Joe’s Science Book Recommendations
Read Science, Love Science
Everyone’s always asking me “Hey, Joe … got any book recommendations for someone who wants to read about science?" You bet I do! I have a whole mess of ‘em, and it’s constantly be updated. It will never be comprehensive, but if I’ve missed one of your favorites, tweet me or email me at itsokaytobesmart<at>gmail.com.
Stand on the intellectual shoulders of scientific giants and you’ll be amazed what you can see. Whether they are gifts or for yourself, my humble recommendations:
First and foremost, the Best Science Writing Online 2012 collection, because I’m in it, duh.
Cosmos - Carl Sagan: The book that needs no introduction. It will change your life. As a general rule, if Carl Sagan wrote it, you should read it. Literally, even his grocery lists were probably amazing.
Death From the Skies - Phil Plait: The world will end one day. Here’s a book to separate the science from the conspiracies.
In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World - Ian Stewart: There’s no reason to fear math. From Pythagoras to Newton, it’s changed history a number of times.
A Universe from Nothing - Lawrence Krauss: One question - Why is there something rather than nothing? - answered in an accessible way.
The Hidden Reality - Brian Greene: Brian Greene’s books are all very good, extremely accessible and well-written explanations of extremely hard-to-understand things like string theory. This latest book deals with the mind-cramping idea of a multiverse.
The Quantum Universe (Why Anything That Can Happen, Does) - Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw: If you were going to describe quantum physics in one word, that word would be “weird”. This book from the rock star physicist himself explains why the quantum world must be, and how we know that it is. Got it? Also check out Brian Cox’s The Wonders of the Universe and The Wonders of Life.
The Particle at the End of the Universe and From Eternity to Here - Sean Carroll: The Cal Tech physicist they call “Time Lord” just explains things so dang well. From why time exists, and why now is different from then, and why the discovery of the Higgs is so important (two books).
Turing’s Cathedral - George Dyson: A history of the dawn of the computing age, something that we take so completely for granted now.
Four Laws That Drive The Universe - Peter Atkins: Relativity and quantum mechanics are some wonderfully mind-blowing pieces of the physics puzzle, but it is all built on a foundation of thermodynamics. This is a short, concise tale of how three simple thermodynamic laws, plus an extra, shape the world around us.
Explore the twisted tale of the discovery of the DNA double helix with three books from those who were there: James Watson’s The Double Helix (I like the new annotated version), Francis Crick’s What Mad Pursuit and My Sister Rosalind by Jenifer Glynn
The Violinist’s Thumb - Sam Kean: You wouldn’t believe the oddities and crazy stories that pop up when you start digging into our genetic code. Like crazy cat ladies and JFK’s skin. Our genes are weird.
Carl Zimmer says he writes about the Earth’s smallest organisms so that we can better understand the diversity of life (and near-life), but I think he’s just trying to scare us. Check out A Planet of Viruses, Microcosm and Parasite Rex.
Spillover - David Quammen: New diseases are popping up all over the place. Many of them, like ebola, AIDS and swine flu, come to us via animals. This book is sort of terrifying. The pigs and monkeys will kill us all.
The Emperor of All Maladies - Siddhartha Mukherjee: A masterful telling of the history, science, and medicine surrounding that most treacherous set of human diseases: Cancer.
Zoobiquity - Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers: An evolutionary and medical exploration into the connections between animal and human health. Full of “huh?!” moments.
Darwin, Darwin, Darwin!!: Why just pick one Darwin book when you can get four of his historic tomes in one collection? The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, Voyage of the Beagle, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals
Wonderful Life - Stephen Jay Gould: What one fossil-rich piece of Earth, the Burgess Shale, can teach us about evolution and natural history, as only Gould can explain it.
The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins: An update to Darwin’s theories from the perspective of modern genetics. Where does competition meet compassion? A true classic. Also check out Dawkins superb explanation of the evidence for evolution, The Greatest Show on Earth. Aw, heck, how about everything by Richard Dawkins?!
Written in Stone - Brian Switek: The evolution of life and the evolution of paleontology. Fossils are so much more than dusty shapes of dead stuff. It’s life’s history written … in stone, I guess.
My Beloved Brontosaurus - Brian Switek: The best dino science writer out there explores the cutting edge of our knowledge about the great reptiles who used to roam the Earth. Much like Pluto, scientists said his beloved Brontosaurus wasn’t “real”. Poor guy.
Endless Forms Most Beautiful - Sean B. Carroll: There is much grandeur in this view of life. How does a butterfly happen, or a seashell? The science of evolutionary development unlocks the secrets of biology’s beauty.
The Panda’s Thumb - Stephen Jay Gould: A collection of essays from evolutionary biology’s greatest storyteller, full of entertaining verbal illustrations of the intricacies of natural selection.
Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution - Rebecca Stott: You didn’t think Darwin came up with natural selection all by himself, did you? This book traces the seeds of the idea from ancient times to Darwin’s contemporaries, including the many non-Western influences that are so often overlooked.
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea - Daniel Dennett: Beyond the theory of natural selection and the implications for the evolution of life as we know it lie the cultural and philosophical shockwaves of Darwin’s theory. Dennett explores those extensions here.
The Disappearing Spoon - Sam Kean: The human history of every element on the periodic table.
Wonderful Life With the Elements - Bunpei Yorifuji: Every time I look at this masterfully illustrated, cartoon collection of the periodic table, I smile so much. My favorite chemistry cartoons ever.
The Machinery of Life - David Goodsell: Goodsell is one of the finest biological illustrators working today. You’ve probably seen his images on various blogs. I love that his drawings show cells less as bags of goo filled with water and more as crowded, intricate webs of odd-colored shapes.
Last Launch - Dan Winters: The shuttle program, remembered in completely breathtaking photography.
Portraits of the Mind - Carl Schoonover: Brain imaging, from vintage illustrations to today’s 3D simulations. It’s neural art porn.
The Where, the Why, and the How - Various: 75 amazing artists illustrating 75 mysteries of science. This is the kind of thing you have out in your house to start conversations and look cultured.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot: The touching, human story behind HeLa, the first immortal human cell line. Amazon’s book of the year for 2012, it’s just damn near perfect. There’s so much humanity behind science, good and bad, and this book unlocks it so well.
A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson: From the Big Bang to now, Bill Bryson just couldn’t stop asking why. These are his tales of discovery, filled the science and humor underlying, well, everything. This was recommended more than any other book when I asked my readers.
Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track - Richard Feynman: Feynman is perhaps the most charming scientist of the past half century. He just makes me smile. Here’s a collection of his letters to make you do the same. Also check out Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman
The Poisoner’s Handbook - Deborah Blum: It used to be easy to off someone if you used the right kind of poison, and you could get away with it, too. Until the 1920’s gave us forensic chemistry, that is. Gripping criminal science.
Ignorance: How It Drives Science - Stuart Firestein: Science, as it’s actually practiced, is more like searching for black cats in dark rooms than anything else. Embracing what we don’t know is the key to discovery. This book changed the way I view research.
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout - Lauren Redniss: A beautifully illustrated history of the life and love of the Curies.
You Are Not So Smart - David McRaney: At first it sounds like a book that takes the opposing view of my blog, but it’s actually a really fun set of examples at the many ways our brains fool us in judgment and in decision-making.
Harnessed and The Vision Revolution - Mark Changizi: Changizi is one of the top evolutionary neuroscientists of our time. His investigations into such seemingly essential and core human functions as music, language and vision give us an idea not only where some of our behaviors originated, but how they enhanced our evolution.
Incognito - David Eagleman: What exactly is your subconscious up to? We use 100% of our brain, but are only conscious of a very small slice at any one time. This digs into the “other stuff” that’s always going on in there.
Oliver Sacks is another one of those scientists and authors where you should read anything you can get your hands on. His latest book, Hallucinations, describes his work using hallucinogenic drugs (on himself and others) to understand the workings of the brain. Here’s his entire book collection, including Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. All recommended.
Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are - Sebastian Seung: While I’m not fully on the “connectome” wagon, the idea that mapping our brain’s every neural connection will be the Rosetta stone that unlocks the secrets of the mind, but I am sure that we are more than a pile of nerve cells. This book tackles a relatively new science, the science of brain networks. It’s a sign of the coming era of the brain studying itself.
The Tell-Tale Brain - V.S. Ramachandran: From phantom limbs to the nature of consciousness itself, a recommended exploration into how the brain’s oddities can teach us how it works.
The Way Things Work - David Macaulay: This book needs no introduction to those of us of a certain age. I wore this book out when I was a kid. I don’t know for sure, but it probably has a lot to do with why I became a scientist.
I don’t know where to classify Mary Roach's books, because they simply explore cool science stories, from dead bodies to what it’s like to live in space. I recommend all of them.
Silent Spring - Rachel Carson: The book that launched modern environmental science and conservation movements. Still good after 50 years.
Big Questions from Little People - Gemma Elwin Harris: Kids ask really good questions, and this is a charming book full of answers from the greatest science minds. Why can’t we tickle ourselves?
Guns, Germs and Steel - Jared Diamond: How did the beginnings of science, in tools, food and health, give some early societies a leg up on their competition. A fascinating history of human competition through the lens of human ingenuity.