Summer reading: Illuminating our relationship with the planet
Stanford University
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Summer reading: Illuminating our relationship with the planet

Faculty at Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences recommend these 31 books for your summer reading. 

BY Barbara Buell
ClockJune 27, 2018

This year’s informal survey of faculty at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) yielded a panoply of diverse  summer reading suggestions – more than we could list and hope a reader could get through.

Here, though, are 31 titles for you to peruse and consider packing along on that vacation you are planning or take to the chaise lounge you are dusting off in the back yard for summer reading. They include a range of narratives, histories, novels – even poetry and a graphic novel. All shed light on our relationship to the planet we live on. Many will inspire a greater appreciation for science and its importance in preserving our Earth for future generations.

The following book summaries have been culled primarily from publishers. 

Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone

Spineless coverBy Juli Berwald (2017)

"Spineless is about jellyfish, and yes, jellyfish are spineless. They are gross, gooey – and they sting," writes author Juli Berwald. "But jellyfish are also positioned for success in today’s carbon-rich, polluted, overfished, and overdeveloped ocean. The message from jellyfish is that we haven’t yet taken responsibility for our impacts on our planet."

Suggested by Steel Professor Kevin Arrigo, the Victoria and Roger Sant Director of the Earth Systems Program.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World

Rise coverBy Steve Brusatte (2018)

Scientific American called this book the “ultimate dinosaur biography.” Nature called it "scientific storytelling at its most visceral from a young scientist."

Suggested by W. M. Keck Professor and Earth systems scientist Rob Dunbar.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

SapiensBy Yuval Noah Harari (2018)

This #1 bestseller (and summer reading pick for Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg) is a historian’s narrative of humanity’s creation and evolution that explores the ways in which biology and history have defined us and enhanced our understanding of what it means to be “human.” 

Suggested by Stanford Earth climate scientist and Kara J Foundation Professor Noah Diffenbaugh.

Galileo Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism

GaileoBy Mario Biagioli (1993)

In the court of the Medicis and the Vatican, Galileo fashioned both his career and his science to the demands of patronage and its complex systems of wealth, power, and prestige. In this cultural and social history of science, Biagioli argues that Galileo’s courtly role was integral to his science – the questions he chose to examine, his methods, even his conclusions.

Suggested by Stanford Earth geophysicist Dustin Schroeder.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space 

Black hole bluesBy Janna Levin (2016)

In 1916, Einstein predicted the presence of gravitational waves. One century later, we are recording the first sounds from space, evidence of the waves’ existence caused by the collision of two black holes. An authoritative account of the headline-making discovery by theoretical astrophysicist and award-winning writer Janna Levin, this book recounts the fascinating story of the obsessions, aspirations, and trials of the scientists who embarked on an arduous 50-year endeavor to capture these elusive waves. 

Suggested by Stanford Earth paleobiologist Jonathan Payne.

The Water Knife

Water knifeBy Paolo Bacigalupi (2016)

Water is power in this thriller. The Colorado River has dwindled to a trickle. Detective, assassin, and spy, Angel Velasquez “cuts” water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority to ensure that its lush “arcology” developments can bloom in Las Vegas. When rumors of a game-changing water source surface in Phoenix, Velasquez is sent south, hunting for answers that seem to evaporate as the heat index soars. The main characters find themselves pawns in a game where water is more valuable than gold, alliances shift like sand, and the only truth in the desert is that someone will have to bleed if anyone hopes to drink. 

Suggested by Stanford Earth climate scientist and Kara J Foundation Professor Noah Diffenbaugh.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

Crucial conversationsBy Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler (2002)

Not energy or environment related, but important for being heard in a cacophonous world. 

Suggested by Tony Kovscek, the Keleen and Carlton Beal Professor in Petroleum Engineering.

Angle of Repose

Angle of reposeBy Wallace Stegner (1971)

This Pultizer Prize-winning novel is a story of discovery – personal, historical, and geographical. Confined to a wheelchair, retired historian Lyman Ward sets out to write his grandparents' remarkable story, chronicling their days spent carving civilization into the surface of America's western frontier. But his research reveals more about his own life than he's willing to admit. What emerges is a portrait of four generations in the life of an American family. 

Suggested by Stanford Earth Dean and Crook Professor in Applied Earth Sciences Steve Graham and Goldman Professor in Environmental Studies Pamela Matson, former Stanford Earth Dean. 

Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature

Engineering edenBy Jordan Fisher Smith (2016)

This book tells the fascinating story of a death and the  trial that opened a window onto the century-long battle to control nature in the national parks. 

Suggested by Richard Nevle, lecturer and deputy director of the Earth Systems Program.

Accidentally Adamant: A Story of a Girl Who Questioned Convention, Broke the Mold, and Charted a Course Off Map

Accidentally adamantBy Tisha Schuller (2018)

A memoir by Tisha Schuller, an Earth Systems graduate, who has had an interesting career as an environmentalist working with the oil and gas industry in Colorado, finding common ground with strange bedfellows, and explaining fracking until blue in the face. It chronicles her time at the helm of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association during one of the most contentious times in the state's long history of resource development. It is a story of being brave, overcoming missteps as a leader, and consistently returning to what she wanted to accomplish.

Suggested by geophysicist Mark Zoback, Benjamin M. Page Professor and director of the Stanford Natural Gas Initiative.

Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks

Bad scienceBy Ben Goldacre (2010)

Ben Goldacre has made a point of exposing quack doctors and nutritionists, bogus credentialing programs, and biased scientific studies. He is here to teach you how to evaluate placebo effects, double-blind studies, and sample sizes, so that you can recognize bad science when you see it. 

Suggested by Steel Professor Kevin Arrigo, the Victoria and Roger Sant Director of the Earth Systems Program.

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality

Fabric of the cosmosBy Brian Greene (2004)

Space and time remain among the most mysterious of concepts. This book explains non-intuitive concepts like string theory, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and inflationary cosmology with analogies drawn from common experience. 

Suggested by Steel Professor Kevin Arrigo, the Victoria and Roger Sant Director of the Earth Systems Program.

Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History 

OxygenBy Donald E. Canfield (2014)

The air we breathe is 21 percent oxygen, an amount higher than on any other known world. While we may take our air for granted, Earth was not always an oxygenated planet. How did it become this way? Discover the history of our planet's oxygenation. 

Suggested by Steel Professor Kevin Arrigo, the Victoria and Roger Sant Director of the Earth Systems Program.

Breakpoint: Reckoning with America's Environmental Crises

BreakpointBy Jeremy Jackson and Steve Chapple (2018)

An ecologist and a journalist travel the length of the Mississippi River interviewing farmers, fishermen, scientists, and policymakers to better understand the mounting environmental problems ravaging the U.S. and emerging solutions from the heartland to the coast. 

Suggested by W. M. Keck Professor and Earth systems scientist Rob Dunbar.

The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health

Hidden halfBy David Montgomery and Anne Bikle (2015)

An engaging narrative book about the microbial world that is so foundational to life on Earth, in agriculture as well as in our own bodies.

Suggested by Earth Systems Program lecturer Liz Carlisle.

Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science

Climate changedBy Philippe Squarzoni (English translation, 2014; French, 2012)

A French journalist wrote this graphic novel when he became aware of how little he knew about climate change. He ended up with 480 pages of his personal journey, science lectures, and conversations with experts on climate change and its ecological, social, political, financial and personal impacts. Written for a general audience, Susannah Barsom used it as one of the texts for an undergraduate sustainability course a few years ago. Students loved the format, she says – even ones who did not think they would get excited about a graphic novel. 

Suggested by Susannah Barsom, lecturer and associate director of the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources.

Hope Beneath Our Feet: Restoring Our Place in the Natural World

Hope beneathEdited by Martin Keogh (2010)

About a decade ago, Martin Keogh asked a lot of people: In a time of environmental crisis, how can we live right now? He got some glib answers, some hopeful answers and some gems. This collection of essays includes people describing their ideas about restoring balance to the natural world and their actions toward that end. The content in the book instills hope – that the best, most beneficial behaviors of humankind are not out of fashion or out of reach. You will recognize many of the contributors, and you may find your way to your favorites first, but you are sure to find inspiration in many other essays in the book.  You don’t have to read it all at once. It may last you the summer – or the year. 

Suggested by Susannah Barsom, lecturer and associate director of the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources.

Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History 

Coyote AmericaBy Dan Flores (2016) 

In the face of centuries of campaigns of annihilation employing gases, helicopters, and engineered epidemics, coyotes didn't just survive, they thrived, expanding across the continent from Alaska to New York. In the war between humans and coyotes, coyotes have won, hands-down. Coyote America is the illuminating 5-million-year biography of this extraordinary animal, from its origins to its apotheosis. It is one of the great epics of our time. 

Suggested by Richard Nevle, lecturer and deputy director of the Earth Systems Program.

Trace—Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape

TraceBy Lauret Savoy (2015)

Lauret Savoy explores how America’s still unfolding history and ideas of “race” have marked her and the land. From twisted terrain within the San Andreas Fault zone to a South Carolina plantation, from national parks to burial grounds, from “Indian Territory” and the U.S.-Mexico border to the U.S. capital, Trace grapples with a searing national history to reveal the often unvoiced presence of the past. 

Suggested by Richard Nevle, lecturer and deputy director of the Earth Systems Program.

Waste to Wealth: The Circular Economy Advantage

Waste to wealthBy Peter Lacy and Jakob Rutqvist (2015)

The circular economy may be about to drive the biggest transformation in business since the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago – $4.5 trillion in additional economic output by 2030 – through a radical departure from the traditional "take, make, waste" production and consumption models. Lacy and Rutqvist present disruptive strategies that help both planet and profit. 

Suggested by Goldman Professor in Environmental Studies and former Stanford Earth Dean Pamela Matson.

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks 

Hour of landBy Terry Tempest Williams (2017)

From Yellowstone in Wyoming to Acadia in Maine to Big Bend in Texas, New York Times bestselling author of the environmental classic Refuge Terry Tempest Williams creates a series of portraits that illuminate the grandeur of each place while delving into what it means to shape a landscape with its own evolutionary history into something of our own making. Part memoir, part natural history, and part social critique, this book is a meditation and a manifesto on why wild lands matter to the soul of America. 

Suggested by Richard Nevle, lecturer and deputy director of the Earth Systems Program.

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

Home placeBy J. Drew Lanham (2016)

This is a memoir by ornithologist J. Drew Lanham. Dating back to slavery, Edgefield County, South Carolina has been home to generations of Lanhams. Readers meet these extraordinary people, including Drew himself, who over the course of the 1970s falls in love with the natural world around him. As his passion takes flight, he begins to ask what it means to be “the rare bird, the oddity.” The Home Place is a remarkable meditation on nature and belonging, at once a moving memoir and riveting exploration of the contradictions of black identity in the rural South and in America today. 

Suggested by Richard Nevle, lecturer and deputy director of the Earth Systems Program.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

PilgrimBy Annie Dillard (2007)

The author's personal narrative highlights one year's exploration on foot in the Virginia region through which Tinker Creek runs. In the summer, Dillard stalks muskrats in the creek and contemplates wave mechanics; in the fall, she watches a monarch butterfly migration and dreams of Arctic caribou. The result is an exhilarating tale of nature and its seasons. 

Suggested by Richard Nevle, lecturer and deputy director of the Earth Systems Program.

Gold Fame Citrus 

Gold fame citrusBy Claire Vaye Watkins (2016)

This is a love story set against an unrelenting drought that has transfigured Southern California into a surreal, barren landscape. The novel explores the myths we believe about others and tell ourselves, the double-edged power of our most cherished relationships, and the shape of hope in a precarious future. 

Suggested by Stanford Earth climate scientist and Kara J Foundation Professor Noah Diffenbaugh.

Flight Behavior

Flight behaviorBy Barbara Kingsolver  (2013)

A suspenseful novel set in present day Appalachia; a breathtaking parable of catastrophe and denial that explores how the complexities we inevitably encounter in life lead us to believe in our chosen truths. Kingsolver's story concerns a young wife and mother on a failing farm in rural Tennessee who experiences something she cannot explain, and how her discovery energizes various competing factions – religious leaders, climate scientists, environmentalists, politicians – trapping her in the center of the conflict and ultimately opening up her world. 

Suggested by Stanford Earth climate scientist and Kara J Foundation Professor Noah Diffenbaugh.

Delights & Shadows

Delights and shadowsBy Ted Kooser (2005)

This short book of poetry turns mundane observations into magic. It garnered Ted Kooser a Pulitzer Prize. 

Suggested by Earth system scientist and Douglas Provostial Professor Rob Jackson – a published poet himself.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Sixth extinctionBy Elizabeth Kolbert (2015)

A New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of the Year, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert looks at the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes. Over the last half-billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on Earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. Are we in the sixth extinction? 

Suggested by Stanford Earth climate scientist and Kara J Foundation Professor Noah Diffenbaugh.

A Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability 

BridgeBy James Gustave Speth  (2008)

Speth, who is dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, takes measure of the threats to our environment: If we continue to do exactly what we are doing, with no growth in the human population or the world economy, the world in the latter part of this century will be unfit to live in. 

Suggested by Julia Novy-Hildesley, professor of the practice and codirector of the Change Leadership for Sustainability Program.

Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results 

Systems thinkingBy David Stroh (2015)

Author David Stroh walks readers through techniques he has used to help people improve their efforts to end homelessness, improve public health, strengthen education, design a system for early childhood development, protect child welfare, develop rural economies, and more. The result is a readable, effective guide to understanding systems and using that knowledge to get the results you want. 

Suggested by Julia Novy-Hildesley, professor of the practice and codirector of the Change Leadership for Sustainability Program.

Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't

Leaders By Simon Sinek  (2017)

Do you understand the most important role on your team? Want to yield better performance overall? This book explains why some teams work and others don’t. 

Suggested by Julia Novy-Hildesley, professor of the practice and codirector of the Change Leadership for Sustainability Program.

Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice 

Pursuing sustainabilityBy Pamela Matson, William Clark, and Krister Andersson (2016)

Sustainability is a global imperative and a scientific challenge like no other. This book, written by former Stanford Earth Dean Pamela Matson and colleagues from Harvard and University of Colorado, gives students and practitioners a strategic framework for linking knowledge with action in the pursuit of sustainable development in sectors such as energy, food, water, and housing, or in particular regions of the world. 

Suggested by Stanford Earth Dean and Crook Professor in Applied Earth Sciences Steve Graham.

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