Summer reading for the science-curious: 7 books recommended by Penn faculty

What’s your summer reading style? For some, summer vacation offers opportunities to relax, unwind, and lose yourself in an absorbing book; for these readers, the ideal book may be one that can be tucked in a travel bag and enjoyed among family and friends. For others, the summer months may be a period of preparation; the summer reading list for these bookworms may be geared toward learning new ideas or techniques for upcoming professional or academic adventures.

We asked some of our math and science instructors to recommend books that are accessible enough to read by the poolside and intellectually stimulating enough to engage knowledge-hungry readers. Their suggestions include topics ranging from molecular biology and mathematical reasoning to medical case studies and research-based tips for relationships. Read on for one of the smartest summer reading lists you’ll find.

Brush up on biology with bestsellers

Biochemistry lecturer Ruth Elliot teaches the fall 1 course PHYL 1200: Foundations of Life Sciences, in which students can expect to dig into topics such as cancer metastasis and infectious disease once they have covered basic molecular biology and cell signaling. She recommends The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2011), a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by a physician and researcher who chronicles centuries of oncological discoveries and challenges. “I appreciate that the author was able to weave actual stories about patients and families as well as researchers and doctors into the narrative, reminding us of the deeply troubling reality of living with or dying from cancer,” says Eliot. “In this book, you will learn enough cell biology to understand the complexities of curing cancer—and most of all you will appreciate the depth of what is still to be discovered in order for humanity to rid itself of the impact of cancer.”

Eliot also recommends Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen (2012), a Booklist Top 10 Science Book of 2012. “In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made everyone wonder where ‘new’ diseases or pathogens come from. In 2012, journalist David Quammen had already written a book detailing several instances of ‘spillover’ of an infectious agent from nature into humans,” she explains. One of the pathogens examined in this book is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-CoV), which had already spread in China at the time of publication. “Though 2020 made pandemics into a household discussion, emerging infectious disease has been an important field of research for centuries,” Eliot adds. “This book helped me to understand the multifaceted issues that cause ‘new’ infectious diseases to ‘spillover’ into humans, not least of which are the policies and decisions humans make which then influence the climate, medicine, and their ecosystem.”

Penn Department of Psychology faculty Dr. Lori Flanagan-Cato is the instructor of the fall 1 course NEUR 2600: Hormones, Brain, and Behavior. She recommends the New York Times bestseller As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl by John Colapinto (2000), a biography of a Canadian man who was severely injured by a botched circumcision in infancy. He was at first kept ignorant of his medical history and raised as a girl, but later made the informed decision to live as a man. “This book tells the tragic true story of a person whose gender identity was mishandled by the medical community,” says Dr. Flanagan-Cato. “As a case study, it is very informative about the biological basis of aspects of our social behavior.”

Make math more approachable

Mathematics lecturer Patrick Shields is teaching the summer course MTHS 2200: Introduction to Applied Statistics. For students curious about this course—or who are interested in understanding more about the professional and academic applications of statistics—Shields recommends Statistics Done Wrong: The Woefully Complete Guide by Alex Reinhart (2015). This book highlights real errors and omissions made in contemporary research, and explores the circumstances that allowed those mistakes to happen. The purpose of these case studies is to help both novices and experienced scientists take precautions in their work—from asking the right questions to avoiding false positives. “Statistics is one subject whose ubiquity in modern life is as pronounced as its misapplication,” says Shields. “This book clearly illustrates how hard it is to determine the truth, and how desperate the need is for those properly trained to do so.”

Shields also teaches MTHS 1000: Mathematical Foundations for Data Analytics in the fall. Students may enroll in this course to fulfill their degree requirement in quantitative analysis, or to brush up on relevant skills before diving into further science or math coursework. For these students—and anyone who may feel intimidated by mathematics—Shields recommends How Not To Be Wrong: The Power Of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg (2014). Ellenberg, a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, posits that we use mathematical principles anytime we make a decision: planning how early to get to the airport, interpreting public opinion, calculating the cost and benefit of buying a lottery ticket, and so on. “Math often has an unfortunate reputation as a subject of rigid rules meant to be memorized and mechanically applied,” explains Shields. “This book does as good a job as any at showing a lay audience mathematics as its practitioners experience it, as sort of a creative play space for ideas.”

Connect and communicate—through scientific research

Dr. Margarita Tarragona is a psychologist who has taught and contributed to several Penn LPS Online applied positive psychology courses—including APOP 1000: Introduction to Positive Psychology, which runs in both summer and fall 1. Tarragona recommends Happy Together: Using the Power of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts by Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James O. Pawelski (2018). The Penn connection with this volume is strong: James Pawelski is Professor of Practice and Director of Education at Penn´s Positive Psychology Center, and Suzann Pileggi Pawelski is a graduate of Penn’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology as well as a science journalist. The book uses positive psychology frameworks to explore the behaviors and habits that help romantic relationships weather challenges and flourish over time. “The authors bring together their knowledge of positive psychology and their own experience as a couple to offer readers stimulating ways to think about love relationships, and practical tips to nurture them,” says Tarragona. “It is easy to read and deep at the same time.” Naturally, the book includes methods and exercises that readers can apply in their own lives, such as identifying character strengths and prioritizing positive emotions.

Elizabeth Scheyder is the Senior Instructional Technology Project Leader for the School of Arts and Sciences Computing at Penn, and teaches CLCH 3000: Communicating Science in the summer. Scheyder recommends If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating by Alan Alda. “While most people know Alan Alda from TV,” she notes, “the book is very accessible and includes some important points.” Alda may indeed be better known for his television and film roles (including Hawkeye in M*A*S*H), but he is also a screenwriter and presenter, and hosted the television show Scientific American Frontiers for 14 years. He drew on decades of experience in communication (and miscommunication!) for this book, emphasizing the importance of empathy and forming connections with listeners in order to communicate complex or sensitive ideas. Scheyder assigns a selection from the book in her course and shares a video interview clip where Alda discusses science communication—a subject that can certainly be both complex and sensitive, but increasingly important.

These engaging and accessible book recommendations offer just a taste of the subjects you can explore in upcoming Penn LPS Online courses. View our course calendar to see the full range of Ivy League online courses available in any upcoming term.

For more book recommendations, peruse our previous features Essential reading for the humanities: 3 books recommended by Penn faculty and 5 Historical must-reads.

Apply Today

Ready to apply to Penn LPS Online?

Apply Now

Learn more about Penn LPS Online