The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks
by Terry Tempest Williams.
Sarah Crichton Books, 2016 ($27)

The National Park Service was established a century ago this August to protect the U.S.'s natural treasures, historic sites and national monuments. In this essay collection, writer and conservationist Williams chooses 12 of the 410 places that fall under the National Park Service's protection, reflecting on both the history and power of these locales and their personal meaning to her. For instance, Williams grew up exploring Grand Teton National Park with her family and worked at the Teton Science Schools. The parks she features span the nation, from Alcatraz Island in California to Acadia National Park in Maine. They recall both highlights and low points in America's history—from the triumph of the National Park Service as a way to protect wild spaces to the harsher realities of bloodshed at Gettysburg National Military Park and the displacement of native peoples in the name of preservation. —Jennifer Hackett

The Gene: An Intimate History
by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Scribner, 2016 ($32)

Writer Mukherjee's interest in genetics is both professional and personal. He is a doctor and a professor of medicine, and mental illness runs in his family. Through the poignant stories of an uncle and a cousin with schizophrenia, as well as an uncle with bipolar disorder, Mukherjee shows the devastating life consequences for those afflicted and examines the shadow that knowledge of an inherited risk can cast on an entire family.

This background impelled him to write this history of genetics, which spans from Gregor Mendel's 19th-century experiments pointing the way toward the idea of the gene to today, when scientists can easily sequence entire genomes and are experimenting with editing human genes. Mukherjee inspires both awe at how thoroughly genetics allows us to understand our own bodies and selves and wariness at the moral risks inherent in the literally life-changing abilities the field has introduced.

Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History
by Thomas Rid.
W.W. Norton, 2016 ($27.95)

In this book, Rid, a professor of security studies, traces how computers became so ubiquitous and integral to our lives. During World War II, advances such as radar and antiaircraft weapons demonstrated the vast potential of mechanized technology, prompting governments around the world to invest seriously in computing.

In the decades that followed, groups as divergent as the military, hippies and anarchists learned to use new technologies to further their own causes. We have now come to a point, Rid writes, of unprecedented enthrallment with computers at the same time as we are being forced to grapple with the dilemmas they have introduced, such as the increasingly dangerous threat of hacking. In an age when governments and start-ups alike worry deeply about cybersecurity, Rid's account of how the relationship between human and machine developed is quite timely. —J.H.

The Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of 70,000 Ordinary Lives
by Helen Pearson.
Soft Skull Press, 2016 ($17.95)

Why does a person's life take a particular course? This existential question is also a scientific one because researchers now know that many demographic factors—such as education, sex, race and, especially, economic circumstances—have a profound influence on how our lives turn out.

Scientists study these effects through birth-cohort studies, which periodically record information about the health and welfare of children born around the same time. Of these, the British birth-cohort studies, begun in 1946 and repeated with additional cohorts in 1958, 1970 and 2000, are the longest-running and most comprehensive. Pearson, an editor at Nature, follows the history and revelations of these projects and probes the power of our surroundings to influence human development, as well as the potential for individuals to rise beyond their circumstances.