This post is part of the Reading Writers of Color 2021 challenge hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media’s staff writer and editor, Dan Michael Fielding.
This is a long list with quite a bit of discussion preceding it. Before I begin, here are my top three books that I think are most important to read. If you find the full list to be overwhelming then consider choosing one of these three:
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi Nation)(environmental scientist). Consists of a braiding of Indigenous knowledge and worldviews, learning from the teachers of plants and animals, and Western science.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor (biochemist). This novel follows the experiences of a gay, Black doctoral student in a biochemistry program.
The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (physicist, cosmologist). An exploration of particle physics and the cosmos coupled with a call for a more just vision for science.
When I was planning this challenge I knew that the prompt for February, to read a book by a scientist of color, would be one of the most difficult. I simply didn’t anticipate just how difficult it would be to assemble this list.
I started researching for this blog post in November of last year, and what I found frustrated me. I came across dozens of lists other people had assembled variously claiming to be “Best Science Books You Need to Read” or “The 50 Best Science Books” or “The Top 100 Science Books.” I thought I would begin there and pick out the books on the list which were written by a scientist of color.
I was disappointed to find that even in lists of 50 or 100 books, at most two scientists of color would be listed. The vast majority of the rest were white men, with a handful of white women scattered throughout. Neil deGrasse Tyson made the list almost every time, but he was usually the lone non-white voice on a list of dozens of scientists.
This bothered me. I set out to make a more comprehensive list, and I learned a few things along the way.
First, there are plenty of lists of scientists of color. For example, Wikipedia’s list of African-American inventors and scientists is the culmination of work by Wikipedia contributors to document the work of black scientists. There are also plenty of books about black, Indigenous, and scientists of color. The well-known Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly or Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just by Kennety R. Manning are both excellent examples of books written about important figures in science. But they aren’t written by the scientists themselves.
Second, I learned there are many brilliant scientists of color who are working hard to create articles, thought pieces, tweets, and other things that aren’t books. Folks like the ecologists Jaida Elcock and Christopher Schell have recently received attention as up-and-coming scientists. More generally on Twitter, hashtags like #BlackInScience, or related to specific disciplines like #BlackInPhysics or #BlackInMarineScience, highlight the work being done by black scientists while #NativeSTEM highlights the work of Indigenous scientists.
There are also organizations working to elevate the voices of scientists of color. Like Free Radicals which is”dedicated to creating a more socially just, equitable, and accountable science,” and which makes science accessible through organizing, zines, and articles. Abolition Science is a podcast that “envisions a science and math delinked from racial capitalism, imperialism, and oppression–a science and math that serves all people.” This work is absolutely vital, and both these organizations are worth following for updates.
There are many people out there working hard and being smart but–and here’s the main issue–they apparently aren’t getting book deals from publishers. I struggled to put together the below list, which sometimes has to rely on books that are now out of print and books co-authored by a white author. (Note: Co-authoring, especially in the natural and physical sciences, is very common. The issue here is that I can name dozens of books written by a single white scientist, but for authors of color single-authored books were more difficult to come by.)
If we aren’t publishing scientists of color that means we aren’t giving their work the attention it deserves, we aren’t giving them the opportunity for lucrative book deals or national and international acclaim, and we are fundamentally missing out on the opportunity for future generations to hear from their perspective directly–not filtered through the lens of whatever journalist or historian picks up their story.
Make no mistake, the work of historians to detail these biographies is important, but it is an absolute shame that secondary sources is often all we have. Because we didn’t publish–and continue not to publish–the work of scientists of color, we are continuing to miss out on their important perspectives on science and the world.
As much as possible, the books below were written by a person who has training in one of the natural or physical sciences. I also included a few works by social scientists. I general I think it’s easier to find a book by a social scientists of color than it is to find one by a physical scientist of color. Feel free to disagree with me below, and I may do another post later that is only about the social sciences.
What books written by scientists of color do you know of? Add them in the comments below so we can help build our list!
Each entry is in the following format: Title of Book by Author (type of scientist). You can control-F particular types of science writing you’re interested in reading about, such as “biologist” or “chemist.”
And here are the other 47 books, bringing our total to 50:
- I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong (biochemist)
- The Science of Breaking Bad by Donna J. Nelson (Muscogee Creek Nation, chemist) and Dave Trumbore
- Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence by Gregory Cajete (Tewa) (biologist and sociologist)
- Elatsoe (novel) by Darcie Little Badger (Lipan Apache) (Earth scientist)
- The Scalpel and the Silver Bear (autobiography) by Lori Arviso Alvord (Navajo) (surgeon)
- The Three Wishes: A Collection of Puerto Rican Folktales by Ricardo E. Alegría (anthropologist), with illustrations by Lorenzo Homar
- Storms from the Sun: The Emerging Science of Space Weather by Ramón E. López (physicist) and Michael Carlowicz
- El vuelo del dragon by Manuel Martínez Maldonado (nephrologist). Martínez Maldonado has several other books and collections of poetry to choose from.
- Exploring the Secrets of the Aurora by Syun-Ichi Akasofu (physicist)
- The Lady and the Sharks by Eugenie Clark (ichthyologist)
- Mutation-Driven Evolution by Masatoshi Nei (evolutionary biologist)
- Modern Quantum Mechanics by J.J. Sakurai (physicist) and Jim J. Napolitano
- Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity by Banu Subramaniam (biologist, feminist science studies)
- Sweet Gum Bridge: A Play About Pushamataha (play) by Wallace Hampton Tucker (Choctaw) (astrophysicist). Appeared in the collection Stories of Our Way: An Anthology of American Indian Plays eds. Hanay Geiogamah and Jaye T. Darby.
- Odyssey in Climate Modeling, Global Warming, and Advising Five Presidents by Warren Washington (meteorologist), book also edited by Mary Washington
- My World of Reality by Hildrus Augustus Poindexter (epidemiologist)
- Singularity Theory and Gravitational Lensing by Arlie O. Petters (mathematical astronomy), co-authored by Harold Levine and Joachim Wambsganss
- Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude Mason Steele (psychology)
- Incandescent Electric Lighting by Lewis Howard Latimer (engineer). Latimer also published a book of poetry that unfortunately has not been archived online.
- 100 SOA Questions: Asked and Answered by Kerrie Holley (software engineer) and Ali Arsanjani (SOA means Service-Oriented Architecture)
- The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America by Joseph Graves (evolutionary biologist)
- Language and the African American Child by Lisa Green (linguistics)
- Proving Einstein Right: The Daring Expeditions that Change How We Look at the Universe by Sylvester James Gates Jr. (physicist) and Cathie Pelletier
- The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth by Michio Kaku (physicist)
- Ivar the Viking by Paul by Du Chaillu (anthropologist)
- Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions by David A. Blackwell (mathematician) and M.A. Girshick
- Brain Surgeon: A Doctor’s Inspiring Encounters with Mortality and Miracles by Keith Black (medical doctor)
- Elements of the Theory of Markov Processes and Their Applications by A.T. Bharucha-Reid (mathematician)
- I Wouldn’t Take Nothin’ For My Journey: Two Centuries of an Afro-American Minister’s Family by Leonidas Berry (medical doctor)
- The Social Life of DNA by Alondra Nelson (sociologist)
- The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois (sociologist)
- Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh (physicist)
- Find Where the Wind Goes by Mae Carol Jamison (engineer, astronaut)
- Banneker’s Almanac by Benjamin Banneker (mathematician)
- All We Can Save by Dr. Ayana Johnson (marine biologist)
- Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet by Kendra Pierre-Louis (economist)
- Breakfast of Biodiversity: The Political Ecology of Rainforest Destruction by Ivette Perfecto (ecologist) and John Vandermeer.
- Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of a NASA Mathematician by Katherine Johnson (mathematician)
- An Introduction to Three-Dimensional Climate Modeling by Warren M. Washington (climatologist) (second edition co-authored by Claire L. Parkinson)
- The Biology of the Cell Surface by Ernest Everett Just (biologist)
- The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last by Azra Raza (medicine)
- Only the Longest Threads by Tasneem Zehra Husain (physicist)
- This Won’t Hurt a Bit (And Other White Lies): My Education in Medicine and Motherhood by Michelle Au (medicine)
- Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (medicine)
- The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddharatha Mukherjee (biologist)
- The Quantum Rule: How the Laws of Physics Explain Love, Success, and Everyday Life by Kunal K. Das (physicist)
- Americans Hate Coyotes: How the War on America’s Song Dog Began and Why it Persists by Jazmin Murphy (ecologist)
What will you be reading this month? Let us know in the comments below! This is also a month when it will be especially important to write a review of the book you end up reading. Make it clear to publishers that books by scientists of color will find an engaged audience. If you’re new to writing reviews we have a guide that can help you get started, or check out my review of Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh.
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