Wrap your mind around science books this Christmas

If you’re looking for gifts for inquisitive minds this festive season—or maybe the one you’re looking for is yours—be sure to stick around for science books that use storytelling to powerful effect.

constant stories

One of the books that glides along is Laurie Winkless’s Sticky, which explores how, why, and what we still don’t know about the things that still stick or don’t.

She wrote: “Applied knowledge of friction, fluid dynamics, and surfaces allowed us to build pyramids, harness wind energy, and explore the solar system.”

Winkless draws on examples from nature, such as the seemingly gravity-defying gecko’s feet and shark’s speed-enhanced skin, as well as how our sense of touch enables us to feel our way. There’s plenty of sticky chemistry and physics, too, from the ocher paint of Aboriginal rock art to the weird pucker curves and momentary tire grip on the asphalt.

Winkless is an all-time masterful narrator, and tales include a time when, a Dundalk native, she found herself climbing under her desk during her first major earthquake after moving to New Zealand. Refer to the discussion of the landslides and subsurfaces that caused the vibrations above the ground.

  • Sticky: The Secret Science of Surfaces by Laurie Winkless has been published by Bloomsbury Sigma

Drilling in the Tropical Arctic

Staying on the surface, Professor Jennifer McKelwin of Trinity College Dublin has written a book with fellow paleobotanist Ian Glasspool and science illustrator Marilyn Hill Donnelly about finding remarkable fossils that have stuck around for hundreds of millions of years.

Tropical Arctic tells the story of an expedition to Greenland in 2002, where scientists (including McElwain) carefully dug through layers of rock in search of clues about what happened to the region’s lush green vegetation some 200 million years ago at the turbulent border between the Triassic and Jurassic. A period of mass extinctions, a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, and a rise in global temperatures.

“We hand-picked small black fragments of petrified leaf cuticle directly from fossils excavated from Astartekløft,” the authors wrote. “This was a tough job with tweezers, but every 200-million-year-old part peeled off from the rock more easily than the gift price label.”

The scientists used fluorescence microscopy to examine minute structures on the fossils, including pores on the undersides of leaves called stomata that allow gases to enter and exit. Counting stomata and searching for coal in rock layers provide clues about atmospheric conditions at the time the plant was alive.

In addition to offering insights into Earth’s environmental perturbations and the resilience of life, Tropical Arctic also provides a front-row seat to the drama of the field trip itself, such as the need for attention from polar bears driven by impacts at home away from climate change, and unrelated to a team member being flown for medical care.

The book ends with a reminder that what we see in the rearview mirror of time should prompt us to take action now.

More stories

Another motivation for the work comes from Professor Hope Jahren in More Story. A modified version is available for young people.

Jahrin, a geobiologist, writes about the astonishing rise in consumption and environmental change even in the half century or so since her birth. It’s a sober read, but very engaging thanks to Jahren’s beautiful writing, especially when she weaves insights into biology.

“Every meal we eat, every mile we travel, and every dollar we spend gives us a choice between using more or less energy than we did last time,” Yahrin wrote. “You have the ability. How are you going to use it?”

  • More Story: How We Got Climate Change and Where to Go from Here by Hope Jahren, Published by Vintage

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