Reading list, Science

What to Read for Leap Year

Every four years, something special happens at the end of February: because the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is not a perfect 365 days, but instead roughly 365 and one quarter, an extra day appears on our calendars to help the cosmological books balance. And speaking of cosmological books, if the swift approach of February 29, 2024, has you contemplating the Sun, the Moon, our place in the Universe, the nature of time, the laws of physics, the quantum world, or, as we are leaping after all, frogs . . . well, then do we have the reading list for you. With twenty-nine books, one for each day of this most unusual month, this once-in-a-lifetime (or once every four years) mash-up of the astrophysical and the herpetological is sure to keep you busy until the next Leap Year rolls around. Hop to it!

Vector: A Surprising Story of Space, Time, and Mathematical Transformation

Robyn Arianrhod

“Everyone understands what it means to move at some particular speed in some particular direction. But it took a long time to start thinking of such behavior in terms of a single clarifying concept, the vector. Arianrhod’s lively and detailed chronicle explains why vectors and tensors are at the heart of our best ways to think about the universe.”—Sean Carroll, author of The Biggest Ideas in the Universe

Einstein and the Quantum Revolutions

Alain Aspect, With a Foreword by David Kaiser

“Aspect’s beautiful experiment, completed in 1982, had a catalyzing effect on the scientific community. . . . The tiny spark of the second quantum revolution began to grow.”—David Kaiser, from the foreword

Frog Day: A Story of 24 Hours and 24 Amphibian Lives

Marty Crump, Illustrated by Tony Angell

With a text by celebrated herpetologist Marty Crump and artwork by the great natural history illustrator Tony Angell, this second installment in Chicago’s new Earth Day series is an hourly guide that follows twenty-four frog species as they eat, find mates, care for their young, and survive harsh environments.

Simulating the Cosmos: Why the Universe Looks the Way It Does

Romeel Davé

From Reaktion Books’ Universe series

“Davé starts his concise and well-written book by explaining the fundamental limitations of observational astronomy: even with the best telescopes imaginable we will never be able to watch individual galaxies form and evolve because of the cosmic timescales involved . . . but what we can do is model these distant targets on computers, and in Simulating the Cosmos cosmologist Davé takes us through the A-Z of these simulations. . . . This is an enthralling read that is highly recommended to readers, including prospective astrophysicists, keen to understand more about how modern cosmology is actually accomplished.”―BBC Sky at Night

Phenomena: Doppelmayr’s Celestial Atlas

Giles Sparrow, With a Foreword by Martin Rees

“It seems something of a disservice to a work of this seriousness to say how beautiful it is, but that is what will first strike the reader. . . . This is a book ultimately as accessible to the non-scientist as it is to the specialist. Doppelmayr’s mathematical notations of the motions of the planets, the charts of loops, parabolas and ellipses might at first seem a baffling panorama of unknowing. With Sparrow’s help, however, they give up a story of increasing fascination.”―Spectator

The Book of Frogs: A Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species from around the World

Tim Halliday

“If you are a serious (and I mean serious) fan of the frog, you are in for a real treat. From poisonous frogs to tiny toenail-sized frogs, whistlers, ‘explosive breeders,’ endangered frogs, and recently discovered frogs, author and one of the world’s leading frog experts Halliday covers an exhaustive gamut of frog species from around the planet. A wonderful source for anyone trying to decipher and learn about frogs they find in nature.”―Boing Boing

What’s Eating the Universe? And Other Cosmic Questions

Paul Davies

“A whirlwind tour through the vastness of space and the innermost recesses of subatomic matter. . . . A long career in cosmology, astrobiology, and quantum mechanics gives Davies a keen insight into the realities of research. . . . Like the immense void that gapes across the sky in the direction of the constellation Eridanus, a yawning emptiness that some have suggested may be the sign of another universe set to gobble up our own, the mysteries of space are so vast and so strange that we cannot but be amazed.”―Wall Street Journal

Quantum Legacies: Dispatches from an Uncertain World

David Kaiser, With a Foreword by Alan Lightman

Quantum Legacies does not disappoint. . . . It is a breath of fresh air to see physics writing like this: lucid and friendly, sober and thoughtful, and willing to trust the reader’s engagement and intelligence rather than demanding the former and underestimating the latter. . . .  Superb popular science. . . .  It is hard for me to imagine any physicist who wouldn’t enjoy the fine cloth from which it is cut, nor the pleasing effect it makes.”―Physics World

Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog, Adder’s Fork and Lizard’s Leg: The Lore and Mythology of Amphibians and Reptiles

Marty Crump

Eye of Newt brings thousands of years of lore into the fight against extinction. Read a chapter here and there, and look up your favorite creepy crawly in the index. Or, look up one you loathe. You’ll see it in a new light and find a respect for it that you didn’t know you had.”―Sierra

Cosmos: The Art and Science of the Universe

Roberta J. M. Olson and Jay M. Pasachoff

From Reaktion Books

“Featuring hundreds of beautiful illustrations, paintings, prints, and photographs, Cosmos explores astronomical phenomena and humans’ fascination with them throughout history, as evidenced by depictions in works of art. The book is the result of a collaboration between astronomer Pasachoff and art historian Olson, who spent the past three decades collecting the images that would feature in this interdisciplinary study. Complementing the imagery is a narrative that chronicles developments in both astronomy and art over the past several millennia.”―Physics Today

Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew about Quantum Physics Is Different

Philip Ball

“Ball’s gorgeously lucid text takes us to the edge of contemporary theorizing about the foundations of quantum mechanics. Beyond Weird is easily the best book I’ve read on the subject.”—Washington Post


Charlotte Sleigh

From Reaktion Books’ Animal series

“Sleigh does a great job of condensing the extensive cultural and scientific literature on frogs into a stream of absorbing facts and stories through which the reader can easily hop. Frog is further brought to life through its collection of thought-provoking and high-quality illustrations. . . . For those readers interested in a rich yet concise account of the biology of frogs and their place in culture, this book is an excellent choice.”—Natterchat Magazine

Five Photons: Remarkable Journeys of Light Across Space and Time

James Geach

From Reaktion Books

“There are a thousand-and-one tales to be told by the photons from space, and Geach treats us to five of the most fascinating. . . . Geach’s tour-de-force in explaining complex science is making light work (pun intended!) of explaining the Sachs-Wolfe effect. If that’s intriguing you . . . buy a copy of this excellent book!”―Popular Astronomy

The Moon

Bill Leatherbarrow

From Reaktion Books’ Kosmos series

“The more astronomy has learned about our solar system, the more fascinating these lifeless worlds have become. This is certainly true of Earth’s nearest neighbor and very nearly sister planet, the moon. It’s in every way the most familiar of all our celestial neighbors, and yet, as Leatherbarrow’s beautifully illustrated new book makes clear, the moon still holds surprises. Wonderfully produced by Reaktion Books, The Moon takes readers through the various stages of humanity’s curiosity about the moon, including the first rudimentary attempts to understand what this luminous object in the sky actually was. Leatherbarrow’s energetic narrative tells the familiar story of the leaps science has made in seeing this next-door neighbor clearly.”―Christian Science Monitor

Hunting for Frogs on Elston, and Other Tales from Field & Street

Jerry Sullivan

“Sullivan had a unique passion for urban ecology and his writings bring out the naturalist in all of us. A master of the short essay (each is 1000 to 1500 words), the author captivated his audience by skillfully blending ecological theory, natural history, and humor. . . . An excellent resource for any urban dweller with an interest in natural history. . . . The essays can be enjoyed equally by scientists and nonscientists, whether or not they have ever been to or lived in Chicago. This book is also a ‘must read’ for any high school or college environmental science class, especially [in] the growing field of urban ecology.”―Quarterly Review of Biology

The Sun

Leon Golub and Jay M. Pasachoff

From Reaktion Books’ Kosmos series

“Our Solar System’s own yellow dwarf star has been variously worshiped and taken for granted by the humans who depend on it. All the while, our scientific understanding of the Sun has increased exponentially, and Smithsonian astrophysicist Golub and Williams College astronomer Pasachoff fill readers in on what we know and how we came to know it. From the spots on its surface to the physics at its core, this tour of the Sun is intriguing, accessible, and technically detailed.”―American Scientist

Gravity’s Ghost and Big Dog: Scientific Discovery and Social Analysis in the Twenty-First Century

Harry Collins

“In part an account of sociological fieldwork among scientists in the field and part astronomy-history mystery, Collins’s book is a terrific read informed by almost forty years of research.”―Nature

The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians

Kentwood D. Wells

“A monumental work on salamander, frog, and caecilian ecology, physiology, and behavior. . . . As a single source reference on amphibians, this book has no competitors. It can easily be read and assimilated by amateur naturalists, and it will be an invaluable encyclopedic source for conservationists, field biologists, and amphibian specialists for years to come. An outstanding resource for museum, municipal, college, and university libraries. Essential.”—Choice

Galaxy: Mapping the Cosmos

James Geach

From Reaktion Books

“Astrophysicist Geach goes an order of magnitude further than the usual popular astronomy title—those full of breathtaking images, but little in the way of context—by giving readers the fascinating stories revealed by those images: how galaxies are created, how they evolve, and what they tell us about our universe. The sheer variety is stunning. . . . Gorgeous color photos, coupled with clear and engaging explanations of the science behind them, make this book a winner on every level.”―Publishers Weekly

Time Travel and Warp Drives: A Scientific Guide to Shortcuts through Time and Space

Allen Everett and Thomas Roman

“Einstein meets Captain Kirk in this improbable foray into the frontiers of theoretical physics, where readers survey the exciting possibilities for traveling through time and between galaxies. . . . Relying only minimally on technical jargon and formulas, the authors open to view the exciting conceptual prospects for designing a time machine capable of slipping backward through the centuries and of riding fast-than-light warp bubbles through the cosmos. . . . Armchair scientists share the thrill of peeking into the universe’s deepest secrets. Penetrating science illuminates humankind’s most audacious dreams.”―Booklist (starred review)

The Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica: A Herpetofauna between Two Continents, between Two Seas

Jay M. Savage, With Photographs by Michael Fogden and Patricia Fodgen

“Magnificent. . . . The Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica reveals how much knowledge has been acquired since naturalists first began documenting the wonders of the Costa Rican herpetofauna. But, as Savage points out, large gaps in our knowledge remain, notably in anuran calls, larval life stages, and behavioral ecology. The author has set a solid stage, and this book will certainly serve as the foundation for decades of ecological, behavioral, and phylogenetic work to come.”―Quarterly Review of Biology

How We See the Sky: A Naked-Eye Tour of Day and Night

Thomas Hockey

“[Hockey] gives us descriptions of the motions of the sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets over a night, over a month, over a year, even over millennia. If you’ve ever wondered about the phases of the moon or the movements of the planets, or wondered why Polaris—the North Star—appears stationary, you can find that information and much more packed in here.”—Wall Street Journal

Our Magnetic Earth: The Science of Geomagnetism

Ronald T. Merrill

“If [you’re looking for a gift for] a self-described geek drawn to science books like an iron filing to a magnet, then consider Our Magnetic Earth, a fascinating explanation of that mysterious force.”―Chicago Tribune

In Search of the Golden Frog

Marty Crump

“Incorporating her fieldwork journals, Crump has written an excellent account of her thirty years as a field biologist in Central and South America. . . . Crump’s sympathetic observations of the local people, their history, and some of their problems with large oil companies, political changes, and habitat destruction to facilitate grazing add an extra dimension. Crump effectively documents the worldwide decline of amphibian populations, including that of Costa Rica’s famous golden frog, stressing that this trend should warn us of problems with our environment. A combination travelog, field guide, and history book, Crump’s book is an excellent addition to any public or academic library.”―Library Journal

Secrets of the Universe: How We Discovered the Cosmos

Paul Murdin

“If your interest in astronomy has been flagging, this is the book to reignite your sense of wonder. . . . This is a marvelous overview of astronomy, from its colorful history to today’s hottest topics. . . . This is a storyteller’s history of astronomy, constructed like a collection of short stories that invites readers to delve in at any point. Murdin approaches each subject with passion, insight, and explanations that make the most complex topics—relativity, gravitation, cosmology—not just accessible, but completely absorbing.”―Ad Astra

The Age of Everything: How Science Explores the Past

Matthew Hedman

“Ever wonder how we know with any certainty that the first humans arrived in the Americas about 11,000 years ago? Or that dinosaurs died out about 65 million years ago? Or that the solar system is about 4.5 billion years old? . . . Hedman is worth reading because he is careful to present both the power and peril of trying to extract precise chronological data. These are all very active areas of study, and as you read Hedman you begin to see how researchers have to be both very careful and incredibly audacious, and how much of our understanding of ourselves—through history, through paleontology, through astronomy—depends on determining the age of everything.”―Boston Globe

Tadpoles: The Biology of Anuran Larvae

Edited by Roy W. McDiarmid and Ronald Altig

“Here, at last, is a specialist publication, written by a team of fourteen international experts, that both provides a review of basic information, and indicates directions requiring further attention. The book radiates the humor and easy-going nature of the editors, while remaining an accurate scientific publication. It is divided into twelve chapters, a useful glossary, 69 pages of literature cited, and indices of authors, subjects, and taxonomy. Each chapter is complete and could serve as a core text in a course on amphibian larvae, and will no doubt become required reading for these and related vertebrate biology courses.”―Herpetological Review

Three Steps to the Universe: From the Sun to Black Holes to the Mystery of Dark Matter

David Garfinkle and Richard Garfinkle

“Meshing their complementary skill sets, physicist David and his brother, science fiction writer Richard, explore some of the knottiest problems facing modern cosmologists. . . . Aside from revealing the science behind the sun, black holes, and dark matter, the Garfinkles demonstrate how science develops. . . . The Garfinkles aren’t afraid to get technical, but this smart, rewarding read is helped by a welcome voice, a feel for narrative, and a useful glossary.”―Publishers Weekly

Environmental Physiology of the Amphibians

Edited by Martin E. Feder and Warren W. Burggren

“A most interesting and comprehensive review (with over 4000 references) of the physiology of this vertebrate class.”―Science

All of these Leap Year books are available from our website or from your favorite bookseller.