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July 15, 2010

Summer Reading Suggestions

Galapagos expedition

Beach reading? No, these intrepid explorers have landed on the Galapagos to study its wildlife. This photo was taken during the Academy’s 1905-06 expedition.

Summer is a famous time for beach reading. Fortunately, you don’t really have to sit on the beach to read. It’s delightful but optional. You can use a Kindle or an iPad to read, but I’ve also heard that in the old days people used a remarkable technology based on paper to store text. Rumor has it that they could read print on paper during takeoff and landing. Now that’s an idea!

Here are suggestions of three good summer reads, each having to do with Academy themes of science and exploration. I’ve read them all and stayed awake with a minimum number of short naps to freshen the little gray cells, as Monsieur Poirot would say.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
By Dava Sobel
A major development in the 1700s was a means to determine longitude. Determining latitude had been relatively easy, but there was no reliable method to accurately determine longitude on a ship far from land. As a result, ships occasionally plowed into land with predictable consequences. This was such an important challenge that the British Government established a prize of 20,000 pounds for the person who succeeded in developing a method to determine longitude, a sum equivalent to about $12 million today. Ultimately, the problem was solved by John Harrison, a Lincolnshire carpenter with little formal education. He devised a portable clock that kept very precise time even on a ship in motion. After considerable controversy, he was awarded the prize in 1773, three years before his death at 84. It didn’t allow for much time to enjoy his newfound wealth. This book by Dava Sobel tells Harrison’s story. I recommend it.

The Victorian Internet
By Tom Standage
This book recounts the invention of the telegraph in the 1800s, and the profound impact it had on the world as the “Internet” of its day.

The Lost City of Z
By David Grann
In 1925, British explorer Percy Fawcett disappeared during an expedition to find Z, a fabled city in the Amazon rainforest. Fascinated by this mystery, author David Grann embarks on his own quest to learn more about Fawcett and the City of Z. This book is available in the lending library of the Naturalist Center (Level 3 of the Academy). Borrowing privileges are a member benefit, so during your next visit, don’t forget to come browse our wide selection of books and DVDs.

Have you read any of these books already? Or do you have other summer reading recommendations? If so, share your comments below.

Filed under: Other News — Greg Farrington @ 3:20 pm


  1. Do you have a recommedation for a book that features an inventor/explorer that is either a young person and/or female and/or person of color?

    Comment by Stacie Walton — July 16, 2010 @ 5:53 am

  2. As a companion to the Lost City of Z, try the River of Doubt by Candice Millard, the incredible story of Teddy Roosevelt’s 1914, 2-month descent of the Rio da Duvida (now the Rio Roosevelt) in the southern Amazon with Brazilian explorer Candida Rondon.

    Comment by sheldon severinghaus — July 16, 2010 @ 9:58 am

  3. The tenacity shown by explorer Percy Fawcett in “The Lost City of Z” is almost unbelievable. He returned several times in search of this fabled city, despite near fatal encounters with insects, wild animals and native tribes. The author was almost as diligent in trying to retrace Fawcett’s steps to determine exactly what happened to the explorer and where. A terrific read.

    Comment by Ray Taylor — July 16, 2010 @ 10:39 am

  4. Brunelleschi’s Dome : How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King

    This book tells the story of how one man in 15th century invented the technology that enabled construction of one of the largest domes ever created.

    Comment by Roger Polk — July 16, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

  5. If you don’t mind some fiction mixed with the science, I suggest any of several books by Andrea Barrett – “The Voyage of the Narwhal”, “Servants of the Map” or “Ship’s Fever”. All deal with scientists and explorers, some actual people like Linneaus (fictionalized accounts), some just based on the generalized situations and types of people. “Voyage of the Narwhal” is about an expedition to the Arctic in the mid-19th century which goes awry, the other two are collections of short stories, each focussing on a different individual.

    Comment by Debbie Sorondo — July 17, 2010 @ 7:52 am

  6. these are good recs, i plan to check out The Victorian Internet – sounds fascinating! i’d like to plug any one of Rachel Carson’s books — all classic yet very timely.

    Comment by hoodedzippy — July 19, 2010 @ 11:29 am

  7. Some of my favorite books (a longer, but old list is at http://www.energyskeptic.com/ReadingList.nxg)

    Susan McCarthy Becoming a Tiger: How baby animals learn to live in the wild
    Carl Safina Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival
    Robert Sapolsky A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons
    Steven Vogel Prime Mover: A Natural History of Muscle
    Joanna Stratton Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier
    Ann Greene Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America
    Michael Shermer The Science of Good & Evil : Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, & Follow the Golden Rule

    Jack Weatherford Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World

    Simon Singh Trick or Treatment. The undeniable facts about alternative medicine.
    Steven A. LeBlanc Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage
    Azar Gat War in Human Civilization.
    Lawrence Keeley War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage
    Carl Sagan The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
    Gregory Cochran The 10,000 Year Explosion. How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution
    Claude Combes The Art of Being a Parasite
    Michael Maren The Road to Hell The ravaging effects of foreign aid and international charity
    Steven Stoll The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California
    Richard Street Beasts of the Field. A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913.
    Richard Walker The Conquest of Bread. 150 years of Agribusiness in California.
    Julie Guthman Agrarian dreams. The paradox of organic farming in California

    R. Barker Bausell Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary & Alternative Medicine
    Ray Moynihan Selling Sickness: How the World’s Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies Are Turning Us All Into Patients
    Steve Salerno Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless

    John Perlin A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization
    Ward & Brownllee Rare Earth Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe
    Judith Harris No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality
    Judith Harris The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

    Laurie Garrett Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health
    Chalmers Johnson The Sorrows Of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic
    Spencer R. Weart The Discovery of Global Warming

    Peter Turchin War and Peace and War. The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations.
    David Berreby Us and Them. Understanding Your Tribal Mind.
    Howard Hayden The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won’t Run the World
    Ted Trainer Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society
    John Opie Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land
    Peter Ward The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?
    Peter Ward Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future
    Peter Ward, et. al. Out of Thin Air: Dinosaurs, Birds, And Earth’s Ancient Atmosphere

    Comment by alice friedemann — July 19, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

  8. Here are some additional recommendations:

    Acting for Nature: What Young People Around the World Are Doing to Protect the Environment
    By Sneed B. Collard and Action for Nature

    Ryan and Jimmy: And the Well in Africa that Brought Them Together
    By Herb Shoveller

    Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai
    By Claire A. Nivola

    Women of Discovery: A Celebration of Intrepid Women Who Explored the World
    By Milbry Polk and Mary Tiegreen

    Scientists in the Field series
    Published by Houghton Mifflin Company (for young readers)

    Comment by California Academy of Sciences — July 20, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

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