Celebrating science

Eight Penn faculty share their favorite general interest books about science.

a stack of books in front of a chalkboard with math equations

Winter is an ideal time to step away from the hustle and bustle and look for a good book to pass the long, cold nights. 

Penn Today reached out to eight Penn faculty to ask for some of their favorite general interest books about science. Their recommendations include books about everything from genetics to linguistics. 

    • Vijay Kumar

      The Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering recommends “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” by Yuval Noah Harari. “Advances in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, manufacturing, nanotechnology, and robotics will change our lives on this planet, much like the Cambrian explosion did half a billion years ago. As engineers it is more important than ever for us to be responsible innovators as we democratize the process of innovation to provide more opportunities for society. Although Harari’s book paints a picture of gloom and doom and I disagree with many of his statements (for example, the cliché that time is accelerating), it does highlight the challenges of our 21st Cambrian technology-driven explosion rather nicely.”

    • Ponzy Lu

      The professor of chemistry at the School of Arts and Sciences recommends “Energy: A Human History” by Richard Rhodes. “Most of the problems with energy come from the human use of plant photosynthesis: wood, coal and petroleum. This book describes the role of energy in human history, both in terms of technology as well as economy. I assigned this book to all of my students taking a freshmen seminar on molecular biology.”

    • Gareth Roberts

      The assistant professor of linguistics at the School of Arts and Sciences recommends “Origins of Language: A Slim Guide” by James R. Hurford. “People have been thinking and hypothesizing about the origins and evolution of language since before Darwin, but a coherent academic field devoted to this topic didn't form until the end of the 20th century. Hurford played a central role in making that happen. This book is the product of his remarkably successful attempt to condense the field he helped create into 165 readable pages. Have you ever wanted to dip your toe in the water of language evolution? If so, read this book.”

    • Carlo Siracusa

      The associate professor of clinical animal behavior and welfare at the School of Veterinary Medicine recommends “Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health” by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers. “Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers explore the fascinating link between human and animal health. Animals and humans are part of an intricate system in which the health and welfare of each individual, either animal of human, have a significant impact on the life of other individuals; this is One Health. This book reviews some of the complex and fascinating relationship in the One Health system and explains why taking care of all individuals, animals and humans, is essential for our good health and quality of life. A great reading and a profound learning experience.”

    • Rebecca Waller

      The assistant professor of psychology recommends “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates” by Wes Moore. “Wes Moore is a Rhodes Scholar who worked as a White House aide before becoming CEO of Robin Hood, the largest anti-poverty nonprofit in New York City. The author contrasts his fate with the other Wes Moore, who was born one year apart and grew up a few blocks away but who is now serving a life sentence for murder. I found this book fascinating because it illuminates how the influences of parents, neighborhoods, communities, poverty, and structural inequality have a powerful impact on children’s life chances.”

Several of the professors interviewed also recommended “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity” by Carl Zimmer, which has been included on several Best Books of 2018 lists. This includes the New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year and the Smithsonian Magazine’s and NPR Science Friday’s Best Science Books of 2018 lists. It was shortlisted for the Baillie-Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction.