The best books about curious people on the hunt for new knowledge

Edith Forbes Author Of Tracking a Shadow: My Lived Experiment with MS
By Edith Forbes

Who am I?

As a novelist, I am endlessly curious about people and like hearing their stories. As an erstwhile computer programmer and farmer, I also have a lifelong interest in science and natural history. When I find those two divergent interests have cross-pollinated in a single gracefully-written book, I am a very happy reader. I love books that weave together an intriguing scientific question with the human story of the scientists pursuing an answer to that question.


I wrote...

Tracking a Shadow: My Lived Experiment with MS

By Edith Forbes,

Book cover of Tracking a Shadow: My Lived Experiment with MS

What is my book about?

When I experienced my first episode of multiple sclerosis in 1993, no treatments existed. The doctors said there was nothing to be done. I was raised by a mother whose early widowhood had left her with seven young children, a ranch in Wyoming, and an ambition to change the world.  She did not like the phrase “nothing to be done” and neither did I.

I immersed myself in the medical literature, and thanks to my background in agriculture, I noticed a possible dietary factor in MS that was not being talked about. That observation launched me on a self-designed experiment that continues to this day. Tracking a Shadow tells the story of that experiment and the mother who taught me to ask questions.  

The books I picked & why

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The Medical Detectives: The Classic Collection of Award-Winning Medical Investigative Reporting

By Berton Roueché,

Book cover of The Medical Detectives: The Classic Collection of Award-Winning Medical Investigative Reporting

Why this book?

Ever since my seventh-grade science teacher used my flyaway hair to demonstrate static electricity, I have loved science, and I also like mystery stories. This classic collection of short pieces is a favorite in both arenas. It is like a true crime series in which the villains are microorganisms and molecules. Unraveling puzzles involving all manner of medical issues, from rabies to toxic chemicals, these case-study stories kept me riveted from beginning to end. Mostly written from the 1940s to the 1960s, they also touch on some shocking medical practices that one hopes are now outdated.


Darwin's Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution

By Iain McCalman,

Book cover of Darwin's Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution

Why this book?

Almost everyone knows the name of Charles Darwin, but how many of us know about Thomas Huxley? The reality is that Darwin’s brilliant leap of insight was only one step in bringing the theory of evolution into common knowledge. People don’t readily embrace a new idea that turns their entire worldview on its head, and Darwin alone could not have overcome the inertia and outright hostility that greeted his new theory. Darwin’s Armada is a delightful account of a larger cast of characters whose scientific efforts, exploratory voyages, and intriguing personalities were part of the story of this revolution in human thought.


Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World

By Nina Kraus,

Book cover of Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World

Why this book?

I am a recreational clarinetist and a friend gave me this book, thinking I would like to know how music is rewiring my brain and possibly helping stave off senility. Nina Kraus has pursued a career in the study of hearing, and her passion for her subject infuses the book. She is entranced by the two-way feedback connection between the brain and the ear, and how the sounds we have already heard and processed shape our interpretation of the next sound waves to reach our ears, sometimes in surprising ways. Her description of the miraculously intricate mechanisms inside the ear makes me grateful for every time I wore ear protection when I was using a power tool or driving a tractor.


The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

By Michael Lewis,

Book cover of The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

Why this book?

If I ever assumed my decisions were the result of a carefully reasoned analysis of factual information, The Undoing Project would derail that comfortable belief. It is the story of the creative collaboration of two remarkable thinkers, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose work would overturn an idea at the center of most prior economic theory, the idea that people’s economic decisions are based on rational self-interest. The intense working friendship of these two men is a gripping story, and Michael Lewis brings the personal side to vivid life while also conveying the essence of their revolutionary thinking in lucid and approachable prose.


Rising from the Plains

By John McPhee,

Book cover of Rising from the Plains

Why this book?

Growing up, I had an inkling that Wyoming was a magnet for geologists because every summer a van full of geology students from halfway across the country would arrive at our ranch to study the rocks. After reading Rising from the Plains, I understood why. The book is the story of a scientist, David Love, who spent his entire career studying the geology of Wyoming. With his usual elegant style, McPhee weaves together an account of the complex geological history of the state with the personal history of David Love’s family, who had been ranching in Wyoming since the 1890s. McPhee’s writing always delights me, as in his description of several new mountain ranges mysteriously appearing “like a family of hogs waking up beneath a large blanket.” 


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