Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2021 Picks: 53 Things for Science Lovers to Read, Watch, Listen to, Enjoy

December 22, 2021
UCS
Kristy Dahl
Senior Climate Scientist

Love science? We do too! If you’re looking to add a little science to your life in the new year, you’ve come to the right place. UCS staff have compiled a list of 53 great books, poems, movies, shows, art installations, people, and essays that brought science home to us in new ways in 2021. That gives you one to check out for each week of the new year (and an extra one for good luck)! So whether you’re looking for a book to curl up with over the holidays or fresh science takes in your social media feeds in 2022, we hope the resources in this list help scratch your science itch and inspire you to think about the world a little differently.

Note that the books, movies, and other items listed here are things that UCS staff members enjoyed in 2021 regardless of when they were published or produced.

Fiction books about science and the environment

How Beautiful We Were, by Imbolo Mbue

This novel portrays one community’s decades-long fight for environmental justice, the ways they were stymied by vested interests, and the intergenerational harms that can persist within families and communities.

Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy

The main character of this novel is fueled by a mania and freneticism to see things on Earth that are rapidly disappearing because of climate change. It’s a story of loss, of aching, and of trying to hold on to what is rapidly slipping through our fingers.

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

Juxtaposing a portrayal of the contentiousness of evolutionary theory with the trials of a family struggling to recover in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and amidst a widening income inequality gap, Unsheltered reminds us not to be fools in the face of science.

A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet

This weird, wild parable of a novel walks through the otherworldly experience of a major disaster from children’s/teens’ perspective. It’s haunting, damning, and a great, short read.

Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown

As soon as we read the phrase “all organizing is science fiction,” we were hooked. These short, visionary stories allow us to dream of new worlds and to fight not for what is known but the unknown that we wish to bring into the world.

Exhalation, by Ted Chiang

This collection of short stories is kind of like Black Mirror (the Netflix show) but better. The incredibly creative sci-fi ideas embodied in this collection are beyond what most of us could ever dream up.

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

In this dystopian novel, humanity solves the climate crisis, but at great cost, including major terrorism, e.g., using flocks of drones to take down so many planes that gas-fueled air travel ceases. The writing in this book isn’t phenomenal, but the storyline is VERY interesting.

Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

Like Weir’s previous book, The Martian, this one is chock full of science. It’s not about human-caused climate change, but it is about climate change more broadly, and it involves the whole world coming together to figure out a solution. Throw together a bunch of physics, some drama, and some how-to tips on interstellar and interspecies communication, and you’ve got an entertaining read.

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver’s novel draws beautiful parallels between climate impacts and personal stories while illustrating a very possible future in which climate change affects natural behaviors and patterns.

Nonfiction books about science and the environment

Soul Full of Coal Dust, by Chris Hamby

Any recent climate assessment will tell you that have to quickly phase out coal. Behind that story, though, are the stories of what coal workers have endured as they quite literally fueled the last 150 years of economic growth. Soul Full of Coal Dust chronicles coal workers’ long, arduous fight for black lung benefits and the stomach-turning machinations of coal companies to deny them those benefits.

The Bird Way, by Jennifer Ackerman

The Bird Way is a mind-blowing exploration of what science tells us birds around the world are really up to. Spoiler alert: waaay more than we give them cognitive credit for. If you’re at all into birds, you’ll dig it. Makes a good audio/travel book.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer

This beautiful book reminds us that there is a better way of being in and with the world around us, a perspective that is often lost after childhood.

This is Your Mind on Plants and/or How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan brings his signature mix of science review, history, and personal experience to these two complementary explorations of plants’ influence on consciousness. And “What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence”?? If that’s not interesting…

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, by adrienne maree brown

The author defines emergent strategy as: “how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for,” a strategy that stretches us beyond the data to some of the truly transformational changes we need.

Diary of a Young Naturalist, by Dara McAnulty

This collection of beautiful essays about nature was written by an autistic teenager and climate activist in the UK. Dara and his family’s passion for natural world reminds us of why we so desperately need to act on climate: our young people are depending on us.

Vesper Flights, by Helen MacDonald

This heart-wrenching collection of short stories is about the beauty — and the decline — of the natural world, and why it matters. MacDonald is also the gifted author behind “H is for Hawk.”

Uncanny Valley, by Anna Weiner

Weiner’s memoir focuses on working in the tech industry and explores the many ways it creates toxic spaces both inside the industry and in the larger world.

My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, by Jill Bolte Taylor

At the age of 37, a blood vessel exploded inside brain scientist Jill Taylor’s brain. Taylor’s unique understanding of her own decline in communications skills and memory—as well as her recovery—makes for fascinating reading.

Blowout, by Rachel Maddow

With gripping stories of scientists and other characters, this book is one that’s hard to put down. Blowout is a book that challenges traditional impressions of what is happening around the world that allows us to go fill up at the pump. These stories weave together to reveal aspects of the oil and gas industry’s influence on geopolitics in ways that are often not discussed.

Empire of Pain, by Patrick Radden Keefe

Reading this book was like paging through The Disinformation Playbook. While its focus is squarely on the Sackler family and the role they played in causing and perpetuating the opioid crisis, the deception, the disinformation, and the lack of accountability have clear parallels with the fossil fuel and tobacco industries. The story underscores the critical importance of scientific integrity and watchdogging.

Poetry about science (and so much more)

Song for the Salmon, by David Whyte

This poem came to us shortly after the near-complete failure of the King and Chum salmon to return to their spawning rivers in Alaska this year, with all of the implications for the ecological tragedy that represents and the hardship it means for the Alaskan communities who’ve depended on that harvest forever. This poem brought that tragedy home in new, deep ways, all we’re losing to climate change.

Sea Change, by Jorie Graham

Many people find Jorie difficult to read, but the effort is well worth it. She interrogates how we might love, and feel in our bodies, as the world we have known shifts around us and we must accept the blame.

Movies and TV Shows about science

Dune

Set in the far future, Dennis Villeneuve’s film adaptation of the 1965 epic sci-fi novel of the same name breathes new life into the conversation about large-scale environmental change and colonialism.

Parasite

You can’t talk about climate change without talking about extractive capitalism and building solidarity with other movements. For that reason, Parasite is a must-see for those who care about the planet and who is feeling the impacts most acutely.

Fantastic Fungi

Directed by Louie Schwartzberg, this film documents the many cool uses of fungi (like cleaning up oil spills) and has beautiful time-lapse videography. Parents or those watching with kids should note that the film does cover the use of psilocybin, which is psychedelic found in some hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Bring Your Own Brigade

This film documents the Camp and Woolsey fires in Paradise and Malibu, California, in 2018 and explores the many layers and complexities associated with the wildfires that have devastated the state in recent years. The socioeconomic and political juxtaposition of Malibu and Paradise reflects the realities communities throughout the United States are grappling with.

Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet

David Attenborough’s documentaries are always good and tug at your heart. In Breaking Boundaries, Attenborough and scientist Johan Rockström examine the ways in which humanity has pushed Earth’s systems to the brink.

Picture a Scientist

This powerful documentary features three women scientists who tell their stories about the harrowing challenges they have faced in their careers, overcoming sexism, harassment, misogyny, and racism—and how there is still work to do to make the field more welcoming to girls and young women. Prior to the film’s availability on Netflix, UCS arranged for staff viewing and facilitated discussions.

The Expanse

This sci-fi TV series is set in space in the future, when Earth has undergone serious warming and all kinds of deleterious effects related to that warming. Interplanetary politics, colonialism, ongoing conflict over resource constraints, interesting science about how humans might actually have to exist in space (hint: it’s not nearly as easy or glamorous as Star Trek made it seem!), and the emergence of class issues between “Belters,” who live primarily in space, and planet dwellers make for fascinating watching.

The Mind Explained

This TV series on how the mind works offers practical and accessible explanations for why everything is so dang hard–not just for those of us with conditions like ADHD–but for everyone. The show weaves historical references and knowledge in alongside modern and more up-to-date thinking, giving viewers insight into scientists’ evolving understanding of our brains.

Science Personalities & Opinion Leaders to Follow

Daniel Swain

Dr. Swain is a rock-star scientist and a stellar communicator who retains his calm even as the world is on fire. His tweets provide reliable news about extreme weather events on the West Coast and his messages are always extremely clear.

ASAP Science

ASAP Science features short videos created by Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, two Canadian educators. These utterly charming, smart, funny people make science a delight to consider, sometimes in heels, and often with dance, always with humor.

Abbie Richards

Abbie’s takedowns of disinformation are delightfully funny. As she debunks conspiracies with research that tracks how social media algorithms can send readers into extremist rabbit holes, she is bringing climate action and conspiracy theory debunking to the mainstream with her snappy TikTok videos.

Mary Annaïse Heglar

As she puts it, “I write, rant, & rave about climate justice,” something the world needs more of. The shots she takes at the fossil fuel industry and other trogs are much appreciated by our climate team.

Emily Atkin

After years as a reporter for online media outlets, Emily Atkin struck out on her own with her Heated newsletter on substack. Emily doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of the climate crisis, and she covers topics that can get ignored by traditional media outlets. Even better, her newsletters always include a picture of a super cute dog.

Katelyn Jetelina (Your Local Epidemiologist)

Epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina’s substack newsletter provides rational, balanced analysis of the ongoing deluge of COVID-19 news that’s based on solid data and science.

Stacy Selby

FIRES is a newsletter specifically about wildland fires, colonization, ecology, culture, and current events, written by a former hotshot and wildland firefighter. While there are sometimes informative updates about the state of fire season, FIRES is meant to position the current rhetoric surrounding fire in the United States in historical and cultural context. Think longform, many-part series, interviews with ecologists, firefighters, and Indigenous fire experts, and deep research.

Podcasts about science

How to Save a Planet

This is an obvious one to listen to for those who care about the climate, but it’s very well done. The show covers a lot of important ground and has great guests and guest hosts.

Short Wave

This daily science podcast from NPR has featured several experts from UCS, so how could we not love it? As an added bonus, queer hosts!

Body Stuff

This podcast debunks common myths about the human body. Podcast host Dr. Jen Gunter, MD, tackles topics like immune boosting, hydration, drinking milk, and even why we’re so awkward about poop.

This Podcast Will Kill You

This podcast features two early-career scientists, ecologists and epidemiologists Erin Welsh and Erin Allmann Updyke, talking about infectious diseases past and present. With a combination of humor, science, history, and social commentary, Erin and Erin tackle a different disease with each episode and their cross-over episodes with other experts from other fields are fascinating. Combination of humor, science, history and social commentary. As a bonus, each episode includes a recipe for a delicious quarantine!

Ologies

In Alie Ward’s Ologies podcast, listeners are treated to deep but fun dives into very specific science-y things like fireflies (aka sparkle butts), slug sex, trees, and squid. Along the way, we get to hear about the obsessions of professional -ologists.

How We Survive

How We Survive presents an interdisciplinary approach to climate solutions. The podcast host, Molly Wood, takes the time to tell the stories behind the press releases, acknowledge impacts to historically disadvantaged communities, and dig into complexities and nuance, leaving us feeling hopeful.

Art with a science side

How to Move a Landscape

Blane De St. Croix’s research-intensive art involves years of field work and collaboration with leading climate scientists and explores the geopolitical landscape as it connects to environmental issues. The exhibition at MASS MoCA was staggering and reminded visitors of both the resilience and fragility of the natural world through drawings, sculptures, and paintings.

Anthropocene

This visually stunning film unfolds around a series of gorgeous images that demonstrate how profoundly humans have reengineered the planet.

Songs about science

Bo Burnham’s That Funny Feeling

With lyrics such as “That unapparent summer air in early fall/The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all,” Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling” perfectly captures the moment of history we are living through. A song we wish were tongue-in-cheek but reminds us of the multiple existential threats the next generation has to deal with.

Eliza Gilkyson’s The Party’s Over

The Party’s Over, from Eliza Gilkyson’s 2008 Beautiful World album kinda nails us to the wall. When our collective party ends and we’ve left our children a note to clean up the mess, how will we look back on our revelry?

Penelope Scott’s Rat

Put earmuffs on the littles when listening to this oddly upbeat Gen Zer’s ragey indie folk chiptune song. Scott channels her anger into lyrics that dissect a love-hate relationship with Silicon Valley tech idols with cutting sarcasm and intensity. In her own words, the song is about “the tension between science and technology being a good thing, and also the fact that how it’s done is really important and determines whether or not it really is good for the public.”

Essays on science and the environment

Fish Farming is Feeding the Globe. What’s the Cost for Locals, by Ian Urbina

If the topic fish meal is one you don’t know much about, buckle up. It’s an environmental issue and a justice issue that is largely invisible to those of us in the global north. But this piece will make you take a second look at what you’re putting on your plate.

The Migrant Workers Who Follow Climate Disasters, by Sarah Stillman

There are those who experience climate disasters directly, and then there are those who are cleaning up after them. While society’s focus is often on the former, the latter are doing incredibly dangerous work, often for exploitative employers and with fear of deportation. Stillman’s New Yorker piece on these critical and undervalued workers for the New Yorker is truly eye opening.

What It’s Like to Fight a Megafire, by M.R. O’Connor

“In 2015 and 2016, fifty-two wildland firefighters died by suicide in the U.S.–twenty-five more than were killed in the line of duty.” Just let that sink in for a moment. M.R. O’Connor’s account poignantly highlights the toll of wildland firefighting on firefighters and begs the question of why we’re sending people in to battle fires that have arguably become unstoppable.

How a Young Activist is Helping Pope Francis Battle Climate Change

Map lovers, this one’s for you! This essay profiles a young woman who fell in love with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and is now using it to build an atlas of the Catholic church’s landholdings. It’s the story of a tenacious person nerding out with GIS and applying it to something she’s passionate about, so, naturally, we loved it.

To Hell With Drowning, by Julian Aguon

The subtitle to this piece in The Atlantic captures its essence: “For people living in Oceania, climate change is the fight of our lives, and we need more than science to win. We need stories.”

Recommendations for UCS’s 2021 Picks were provided by Kate Cell, Astrid Caldas, Janet Curtis, Juan Declet-Barreto, Shreya Durvasula, Brenda Ekwurzel, Abby Figueroa, Colleen MacDonald, Eryn MacDonald, Taryn MacKinney, Shea McGinnis, Seth Michaels, Alicia Race, Michelle Rama-Poccia, Maegan Ramirez, Sarah Reinhardt, Katy Roberts, John Rogers, Ashley Siefert Nunes, Edyta Sitko, Erika Spanger-Siegfried, Mark Specht, Jessica Thomas, and Stephen Young