Science Book Lovers’ Meme

GrrlScientist has tagged me with this rather interesting meme:

Imagine: YOU are asked to assign a half-dozen-or-so books as required reading for ALL science majors at a college as part of their 4-year
degree; NOT technical or text books, but other works, old or new, touching upon the nature of science, philosophy, thought, or methodology in a way that a practicing scientist might gain from.

This question actually touches on something I think is actually lacking from a lot of science education – a bit more perspective on why science is the way it is, the stories behind the development of your field, and what it means to be a scientist. Of course, the writing that actually gives you such insights is a very personal thing, but here are a few books that have, in some way, expanded my mind:

  1. The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. Reading anything by Carl Sagan is likely to do your brain a power of good, but the unifying theme of this particular book – the importance, indeed the necessity, of scientific thinking outside of the laboratory – makes it the one scientific book that I feel everyone should read. Which makes it doubly depressing that it appears to be out of print.

  2. Paradigms Lost: Images of Man in the Mirror of Science by John L. Casti. I read this book when I was 13 or 14, and enjoyed it immensely, both for it’s scope – the ‘Big Questions’ in science that it covered ranged from the origin of life to the acquisition of language, from artificial intelligence to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – and the measured way that the author weighs up the various different theories on offer for each of these questions. It also contained a very lucid discussion of various philosophies of science, up to and including Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm shifts”. So although it is possibly a little dated in places (a later book, entitled Paradigms Regained, claims to be an update), it remains a good account of how science progresses at the cutting edge.

  3. Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth by Naomi Oreskes. Of course, when I say it’s by Naomi Oreskes, that’s not strictly true: she compiled it and wrote the (very good) introduction, but this is principally an eyewitness account of the development of plate tectonics, from the various viewpoints of the people right at the centre of the whole thing in the 50s and 60s. If you want an idea what a scientific revolution actually looks like to the scientists caught up in it, this is the place to get it, with the added bonus of insightful geological commentary from some extremely smart people (Peter Molnar’s chapter is particularly good).

  4. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Ralph Leighton and Richard Feynman. I recommend this with some trepidation. On the one hand it is a perennially timely reminder that you should not be afraid to go your own way in science; but on the other, it may encourage the pernicious “have to be a hyper-genius to make it in science” meme. Nonetheless, it will make you laugh. A lot.

  5. Guns, Germs and Steel and/or Collapse by Jared Diamond. Both of these books have a wonderful breadth, with their central theses drawing from a variety of disciplines and ranging across the whole of human history and geography. The central thesis of Guns Germs, and Steel, and it’s explanation for why Europeans ended up conquering Africa and the Americas, and not vice versa, blew me away the first time I read it, although the tendency for it to be re-iterated at the beginning and end of every chapter does get a bit wearing. Collapse suffers less from this, and is perhaps more relevant to the times we live in; and it certainly gives you a valuable new perspective on how environmental degradation can be an almost unseen driver of conflict in the modern world.

  6. For my last suggestion, I’m not going to recommend any title in particular: I think it would be a really great idea just to hand out guides to the fauna and the flora, the geology and landscapes, of the local area. Science is about going and looking; so people should be encouraged to go and look.

Everyone should consider themselves as tagged for this one; I’d be really interested to hear your suggestions, particularly ones with a earth science theme, as I had trouble thinking of many that particularly stood out (although John Mcphee is currently – finally – on my to-read pile).

Categories: bloggery, general science

Comments (12)

  1. Laelaps says:

    I actually saw #2 at the used book store this past weekend, but didn’t pick it up. Looks like I’ll have to go back sometime soon and get it!

  2. Silver Fox says:

    I especially appreciate that last suggestion – going out and actually looking at things does get left out sometimes. Plus, it’s fun!

  3. Bryan says:

    My (tentative) list is now up. I had a hard time getting “close” to 6-ish titles. The short version is:
    -Origin of Species
    -Principles of Geology
    -Demon Haunted World (it is a good addition, so I figured no harm done)
    -To Interpret the Earth: Ten Ways to be Wrong
    -Evolution v. Creationism
    -A Short History of Nearly Everything
    -Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
    -Sherlock Holmes and/or Ellery Queen
    Honorable Mention (meaning I mentioned them, and want to include them, but couldn’t for want of space)
    -Evolution: What the Fossils say and why it Matters
    -Classic Feynman
    -Ideas and Opinions
    -Advice to a Young Scientist
    -The Structure of Scientific Revolution
    -Flim Flam
    -The Borderlands of Science
    -Why People Believe Weird Things
    -Bad Astronomy
    -Death from the Skies
    -Death by Black Hole
    -Annals of the Former World
    -The Seashells on the Mountaintop
    -The Man Who Found Time
    -Beyond the Hundredth Meridian
    -Galileo’s Daughter
    -How to Lie With Statistics

  4. Quirina Roode-Gutzmer says:

    Two books I can strongly recommend are:
    Big Bang, The most important scientific discovery of all time and why you need to know about it, by Simon Singh
    A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

  5. Maureen says:

    Hi! I am a geologist and enjoy reading your blog from time to time. I’m glad you put Plate Tectonics on this list. It is one of my favorite geo books. And you should definitely read John McPhee. He’s fabulous! I look forward to reading more of his books, as well as some of your suggestions.

  6. chezjake says:

    Not quite “earth science” but I’d like to recommend The Mapmakers by John Noble Wilford. It’s a well written history of cartography and the science that enabled it, from Eratosthenes to the present. Can earth science even be done without maps?

  7. Mel says:

    For all scientists, Carl Sagan should definitely be on the list.
    For a more earth science angle, John McPhee is a really good start. And if they are located in the west, I think Cadillac Desert might be a good one. It discusses how geology and society interact – for better or worse.
    It’s been so long since I have read anything generalized I am having a hard time coming up with a list.
    Well, back to more journal articles…

  8. Maria says:

    Your last suggestion FTW!

  9. Michael says:

    This comes back to my plaintive question “Where’s the geowriting?” on my blog, Dec 29, after I’d read Dawkins’s compilation of modern science writing – I didn’t receive much by way of an answer!
    The list has to include Steve Gould, should include Tony Hallam’s book, “Great Geological Controversies,” and could well include Jan Zalasiewicz’s “The Earth After Us.” On general topics:
    Jonah Lehrer “Proust was a Neuroscientist” (an extraordinary book!)
    Per Bak “How Nature Works”
    Philip Ball “The Self-Made Tapestry”
    and, for fiction, Allegra Goodman’s “Intuition”
    ‘Nuff for now – look forward to compiling the suggestions!

  10. Matt says:

    Wonderful Life by Steve Gould – goes into some detail on how fossils are analyzed by paleontologists
    The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester
    3 by Richard Fortey:
    -Life: A Natural History of the First 4 Billion Years of Life on Earth
    -Earth: An Intimate History
    Naturalist – E.O. Wilson’s autobiography
    The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen

  11. BrianD says:

    Well, I have read 4/5 on your original list, but Bryan’s has quite a few I have never even heard of. Time for a trip to the library.
    One more vote to include one of Gould’s collections of essays; he was very good at explaining why scientists are sometimes wrong, and why that is ok in the grand scheme of things. Also another for John McPhee, because he is just a really good writer. I actually met him while he was writing part of his huge geology book, but had no idea who he was until about ten years later.