Good Reads – Limnology Edition: Our Researchers Pick Some of Their Favorite Science-Themed Books

We realize that we’re offering a Summer Reading List just in time for fall, but our science communication intern asked folks for some book suggestions this summer and here’s what she found: 

by Sydney Widell –  With summer field season in full swing, researchers on Trout Lake Station are working literally around the clock electrofishing, sorting insect samples, writing computer codes, monitoring field sites and conducting plant surveys. But when they do find time to relax, they like to put down their scientific papers and pick up a book.

And there is no better place to unwind with a good read than on the shady shores of Trout Lake.

I asked some of our faculty and graduate students to help me compile the ultimate summer reading list for limnology lovers — the books that have inspired them and broadened their perspective of the natural world.

Here is what they said:

Susan Knight

Interem Station Director, Research Botanist

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Dan Egan

Susan’s pick is also UW-Madison’s 2018 Go Big Read, which means that students and faculty at Madison can snag a free copy this fall. The book offers an in depth study of the Great Lakes, and examines the natural and social forces that shape a freshwater system that contains nearly 20% of all the world’s available fresh water.

“It was fantastic,” Susan says. “You do not have to be a scientist to love this book. I’d recommend this book to anyone in the upper Midwest.”

Carl Watras

Wisconsin DNR


Edward O. Wilson

This book introduced Carl and many other biologists to the idea of cooperation and altruism in animal – and probably, Carl said – plant populations.

Sociobiology was a different perspective from the old ‘competition/predation’ hypothesis that structured ecosystems,” Carl says. “It changed the perspective and also ran into a lot of resistance, but you can see what he’s talking about if you look. I’d recommend this to anyone who is interested in a career in ecological science, weather it is on the aquatic side or the terrestrial side. If you’re interested in ecology, that is a good place to start.”

Noah Lottig

Research Scientist, NTL-LTER

A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold

Required reading in every Intro to Ecology course, this conservation classic helped lay the foundations of the modern ecological movement. UW-Madison’s own Aldo Leopold composed this enduring series of essays and meditations over the course of his professorship.

“Everyone who is an ecologist has read Sand County, or should read it,” Noah says. “I’d also recommend it to any hunters or people interested in conservation.”

Ben Martin

Graduate Student

Letters to a Young Scientist

Edward O. Wilson

Since it was published in 2013, Edward O. Wilson’s biographical primer has inspired scientists like Ben to question their surroundings and turn to the natural world with wonder.

“He’s a classic ecologist, one of the founding fathers,” Ben says. “They’re a bunch of short letters, they’re pretty easy to read and they are not that connected, so you can sit down and read one letter and move on, then come back later.”

Dom Ciruzzi

Graduate Student


Carl Sagan

The story of a scientist’s quest to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligence, physicist Carl Sagan’s Contact quickly becomes as philosophically provocative as it is technically captivating.

“It’s obviously fiction, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in going down a rabbit hole of a fictional idea,” Dom says. “It creates an interesting world that is centered around very interesting technology. It’s a perfect summer reading book at Trout Lake Station. I read it every time I’m here.”

Holly Embke

Graduate Student

The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible tells the tale of a family of American Christian missionaries who have moved to the Congo.

“It really influenced how I think about conservation — both cultural things and also nature. It takes place in the Congo and it’s told from multiple different perspectives in this one family of  Christian missionaries,” Holly says. “It reflects a lot on colonial attitudes, while at the same time on becoming a part of a community that hasa really different relationship with nature than they do as a family coming from the US. It is really powerful as far as conserving both human cultures and not trying to co-opt things, while also examining a really different reference for nature.”

Quinn Smith

Graduate Student

The Monkey Wrench Gang

Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey’s rowdy, high-desert tale of ecoterrorism — or heroism, depending who you ask — has been influencing environmentalists since it was published in the early 1960s. Quinn is among the millions of readers it has inspired, and he says it made him think critically about American infrastructure and its social and environmental impacts.

“The people who this book is really going to stick with are the people who enjoy the outdoors,” Quinn says. “It’s always important to know what’s going on in other parts of the country. It really opens your eyes…. But also gives you a new perspective for what is going on right where you are.”

Adam Hinterthuer

Outreach Specialist

The Lives of a Cell

Lewis Thomas

Adam randomly found a signed copy of this book at a bookstore near Pike Place Market in Seattle a few years ago. Adam was in town for a wedding and the Pacific Northwest was in a crazy heatwave (100+ Fahrenheit) and Adam was looking for a place to cool off. He was sucked in from page one when Thomas, debunking some human misperceptions about nature and the human place in it, writes “It is illusion to think that there is anything fragile about the life of the earth.” He then goes on to extol the wonder of life on earth and orient humans firmly in a place that is not above the natural world but part of it.

“He somehow does it all in the voice of a scientist,” Adam says. “I knew nothing of Thomas, but it turns out he was a renowned cancer researcher and medical doctor and, honestly, it’s unfair that he was also such a good writer.”

The next time you find yourself with an hour to spare, consider heading to your nearest body of water and packing one of these classics with you.

And, please, add more recommendations in the comments below – we’ll plan a second round of reading lists later this fall!