The Vinyl Frontier: The Story of the Voyager Golden Record
by Jonathan Scott.
Bloomsbury Sigma, 2019 ($28)
When the twin Voyager spacecraft blasted off in 1977, each carried a phonograph record containing sounds and images intended to represent life on Earth to any alien civilization that might find them (pictured above). In an approachable narrative, music writer Scott tells the story of the astronomers, writers, artists and musicologists who, led by Carl Sagan, compiled the interstellar playlist, which in the end included “Johnny B. Goode,” the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 and whale songs, among many others. With nostalgia, Scott compares the undertaking to his own attempts at recording the perfect mixtape as a teenager. Ultimately the mission was an endeavor for incurable romantics: the music of humanity sent to the cosmos in the hope that somewhere someone might be listening. —Jim Daley
Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague
by David K. Randall.
W. W. Norton, 2019 ($26.95)
At the start of the 20th century Wong Chut King was living in squalor in a San Francisco flophouse, working at a lumberyard and sending every spare cent he could to his family in China. In February 1900 he developed a painful lump in his groin, followed by a high fever; by March he was dead. He was the first documented case of an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city. Journalist Randall recounts the ensuing drama, as doctors raced to prevent a national epidemic. It is a story steeped in racial tensions and scientific ignorance but also one of discovery: federal health officer Rupert Blue, trying to get a handle on the deadly disease, made invaluable breakthroughs about the pathogen and how to contain it.
Power Trip: The Story of Energy
by Michael E. Webber.
Basic Books, 2019 ($30)
“Energy is magical,” writes energy researcher and professor Webber. We cannot see, create or destroy it. But when harnessed, it can help produce all the ingredients for a prosperous society: clean water, abundant food, sufficient light and heat, transportation, medicine and security. In Power Trip, energy becomes the central character in the human saga, from waterwheels and wood fires to oil wars and climate change. It is an accomplice in the rise and fall of civilizations and both an oppressor and an ally in issues of social and environmental justice. Expanding access to energy without devastating the planet, Webber writes, will require long-term thinking that addresses its multifaceted links to society. Even in the face of this century's “grand challenge,” Webber remains faithful to the transformative power of human ingenuity. —Frankie Schembri
No Shadow of a Doubt: The 1919 Eclipse That Confirmed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
Princeton University Press, 2019 ($29.95)
In 1915 Albert Einstein put forth his general theory of relativity, a new view of physics that described gravity as the curving of space and time rather than an attraction of two bodies. If proved correct, his ideas would overthrow Newtonian physics, which had reigned for centuries. Physicist Kennefick narrates the buildup to, and fallout from, the experiment that confirmed Einstein's radical idea and made him an international star: to glimpse the light of stars during a total solar eclipse and determine if it is shifted by the sun's mass and gravitation. The day of the eclipse was overcast, but scientists obtained several photographic plates of starlight, which would quickly usher in a new paradigm in physics.