Caleb Scharf is the director of the Astrobiology Center at Columbia University, and his book, Gravity’s Engines, will be published in August 2012 under the Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux imprint. Scharf’s blog Life, Unbounded was named one of the “hottest science blogs” by The Guardian. He has written for New Scientist, Science, Nature, and more. Follow him @Caleb_Scharf.
Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
This novel imagines the explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss as strangely intertwined souls in the 1800s. It’s funny, a little crazy, and very entertaining.
Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills
No one is, to my mind, a better observer of the witty yet Kafkaesque side of the British soul than Magnus Mills. Explorers takes ridiculous stoicism, social order, prejudice, and an insane sense of duty to a new level that is both brilliantly entertaining and immensely sinister.
A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro
The flowing and vivid writing of this tour de force of historical research quickly takes any lingering silliness about the “real Shakespeare” and consigns it to the trash heap. Here he is, alive and part of a fascinating, alien, yet familiar world. Best Shakespeare history. Ever.
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan
Every few years I end up rereading this classic. It’s Carl Sagan at his best, a firsthand tale of real solar system exploration. The scientific endeavors are amazing, and Sagan brings his deeply humanist view to bear on them. It’s a heady mix.
Crow Country by Mark Cocker
This charming and engrossing description of the author’s corvid obsession is like an updated version of the writings of the great nineteenth-century naturalists. I’ll never look at a crow the same way again, nor at my own motivations in science.
The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks
It’s all alien, deeply, madly, wonderfully so. This is such a refreshingly unabashed riot of imaginative, scientifically robust, envelope-pushing science fiction that one simply can’t be ashamed of enjoying it. Turn the dial to eleven.