Start September With Science — Our Recommended Reads

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As the sand trickles through summer's hourglass, Labor Day weekend offers one more opportunity this season to spend a few leisurely hours with a book. Here are a few favorites from the KQED Science and Environment team.

Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water By Marc Reisner

Many of California's cities — San Jose, Los Angeles, Fresno — receive an average of 15 inches of rain a year. That's the same amount as Casablanca, Morocco. Yet in this arid landscape, California built the world's fifth-largest economy, home to 40 million people, with America's largest farming industry, Silicon Valley and Hollywood. All of it exists only because of a massively complex system of dams, canals and water systems that made the desert bloom and also killed spectacular rivers and reshaped nature. "Water flows uphill toward money," Marc Reisner wrote in this landmark work explaining the history, the bounty and the corruption of the West's water. Reisner, a Marin County resident who died of cancer in 2000, wrote the book mostly on yellow legal pads at coffee shops. It's essential reading for anyone who wants to truly understand California's oldest and most intractable environmental issue. — Paul Rogers, KQED Science managing editor and environment writer, Mercury News

Cloud Atlas By David Mitchell

I personally love an apocalyptic climate story. But because so many of them only see one way to go — down, dark, and depressing — many people I know don’t. That's why I love to tell them to read Cloud Atlas. Its dazzling structure includes six nested stories-within-stories, each from a different genre. The whole novel takes in different lengths of time: the span of a relationship, or a human life, of a country or a civilization, of the planet itself. By the end of the last story, almost the entire planet is uninhabitable, and that’s what makes it a novel concerned with environmental damage and changing climate. What I take away from it is a feeling of possibility: that even if violence, greed, and barbarism are always present, our ability to reject those things is, continually, renewed. — Molly Peterson, reporter


Exhalation By Ted Chiang

Do humans have free will? How can we, if we are just a collection of atoms? If we are subject to the forces of nature, not one of them?  In his second collection of stories, Ted Chiang, giant of science fiction, isn’t interested in answering the question about will. Like some physicists and determinists, he assumes that humans can’t choose. His characters set out to live within this constraint and still experience joy, curiosity, love, and - of course - science. (David Kestenbaum attempted something similar in a terrific episode of This American Life). Here, you’ll find time portals, robots, supercomputers, and wonderfully rendered characters - a terrific follow to his first collection, which included the seed story for the movie “Arrival." Reading this volume allows you to, as one of his narrators puts it: “contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.” — Kevin Stark, digital producer

Lab Girl  By Hope Jahren

For a while there were a lot of science books — biographies and memoirs — with the word “girl” in the title and I wouldn’t read them. But this paleobiologist’s account hooked me and made me laugh out loud. She weaves together chapters about the life cycle of trees and plants with her own self-discovery as a scientist — a woman scientist, and a colleague to what New Orleanians would call her “running partner,” Bill. In one review of Lab Girl, the Washington Post wrote, “It’s hard to tell the truth about another person in their presence.” That’s the essence of the best stories, and Jahren accomplishes it.  (Relatedly, she also wrote the best obituary I’ve read of the poet W.S. Merwin, and it’s all in the last five sentences of her visit with him.) — Molly Peterson, reporter

Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Poaching By Rachel Nuwer

This book reads like an adventure story that brings you along on a journey into the illegal wildlife trade. You accompany the author as she joins a Vietnamese hunter setting traps in the jungle. You visit shops selling illegal ivory and pangolin scales. You observe a remote outpost rumored to be a center of black market trade. It's an engrossing read that paints a nuanced view of the forces driving the global supply chain of illegal wildlife products — from hunter to consumer. (Disclaimer: The author is a personal friend. You should still read her book.) — Danielle Venton, editor

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore By Elizabeth Rush

The science of sea level rise draws you in. The luminous writing keeps you reading this book-length sorrow song about climate crisis and the species at risk — including ours. The author applies her naturalist’s eye and humanist’s empathy to the stories of people who’d expected to spend their lives in by the water — not manicured resorts with golf courses, but gritty outposts where they’d hoped to fish as their grandparents did, operate small businesses and break bread with longtime neighbors. Her survey sweeps the continent, from places trying to recover from Hurricane Sandy to those sinking into the Gulf of Mexico and skirting the old Leslie Salt flats south of San Francisco. — Cheryl Devall, on-call editor

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams By Matthew Walker


“[The] silent sleep loss epidemic is the greatest public health challenge we face in the twenty-first century in developed nations.” Neuroscientist Matthew Walker’s argument doesn't quite convince me. But after more than a decade after wrecking my circadian rhythm with night shift work at NPR, I appreciate his attempt to persuade us. We’re still far from full understanding the functions of sleep but in a fascinating way he explains how REM and non-REM sleep shapes and cements memory. My sleep hygiene is abominable, yet I know this: don’t read this book in bed. Read it at the beach or the lake, and maybe you can use what’s in it to make a resolution. — Molly Peterson, reporter