Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2015. But as beach season is once again upon us, we saw fit to republish it as a reminder of the great available selection of books by and about black scientists.
The New York Times caught considerable flak last month for failing to include a single book by an author of color in its annual summer reading list. But the geeks among us will have yet another quibble: Only two of the Times’ seventeen selections deal with science—and even those are biographies. Who says a well written book about science can’t be a relaxing read on a summer day?
For those who prefer a bit more science—and a lot more diversity—in their summer reading, we’ve compiled a selection of science- and health-related books that you should slip into your suitcase before your next vacation. All of them are either by black authors or about black scientists. Whether your thing is space travel or time travel, the Black Panthers or the Carolina Panthers, we think you’ll find the perfect companion for an afternoon at the beach.
“A good subtitle for ‘Newton’s Football’ might be ‘Pigskin Freakonomics,’” writes the LA Times’ Allen Barra in his review of the sports-science tome coauthored by Ainissa Ramirez, materials scientist and self-proclaimed science evangelist, and Allen St. John, writer for Forbes magazine. Using “Gladwellian” anecdotes, the authors make the case that many of the strategies employed in America’s favorite game were borrowed, often unwittingly, from concepts of physics; that goes for everything from the West-coast offense to the no huddle. Booklist calls it “a delightfully improbable book putting science nerds and sports fans on the same page.”
By now, it’s common knowledge that Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and their compatriots wanted freedom, employment, decent housing, and education for Black communities. Now Columbia professor Alondra Nelson describes a lesser-known aspect of The Black Panther Party’s struggle: the fight for health care. Rebecca Skloot, author of the best-selling The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, gives the book a full-throated endorsement: “Alondra Nelson combines careful research, deep political insight, and passionate commitment to tell the little-known story of the Black Panther Party’s health activism in the late 1960s…. Nelson reminds us that the struggle continues, particularly for African Americans, and that social policies have profound moral implications.” Update: In early 2016, Nelson published another scholarly page turner, The Social Life of DNA, her take on the cultural impact of DNA testing and genealogy, and its unique significance in the African-American community.
In what the New York Times calls a “surprising and insightful” history of NASA’s first black scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, Richard Paul and Steven Moss argue that the 1960s Space Race did more than shift the global political landscape—it also forever changed race relations in America. That was by design. Then-president Lyndon B. Johnson commissioned space centers throughout the Deep South specifically with an eye toward accelerating desegregation. Among the trailblazers profiled in Paul and Moss’s account are famed scientists George Carruthers and Julius Montgomery. To hear in Montgomery’s own words what it was like to greet his coworkers—all card-carrying Ku Klux Klan members—on his first day on the job at Cape Canaveral, listen to this clip from NPR.
Perhaps no African-American author, living or dead, has contributed more prolifically to the popular science genre than Neil Degrasse Tyson; the Hayden Planetarium director is author of a dozen books on space and astronomy. His latest work, the New York Times bestselling Space Chronicles, is a collection of writings on space travel and the future of NASA. Together, they make the case for investing heavily in space exploration research. At Universe Today, Elizabeth Howell pays the anthology what might be considered the highest praise imaginable for a work of science communication: “For those fans of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot,” she writes, “there’s finally a successor volume to that.”
Ron Mallett is no crank. Quite the contrary, he’s an accomplished physics professor at the University of Connecticut, and an expert on quantum cosmology, black holes, and astrophysics. So when Mallet says, as he does in his memoir Time Traveler, that he plans to build a machine that will allow him to travel through time, take him seriously. The San Diego Tribune’s Bruce Lieberman describes Time Traveler as a “strange, interesting, and ultimately touching memoir.” Writes Lieberman, “Mallett does an outstanding job of placing [tough] subjects within a lay reader’s grasp… If [the time machine] ever sees the light of day, it will have been built on centuries of amassed theory, observation and knowledge.”
Have we missed anything? Do you know of any other must-read books by or about black scientists that should be added to our list? Let us know in the comments below.
*Featured image courtesy of Simon Cocks.