Design your summer reading around math and science

By Jake Sexton | La Mesa Reads

Somehow we are approaching summer already, and are on the verge of starting the library’s 2017 Summer Reading Challenge. This year’s theme is “Reading By Design,” focusing on science and math.

Children, teens and adults can win prizes for reading, and we will have a variety of events and programs at the library surrounding these themes. So today’s column will focus on selected books about science.

Randall Munroe was a programmer and roboticist for NASA who also had a love of cartooning. He quit his NASA post to work on his online comic strip “XKCD,” a series of snarky and often science-themed gags. After picking up a large cult following, Munroe began writing books combining science and his own sense of humor. In 2014 he published “What If?,” in which he gave in-depth answers to complicated and sometimes silly science questions his fans had asked him over the years. And in 2015 he published “Thing Explainer,” which was sort of an introduction to scientific concepts while using vocabulary a first-grader would know. Both are great for people who like a little off-kilter with their theory.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot shows a darker side of science. Now an HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey, the book tells the true story of an African-American woman from the 1950s whose cells were taken by doctors without her knowledge or consent, and used as subjects in medical experiments for decades. The research on Lacks’ cells resulted in amazing breakthroughs, but she never knew, was never compensated, and her family continued to live in dire straits despite the millions being made on cures that her own body made possible.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has become a modern science rock star and the universe’s ambassador to the people of Earth, thanks to his leadership at NYC’s Hayden Planetarium and numerous TV appearances. One of his primary goals is to introduce the younger generation to the wonders of science and the universe, and he seems to be succeeding. In his latest book, “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,” Tyson uses his gift for explaining the complex in easily-digestible terms to describe fundamental theories and cutting edge concepts like the Big Bang or “dark energy.”

“Stuff Matters” by Mark Midownik is another book that turns opaque minutiae into fun and wonder. Much like author Michael Pollan transformed the process of industrial food production and into a fascinating journey, Midownik takes the scientific properties of materials like steel, concrete and aerogel and makes them intriguing, personal and poetic.

Space is silent. In a vacuum, there is nothing to transmit vibrations, and therefore there is no sound. Janna Levin’s book “Black Hole Blues” is about the scientific attempt to capture sounds from space despite the vacuum. “Black Hole Blues” follows a group of scientists who designed an experiment to detect gravity waves (a theoretical phenomenon predicted by Albert Einstein) and turn them into sound waves. The tale is well-told, and is as much about the personal passions and conflicts of the individuals involved as it is about physics and space. All of the books above can be borrowed from the La Mesa Library.

For more information about the library’s Summer Reading Challenge, visit For the adults reading this (which is all of you), for every 10 hours you spend reading, you can get a free book to keep, and an entry into a raffle for an Amazon Fire tablet. The Summer Reading Challenge begins June 1.

—Jake Sexton is librarian at the La Mesa branch of the San Diego County Library. Call the library at 619-469-2151, visit in person at 8074 Allison Ave. or get information online at

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