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A summer's worth of science writing

This year's Summer Reading List is designed with the Year of Science in mind

12 June 2009

Berkeley's Summer Reading List, produced annually for incoming freshmen — and the rest of us — by staff in the University Library and College Writing Programs, this year focuses on books about science. The selections, based on recommendations provided by faculty and staff readers, range from classics-in-the-making (Lewis Thomas's The Lives of a Cell) to little-known but fascinating titles on such topics as cybersecurity and earthquakes. It's all wholly appropriate for this Year of Science, about which you can learn more (by reading!) at and

Excerpts from this year's recommendations appear below. For the full list, visit

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History
Stephen Jay Gould (Norton, 1989)
Recommended by Stephanie Bobo, lecturer, College Writing Programs

A book full of stories about the discovery, interpretation, and reinterpretation of fossils from an ancient sea in the Canadian Rockies; about what paleontologists do and how and where they work; about how we write and read the past from present points of view. At every moment it reveals the range and roaming of Gould's remarkable mind.

The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage
Cliff Stoll (Doubleday, 1989)
Recommended by Della Peretti, academic coordinator, Graduate School of Education

This true story is a blend of science, documentary, spy thriller, personal narrative, and introduction to Berkeley. An astronomy graduate student becomes fascinated with a tiny discrepancy in a computer account and educates himself about how to catch computer trespassers. His search leads him all over Berkeley and eventually around the world. The author, who also wrote Silicon Snake Oil, is a Berkeley resident.

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher
Lewis Thomas (Viking, 1974)
Recommended by Aija Kanbergs, Doe/Moffitt Instructional Services

Mitochondria as separate organisms within us. Symbiosis — the interconnectedness of life and planet, humans and other life forms. In beautiful prose, Lewis Thomas (1913-1993), a doctor, poet, and "biology watcher," writes about all these topics and more in 29 essays collected from his writings for the New England Journal of Medicine. Perfect for non-scientists, but even science majors may want to be dazzled and reaffirmed in their choice of discipline.

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors
Nicholas Wade (Penguin, 2006)
Recommended by Hilary Schiraldi, reference librarian, Haas School of Business

Until very recently, all information about our ancient human ancestors came from archaeology. Nicholas Wade uses newly available biologi-cal evidence to retell the story of how humans came to dominate the globe. DNA analysis shows that the first place people settled outside Africa was, incredibly, Australia; later, a small band of 150 crossed the Red Sea into the Arabian Peninsula and became the ancestors of all Asians, Native Americans, and Europeans. Wade's analysis covers the develop-ment of language and the domestication of dogs and cats. He writes clearly and easily about complicated topics, and the story he tells is, to me, fascinating and utterly new.

Earthquake Nation: The Cultural Politics of Japanese Seismicity, 1868-1930
Gregory Clancey (University of California, 2006)
Recommended by Dana Buntrock, associate professor of architecture

Gregory Clancey, whose specialty is the history of technologies, demonstrates how society shapes even its most technical fields through political choices and cultural expectations, describing how an international group of scientists established the scientific study of seismicity in the late 19th century and early 20th. His tale is set at the birth of modern Japan, in a moment when the nation drew innovative architects and engineers to its shores to rapidly expand its infrastructure. Clancey also elegantly weaves into the very readable text critical arguments about how cultures define architecture — and the life-and-death implications of such choices.

The Female Brain
Louann Brizendine (Morgan Road Books, 2006)
Recommended by Cynthia Dai, lecturer, College of Engineering

Written by a UCSF neuropsy-chiatrist, this book is a fascinating and well-written description of the effect of hormones on the development of women from the time they are babies to post-menopause. If you're a woman,   plan to have a relationship with a woman, or plan to have a daughter someday, this book is both eye-opening and validating. (The author admits to favoring science over political correctness.) Eminently readable, but carefully referenced like a research report, it explains so much about the difference between men and women!

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
Maryanne Wolf (Harper, 2007)
Recommended by Claude Potts, Romance languages librarian, Doe/Moffitt

This unique biological and cognitive study of how we learn to read (or don't) was certainly one of the most riveting scientific books I've spent time with lately. It is an extremely well-written discourse on one of the most remarkable inventions in human history. In true interdisciplinary fashion, Maryanne Wolf interweaves psychology and archaeology, linguistics and education, history and neuroscience in one captivating text that, of course, you don't have to read from beginning to end.