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Building Inclusive STEM Collections: Books by BIPOC Authors (October 2022): Popular Science

By Hilary Dorsch Wong, Katherine A. Hicks, and David Kornreich

Popular Science

Unlike our search for scientific literature, which focused on a narrow range of topics according to the expertise and interests of our team, we approached the quest for newly published popular science books by BIPOC authors without limiting our search to particular topics. We include here fourteen new popular books ranging in subject matter from plants to climate change to the origins of the universe. The future of technology also comes into view, as well as the science of football. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes evocatively as both an ecologist and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, considering the way scientific and Native understandings of nature can complement one another. A masterful writer, Wall Kimmerer reflects on a lifetime of observing plants while sharing stories from her people and her own life to illustrate lessons about community, generosity, and mutuality.7 Black botanist Beronda Montgomery acknowledges her debt to Wall Kimmerer in another botany popularization, Lessons from Plants. While the latter author’s scientific observations are expressed through stories, Montgomery explains botanical concepts in approachable scientific language, extrapolating from the how and why of plant behaviors to convey valuable lessons about people: the value of collaboration and community, self-awareness, constant adaptation, and a broader definition of kin. Both books go beyond aphoristic wisdom to offer insights based on plant science and ecological awareness. We found, too, that accessible science can also inform popular approaches to the climate crisis, as shown in All We Can Save, a collection edited by Black marine biologist Ayana Johnson with Katharine Wilkinson. This book combines short essays with poems and graphic artwork to evoke a reflective consideration of climate change from a feminist—and BIPOC—perspective. The book includes the writings of more than fifty contributors, including scientists, journalists, activists (including youth activists), lawyers, architects, and others. Emphasizing previously silenced voices, All We Can Save conveys a mixture of hope, grief, anger, and purpose, exhorting readers to face the climate crisis collectively as a community.

Four books written by Black physicists aim to interpret cosmology to the public, and to share the authors’ love for their subject. Reflecting on insights that have come to him while performing as a jazz musician, Stephon Alexander uses music as a source of analogy to help explain physics theory in The Jazz of Physics. Understanding his explanations requires investment from the reader, but the musical analogies serve well in translating difficult concepts about the origins of the universe; readers need not have a strong understanding of either jazz or physics to find this book rewarding. Alexander makes a strong case for the importance of interdisciplinary thinking to create new theory (an observation mirrored in the works of ecologist Steward Pickett, discussed above). In contrast, Clifford Johnson chooses a different medium through which to translate cosmology: the graphic novel. In The Dialogues, Johnson depicts imaginary conversations about science (mainly physics) between diverse interlocutors (e.g., Black physicists talking with children, women talking with men). Although the conversations become dense at times, they convey an argument that physics is not just for those with “scientist brains.” This book can capture the attention of students already curious about the origins of the world, as well as those drawn mainly by the graphic novel format.

Again translating cosmology while reflecting on personal histories, several books embrace advocacy for deeper inclusion and diversity within the sciences. In The Disordered Cosmos, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein explores cosmology and particle physics, explaining why they captured her imagination, while also describing why following her passion as a “Black Queer Jewish Femme Physicist” has been challenging. Notably, such challenges have included rape at the hands of another Black physicist (left unnamed). Prescod-Weinstein exhorts other scientists to understand the role of racism and patriarchy in how science is created and disseminated, an antidote to believing that scientific objectivity protects practitioners from social perils. This perspective also informs Ebony McGee and David Robinson’s coedited Diversifying STEM, discussed below. Stephon Alexander’s latest book Fear of a Black Universe echoes a similar appeal, arguing for a sociological understanding of how the sciences function in order to challenge the exclusion and hegemony operating within. Alexander recounts his experience as an outsider to the scientific community, not only explaining his own contributions to theory, but also arguing that contributions from “outsiders” have actually been critical for new theory and progress in physics. The theme of progress in science is central also to the books by Asian American theoretical physicist and science communicator Michio Kaku, author of many popular works on the future of technology. Such books can become dated quickly, as may be the case with Kaku’s Physics of the Future and (to a lesser extent) The Future of the Mind. However, Kaku’s 2018 book The Future of Humanity is less dated, applying ideas from the previous books to make long-range forecasts for space exploration, travel, and colonization.8 Kaku’s latest title The God Equation focuses on popularizing physics theory, and will likely have a longer shelf life. This book tackles general relativity, special relativity, quantum theory, and the ongoing search for a unifying theory to bring them together. As Kaku is a co-founder of string field theory, he unsurprisingly favors this theory as a unifying model. Kaku’s books are written in a highly accessible, entertaining, and journalistic style.

Materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez’s books, too, are highly engaging and readable works of popular science, but differ in approach from other books considered here. Ramirez uses science to explain changes in thinking and social practice over time (unintended consequences is a recurring theme), doing so through stories. In The Alchemy of Us, each chapter is a vignette about a person who developed a particular seminal invention (e.g., the telegraph, Corningware), and an exploration of how the invention changed the way people conceptualized the world. When explaining the science, Ramirez keeps discussion brief, focusing mainly on the human-interest stories of those who played a role in an invention, and of those whose lives were changed by it. Using this approach, Ramirez tells stories of lesser-known or marginalized individuals, explicitly inviting a wide variety of readers to find reflections of themselves. Particularly notable is the chapter about two Black employees at Polaroid who realized the company’s instant photos were being used to control the movements of Black people in apartheid-era South Africa. They led a successful campaign to force Polaroid to address the problem, losing their jobs in the process. Ramirez’s prior book, Netwton’s Football, coauthored with Allen St. John, also consists of vignettes, revealing how scientific theory can explain the development of football over time. The authors connect the zone blitz to the uncertainty principle, Vince Lombardi’s strategy to game theory, and the no-huddle offense to chaos theory. A particularly interesting chapter explains how a foot-maiming injury suffered by Ben Agajanian led to the development of the kicker as a full-time position: Agajanian wore a special shoe over his maimed foot, enlarging the surface area that connected with the football. This book’s topic and writing style are both important for making science accessible to a broad audience.

7. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s latest book, Democracy of Species (2021) is an excerpted chapter from Braiding Sweetgrass, republished as a separate book. Although her previous book Gathering Moss (2003) is also excellent and highly acclaimed, it was published too long ago to be included in this project.

8. Note that these books are part of a series that Kaku has written; the books written earlier are more than ten years old and beyond the scope of this essay.

Works Cited