The best books about trees and stars, and the scientists who love them

Who am I?

As a child in New England, I used to look up to the trees around my home and the stars beyond. The trees caught my gaze by day, their branches twisting into the blue sky. I imagined myself turning upside-down, so the branches actually plunged into blue water, like the tree-islands of my novel A Door into Ocean. By night I imagined falling off the Earth into the dark well of stars. My vision of stars ultimately morphed into the multicolored microbes of Brain Plague. The books on my list expanded my view of trees and stars into many dimensions. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.


I wrote...

The Highest Frontier

By Joan Slonczewski,

Book cover of The Highest Frontier

What is my book about?

A Cuban-American president’s granddaughter finds an alien ultraphyte crawling up a tree. The ultraphytes are blamed for Earth’s floods and fires. Jenny Kennedy escapes it all and takes the anthrax-powered space elevator up to Frontera College, a satellite amidst the high frontier of stars. Virtual worlds teach biology and colonial history, financed by a Native American casino. Jenny meets her neurodivergent roommate and starts research on intelligent plants. Yet even out in space, students cannot escape Earth’s disasters and invaders. Only Jenny and her roommate’s research might save Earth from itself.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest

Joan Slonczewski Why did I love this book?

Growing up as a Canadian logger, Suzanne Simard faced formidable challenges to figure out how trees communicate. Ingenious experiments showed how mother trees pass on food to younger seedlings, and how trees of all kinds share a “World Wood Web” of fungi. This fungal internet of trees, called “mycorrhizae,” has fundamentally reshaped forest ecology—and led us to recalculate contributions to the global carbon budget. As a microbiologist, it staggers my mind to realize how the tiniest of fungal threads interconnect the great giants of the forest. Loggers fought the knowledge, but Simard never backed down. The fungal internet she discovered carries hope for our planet, like Eywa from the film Avatar

By Suzanne Simard,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked Finding the Mother Tree as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER • From the world's leading forest ecologist who forever changed how people view trees and their connections to one another and to other living things in the forest—a moving, deeply personal journey of discovery

“Finding the Mother Tree reminds us that the world is a web of stories, connecting us to one another. [The book] carries the stories of trees, fungi, soil and bears--and of a human being listening in on the conversation. The interplay of personal narrative, scientific insights and the amazing revelations about the life of the forest make a compelling story.”—Robin Wall…


Book cover of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Joan Slonczewski Why did I love this book?

One of my earliest memories was hearing of John Glenn’s orbit in space. My father developed physics for future computers that would guide the rockets. Later I was amazed to read Margot Shetterly’s true story of Katherine Johnson and other Black women “computers” of the early space race. In a segregated workplace, these stellar professionals computed our first steps toward the stars. They did the math for space flight before any computers. Their astounding performance used entirely pencil and paper, and chalk on the board. Even when the first electronic computers came in, John Glenn asked Katherine Johnson to recheck the math before he would go up.

By Margot Lee Shetterly,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Hidden Figures as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Soon to be a major motion picture starring Golden Globe-winner Taraji P. Henson and Academy Award-winners Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA's African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America's space program-and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now. Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as "Human Computers," calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American…


Book cover of Lab Girl

Joan Slonczewski Why did I love this book?

From the remote wilderness to the research lab, this book comes alive with the passion of discovering trees from a million years ago. For Hope Jahren and her fellow workers, the lab is a window into past millennia of climate change—and sheds light on the future. A leaf, a speck of soil, a shower of amber on your head; and then, the fascination of watching numbers on your instruments reveal secrets that you’re the first in the world to know. The joys of sampling soil, and of coaxing recalcitrant machines to work, come alive. And I love how Jahren manages to shape an opera-worthy epic out of the struggle for laboratory funding—the unsung challenge of all scientists.

By Hope Jahren,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Lab Girl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER •NATIONAL BESTSELLER • Geobiologist Hope Jahren has spent her life studying trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Lab Girl is her revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also a celebration of the lifelong curiosity, humility, and passion that drive every scientist.

"Does for botany what Oliver Sacks’s essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology.” —The New York Times

In these pages, Hope takes us back to her Minnesota childhood, where she spent hours in unfettered play in her father’s college laboratory. She tells us how she found a sanctuary…


Book cover of The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred

Joan Slonczewski Why did I love this book?

This Harvard-trained cosmologist takes us on a journey into the universe, from colliding black holes to neutrons and protons “faking it” as elementary particles. If you ever wondered why the universe has more matter than antimatter, and what is dark matter made of, this book is for you. And physics is about more than theories; it’s about people doing physics. Black lives matter, and Black lives are the stuff of stars. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein shares her exploration of a universe that is “bigger than the bad things that are happening to us.” Along the way, we gain new clues to the fate of our galaxies full of stars.

By Chanda Prescod-Weinstein,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Disordered Cosmos as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From a star theoretical physicist, a journey into the world of particle physics and the cosmos -- and a call for a more just practice of science.

In The Disordered Cosmos, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein shares her love for physics, from the Standard Model of Particle Physics and what lies beyond it, to the physics of melanin in skin, to the latest theories of dark matter -- all with a new spin informed by history, politics, and the wisdom of Star Trek.

One of the leading physicists of her generation, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is also one of fewer than one hundred…


Book cover of The Hidden Life of Trees

Joan Slonczewski Why did I love this book?

Peter Wohlleben is a forester who shares his remarkable observations of trees. Trees have a language—they communicate by chemicals from root to branch, and send scent warnings to other trees. For humans, the forest is more than beautiful; forest air is actually cleaner because the trees filter it. Wohlleben acknowledges the under-appreciated role of the soil microbial communities that keep forests alive, their heat production warming the roots in winter. Amazingly, trees even need “sleep” at night as we do. Producing light at night, as in cities, is not good for trees. As a scientist, I might question Wohlleben’s points here and there, but always enjoy his provocative ideas to explore further.

By Peter Wohlleben, Jane Billinghurst (translator),

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked The Hidden Life of Trees as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A paradigm-smashing chronicle of joyous entanglement that will make you acknowledge your own entanglement in the ancient and ever-new web of being."--Charles Foster, author of Being a Beast Are trees social beings? In this international bestseller, forester and author Peter Wohlleben convincingly makes the case that, yes, the forest is a social network. He draws on groundbreaking scientific discoveries to describe how trees are like human families: tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, support them as they grow, share nutrients with those who are sick or struggling, and even warn each other of impending dangers. Wohlleben…


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Unsettled

By Laurie Woodford,

Book cover of Unsettled

Laurie Woodford

New book alert!

What is my book about?

At the age of forty-nine, Laurie Woodford rents out her house, packs her belongings into two suitcases, and leaves her life in upstate New York to relocate to Seoul, South Korea. What begins as an opportunity to teach college English in Asia evolves into a nomadic adventure.

Laurie spoon-feeds orphans in Ethiopia, performs 108 bows at a Buddhist mountain temple, walks shelter dogs in Peru, milks goats in Fuerteventura, and gets lost in Mexico, all the while navigating dating at midlife.

After four years of traveling, Laurie’s return “home” becomes an unexpected adventure of its own when she ends up in Arkansas and meets Bruce, a bird-loving, bearded Quaker, and then struggles to reconcile her need for freedom with her longing to feel settled.

Unsettled

By Laurie Woodford,

What is this book about?

At the age of forty-nine, driven by an urgent restlessness, Laurie Woodford rents out her house, packs her belongings into two suitcases, and relocates to Asia. What begins as an opportunity to teach college English overseas, evolves into a nomadic adventure as Laurie works and volunteers in South Korea, Ethiopia, Peru, Spain, and Mexico. After four years of traveling, Laurie's return "home" to the U.S. becomes an unexpected adventure of its own when she ends up in Arkansas and meets Bruce, a bird-loving, bearded Quaker, who challenges her to reconcile her life of fierce independence with her longing to feel…


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