The best books for feeling awestruck about the world

Matthew D. LaPlante Author Of Superlative: The Biology of Extremes
By Matthew D. LaPlante

Who am I?

I spent the first decade of my journalistic career focused on calamity, malevolence, and suffering. By my early thirties, I wasn’t just struggling to feel happy about the world — I was struggling to feel anything at all. It was an encounter with awe — a visit to an aspen colony in central Utah that is the world’s largest known singular organism — that jarred me from this increasingly colorless world. As an author, teacher, researcher, and radio host, I strive to connect others with a sense of wonder — and I feel very fortunate that so many other science communicators continually leave me feeling awestruck for this amazing world.  

I wrote...

Superlative: The Biology of Extremes

By Matthew D. LaPlante,

Book cover of Superlative: The Biology of Extremes

What is my book about?

Superlative is the story of extreme evolution — and what we can learn from it about ourselves and our planet. It’s a tale of crazy-fast falcons and super-strong beetles, of tiny animals and enormous plants, of whip-smart dolphins and killer snakes. For a long time, scientists ignored these evolutionary outliers. Now, researchers are coming to see great value in paying close attention to superlative species. 

The books I picked & why

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Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us About Life, Love and Relationships

By Camilla Pang,

Book cover of Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us About Life, Love and Relationships

Why this book?

Sometimes, a voice actor is the absolute right choice for an audiobook. (I think this was the case for my book, which was read by George Newbern — whose voice I quickly recognized as the cartoon Superman.) Other times, though, absolutely nobody but the actual author will do, and this is most certainly the case with Camilla Pang’s beautifully written — and narrated — book about human behavior. I’ve both read and listened to Explaining Humans, and I recommend the latter, for Pang’s particular manner of emphasis, inflection, and cadence add color, clarity, and personality to her written words. And this, to me, was tremendously helpful, because Explaining Humans is not so much a scientific explanation for why we humans are such peculiar creatures as it is a series of scientific analogies that help explain how Pang — a computational biologist who is autistic — has come to understand many of the seemingly illogical behaviors of our species.

Reading and listening to Explaining Humans felt like a very intimate peek inside Pang’s mind — and her ruminations have prompted me to consider many other ways in which science can offer us a lens through which we can see the world in a new light, even (and perhaps especially) when it cannot provide a specific answer to the questions we ask along the way.

The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature

By J. Drew Lanham,

Book cover of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature

Why this book?

Something very deep and very old struck me as I was reading the first pages of The Home Place, so much that it drew me out of the prose and into a state of contemplation. There was something resoundingly familiar about J. Drew Lantham’s writing, and it wasn’t until I was able to lay hands on it — literally, in the form of the yellowed pages of my copy of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac — that I was able to continue reading Lantham’s exquisite memoir. Creative but concrete, florid but exacting, Lantham is an ascendant heir to Leopold, for The Home Place is not just a warmly written tribute to nature’s stunning beauty but an at-first troubling, and ultimately inspiring, examination of the question “Who gets to have these experiences?” 

Life's Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable

By Paul G. Falkowski,

Book cover of Life's Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable

Why this book?

On a riverbank in the tiny town of Rifle, Colorado, is an unassuming plot of land that most people would pass without a second thought. For me, though, that spot is like a temple — because it is there that researchers discovered 28 entirely new phyla of microorganisms. (By way of comparison, the entire kingdom Animalia contains approximately 31 phyla.) I wouldn’t have known to appreciate this discovery, though, if I hadn’t first read Paul Falkowski’s wonderful book about microbes. Like most folks, I’d known that all life on our planet stemmed from the creatures so small we cannot see them. But what I hadn’t fully contemplated before Life’s Engines was just how much these tiny organisms have done to create a world where other forms of life could thrive.

Falkowski told that story in a way that was accessible, exciting, and thought-provoking, offering me the opportunity to conceptualize the world in a new way. With that, places like that little patch of land in Colorado no longer seemed ordinary, but rather holy — for every step we take to understand the smallest life on our planet allows us to understand the origins of everything else.

Green Deen: What Islam Teaches about Protecting the Planet

By Ibrahim Abdul-Matin,

Book cover of Green Deen: What Islam Teaches about Protecting the Planet

Why this book?

It would be easy to pass off this work as a book about the environment for Muslims. And I suppose it is that—an Islamic analog for the growing list of books that implore Christians to view environmental stewardship as an essential tenet of their faith, from authors like Sandra Richter and Fletcher Harper. 

Abdul-Matin's work struck me in another way: As an expanding aperture into the faith of billions of people across this planet. Reading it was reminiscent of my first experience with Benjamin Hoff's The Tao of Pooh, which similarly offered me an accessible entryway to a religion I'd previously known very little about, and which permitted me to then dive deeper through other, more challenging works. I read Hoff's book for the first time as a teen-aged sailor onboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, and I have read it several times since. I am certain that I will read Green Deen again, too, for it is a beautifully crafted story that has re-invigorated my belief that religion and science—the two most awe-inspiring forces in our world—need not be in conflict. Not in the least. 

Furry Logic: The Physics of Animal Life

By Matin Durrani, Liz Kalaugher,

Book cover of Furry Logic: The Physics of Animal Life

Why this book?

Among the biggest frustrations in my life are the moments I call “commuter questions”. These are the sorts of ponderings that pop into my head when I’m making the 90-minute drive from my home to the university where I teach, and when — safe driver that I am — I can’t simply hop online to hunt for an answer. Inevitably, by the time I’ve found a parking spot on campus, the question has disappeared from my mind. But where do those questions go? Well, apparently, they somehow wind up in Bristol, England, where science writers Matin Durrani and Liz Kalaugher are based. In Furry Logic, Durrani and Kalaugher address in-and-out-of-your-head questions like “Can mosquitoes fly in a rainstorm?” and “How do eels generate electricity?” And the answers are delightful. 

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