Discuss as:

Seven summer books for smarties

Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com file

Can summer reading make you smarter? Definitely!

Just because it's summer doesn't mean you have to turn your brain off. And just because it's a science book doesn't mean it has to be boring. If you're trying to beat the heat, here are seven recently published or soon-to-be-published books that will keep your brain purring along even when you're at the beach — or inside your air-conditioned heat-wave hideaway.

"2312": This is the only fictional work on the list, but it's a doozy. This 576-page novel from Kim Stanley Robinson (who's best-known for his Mars Trilogy) is a crime-and-politics thriller set in an era when humans have colonized most of the solar system. There's even an asteroid-mining angle, which fits well with the recent revelations about Planetary Resources' plan to build a trillion-dollar industry. Some reviewers say the book meanders too much, but isn't that part of the appeal of a summer read? "2312" is one of the books on NPR's list of summer sci-fi recommendations

"Before the Lights Go Out": BoingBoing's Maggie Koerth-Baker focuses on two big questions in her book about the looming energy crisis. "Why should I care about energy?" and "Now that I care, what do I do?" She teases apart what's happening to the electricity grid and other elements of the world's infrastructure, then delves into the strategies that are being developed to change energy policy as well as personal lifestyles. The subject matter is serious fare, but Koerth-Baker takes you on a readable ride — and there's no better time than a heat wave to get smarter about global warming.

"Darwin's Ghosts": The way some people talk, you'd think the theory of evolution was born full-grown from Charles Darwin's head, like Athena springing from Zeus' brow. Novelist Rebecca Stott tells the stories of the thinkers who blazed the trail for Darwin to follow, from Aristotle, to the 9th-century Islamic scholar al-Jahiz, to Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin's lesser-known contemporary. If you're looking for a historical grand tour with a biological bent, this one's for you.

"The Ocean of Life": A sea tale always makes for great beach reading, but this one has a salty bite to it. Callum Roberts, a marine scientist at the University of York, traces how the world's oceans have changed over the decades — and why we don't seem to notice the degradation. "Roberts is that precious pearl: a practising scientist who not only knows his field inside out, but also understands how to write compelling, persuasive non-fiction," The Guardian's Leo Hickman says. Roberts sets forth his case for a "New Deal" that could stem the tide and save the oceans. 

"Trinity": My book list for last year's holiday season included a graphic book about the bongo-playing pioneer of quantum physics, "Feynman." This summer's graphic recommendation is "Trinity," Jonathan Fetter-Vorm's illustrated saga about the creation of the first atom bombs and their use at the end of World War II. The thin volume covers the science of radioactivity as well as the political and moral dimensions of the Manhattan Project. Fetter-Vorm tells the tale in complex shades of gray — literally and figuratively.

"The Violinist's Thumb": Sam Kean's tribute to the periodic table, "The Disappearing Spoon," was heaped with praise a couple of years ago, and a similar reception awaits his book about genetics and its effects on our past, present and future. Kean throws in lots of historical tales with genetic twists — for example, why Niccolo Paganini was naturally suited to play the violin, and why JFK's skin was perennially tan. "Our whole history is packed into DNA, back to the proverbial soup; think of it as a really long bedtime story, and then be sure to put 'The Violinist's Thumb' by your bed," Library Journal's Barbara Hoffert writes. Due out in July.

"Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?" If you're hankering to learn more about the human body's naughty bits, psychologist Jesse Bering's book should be right up your alley. Even if you're not obsessed with the shape of sex organs or the evolution of body fluids, you'll find lots of facts to fascinate you, or maybe infuriate you, in this compilation of essays from the "Bering in Mind" blog on Scientific American's website. If this is the kind of thing you're into, be sure to check msnbc.com's Body Odd blog as well. Bering's book is due out in July.

What's on your reading list for this summer? Share your faves in a comment below, or on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. And for still more book suggestions, check out the Cosmic Log backlist:


Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.