There are a lot of great books that I’ve read in the past that I want to give a quick nod to. Eventually, I may go back and write a dedicated entry for any I re-read them. In the meantime, I feel I owe them a few words here:

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

This one is about the advancement of forensic chemistry in the 1920s and the work of the two scientists who developed and honed the ability for detecting poisons in human bodies. It takes place in New York during Prohibition investigating deaths by poisons, toxic gases, radium, and illegal alcohols. It has lots of interesting science that is punctuated by murder-mystery cases with a “CSI” feel, which makes it very readable even for the layman.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This book as gotten a lot of attention the last year, and with good reason. This book is an intersection of fascinating science with history and medical ethics. The book is about the famous HeLa cell line just as much as it is about the woman those cells came from, cells that killed her shortly after. It alternates between discussing the discoveries and advances of HeLa and how it spread to laboratories all over the world while making aggressive effort to put a face to those cells. Skloot worked heavily with the family to tell the story of woman who started it all, all the while addressing the important ethics question of patient rights, boundaries and consent.

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Phantoms in the Brain : Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by VS Ramachandran

This book is, at its core, a book on the structure of the brain and its workings. However, it would be really selling it short to leave it at that. Ramachandran looks at particular neurological abnormalities and individuals who possess them and takes us on a journey, clearly illustrating what these conditions mean and what we can learn from them, what questions they may raise, and what implications that knowledge can have on cognitive science. Think of Oliver Sacks, but with more depth and scope. Some of the things you’ll find in this book feel revolutionary, and you can feel our knowledge of the brain advance with you as you turn the pages. Through it all, the patients are human, part of the story, not distant case-studies or a clinical collection of symptoms. Ramachandran has a gift, not just as a talented scientist who is able to able to connect pieces of knowledge into a larger truth, but also to explore those little pieces with great depth, but as a writer in telling us information that we not only find interesting but also information for which we can see its importance. This book is engaging and electrifying to read, the author just as excited as you are, and it feels through all of it as if a very fascinating person was speaking into your ear.

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Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

As you could probably figure out from the title, this is a book about space exploration… except, uh, from a unique angle. It focuses mostly on those basic kinds of things one might wonder about functioning long-term (as one would need to in a trip to Mars) in zero gravity: eating, bathing, pooping and space sex. It’s interesting and also very funny, a good quick read if you’re looking for a weekend book. Even the footnotes will make you laugh out loud.

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As a quick homage to another book by Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is a really really enjoyable book looking all the useful things we do with dead people. This book was pretty popular when it first came out, I think, and for good reason. It’s one of my favourites. It is not only informative, but thoroughly hilarious.

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Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

This book is about an internist, infectious disease specialist, and anthropologist named Paul Farmer, and his passionate work combating tuberculosis and providing medical care in places like Haiti, South America, and Rwanda (although his dedication to the cause takes him many other places, including the prisons of Russia). His tireless fight to provide adequate medical treatment to people who might not have otherwise received is an inspiring read, making this book a very good read for people interested in science but also people who want to hear about the good being done in the world.

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The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

This book is an oldie but goodie, before Dawkins was the face of Neo-Darwinianism and simply a zoologist. To be sure, though, this is the book that started it all. It looks at how our genes have evolved with one need in mind: to propagate. Although Dawkins is considered a controversial figure, don’t shy away from the book because of it. The Selfish Gene is a solid source for information on biological evolution. It is great science reading even for the layman, breaking down complex topics and processes — like DNA, the origin of life, and evolution — into simple, understandable language with interesting examples.

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A Morning’s Work: Medical Photographs […] by Stanley Burns

This is a medical photography book, full of both beautiful and haunting (sometimes at the same time) images from the Burns Archive. The book visually documents afflictions, injuries, and medical procedures from the turn of the century, with a description of what is shown for each in the back of the book. The pictures are very well done, artistically placed and often hand-coloured, and are quite stunning. The book handles the topic gracefully and never treats the patients disrespectfully.

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Rebel Code: Linux And The Open Source Revolution by Glyn Moody

This is book that falls under the technology subgenre, if you hadn’t figured out by the title. This is a very readable book on the history and development of the Free Software Foundation and Open Source movement, beginning at its early roots to the present. Unlike the title implies, the book is not limited to Linux and also discusses GNU, Perl, Apache, Netscape and other critical advances in the open source world. The book focuses on both the technology itself, but also the critical players (Stallman, Torvolds, Raymond, etc),and its implications on the software world, on business models, on technological advancement. Moody obviously did very meticulous research and also made a point to interview tons of big names and famous hackers in this very comprehensive, sometimes sympathetic and sometimes critical, book.

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All of these books have a well-deserved recommendation from me.

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