by George Johnson. Knopf, 2008

As a science writer, Johnson confesses, he has often been attracted to rarefied concepts such as general relativity or quantum mechanics. Fascinating stuff, but he began to feel the need for something more basic. “What I was looking for were those rare moments when, using the materials at hand, a curious soul figured out a way to pose a question to the universe and persisted until it replied.” In his search for these classic experiments, he even tries to duplicate a few himself, providing some entertaining asides. Looking for equipment to perform Robert Millikan’s demonstration of the existence of electrons, for example, he visits a junkyard called the Black Hole (“everything goes in and nothing comes out”), run by an ex-bomb-maker in Los Alamos. Johnson’s mix of the personal, the erudite and crystalline prose is—like the pull of gravity (see beautiful experiment number 1)—an irresistible force.


by Elizabeth Hess. Bantam Dell, 2008

In the early 1970s a researcher at Columbia University designed an experiment to refute Noam Chomsky’s claim that language is inherent only in humans. Nim Chimpsky, the baby chimpanzee chosen for this project, was raised in a human family. Not only was he taught American Sign Language, science journalist Hess writes, “he wore human clothes, ate human food, and used a toilet (now and then), and it is likely that he thought of himself as human.” For a time he was a genuine celebrity, but when funding for the study ended after four years, Nim was put in a cage and shipped from facility to facility; at one low point, he spent time in a medical lab. His charm, however, and his sizable vocabulary inspired people to help him. He eventually found refuge on Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, where he died, at an early age for a chimpanzee, in 2000. The author uses Nim’s troubled life to raise profound questions about the dividing line between humans and other animals and about what we owe to the creatures we use in research.


by Chris Impey. Random House, 2007

Impey, who is at the University of Arizona’s Seward Observatory, provides a comprehensive, and at times philosophical, examination of whether we are alone in the universe. Much of the culminating discussion focuses on a famous equation used to assess the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe:

“The young researcher went to the blackboard and paused. The meeting had no agenda, and he wanted to give some structure to the discussion. After thinking for a bit, Frank Drake wrote an equation on the board, not realizing that it would later bear his name and attain iconic status....

“The Drake Equation is a series of numerical factors that combine to give N, the number of communicating civilizations in the galaxy at any particular time.... The first factor is the raw material for communication, or the rate at which stars are born that will live long enough to host biology. The next six factors account for the odds that there is any transmission to listen to, either deliberate or inadvertent. Two are astronomical: the fraction of stars with planets and the mean number of habitable planets per star. The next two are biological: the fraction of habitable planets where life actually develops and the fraction of these where intelligent life evolves. The last two depend on culture or sociology: the fraction of civilizations that do communicate over interstellar distances and the typical lifetime of the communicating technology.”