Science-y Nonfiction to Start the Year

While my fiction reading has not been off to a good start this year, my nonfiction reading is humming right along. I hope that streak continues, since I am participating in the Nonfiction Reading Challenge that is hosted by Doing Dewey.

My current (modest) binge of science-y nonfiction was set off by The Ghost Map, which describes a cholera outbreak in Victorian London and how a doctor and a priest figured out what caused it. Maybe if you are squeamish, you might not like all the descriptions of how cholera affects the human body and how human waste was handled in the city at the time, but I loved it all. My favorite “knowledge nugget” was learning where the name “malaria” comes from. Most people back then believed that illness was caused by malodorous air, and you can see that reflected in their name for the disease: mal = bad and aria = air. So malaria is “bad air.” Is it weird that I love knowing this fact?


After The Ghost Map, I picked up American Eclipse, which is all about the solar eclipse in 1878. I love learning about all the new discoveries people made in the 19th century, and in that respect, this was right up my alley. The book gets extra points for spending a significant amount of time on Maria Mitchell, an astronomer who is still too often left out of our history books. But as the author himself admits at the end, this particular solar eclipse really didn’t lead to any great scientific advances and has therefore largely been forgotten. Thus, while it was interesting to learn about the scientists who traveled west to observe the eclipse, there was also a good amount of information that did not add greatly to the story itself. Edison’s development of the light bulb, for example, has little to do with this eclipse. It felt like fluff to me to get the page count up, and so my overall enjoyment of the book was dampened a little bit. But I got lots of names and places I want to know more about now.

Since American Eclipse made me want to read more about astronomy, I chose Astrophysics for People in a Hurry next. It is narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson himself, which works well. As usual, my mind was somewhat blown by everything that is out there and that we still don’t know. I like learning about the 19th century because it is such an era of discovery, and I like imagining how mindblowing it must have been to find out so many new things. But Astrophysics made me realize that there is still lots of mindblowing stuff to find out about; it is just more intricate now. In a way, learning about dark energy today is similar to learning about cholera 200 years ago. My favorite knowledge nugget: the word “quark” was taken from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. I have never been able to remember how neutrons and protons and atoms work, but I’ll forever remember quarkโ€”the word that is, not how it works.

Tell me one of your favorite knowledge nuggets.



  1. Ghost Map is another add for me. I’ve always been interested in communicable diseases and of course history. What’s the explanation for the the term “ghost map”
    Love your “knowledge nuggets” – it’s what makes reading fun for me – a riveting historical novel with one of these nuggets sprinkled every few pages is like a drug for me.
    I’m so glad I joined the non-fiction challenge.

  2. Hahaha, of course now that you’re asking about knowledge nuggets, my mind has gone perfectly blank. I did read a nonfiction book about space last year or the year before that confused me badly but did successfully get the concept of dark matter through my head. I can now explain dark matter to anyone who’s in a room with me. I totes get it. (Except for the thing that nobody gets it. I get it enough-ish.)

  3. These three books sound like fun, especially the one about the cholera outbreak. I am reading a bunch of non-fiction, but since they are the finalists for the CYBILS I cannot post reviews until we announce the winners.

  4. I love Neil de Grasse Tyson! I’ve been tempted by that one, but it’s not long since I read Welcome to the Universe, which he did in partnership with two other astrophysicists, so decided I probably knew everything already… ๐Ÿ˜‰ Here’s a nugget for you – in The Gods Themselves, the behaviour of Isaac Asimov’s aliens is apparently based on how quarks behave. I love those aliens with all my heart, so I’ve always had a soft spot for quarks…

  5. I also started my year with nonfiction : A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols; wow if you like survival tales or boating! The Ghost Map looks good. I’m drawing a blank of a knowledge nugget at the moment. Something will come to me.

  6. I loved The Ghost Map! Exactly the kind of stuff I like to learn about. I remember the fact about malaria, and the “malodorous air” always makes me think of “spontaneous generation” – a term I still like to use when I can just because I like the way it sounds. ๐Ÿ™‚
    I’m not as into astronomy, but I do find it amazing to think of how big the universe really is and all the stuff that’s out there that we don’t even know about. It makes me wonder what the point of it all is… but that’s another story!

  7. I read the Ghost Map a year or so ago and loved it! I learned so much, what a fascinating read. I’ve heard of these other two as well, I especially think the Neil DeGrasse Tyson one sounds good.

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