I am one of those people that's usually "reading" a lot of books at once. This summer I've been alternating between skimming and devouring, picking up and putting on hold a few new favorites and some less favorite books, which have coalesced in my head into an overarching narrative about the history and future of energy and biotechnology. These are topics I think and write about often, but the theme for my summer reading is largely influenced by the first book I started right after graduation:
I love this book and I really can't recommend it highly enough. I spent a lot of time while reading it annoying anyone who would listen with a litany of the new facts I was learning: did you know that electric cars were a serious competitor to gas powered ones at the turn of the last century? That the Coney Island amusement park was built to help even the load on the new electrical grid? That before electricity was widespread there were networks of compressed air used to power city clocks, homes, and industrial workshops?
The history of technology is rich with fascinating stories like these, stories that show us that progress in technology is not as linear as we often think it is, that one technology "wins" over another for reasons that are often much bigger than just technical merit. Maggie Koerth-Baker puts it beautifully in her great review over at BoingBoing:
When you study the history of alternative energy technology in this country, you don't just learn about science and engineering. You learn about people and culture. You learn about ideologies, and dreams, and what Americans think it means to be an American.
When it comes to energy, what we have created, and how we have used the tools that already exist, has depended more on our ideas and beliefs about what energy ought to be than on the physical limitations of what can and cannot be done.
As a researcher working in a field that is explicitly calling for a new industrial revolution to fix the problems caused by fossil fuel based industry, understanding this history beyond the engineering principles is absolutely crucial. This book is essential reading for engineers, but also for everyone that is involved in the global systems of energy production and use (that is, all of us).
Solar, by Ian McEwan
Solar is a terrific novel, but it's also a story about science and technology and the sometimes terrible people who make it [on this topic I recommend Alice Bell's great book review that just added another book to my summer reading wish-list: Free Radicals]. Our anti-hero is an aging physicist who spends his time cheating on his wife, giving lectures about his decades-old Nobel-winning work, and nominally running an institute for renewable energy. At times almost slapstickily hilarious and at others heartbreakingly close to the truth of the stereotypical rich old white guy scientist (including a scene that will remind you of a certain president of Harvard), the book is about global warming, innovation, over-consumption, marriage, fidelity, scientists, politics, intellectual property, and crime. It's also one of the best science fiction books I've read, a story that builds a world around a technological breakthrough (even though this world is remarkably like England between 2000 and 2009), giving us a perspective on our real technologies and our real society.
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
I started reading Oryx and Crake after Heather Olins at We Beasties mentioned it in reference to my work on photosynthesis and symbiosis. I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with my project being compared to a breed of genetically engineered humans designed by a maverick evil boy genius, but I really did enjoy reading this book as the different threads of the story came together, from the post-apocalyptic world of the book's start to the pre-apocalyptic society structured entirely around hermetically sealed genetic engineering industry compounds.
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Dystopian SF stories that center around biological technologies and genetic engineering often assume a very sterile and high-energy consuming world: the sealed compounds in Oryx and Crake, the space center of Gattaca, the baby making facilities in Brave New World. The most interesting part of this otherwise kind of heavy-handed book is the acknowledgement that new biological technologies will emerge during a time when fossil fuels will be increasingly unavailable. The world of The Windup Girl is Thailand two hundred years in the future, when oil has run dry and transportation and computers are pedal powered, where energy to run factories and ships is stored in high-tech springs wound by genetically engineered elephants, where everything is measured in calories, and wars are started over access to coal. Overall, the fascinating ways that genetic engineering technology to revive plague-resistant fruits and vegetables from extinction is connected to the political battles between American genetic engineering companies and the Thai Environmental and Trade Ministries makes this book greater than the sum of its sentences.
I'm still in the middle of reading, so I'm not sure how the eponymous Windup Girl will end up fitting into the larger narrative, but a genetically engineered human doll, designed for the pleasure of a wealthy patron is deeply upsetting in many ways. Science fiction is often ambivalent at best about women and women's bodies, and having one of the only female characters literally be a sex toy doesn't really help that image. I hope that by the end of the book I can see that she is really a sex toy with a heart of gold who saves the day. Or something.
I just started reading this and I'm really enjoying it so far (you can read the introduction excerpted online too). It's a book about how to get at all these stories that go into science in the making, the many-faceted work of scientists and engineers bringing something from an idea or a prototype to a black-boxed fact or machine. All the books I've read this summer likewise open "Pandora's Black Box," showing us the complex nonlinear history of industrial development or fictional stories that connect us emotionally to characters as they invent and deal with new technologies. These kinds of stories, both fact and fiction, show us how technology and society continually shape and influence each other, and give us a deeper understanding of the built and natural world around us.
I'm always on the lookout for interesting books about science and technology or anything else, and would love to hear your recommendations and favorites in the comments!