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The best science books of 2023: from the body electric to a journey through a black hole

Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole that sits at the heart of the Milky Way galaxy – CGI depiction in BBC series Universe
Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole that sits at the heart of the Milky Way galaxy – CGI depiction in BBC series Universe - BBC - Photographer: Lola Post Production

Imagine a black hole (good luck with that). Imagine what ­happens beyond its event ­horizon. Time stops and space comes apart, right? Actually, ­explains Italian ­physicist Carlo Rovelli in White Holes: ­Inside the Horizon (Allen Lane, £14.99), time will stop and space will come apart, in your infinitely far-off future, but before you ever get there, the black hole that ­swallowed you will spit you out through a white hole – which from the ­outside is virtually indistinguishable from a black one. No wonder Rovelli calls on Dante’s Virgil to help us through such a counterintuitive cosmos. That ­readers emerge at all is ­extraordinary enough; that they’re left ­demanding another go on the funride is pure Rovelli. White Holes is the biggest small book you’ll ever read.

Counterintuitive ideas are the fuel of popular science. Some, like Rovelli’s, come from primary research, a busy blackboard, and a “clear afternoon in Marseille”. ­Others emerge as countless studies, conducted over more than a ­century, start to reveal a truth that seems obvious only in hindsight. In The Experience Machine: How Our Minds Predict and Shape Reality (Allen Lane, £25), cognitive philosopher Andy Clark explains that the mind is not an empty bucket waiting to be filled with information. The mind is a ­detective: it hypothesises the way the world is, gets knocked back, and refines its hypothesis, over and over again. Nothing you experience is real – just real enough.

Nothing you experience is real... Museum of Neuropathology, Lima
Nothing you experience is real... Museum of Neuropathology, Lima - Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images

How to organise our experiences is the subject of mathematician David Sumpter’s Four Ways of Thinking: Statistical, Interactive, Chaotic and Complex (Allen Lane, £18.99). Sumpter attempts to ­render A New Kind of Science (2002), Stephen Wolfram’s unreadable 1,000-odd page taxonomy of everything, into something resembling a self-help book. How can we tell which patterns in our lives are real, given our brains find pretty ­patterns everywhere? Which bits of experience can we learn from, and which do we just have to chalk up to, well, experience? This curious project doesn’t so much solve our problems as remind us that we all have problems worth solving.

One way to relieve the ­confusion of the world is to ignore half of it. Cat Bohanon’s Eve: How The Female Body Drove 200 ­Million Years of Human ­Evolution (Hutchinson Heinemann, £25) explains why most scientific ­studies have traditionally excluded female animals (including women). The reasons weren’t stupid: hormones and reproductive cycles ­complicate experiments that are supposed to be simple.

Illustration of Luigi Galvani's experiments to discover bioelecricity, 1792
Illustration of Luigi Galvani's experiments to discover bioelecricity, 1792 - Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

But the price of our ­selective attention is severe: there are huge gaps in our understanding of ­women’s bodies. Bohanon’s history of women’s evolution begins among our Cretaceous ancestors and ends by asking hard questions about mind and culture. It’s not just a ­corrective; it’s a revelation. So, too, is Sally Adee’s We Are ­Electric: The New ­Science of Our Body’s Electrome (Canongate, £20). I used to work with the author at a science magazine where we hid under our desks from anything to do with electricity, since it’s an utter nightmare to explain. Since then Adee has been gathering the threads of a story about electricity in the body that has rich implications for how we heal and grow.

Of all the counterintuitive ideas, evolution is the most terrifying, if only because it’s so universal, describing change in both living and social systems and explaining every cherished human achievement. In Sleeping Beauties: The Mystery of Dormant Innovations in Nature and Culture (OneWorld, £20), biologist Andreas Wagner asks why innovative forms and ideas arise, only to cling on in a marginal state waiting to “catch on”. “Creating may be easy,” ­Wagner writes, “but creating ­successfully is beyond hard. It is outside the creator’s control.”

Now there’s a sentiment ­calculated to butter up the critic …

Simon Ings’s Engineers of Human Souls (Bridge Street Press, £25) is published in January