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Tales for summer science odysseys

Summer's the season for kicking back, taking time off and heading out on flights of fancy ... preferably with a good book (or e-reader) in your backpack. It's great if the book is associated with far-off times and places. And if the book sparks your brain's science-loving regions, so much the better.

Here's a roundup of books keyed to different fields of science as well as different travel destinations, some of which you can visit only in your imagination:

Archaeology and anthropology: You might think I'd go with something Egyptian, like "In the Valley of the Kings," but instead I'm staying a little closer to home. "Cahokia" is the story of the most powerful pre-Columbian city-state north of the Rio Grande, and how it was unearthed just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. It's a story of power plays, massive pyramids, Stonehenge-like structures made of wood, and spectacles with human sacrifices, all set in the 12th century. And it's all true. You can even go to Illinois and visit the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, which offers this video online. For a wider-angle view of the Americas before Columbus, "1491" is a must-read. The book, which gives a decidedly different perspective on Pocahontas, the Pilgrims and other facets of Native American history, was a January 2006 selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club.

Physics: CERN's Large Hadron Collider, which straddles the French-Swiss border, is definitely the place to be if you're a particle physicist. And even if you're not a physicist, Geneva is grand in the summertime. But if you can't be there in person, you can still read about the drama of the physics quest in "Why Does E=mc2?" The book doesn't stop with Einstein's famous equation but goes on to work out the implications for mysteries such as the LHC's hunt for the elusive Higgs boson. Paul Halpern's "Collider" and Don Lincoln's "The Quantum Frontier" focus fully on the LHC and the mysteries it could help solve. All this should whet your appetite for "Massive," another book about the Higgs quest due to come out in the U.S. this fall. And if you don't mind a little science fiction with your physics, you can consult my list of favorite physics doomsday tales.

Biology: Extreme longevity seems to be a hot topic lately, and there are plenty of books that trace the long history of our quest for immortality, including "Long for this World" and "Mortal Coil." I recently picked up on a friend's suggestion and paged through "The Spring," Clifford Irving's 1996 novel about a Colorado mountain town with a secret. It's not great literature, but if you can pick it up from a used-book seller or your local library, it might make you think more deeply about the implications of immortality (or about vacationing in the Rockies). Besides, knowing that it was written by the guy behind "The Hoax" adds to the thrill - and kinda makes me want to see the Richard Gere movie again.

Oceanography: If you're vacationing by the coast, "Deep Blue Home" could serve as the perfect literary complement for your summer idyll. It traces filmmaker/diver/writer Julia Whitty's encounters with the wonders of the world's oceans, from the Galapagos Islands to the Antarctic to the Lost City in the Atlantic's depths. For additional perspectives on ocean science, check out Sylvia Earle's "The World Is Blue" or Ellen Prager's "Chasing Science at Sea." And for something completely different, crack open Peter Ward's new book about the climate crisis, "The Flooded Earth."

Planetology: Celebrate science-fiction titan Ray Bradbury's 90th birthday by re-reading "The Martian Chronicles," which was published back in 1950. A lot has changed since then, but we still haven't tried sending any astronauts to Mars. Which makes the 1980 TV version of the book, starring Rock Hudson, look even sadder. Heck, we were supposed to have built colonies on Mars and destroyed Earth in a nuclear holocaust by now! For different perspectives on Red Planet odysseys, check out Kim Stanley Robinson's hard-core, hard-sci-fi Mars Trilogy or William Hartmann's easy-to-read tourism manual, "A Traveler's Guide to Mars."

Cosmology: If you're serious about the underlying structure of the universe, "From Eternity to Here" is among the latest in a long line of books about cosmology. But Sean Carroll's treatise about time can make for some heavy summertime reading. I think Dan Falk's "In Search of Time" is a little easier to digest. Neal Stephenson's monastic science-fiction novel, "Anathem," is another heavy book (in more ways than one, seeing as how the print version is more than 900 pages long). But I totally enjoyed listening to the audiobook version. "Anathem" offers up a fantastic blend of cosmology, physics, philosophy ... and even neuroscience, in the form of the parable of the fly, the worm and the bat.

Bonus round: For more choices, check out the journal Nature's summer book recommendations. Here's the rundown for quick reference:

  • "Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates"
  • "The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play"
  • "The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves"
  • "Stumbling on Happiness"
  • "Elegance in Science: The Beauty of Simplicity"
  • "The Lysenko Effect: The Politics of Science"
  • "The Curse of the Mogul: What's Wrong With the World's Leading Media Companies"
  • "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming"
  • "Composed: A Memoir" (by Rosanne Cash)
  • "The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory"
  • "Galileo's Dream"
  • "Two on a Tower"
  • "Tigers in Red Weather: A Journey Through Asia"
  • "The Lion and the Mouse"
  • "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"
  • "Ils on fait Paris: Une balade en 1000 lieux de memoire"

Update for 10:40 p.m. ET Aug. 5: I should have known I'd get the title of Sean Carroll's book, "From Eternity to Here," scrambled up if I wasn't careful. Though I suppose watching the 1953 movie "From Here to Eternity" would be a fine summertime activity as well. I've fixed the reference to the book ... my apologies to Sean.


For still more summer reading options, check out this roundup from the 2009 holiday season, this 2009 Apollo reading list and this 2007 sci-fi roundup. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."