Letters from an Astrophysicist (W.W. Norton, $19.95,) by Neil deGrasse Tyson, is exactly what the title says it is: a collection of correspondence, via letters, emails, and social media posts, between the director of the Rose Center’s Hayden Planetarium and members of the general public. As you would expect, a lot of those missives contain science-related questions—including Tyson’s role in demoting Pluto—but many also concern hope, fear, religion, and even parenting. As Tyson notes, “there’s a longing we’ve all experienced at one time or another: the search for meaning in our lives; an evergreen urge to understand one’s place in this world and in this universe.” Addressing matters both philosophical and astronomical, his responses are relatable, thoughtful, and funny; reading them, you will be amused and charmed—and you will most definitely learn something new.
The wonderfully prolific Bill Bryson has taken us on trips around Europe and across America; he’s sent us Notes from a Small Island and showed us what life is like Down Under. But this time out, he launches us on a different kind of adventure—taking us on a journey within ourselves. As charming and funny as ever, in his new book, The Body (Doubleday, $30), the inimitable Bryson explores, head to toe, what we’re made of, examining certain body parts, explaining their purpose, and showing us how it all works. Can you believe that just six elements—carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus—comprise 99.1 percent of us? And these can be easily found and purchased, so that if you want to build your own Benedict Cumberbatch, it will cost you around $150,000. But here’s the thing: you won’t be able to do it (massive shame, I know!) because even though we are all made of the same basic elements that can be found in a pile of dirt, we are all beautifully unique and special. This book will educate, entertain, caution, and delight you.
Following his previous books, What If and Thing Explainer, Randall Munroe is back with How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems (Riverhead, $28). In this indispensable and, as always, lavishly illustrated—in his signature stick-figure style—volume, Munroe offers solutions to how to “dig a hole,” “play the piano,” “play tag,” and “power your house,”—among many other common conundrums and problems. Some of these are so commonplace they don’t seem to require a solution, but Munroe demonstrates that physical laws underlie even the most straightforward things we do. How To is part entertaining collection of scientific facts—such as how many piano keys you will need to add to your keyboard to be able to play music for dogs—to tongue-incheek, possibly dubious advice on how to move all your boxes to another house just by pushing them with a pickup truck. This volume might not be 100% useful, but it is 100% fascinating—and fun.