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.
The Bet. About the Ehrlich-Simon wager. My review is here.
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.
For Love of Insects by Thomas Eisner
1941 and 1943, both by Charles Mann
Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil
Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths
Historical Dynamics by Peter Turchin
The Secret of Our Success by Joe Henrich
Not By Genes Alone by Pete Richerson and Rob Boyd
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
Thanks for these.
I tried to read Historical Dynamics, and one of Turchin’s other “cliodynamics” books. Confess I found it a disappointing slog. I think he’s trying to approach history as he did population ecology, but with much less and much lower-quality data at his disposal.
I’m surprised that no one suggested Bernd Heinrich. I love Winter World and teach with it. His two raven books, Mind of the Raven and Ravens in Winter are classic. The Snoring Bird, his family biography, is a bit long but some of the family stories around how his family viewed and explored science just blew me away.
His work did come up in an old post on popular science books specifically about ecology, if memory serves.
Agreed. Some of my absolute favorites are by Bern Heinrich. I also really liked Life Everlasting: Death as an Animal Way of Life.
How about Nick Lane’s recent book ‘The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life’? I found it to be quite interesting in both synthesizing the history of evolutionary ideas and more importantly a focus on new emerging ideas in evolution, including constraints and interactions.
Pingback: What are your favorite novels featuring scientists? | Dynamic Ecology
Pingback: Brief book reviews: four popular science and history of science books | Dynamic Ecology
Pingback: Quarantine reading suggestions for scientists, from our commenters | Dynamic Ecology
The Measure of All Things – history of the meter
Scientific Work and Creativity: Advice from the Masters
Explorer’s Sketchbooks – short essays, richly illustrated (think decadent picture book for adults; not quite as modern-issues savvy as I’d have liked, though.)
A Brand New Bird – first genetically engineered animal
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (by a geologist)
Braiding Sweetgrass (by a botanist)
Thanks for all the suggestions!
I read “Spineless” recently and really enjoyed it. Some fascinating information about a group of organisms that I knew little about, with intriguing perspectives on population dynamics and invasive species:
Steve Heard’s book “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider” is just out and I’m looking forward to that soon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0300238282?
Of course if you wait until autumn, there’s a book called “Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society” coming out…..I forget who the author is……sounds good though…… 😉