8 Ebooks to Feed Your Brain This Summer


Summer reading is most often associated with racy romances and white-knuckle thrillers. But why not spend those extra hours of daylight flexing your mental muscles instead? Here are eight ebooks that will feed your brain and keep you entertained at the same time. Bonus: each of these ebooks is on sale for $3.99 or less until July 22. So stock up. Your brain will thank you.

1. Chaos by James Gleick

This blockbuster book first brought the butterfly effect to the forefront of general knowledge. True, chaos theory is pure mathematics—with some physics, engineering, and economics to boot—but Gleick breaks it down with a novelist's touch. Play professor at your next dinner party and regale your friends with mind-bending facts such as:

Fact #1: Chaos might not be the most accurate name for this brave new field—rather than referring to utter randomness, chaos theory moves past Newtonian physics and refers more to a given scientific phenomenon's unpredictability.

Fact #2: The famous red spot on Jupiter is a perfect example of chaos theory. After the Voyager 1 spacecraft took detailed photographs of the spot in 1979, scientists were able to actually observe a hurricane-system of swirling gas. They found that the spot is a self-organizing system that owes its existence to unpredictable phenomena. In other words, its structure is ultimately regulated by chaos.

2. Moon Shot by Jay Barbree

The gripping story of America’s space exploration from the time of Alan Shepard’s first flight until he and 11 others had walked on the moon. It's not rocket science per se, but you will still learn enough about the history of the space program to be way ahead of the curve when that much talked about Mad Men in Space show hits the airwaves. Among the impressive facts you'll pick up:

Fact #1: In addition being the second person to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin was the first person to take communion (or should we say "comoonion"?) on the moon. Yep, you read that correctly; Aldrin wished to mark the occasion and give thanks by taking a thimble-full of wine and wafer prepared by his pastor.

Fact #2: Another amusing fact about Aldrin: his mother's maiden name was Moon.

3. Annapurna by Maurice Herzog

An engrossing first-hand account of the first expedition in history to summit and return from  Annapurna I, a peak over 8,000 meters high. Originally written in author Michel Herzog's native French, Annapurna remains just as gripping today as it was on its first publication over 50 years ago.

Fact #1: "Annapurna" is Sanskrit for "full of food." More colloquially, the name refers to the goddess of the harvest, or the "universal goddess."

Fact #2: In May of this year, The Economist reported that Annapurna is the world's deadliest summit, with a mortality rate for climbers of over 34 percent since 1950. In comparison, the statistic is just 4 percent for those who attempt to climb Everest.

4. West with the Night by Beryl Markham

One of the greatest adventure books of all time, this engrossing memoir is less about challenging your intellect and more about feeding your soul. Deftly written and heartfelt, this mediation on a life well lived will inspire your own fearless spirit.

Fact #1: Markham was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west.

Fact #2: Another European ex-pat living in Africa, Karen Blixen (otherwise known by her pen name Isak Dinesan) befriended Markham while they were both living in the countryside outside of Nairobi. In the film adaptation of Blixen's memoir, Out of Africa, actress Suzanna Hamilton portrays a character based on Markham.

5. Summer of '49 by David Halberstam

Halberstam’s classic #1 bestseller transports us to one magical summer when baseball’s fiercest rivalry captured the nation’s imagination and changed the sport forever. America's pastime is also a font of fascinating trivia. Impress your friends with facts from one of baseball's most memorable seasons ever:

Fact #1: The '49 baseball season took sibling rivalry to a whole different level as Joltin' Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees and Dom "Little Professor" DiMaggio of the Red Sox were pitted against each other. The latter went on to sustain a 34-game hitting streak in July and August.

Fact #2: Summer of '49 has been regarded as an allegory for a simpler time. A contemporary sports broadcaster even went so far as to claim that it was "the last moment of innocence in American life." Paul Simon, the son of a devoted Yankees fan, recalls this loss of innocence in his famous song "Mrs. Robinson," in which he laments the famous center fielder's absence in American sports culture.

6. Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox by James MacGregor Burns

Pulitzer-Prize winner James MacGregor Burns' engrossing biography of FDR covers the beloved president's life from his year of birth to 1940. Dense with detail but wildly absorbing as a narrative, Burns provides a circumspect and detailed account of the great president's life and career, including details such as:

Fact #1: Despite the demands of navigating the country through an economic depression and a world war, Roosevelt made time for his favorite hobby: stamp collecting. At the end of his life, he had amassed over one million in his collection. 

Fact #2: Though he enjoyed the longest term in office held by any president, Roosevelt made an unsuccessful bid for the Vice Presidency in 1920; he was defeated by Warren G. Harding and his running mate Calvin Coolidge.

7. Muhammad Ali by Thomas Hauser

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Is there any other boxer who has attained as mythic a status as Muhammad Ali? Featuring interviews with friends, family, rivals, this definitive biography contains everything you need to know about the boxing legend, including these little known facts:

Fact #1: Ali did not box from age 25 to 28, prime years for an athlete. A fierce opponent of the Vietnam War, in 1967 he was banned and his license was suspended in response to his refusal to join the military. It was restored in 1970.

Fact #2: Before he was known as "The Greatest," Ali was known as the Louisville Lip, a nickname which references his hometown.

8. Paris Revealed by Stephen Clarke

Ah Paris! Few burgs have inspired as much reverie as this famed capital. British ex-pat Stephen Clarke shares his savoir-faire in this irreverent outsider-turned-insider guide, packed with tips and surprising facts such as:

Fact #1: Americans might not be the only ones who regard Parisians as unduly snooty—survey says that their compatriots agree. A 2010 poll by a French national news magazine found that most French people from the outer provinces regard Parisians as "arrogant, aggressive, stressed, snobbish and self-obsessed..."

Fact #2: Rumor has it that crickets abound in the Paris metro. Many travelers have reported hearing the insects chirruping, and there is even a league devoted to protecting these critters. Founded in 1992, the Protection League for the Crickets of Paris Metro are campaigning to convert an unused metro station to an auditorium of sorts where the subterranean crickets would be able to sing and breed in peace.

The 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now

If you’re in the mood for some speculative fiction and your pile of Arthur C. Clarke books has been exhausted, you could do worse than to tune in to Netflix. The streaming service is constantly acquiring new films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres that should satisfy most fans of alternative futures. Here are five of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix right now.

1. CUBE (1997)

This low-budget independent film may have helped inspire the current "escape room" attraction fad. Six strangers wake up in a strange room that leads only to other rooms—all of them equipped with increasingly sadistic ways of murdering occupants.

2. METROPOLIS (1927)

Inspiring everything from Star Wars to Lady Gaga, Fritz Lang’s silent epic about a revolt among the oppressed people who help power an upper-class city remains just as visually impressive today as it did nearly 100 years ago.

3. TROLL HUNTER (2010)

A Norwegian fairy tale with bite, Troll Hunter follows college-aged filmmakers who convince a bear trapper to take them along on his exploits. But the trapper fails to disclose one crucial detail: He hunts towering, aggressive trolls.

4. NEXT (2007)

Nic Cage stars a a magician who can see a few minutes into the future. He's looking to profit with the skill: the FBI and others are looking to exploit it.

5. THE HOST (2006)

A slow-burn monster movie from South Korea, The Host has plenty of tense scenes coupled with a message about environmental action: The river-dwelling beast who stalks a waterfront town is the product of chemical dumping.  


Marvel's tale of a misfit band of space jockeys was a surprise hit in 2014. The sequel offers more Groot, more Rocket Raccoon, and the addition of Kurt Russell as a human manifestation of an entire sentient planet.

7. STARDUST (2007)

Director Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel features Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro as supporting players in the tale of a man (a pre-Daredevil Charlie Cox) in search of a fallen star to gift to his love.

8. KING KONG (2005)

Director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) set his considerable sights on a remake of the 1933 classic, with the title gorilla pestered and exploited by opportunistic humans.

9. DONNIE DARKO (2001)

What will a teenage mope do when a giant rabbit tells him the world is about to end? The answer comes in this critical and cult hit, which drew attention for its moody cinematography and an arresting performance by a then-unknown Jake Gyllenhaal.  


Soon we'll have a movie for every single major or minor incident ever depicted in the Star Wars universe. For now, we'll have to settle for this one-off that explains how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the plans for the Death Star.

Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain
9 False Rumors With Real-Life Consequences
King Louis XV of France
King Louis XV of France
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Don’t believe everything you read—or everything you hear. Unverified but plausible-sounding rumors have been the basis for violent death and destruction throughout history, whether or not the stories had anything to do with the truth.

In their book A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall describe rumors as “stories of perceived importance that lack substantiating evidence.” They also note that the sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani describes rumors as “improvised news,” which tends to spread when the demand for information exceeds supply. Such an information deficit most often occurs during wars and other crises, which might explain why some rumors have had such dramatic results. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting rumors with real-life results collected in Bartholomew and Hassall’s book.


In 1750, children began disappearing from the streets of Paris. No one seemed to know why, and worried parents began rioting in the streets. In the midst of the panic, a rumor broke out that King Louis XV had become a leper and was kidnapping children so that he could bathe in their blood (at the time, bathing in the blood of children was thought by some to be an effective leprosy cure).

The rumor did have a tiny kernel of truth: Authorities were taking children away, but not to the king’s palace. A recently enacted series of ordinances designed to clear the streets of “undesirables” had led some policemen—who were paid per arrest—to overstep their authority and take any children they found on the streets to houses of detention. Fortunately, most were eventually reunited with their parents, and rumors of the king’s gruesome bathing rituals were put to rest.


Two small earthquakes struck London at the beginning of 1761, leading to rumors that the city was due for “the big one” on April 5, 1761. Supposedly, a psychic had predicted the catastrophe. Much of the populace grew so panicked that they fled town for the day, with those who couldn’t afford fancier lodgings camping out in the fields. One soldier was so convinced of the impending doom that he ran through the streets shouting news of London’s imminent destruction; sadly, he ended up in an insane asylum a few months later.


A deep well

Reports that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children were not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but things took a particularly terrible turn during the spread of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, thousands of Jews were killed in response to rumors that Satan was protecting them from the plague in exchange for poisoning the wells of Christians. In 1321 in Guienne, France alone, an estimated 5000 Jews were burned alive for supposedly poisoning wells. Other communities expelled the Jews, or burned entire settlements to the ground. Brandenburg, Germany, even passed a law denouncing Jews for poisoning wells—which of course they weren't.


In July 1789, amid the widespread fear and instability on the eve of the French revolution, rumors spread that the anti-revolutionary nobility had planted brigands (robbers) to terrorize the peasants and steal their stores of food. Lights from furnaces, bonfires, and even the reflection of the setting sun were sometimes taken to be signs of brigands, with panic as the predictable result. Provincial towns and villages formed militias in response to the rumors, even though, as historian Georges Lefebvre put it, “the populace scared themselves.” In one typical incident, near Troyes on July 24, 1789, a group of brigands were supposedly spotted heading into some woods; an alarm was sounded and 3000 men gave chase. The “brigands” turned out to be a herd of cattle.


Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police marching in a Canada Day parade

Canada entered World War I in 1914, three years before the United States did. During the gap period, rumors circulated that German-Americans sympathetic to their country of origin were planning surprise attacks on Canada. One of the worst offenders of such rumor-mongering, according to authors Bartholomew and Hassall, was British consul-general Sir Courtenay Bennett, then stationed in New York. In the early months of 1915, Bennett made “several sensational claims about a plan in which as many as 80,000 well-armed, highly trained Germans who had been drilling in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, were planning to invade Canada from northwestern New York state.” Bizarre as it may sound, there was so much anxiety and suspicion during the period that Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden requested a report on the story, which the Canadian police commissioner determined to be without any foundation whatsoever.


In certain parts of Indonesia, locals reportedly believe—or once did—that large-scale construction projects require human heads to keep the structures from crumbling. In 1937, one island was home to a spate of rumors saying that a tjoelik (government-sanctioned headhunter) was looking for a head to place near a local jetty construction project. Locals reported strange noises and sights, houses pelted with stones, and attacks from tjoelik wielding nooses or cowboy lassos. Similar rumors surfaced in 1979 in Indonesian Borneo, when government agents were supposedly seeking a head for a new bridge project, and in 1981 in Southern Borneo, when the government headhunters supposedly needed heads to stabilize malfunctioning equipment in nearby oil fields. Terrified townspeople began curtailing their activities so as not to be in public any longer than necessary, although the rumors eventually died down.


An assortment of sticks of pink bubble gum

In the mid-1990s, the Middle East was home to some alarming rumors about aphrodisiacal gum. In 1996 in Mansoura, Egypt, stories began spreading that students at the town’s university had purchased gum deliberately spiked with an aphrodisiac and were having orgies as a result. One local member of parliament said the gum had been distributed by the Israeli government as part of a plot to corrupt Egyptian youth. Mosque loudspeakers began warning people to avoid the gum, which was supposedly sold under the names “Aroma” or “Splay.” Authorities closed down some shops and made arrests, but never did find any tainted gum. Similar rumors cropped up the following year in the Gaza Strip, this time featuring a strawberry gum that turned women into prostitutes—supposedly, the better to convince them to become Shin Bet informants for the Israeli military.


In the fall of 1998, a sorcerer scare in East Java, Indonesia, resulted in the deaths of several villagers. The country was in crisis, and while protests raged in major cities, some in the rural area of Banyuwangi began agitating for restitution for past wrongs allegedly committed by sorcerers. The head of the local district ordered authorities to move the suspected sorcerers to a safe location, a process that included a check-in at the local police station. Unfortunately, villagers took the suspects’ visits to police stations as proof of their sorcery and began killing them. Anthropologists who studied the incident said the stories of supposed sorcery—making neighbors fall sick, etc.—were based entirely on rumor and gossip.


These days, rumors have advanced technology to help them travel. On April 23, 2013, a fake tweet from a hacked Associated Press account claimed that explosions at the White House had injured Barack Obama. That lone tweet caused instability on world financial markets, and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index lost $130 billion in a short period. Fortunately, it quickly recovered. (Eagle-eyed journalists were suspicious of the tweet from the beginning, since it didn’t follow AP style of referring to the president with his title and capitalizing the word breaking.)

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.


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