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Texts on the beach: What scientists recommend for summer reading

Tuesday, June 29, 2010; HE01

Once they've plowed through their monthly stack of technical journals, which books do science and engineering professionals read for fun? And which books did they love as youngsters? We asked several of them to name their favorite beach reads over the years, both novels and nonfiction with scientific themes.

Former astronaut Mae C. Jemison says she always has a book on hand. When crafting her list for Post readers, she selected books that aren't super famous but ones that she feels should be bestsellers. They all provoked her to think more broadly, she says, and are written by authors who are generalists, not scientists, offering perhaps a more accessible style for nonspecialists. "Above all, I wish I could read them again for the first time," she says of her choices.

If you're expecting a lot of titles by Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov, you may be surprised. Many of our scientists didn't put even one sci-fi pick on their list. (Primatologist Jane Goodall mentions J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy "The Lord of the Rings" as her favorite read.) As volcano expert Chris Waythomas explains it, "Real science has enough twists and turns for me."

Send the name of your favorite science read -- fiction or nonfiction -- to health-science@washpost.comand we'll run a list of the most popular ones in time for the last weekend of summer.

-- Rachel Saslow

Ken Denmead, a civil engineer and editor of Wired magazine's GeekDad blog, is the author of "Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share," which was published in May.

Fiction:

-- "The City and the Stars" by Arthur C. Clarke (1999). "This novella by one of the greats of science fiction catches me with its wistful but optimistic tone about a future where humans have programmed themselves to fear the unknown, but also to create the agent of their liberation."

-- "Red Mars," by Kim Stanley Robinson (1993). "This is the powerful start to a series of novels exploring the politics, emotions and science behind dealing with a quickly collapsing environment on Earth, while trying to start over on a new world with secrets of its own."

Nonfiction:

-- "The Cartoon Guide to Physics" by Larry Gonick (1991). "Gonick's take on teaching chemistry through humor is a great way to get kids actually interested in science."

Jane Goodall, primatologist and U.N. Messenger of Peace, is founder of the Arlington-based Jane Goodall Institute.

Fiction:

-- "On the Beach" by Nevil Shute (1957). "I read it at a time when the nuclear holocausts of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were much on my mind. It is chilling, and he is a great storyteller."

-- "The Day of the Triffids" by John Wyndham (1951). "It has some sad commentaries on human nature. . . . It makes me think of all the other forms life could have taken."

-- The space trilogy by C.S. Lewis, beginning with "Out of the Silent Planet" (1938). "The descriptions of colors and scents and sounds, unknown to us on Earth, are brilliant."

Nonfiction:

-- "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" by Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997). "This captures so vividly the horror that we feel to contemplate being trapped inside the body, unable to communicate. It is a vivid reminder of the strength and ingenuity of the mind: Imagine devising an alphabet with blinks. Quite an extraordinary book."

-- "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales" by Oliver Sacks (1985). "Again, this illustrates how much we still have to learn about the workings of our minds. Quite enthralling and sometimes very, very poignant."

Mae C. Jemison, a physician who in 1992 became the first African American woman to travel in space, founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization named after her mother.

Fiction:

-- "Kindred" by Octavia E. Butler (1979). "An accomplished, modern African American woman time-travels back to the pre-Civil War South and has to cope with slavery, ignorance and brutality. Growing up, I realized slavery had been abolished less than 100 years before. I wondered how my attitude of 'I can do anything" and 'I'm not putting up with that' would have gotten me through."

-- "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell (1995). "Humans travel to another planet and encounter two intelligent species that evolved side-by-side . . . a fascinating story."

-- "Dante's Equation" by Jane Jensen (2003). "I was captivated by the mysticism of Kabbalah, blended with physics and good old Defense Department weapons development. The book asks, 'Is luck just a statistical coincidence?' "

Nonfiction:

-- "Biographies of Scientific Objects" edited by Lorraine Daston (1999). "This book of essays on how an object or phenomenon becomes of interest to scientists shows that what we choose to learn about is influenced by culture and personal experiences."

-- "Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis, the Expropriation of Health" by Ivan Illich (1976). "This was one of the first times I was exposed to the idea (besides from my mother) that the actual practice of medicine and the 'heroics' we do could be detrimental. I learned the concept of iatrogenic disease -- illness caused by physicians."

Dean Kamen, an inventor who holds more than 440 patents, created the first portable insulin pump and the Segway.

Nonfiction:

-- "Number: The Language of Science" by Tobias Dantzig (1930). "Albert Einstein said, 'This is beyond doubt the most interesting book on the evolution of mathematics which has ever fallen into my hands.' "

-- "The Great Equations: Breakthroughs in Science From Pythagoras to Heisenberg" by Robert P. Crease (2009).

Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and scholar in residence at Middlebury College, is the author of "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet."

Fiction:

-- "Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Atwood (2003). A "great, clear" dystopian novel about "the future we're heading towards."

Nonfiction:

-- "A Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold (1949). "The great summation of ecological wisdom by as fine a writer as American science ever produced."

-- "Naturalist" by Edward O. Wilson (1994). This memoir of the Harvard entomologist is "for anyone thinking of heading for a life in science."

David R. Montgomery, University of Washington geomorphologist and author of "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations."

Fiction

-- "The Dresden Files" series by Jim Butcher. "Butcher's noir-tinged series features the rough-edged Harry Dresden, a private detective on the rough streets of Chicago who happens to be a full-blown wizard. Beware, this series is highly addictive."

Nonfiction

-- "Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom From the Urban Wilderness" by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (2009). "An inspired meditation on our own place in nature . . . you will also never look at crows in the same way again."

-- "The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms: With Observations on Their Habits" by Charles Darwin (1881). "I picked this title off the shelf some time ago because I needed a boring book to put me to sleep. It had the opposite effect. The last book Darwin wrote, it shows the reader how the most unassuming creatures -- earthworms -- plowed and shaped the English countryside."

Jenifer Rhoades is the National Weather Service's tsunami program manager.

Fiction:

-- "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley (1932). "Interesting parallels to the Industrial Revolution and even our present time."

-- "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes (1966). "A classic story that shows how good intentions in general, or fueled by science, can have tragic consequences."

Nonfiction:

-- "Life Story" by Virginia Lee Burton (1962). "A good book for first- through third-graders, wonderfully written as a play with each act a specific time period of the Earth, starting with its origins to the present day. It was just fascinating to me at a very early age."

-- "Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History" by Erik Larson (1999). "A historical account of a hurricane in 1900 that destroyed Galveston, Texas, and claimed 6,000 lives. This story reminds me of how far we have come in forecasting the weather over the last century, but also serves as a reminder how a failure to listen to others can result in disaster."

-- "The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman (2007). "One of my favorite books right now. It provides a forecast of how the world would change if suddenly humans no longer existed."

Chris Waythomas is a volcanologist in charge of the Alaska volcano observatory in Anchorage, an arm of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Nonfiction:

-- "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America" by John M. Barry (1997). "Natural hazards can be as much about politics as they are about science. The parallels with things today are impossible to overlook."

-- "To Interpret the Earth: Ten Ways to Be Wrong" by Stanley A. Schumm (1991). "A lively book that every geologist should read. . . . Too many Earth scientists today pick a favored hypothesis and are often unwilling to deviate from it, sometimes even in the face of much evidence to the contrary."

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