Over the summer, two publications called attention to the history of humanity’s effort to understand and, more belatedly, respond to climate change. In a book released in June, astrophysicist Adam Frank described how scientists who worked on NASA research missions to Venus and Mars also contributed to efforts to model Earth’s climate system. Similarly, he wrote, efforts to integrate biochemical factors into models of Earth’s climate system helped scientists interpret data gathered from other planets.

Then at the beginning of August, novelist Nathaniel Rich chronicled the efforts of NASA scientist James Hansen, in coordination with the leaders of influential environmental organizations, to raise awareness and prompt action on climate change in the critical years between 1979-1989. The stage seemed set for deeper dives into the lives of climate scientists, for a look at books exactly like The Ascent of John Tyndall, a biography of the nineteenth century British climate scientist that appeared between the pieces by Frank and Rich.

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Below Yale Climate Connections highlights 12 books about the lives of scientists who developed, in several different disciplines, the sciences of climate change. One is brand new; others are available only through used book dealers that list their titles with Amazon.

The descriptions are adapted from copy provided by the publishers. Whenever two dates of publication are listed, the second is for the paperback edition of the book. The books are listed in historical order, starting with a biography of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and ending with a profile of James Hansen (1941- ).  More likely will follow in coming years.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf (Penguin Random House 2015/2016, 496 pages, $17.00)

Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. Among Humboldt’s most revolutionary ideas was a radical vision of nature, that it is a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone. Andrea Wulf brings the man and his achievements into focus: his daring expeditions and investigation of wild environments around the world and his discoveries of similarities between climate and vegetation zones on different continents. She also discusses his prediction of human-induced climate change, his remarkable ability to fashion poetic narrative out of scientific observation, and his relationships with iconic figures such as Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson.

The Ascent of John Tyndall: Victorian Scientist, Mountaineer, and Public Intellectual, by Roland Jackson (Oxford University Press 2018, 576 pages, $34.95)

Rising from a humble background in rural southern Ireland, John Tyndall (1820–1893) became one of the foremost physicists, communicators of science, and polemicists in mid-Victorian Britain. His discoveries include the physical basis of the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere (the basis of the greenhouse effect), and establishing why the sky is blue. Roland Jackson presents Tyndall as a complex personality, full of contrasts, with his intense sense of duty, his deep love of poetry, his generosity to friends and his combativeness, his persistent ill-health alongside great physical stamina driving him to his mountaineering feats. Drawing on Tyndall’s letters and journals for this first major biography of Tyndall since 1945, Jackson explores the legacy of a man who aroused strong opinions, strong loyalties, and strong enmities throughout his life.

Arrhenius: From Ionic Theory to the Greenhouse Effect, by Elisabeth T. Crawford (Science History Publications 2006, 320 pages, $49.95)

Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) left his mark on three fields that have become important in 20th-century science: physical chemistry (through his theory of ionic dissociation), climatology (through his model of the magnitude of the greenhouse effect on global warming), and immunochemistry (through his ideas concerning the chemical reactions of serum therapy). He exerted a strong influence on the selection of laureates for the early Nobel prizes in science and made popular science a new art form with Worlds in the Making; his widely read book on cosmic physics and cosmology. Elisabeth Crawford, Senior Research Fellow at Center National de la Recherche Scientific in Paris, highlights themes in the career of this Swedish scientist that will interest scientists and historians of science.

The Callendar Effect: The Life and Work of Guy Stewart Callendar (1898-1964), The Scientist Who Established the Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climate Change, by James Rodger Fleming (American Meteorological Society 2009, 176 pages, $34.95)

This is the untold story of the remarkable scientist who established the carbon dioxide theory of climate change. Guy Stewart Callendar discovered that global warming could be brought about by increases in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide due to human activities, primarily through burning fossil fuels. He did this in 1938! Using never-before-published original scientific correspondence, notebooks, family letters, and photographs, science historian James Rodger Fleming introduces us to one of Britain’s leading engineers and explains his life and work through two World Wars to his continuing legacy as the scientist who established The Callendar Effect.

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World, by Charles C. Mann (Penguin Random House 2018, 640 pages, $28.95)

In forty years, Earth’s population will reach ten billion. Can our world support that? What kind of world will it be? Those answering these questions generally fall into two deeply divided groups – Wizards and Prophets, as Charles Mann calls them in his new book. The Prophets, he explains, follow William Vogt (1902–1968), a founding environmentalist who believed that in using more than our planet has to give, our prosperity will lead us to ruin. Cut back! was his mantra. The Wizards are the heirs of Norman Borlaug (1914–2009), whose research, in effect, wrangled the world in service to our species to produce modern high-yield crops that then saved millions from starvation. Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Mann delves into these diverging viewpoints to assess the four great challenges humanity faces – food, water, energy, climate change – grounding each in historical context and weighing the options for the future.

Roger: A Biography of Roger Revelle, by Judith and Neil Morgan (Scripps Institution of Oceanography 1996, 96 pages, $20.00)

Roger Revelle (1909–1991) was an internationally respected statesman of science. He transformed Scripps Institution from a shoreline field station into a world renowned oceanographic institution, founded the University of California, San Diego, and served as an inspired teacher and distinguished researcher. He was a proponent of U.S. Navy/academic collaboration and creator of the Office of Naval Research, an expert in population and resources, and the first scientist to recognize issues of carbon dioxide emissions, the greenhouse effect, and global warming. His influence continues to be felt worldwide.

James Lovelock: In Search of Gaia, by John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin (Princeton University Press 2009, 272 pages, $24.95)

In 1972, when he was working with NASA on methods for finding possible life on Mars, James Lovelock (1919– ) struck upon the idea of Gaia, conceiving of the Earth as a vast, living, self-regulating system. He was ridiculed by the scientific establishment. Drawing on in-depth interviews with Lovelock himself and unprecedented access to his private papers, John and Mary Gribbin paint an intimate and fascinating portrait of a restless, uniquely gifted freethinker. Deftly framed within the context of today’s mounting global-warming crisis, James Lovelock traces the intertwining trajectories of Lovelock’s life and the famous idea it brought forth, which continues to provoke passionate debate about the nature and future of life on our planet.

Carl Sagan: A Life, by Keay Davidson (Wiley 1999/2000, 560 pages, $30.95 paperback)

Carl Sagan (1934–1996) was one of the most celebrated scientists of this century – the handsome and alluring visionary who inspired a generation to look to the heavens and beyond [but who also called attention to the ways humans imperiled their existence on their own planet]. His life was both an intellectual feast and an emotional rollercoaster. Based on interviews with Sagan’s family and friends – including his widow, Ann Druyan; his first wife, acclaimed scientist Lynn Margulis; and his three sons, as well as exclusive access to many personal papers – this highly acclaimed life story offers remarkable insight into one of the most influential, provocative, and beloved figures of our time – a complex, contradictory prophet of the Space Age.

Lynn Margulus: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel, edited by Dorion Sagan (Chelsea Green 2012, 2016 pages, $27.95)

Tireless, controversial, and hugely inspirational to those who knew her or encountered her work, Lynn Margulis (1938–2011) was a scientist whose intellectual energy and interests knew no bounds. Best known for her work on the origins of eukaryotic cells, the Gaia hypothesis, and symbiogenesis as a driving force in evolution, her work has forever changed the way we understand life on Earth. When Margulis passed away in 2011, she left behind a groundbreaking scientific legacy that spanned decades. In this collection, Dorion Sagan, Margulis’s son and longtime collaborator, gathers together the voices of friends and colleagues to remark on her life and legacy.

Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate, by Stephen H. Schneider (National Geographic Books 2009/2010, pages, $15.99 paperback)

Stephen Schneider (1945–2010) had a front-row seat at the unfolding environmental meltdown that is climate change. Piecing together events like a detective story, Schneider reveals that as expert consensus grew, well-informed activists warned of dangerous changes no one knew how to predict precisely – and special interests seized on that very uncertainty to block any effective response. He persuasively outlines a plan to avert the building threat and develop a positive, practical policy that will bring climate change back under our control, help the economy with a new generation of green energy jobs and productivity, and thus ensure a future for ourselves and our planet that’s as rich with promise as our past.

Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science, by Philippe Squarzoni (Abrams Books 2014, 480 pages, $24.95 paperback)

What are the causes and consequences of climate change? When the scale is so big, can an individual make any difference? Documentary, diary, and masterwork graphic novel, this up-to-date look at our planet and how we live on it explains what global warming is all about. With the most complicated concepts made clear in a feat of investigative journalism by artist Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed weaves together scientific research, extensive interviews with experts, and a call for action. Weighing the potential of some solutions and the false promises of others, this groundbreaking work provides a realistic, balanced view of the magnitude of the crisis that An Inconvenient Truth only touched on.

Censoring Science: Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming, by Mark Bowen (Penguin Random House 2007/2008, 336 pages, $16.00)

Censoring Science is the gripping story of the world’s preeminent climatologist, Dr. James Hansen (1941- ), the “pivotal character in the greatest and most politically charged science story of our time” (New Scientist). NASA’s leading climate expert, Dr. Hansen first broke the international news on global warming at a Senate hearing in 1988. Little did he expect the rising storm of politically motivated resistance, denial, and obstruction. Revealing the extent of the Bush administration’s censorship of Dr. Hansen’s findings, Censoring Science sets the record straight with solid scientific facts. The book then goes on to show how we can still prevent environmental disaster if the country and the government are willing to face the truth about global warming.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...