The best books of 2021 – New Scientist’s Christmas gift guide

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The first rule of popular science is to reveal the wonder and mystery of the world. For that reason, Sentient (Picador), written by photographer and wildlife film-maker Jackie Higgins, is my personal pick of the year. It reveals how the 86 billion nerve cells in the human nervous system afford us not just five, but more than 30 distinct senses, all served by dedicated receptors. Here is a thought suitable for the season: did you know that mammals have a special touch receptor dedicated to cuddling?

Bodies and brains

Science writers found many more unexpected wonders to share with us this year. Delicious (Princeton University Press) raises the idea that our ancestors wiped out all manner of psychoactive treats as they worked their way through mammoths, mastodons, bison, Jefferson’s ground sloths, giant camels and many more now-extinct species. The diet of the Clovis peoples of North America is a menu that husband-and-wife team Rob Dunn and Monica Sanchez describe as “a tally of a lost world”. They go on to explain how we came by such a varied appetite and how our dinners robbed the world of so many large animals.

For inspiration on how modern humans can avoid doing the same, Jane Goodall’s collaboration with publisher Douglas Abrams is a good place to start. In The Book of Hope (Viking), Abrams interviews Goodall, whose positive philosophy has been honed over a lifetime of commitment to the natural world. “It’s mostly because people are so overwhelmed by the magnitude of our folly that they feel helpless,” says Goodall. The Book of Hope is both a memoir of a well-lived life and a compendium of stories of “people who succeed because they won’t give up”.

New Scientist writer Graham Lawton spent a year keeping a diary of his “minor health woes”. He ratcheted up more than 100, which he explores in detail in Mustn’t Grumble (Headline). It’s a romp through the science behind common ailments that ponders whether our day-to-day gripes are the best indicators of future health.

From healthy bodies to healthy minds. In Move! (Profile), Caroline Williams, another New Scientist regular, explores how moving our bodies can act as “a hotline to the brain”, affecting the way we think and feel for the better.

Meanwhile, in Ginny Smith’s Overloaded (Bloomsbury Sigma), we learn how the way we feel and even our sense of reality depend partly on how certain chemicals behave in our brains. As Smith explains, we often don’t know how these substances work. But where there is clarity to be had, Smith brings it with aplomb, revealing the chemistry behind how we sleep, what we fear, who we love and even what we remember.

“Our ancestors may have wiped out all manner of psychoactive treats as they killed off species”

Not content with this wonderful chemical world, meddling with our brain chemistry, often by ingesting plants, is a favourite pastime of humans and other animals. Many evolved as a form of plant defence, including the sedative morphine, found in the opium poppy; the stimulant caffeine, found in tea and coffee; and the hallucinogen mescaline, found in certain varieties of cacti. In This is Your Mind on Plants (Allen Lane), Michael Pollan weaves tales of drug experimentation into a historical account of our long relationship with them.

Climate of change

In a tricky year for the climate, hope is something that Michael Mann has a surprising amount of. In 1999, he published a graph showing the rapid post-industrial rise in global temperatures. Two decades of harassment and death threats later, Mann remains convinced that we can prevent runaway climate change. The New Climate War (Scribe) sets out a common-sense approach to carbon pricing and a revision of the well-intentioned, but flawed, Green New Deal.

Of course, there are still many who deny that climate change is even happening. In Saving Us (Simon & Schuster), Katharine Hayhoe argues that this isn’t necessarily a problem. A Canadian climate scientist living in Texas who is also an evangelical Christian, Hayhoe argues that since facts can be so easily manipulated and ignored, we should focus on our shared values, beliefs and enthusiasms instead. We may find we have more in common than we think.

Inspiring memoirs

“I was always proud of my work,” writes celebrated NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson in My Remarkable Journey (Amistad), “but for Pete’s sake, I didn’t do anything alone”. Johnson, who came to public attention at age 91 with the publication of Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book Hidden Figures, focuses on those who encouraged and championed her career and helped her become a Black female pioneer in a field, and indeed a society, dominated by white men.

Physicist Kate Greene is another ground-based space trailblazer. She grew up wanting to be an astronaut and in 2013 she (almost) got her wish. Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars (Icon Books) is her tale of spending four months in a geodesic dome in Hawaii, with five other people, to mimic living in a colony on another planet.

The experiment revealed many of the pitfalls future pioneers will face: “The same people, same seats at the table, same clothes, same smells, same routines, same view outside the one-and-only window looking out onto the same rocks. No sunshine on our skin, no fresh air in our lungs.” Greene turns the longueurs and frustrations of her mission into a moving and compelling story.

Machines and minds

Meanwhile, on actual Mars, there is a spot that will be forever known as Larry’s Lookout. It is named after Larry Crumpler, a geologist and part of the Mars Exploration Rover project, who reversed the Spirit rover up to this spot in 2005 to photograph the Gusev crater. His book Missions to Mars (William Collins), studded with full-colour photographs taken by rovers and NASA satellites, shows how robot technology has helped us see our planetary neighbour as never before.

Back on Earth, the robots are almost as smart. This, says Kate Darling in The New Breed (Allen Lane), means we should give some serious thought to our future relationships with them. Darling celebrates our ability to bond with those outside our own species (soldiers have mourned the loss of bomb disposal robots, and Darling mentions one trooper who sprinted under gunfire to rescue a fallen robot). But she reminds us that robots, unlike animals, are designed by people, and could be used to exploit our better nature.

A final note of caution about our technological future comes from Kate Crawford. In Atlas of AI (Yale University Press), she reveals the hidden costs of artificial intelligence, from the consumption of natural resources to the more subtle costs to our privacy, equality and freedom.

A year of great sci-fi

In a year with so many reasons to seek out escapism, we were spoiled for choice with sci-fi books.

Deep Wheel Orcadia (Picador) by Harry Josephine Giles was one of the best. It’s a tale of a community of space miners faced with the possibility that the mysterious resources they have been extracting are actually sentient. Versed in Orkney dialect with an English translation, it is also perhaps the most unusual sci-fi offering of the year.

In the hyper-connected future of Skyward Inn (Solaris), humanity has spread to the stars, colonising inhabited planets as it goes. This is how a broad-chested, curly-haired extraterrestrial called Isley has ended up running a pub in England’s west country, serving a native liquor that brings good memories to mind.

Isley is happy; so, by all accounts, is his planet. So why is there a mob gathering in neighbouring Simonscombe? What do they know that the rest of the world doesn’t? In this book, Aliya Whiteley cements her reputation as one of our most exciting new novelists.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel since winning the Nobel prize in literature covers more familiar territory, with a recognisable yet slightly off-kilter version of our world. Klara and the Sun (Faber) tells the story of an intelligent, self-aware “artificial friend” who is navigating a dystopian world of human users who seem to have forgotten how to form attachments to each other and have lost sight of what really matters.

In an even more eerily familiar world, Calvin Kasulke’s Several People Are Typing (Hachette) ponders whether corporate instant-messaging apps like Slack will ultimately suck your soul out of your still-living body. The result is a riotous techno-horror-comedy whose protagonist Gerald wakes one day to find his consciousness has been uploaded into his company’s Slack channel. Will he escape? Will he want to? And will his bosses care either way? Since he started “working from home”, there’s been a leap in Gerald’s productivity, after all…

More psychological insights are to be found in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shards of Earth (Tor). In this universe, interstellar travel requires zipping through a dimension called “unspace”, which, while convenient, wreaks a psychic toll that only a few, genetically enhanced humans can survive. On the plus side, it proves useful for those who need to bargain with planet-wrecking aliens.

Finally, Becky Chambers’s A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Tor) is set on a moon called Panga, which is half protected wilderness, half industrial hellscape. Robots live in the wilderness and humans leave them alone. Then, Sibling Dex, a human “tea monk” (a kind of travelling therapist) heads into the wilds and makes contact with a robot, Mosscap.

It’s the first time humans and robots have met in centuries and, amid all the dystopian science fiction on offer, their developing relationship offers a joyful interlude that brings a warm, fuzzy feeling that is perfect for the time of year.

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