The best books that make science the story

Nicole Walker Author Of Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster
By Nicole Walker

Who am I?

At a time when people are claiming to “believe” in science or not, books that incorporate science into their personal narratives make it clear that science isn’t a religion—it’s just there for the understanding. Using the natural world to understand humanity (or the lack of it), makes me believe that there are ways humans can be part of the world instead of pretend-masters of it. Each of these books tells a story about identity, growth, self-awareness (or the lack of it) while digging deeply into the earth that sustains us, confounds us, surprises and delights us—as well as sometimes breaks our hearts. I am an author of many books, an editor at Diagram, and a professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.


I wrote...

Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster

By Nicole Walker,

Book cover of Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster

What is my book about?

In this book, Nicole Walker moves from the non-disaster of Y2K, the personal disaster of her baby born prematurely, to the larger disasters of climate change and the pandemic. Walker takes disasters and tries to plumb their depths, figure out the science behind them, understand what to do about them. When that fails, she cooks, where she feels she has a modicum of control but when investigating the science of what our agricultural practices do to the environment, even that modicum of control dissolves.

As the world seems to fall apart around her, the science behind climate change, cooking, respiratory Synyctial Virus, and Covid, she comes to realize it’s the pleasure of cooking with and for others that mitigates the disaster and turns it into something more manageable—something we might call regular life.

The books I picked & why

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Fire and Water: Stories from the Anthropocene

By Mary Fifield (editor), Kristin Thiel (editor),

Book cover of Fire and Water: Stories from the Anthropocene

Why this book?

Fire & Water does not make a spectacle of climate change. While global warming and environmental damage may be the catalyst for many of the stories, the weight of the stories is in the way the characters encounter new challenges, reconsider their relationships to each other and to their environment, and discover the wonder in the world around them, even as it changes. These stories fly us like a kite in hurricane-force winds through the gamut of emotions brought into specific relief by the devastating realities of climate change. As the climate crisis becomes more real, these stories steeped in realism are pertinent and necessary, heart-breaking and beautiful.


Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

By Robin Wall Kimmerer,

Book cover of Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Why this book?

Robin Wall Kimmerer published Gathering Moss before her now-gone-viral Braiding Sweetgrass. This book is slightly more technical than Braiding Sweetgrass. I told my daughter, who had to take Biology this summer so she could take Engineering III in the fall that she could probably just read Gathering Moss and get an A in the class. 

But the book is no textbook. Kimmerer guides us through the world of how moss interacts with other plants, evolves, and reproduces with such careful attention, lucidity, and detail that the connections she makes to how humans interact and evolve and reproduce are as clear and self-evident as they are exciting and surprising.


Madder: A Memoir in Weeds

By Marco Wilkinson,

Book cover of Madder: A Memoir in Weeds

Why this book?

Marco Wilkinson writes about his mother who moved from Uruguay to the States, who he knows well, and his father, who he doesn’t. Wilkinson understands his childhood and complicated adulthood as a story intertwined with the plants he’s learned about. In Madder, the narrator details plants’ xylem and their weediness, their Latin names, and their unpredictable growing habits while peeling away the internal systems of his own plant-like self. Wilkinson pairs plant with human to show how growth, thirst, rootedness, and supportive nutrients make for resilient bodies.

Wilkinson takes such care, too, to pull back the weeds and to pull them apart—Thanks to his careful attention to every part of the plant, I can see through the plant as well as inside the workings of the plant. I am physically in the body even though I get that it’s a big metaphor for the mind.


The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here

By Susanne Paola Antonetta,

Book cover of The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here

Why this book?

Susanne Paola Antonetta’s first book, Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir taught me how memoir can be compiled through multiple lenses—one that invites into the author’s self-view and another through which you can learn about place and environmental degradation. With two (or more) questions, who-I-am becomes complicated and textured. Antonetta’s new The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here illustrates that understanding ourselves comes only through looking at those selves through other texts, other people, our current understanding of ourselves, science, place, and our childhood’s vision of the world.

Antonetta takes quantum entanglement, her grandmother’s Christian Science beliefs, and her own account of spending summers at the shore in a small hut with her family whose history of mental health—and professional accomplishments—is complexly textured. In a section called “The Problem of the Past,” Antonetta describes the behavior of photon particles. In the double-slit experiment, if you send one beam of light through a double slit into a mirror, that beam’s photons behave as a particle but if you send a second beam of light, you can retroactively show that both behave as waves. Physicists call this first beam’s change in point of view “delayed choice.” This metaphor drives the central question of the book. If you look at the past, it is bound to behave differently than if you look at it head-on. The key, she seems to argue, is to look at the past and present simultaneously, recognizing that light can behave both as a particle and a wave—it’s the memoirist’s job, through the double lens, that we can not only see both, but hold the idea of different qualities and different identities simultaneously in our minds.


Environment

By Rolf Halden,

Book cover of Environment

Why this book?

Rolf Halden makes reading about the environment fun. He is a microbiologist working at the Arizona State University’s Center for BioDesign. He is working to invite people to pay attention to the lifestream of the chemicals and other substances humans invent and then dispose of without a thought. For example, at the water treatment plant, he discovered piles of contact lenses because people just throw them in the toilet. Just throw them in the garbage can people. Plastic is still bad news on land but it’s even worse in our waterways.

Halden himself didn’t think of the results of his own contact-lens throwing away until he visited the treatment plant. By recognizing that humans will be humans, he advocates for us trying not to make stuff or use stuff that can’t be easily dissolved in the environment because it’s nearly impossible to know where all this human-made stuff goes or what happens to it. And, if we do find out, the answer isn’t always good.


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