don’t read these at bedtime: you may have difficulty going to sleep, followed by nightmares if you’re successful. Speaking of sleep, did you know that failing to do so could be fatal? Read about an Italian family afflicted with this rare prion disorder in The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery by D.T. Max (2007).

Are you an animal lover? Dive in to Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene M. Pepperberg (2009). If you’re into really uncommon beasts, read the fascinating tale of a “living dinosaur” in A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth by Samantha Weinberg (2001). And if you like real dinosaurs, check out the battle of the bones that began with the discovery of Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T-Rex Ever Found by Steve Fiffer and Robert Bakker (2000).

Like medical mysteries? Grab a copy of The Case of the Frozen Addicts: How the Solution of an Extraordinary Medical Mystery Spawned a Revolution in the Understanding and Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease by J. William Langston and Jon Palfreman (1996). It clearly illustrates the dangers of taking illicit drugs manufactured by unknown individuals under questionable conditions.

Albert Einstein is probably regarded as the most famous scientist in history, but what became of his (ordinary sized) brain after he died? Find out by reading Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain by Michael Paterniti (2000).

Concerned about what your neighbor is tinkering with in his garage all hours of the day and night? Relax. It’s likely something much less dangerous than the device crafted by The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor by Ken Silverstein (2004).

Are you a sports nut? Want to know how distinct alleles and mutations specifically contribute to athletic performance in certain individuals and groups? Check out the stories about running, skiing, jumping, and swinging a baseball bat in The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein (2013).

Interested in what motivates certain individuals? Learn more by reading Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink (2011), or check out Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed (2011).

Infectious diseases are back in the news these days, with “debates” about the benefits and risks associated with different vaccines. Want to read the true story about how the MMR vaccine is NOT associated with the development of autism? Pick up a copy of The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear by Seth Mnookin (2011). If you watched Ken’s Burns’s excellent PBS series The Roosevelts, and you want to know more about polio and how the March of Dimes got started, check out Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky. As with the early days of many vaccination programs, problems cropped up that threatened to derail this hugely important public health breakthrough. Details about what went wrong and how this led to 200,000 people being injected with live polio virus are clearly recounted in The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis by Paul A. Offit (2007).

If you’re having difficulty remembering the names of all of these books, learn how to do it better by creating “memory palaces.” Instructions for doing so can be found in the wonderfully named Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. It details an interesting yearly competition I never knew took place: the U.S. Memory Championship, and focuses on tricks you can use to improve your memory.

All of the books I’ve read by doctors Atul Gawande and Jerome Groopman provide beautifully written accounts about medicine and the doctor-patient relationship. Finally, a much more extensive list of book recommendations can be found on this page of my website.

Have your own recommendations? Please list them below. Happy summer reading!

Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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  • Dennis L. Thireault, MS

    Armies of Pestilence: The Impact of Disease on History Hardcover – 2003 by RS Bray

    Most people do not realize that Northern Europe was so decimated by plagues that the population almost dropped below vitality.

    Also the decimation of the North American Population is subject to much debate (Many say that more people lived in the Americas than all of Europe.) Was it a plague, pestilence, or some other factor that wiped out >90% of the American population shortly after Columbus visited; we may never know but it wiped out estimates as high as 80+ million people.
    by R S Bray (Author)

  • bespoked

    Many thanks for sharing this great reading list, as well as the more
    extensive one on your website. I’m just digging into All the Money in
    the World… (Laura Vanderkam); a great, and well-written read. Looking
    forward to checking out more of the titles on your list.