I like to read about science and scientists. I like books that get me thinking about science and how to do it. But I find it difficult to identify popular science and history of science books that I will enjoy. The problem is that I’m a scientist. Many popular science books are too basic/slow-moving for me, too familiar, or else too wildly speculative.*
That’s where you come in. In the comments, please share your recommendations for your favorite popular science and history of science books. Specifically, ones that you think that scientists would especially enjoy.
To kick things off, here are some of my favorite popular science books, books that I think readers of this blog would really like as well. I also threw in a book you’d probably think I would’ve liked, but I didn’t.
(UPDATE #2: You have GOT to read the comments as well. Our commenters came through big time, as they always do. I love our commenters!)
Popular science/history of science books I really liked
Fortune’s Formula. Possibly my favorite book on this list. Author William Poundstone is always good value for money. And without stretching, this book ropes in everything and everyone from Claude Shannon to the Vegas mafia to Long-Term Capital Management.
Fermat’s Last Theorem. Simon Singh’s very readable account of Andrew Wiles’ successful pursuit of a proof of this famous theorem.
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. The other candidate for my favorite book on this list. Bio of famously prolific and eccentric mathematician Paul Erdös. Character-driven, packed with humorous anecdotes. The trouble with having read this and Fermat’s Last Theorem is that I now already know a fair bit about the math and mathematicians who feature in something like The Man Who Knew Infinity. So it’s getting harder for me to find other popular math/history of math books that I’d like.
How the Hippies Saved Physics. Entertaining defense of the somewhat-overstated claim that an eccentric group of fringey physicists saved the discipline from stagnation in the 1970s. My review is here.
Modeling Nature. The standard (and very readable and engaging) history of population ecology.
Charles Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: the Power of Place. Janet Browne’s two-volume Darwin biography. Having read these, I now feel like any other Darwin bios would have too much overlap with what I already know.
Darwin Deleted. Counterfactual history: what if Darwin had died on the Beagle voyage? How would history have been different? Tremendously fun way to learn about the comparative reception of Darwin’s ideas in different countries and among different fields of science. My review is here.
The Trouble With Physics. Critique of string theory. Some of it was over my head. But I’m always interested to read well-founded arguments that an entire field of science has gone off the rails.
The Signal and the Noise. Interesting comparative case studies of prediction, and the factors that make it easier or harder (trouble is, factors that help in one context can be hindrances in other contexts). My review is here.
The Philosophical Breakfast Club. The story of the leaders of the generation of British scientists before Darwin, who pioneered science as a profession in Britain.
A Reason For Everything. Potted biographies of leading 20th century British evolutionary biologists–Fisher, Haldane, Ford et al.
UPDATE: Can’t believe I forgot Everything Is Obvious, Duncan Watts’ great book on being misled by hindsight bias and “common sense” more generally. Part of why I like it is that it could easily have been bad, I think. Could’ve fallen into the trap of making overly-sweeping claims or trying too hard to be contrarian and counterintuitive (a trap the Freakonomics books fall into, from what I hear).
A popular science book you’d think I would’ve liked
Spillover. Author David Quammen’s a top science writer, this book won awards, and it’s about a dramatic topic in which I have a pre-existing interest. Meg loved it. I was sure I’d love it too. But I got a couple of hundred pages in without ever really getting into it and eventually just gave up. I found it way too sprawling and slow moving. Too much detail about too many different incidents and minor characters, and too much repetition of the same few scientific points. I feel like it could’ve been great for me at half the length.
Popular science/history of science books I’m thinking of reading–tell me what you think of them!
I would really like to follow up Modeling Nature with a history book picking up more or less where Modeling Nature leaves off, with MacArthur, Wilson, Levins et al. up until the early 90s (when my own personal experience takes over). The Silwood Circle covers some of this, but only some. Which is why Earth Days is on my reading list.
Wild Life. Robert Trivers’ autobiography. An unconventional memoir from a very unconventional man. In addition to being a genius evolutionary theoretician, Trivers has spent time in prison, battled serious mental health issues, and driven a getaway car for Huey Newton, and that’s not even the half of it. Very interested to read this, because Trivers resists easy categorization. Feynman is the obvious comparison, but he’s actually a very different character than Trivers, I think. Trivers is a challenging case for anyone interested in the relationship, or lack thereof, between scientists’ professional achievements and personal lives. There’s a tendency when evaluating famous scientists with significant personal flaws to use their scientific achievements to downplay or excuse their personal flaws, and an opposing tendency to use their personal flaws to downplay or attack their science. I dislike both tendencies. So I’m looking forward to reading a memoir that, judging from the reviews I’ve read, seems to confound both tendencies.
The Song of the Dodo. I know lots of ecologists love this, I’m looking forward to reading it, but I’m worried the science will be too familiar to me. And having found Spillover a slog, I’m worried that I’ll find this other effort of David Quammen’s a slog too.
The Serengeti Rules. Pitched as the story of how negative feedbacks regulate the world. About ecology but by a science writer (Sean B. Carroll) with a molecular biology background, so I’m curious to see how the ecology is handled. But also worried this book will be too basic or familiar for me.
The Theory That Would Not Die. A popular history of Bayes’ Theorem. Based on the reviews I’ve seen, I’m worried that it’ll be too superficial for me. Thoughts?
Microcosm. Carl Zimmer’s book on the world’s most popular model organism, E. coli. Rich Lenski features.
I’d really like to read more on the history of 17th and 18th century British science and the Enlightenment more broadly. It would connect up to the 19th and 20th century history of evolutionary biology, about which I’ve already read a fair bit. Any recommendations?
*That last is why I wouldn’t want to read the more gee-whiz style of physics book, books about the neuroscience of consciousness, or books based on unreplicable, noise-chasing psychology experiments.