Best Science Books of 2017: The Microbes and The Reanimated Extinct

The three books in this list do not fit neatly in any other category. All three deal with biology at a higher level, but their subjects matter differ: two are on microbiology and one is on de-extinction.

Ted Anton’s Planet of Microbes: The Perils and Potential of Earth’s Essential Life Forms takes us through a whirlwind tour of all the questions the unicellular world and the scientists studying it are uniquely suited to answering. From the origin of life through pollution and environmental crises to human health and epidemiology, there isn’t any topic that Anton doesn’t at least touch on. The depths of the discussions vary, but as a book outlining the big picture of just how critical and diverse the questions modern microbiology studies, it excels. And if you want to know more about any single topic, the book name-drops just about every important researcher, and more information on their work is a simple google away. Highly recommended for anyone wanting a lay of the land in microbiology – I could see giving this book to final year high school students or undergrads, if I were interested in convincing them to be microbiologists.

In Life at the Edge of Sight: A Photographic Exploration of the Microbial World, Scott Chilemski and Roberto Kolter take a similar path to Anton’s Planet of Microbes, with winding, researcher-centered stories jumping between microbiology topics. The key difference is that Chilemski and Kolter include amazing photos in the text – ranging from electron microscope captures of individual organisms to satellite imagery. These photos are not tacked-on but integral to the text. The breadth of issues covered is not as wide as Anton’s book, but the pictures are very, very appealing – and the discussions are just as worthy of reading.

I am generally opposed to the whole de-extinction agenda, seeing very little scientific value in it. If we were able to bring back exact copies of extinct organisms, it would be a different story, but that’s an impossibility. The good thing about Britt Wray’s Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction is that it is impartial and fairly neutral – a welcome change from the typical breathless string of bullshit about resurrected dinosaurs and mammoths. The book features viewpoints of de-extinction researchers and opponents of the de-extinction program, and the discussions are grounded in ethical and legal explorations of the topic. Even through my negative bias, I found it enlightening to see the different reasons why de-exintction is being pursued (it’s not just Jurassic Park wet dreams, and there are admittedly some good rationales behind de-extinction). Wray’s book is by far the most solid read on the issues surrounding de-extinction.

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