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Best books ... chosen by Natalie Angier
<em>New York Times</em> science writer Natalie Angier is the author of <em>Woman: An Intimate Geography</em> and <em>The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.</em> She served as co-editor
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he Medical Detectives by Berton Roueché (Vol. I, Plume, $16; Vol. II, out of print). An old man collapses on the sidewalk, his nose, ears, lips, and fingers a startling shade of “sky blue.” A 6-year-old girl shows up at a Denver hospital, feverish, spasming—and with a painful bubo under her left arm, ominously suggestive of plague. Roueché virtually invented the medical mystery genre, and he remains its most dazzling practitioner.

Islands, The Universe, Home by Gretel Ehrlich (Penguin, $15). Ehrlich’s nature essays have the elegance and precision of calligraphy. “To find wildness, I must first offer myself up, accept all that comes before me,” she writes. “A bullfrog breathing hard on a rock … a cloud that looks like a clothespin; a seep of water from a high cirque, black on brown rock, draining down from the brain of the world.”

Mutants: On Genetic Variation and the Human Body by Armand Marie Leroi (Penguin, $16). In this astonishing book, Leroi elucidates the making of the human body by describing cases of the program gone off-kilter: Chang and Eng, the conjoined twins; human cyclops; and Harry Eastlake, whose muscles gradually turned to sheets of bone. Leroi writes with such clarity and nuance that his approach feels inclusive rather than voyeuristic and is, throughout, exhilarating.

A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar (Touchstone, $16). Nasar’s masterly biography of John Nash Jr.—the math prodigy, Nobel laureate, and schizophrenia victim—is so invitingly written that even math-phobes will not be spooked by the occasional equation.

Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary ­Origins of Mutual Understanding by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. (Belknap/Harvard, $30). Hrdy is one of the most original thinkers in evolutionary biology, and this far-ranging exploration of why humans are the empaths among apes will make any reader feel like a genius.

Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland by George Gamow (Cambridge, $19). A bank clerk falls asleep during a physics lecture and his dreams bring modern physics alive. We learn about relativity, for example, by visiting a world where the speed of light is hardly faster than a bicycle.

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