In the May 2007 Washingtonian, I published an article recommending good science books, with a bias toward books by writers in the Washington area. Also, a couple of years earlier, I taught an 8-week workshop on science writing at the Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and the workshop participants and I put together a list of books that science writers should try to read.
I’ve combined those two lists here as a page of recommended science books. I’ve tried to narrow down the list to just one book in each major area of science, though sometimes I’ve violated that rule.
General Science Books
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I was prepared to not like this book, since Bryson’s travel books always struck me as less funny than they were trying to be. So I was shocked to see how good this book was — entertaining, literate, and very well informed. Bryson does make a few mistakes, and you can always argue with some of his choices. But it’s a superb introduction to science — in fact, it’s hard to believe that Bryson learned this much about science in just three years, as he claims.
The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier. Readers who like Angier’s ornate, elliptical style will love this book. For those who don’t like her style, there are much better options.
Super Vision: A New View of Nature by Ivan Amato. This is more a book of photographs than text, but Amato’s introduction and captions playfully explain images that look more like pieces of art than they do representations of scientific understanding.
The Sciences: An Integrated Approach by James Trefil and Robert Hazen. I hesitate to recommend a textbook, especially one that retails for $111 (in paperback!). But there’s really no better way to a thorough and comprehensive overview of all of science than reading this book. James Trefil, a George Mason University physicist, and Robert Hazen, a scientist at the Geophysical Laboratory here in Washington, believe that all college students should have an opportunity to learn about science as an integrated whole, not just in classes organized by discipline, and this book is their effort to explain most everything that an informed person should know. I understand that there’s another textbook that takes a similar approach, but I don’t know anything about it — maybe someone will e-mail me with details.
Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins by Robert Hazen. The most recent of Hazen’s popular books describes today’s efforts to understand the formation of Earth’s earliest biological organism. Hazen is a geologist by training, but he provides a very readable overview of the biology, chemistry, and physics involved in the study of the origin of life.
Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea by Carl Zimmer. Many books provide broad overviews of evolution, but for general readers this has got to be one of the best. Zimmer knows the science, writes well, and is always accessible. But if you know a better book about evolution, let me know and I’ll see if it can bump this one from the list.
The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. This Pulitzer Prize winner also covers evolution, but in quite a different way — by describing Peter and Rosemary Grant’s research on the finch species on the Galápagos Islands.
Chance in the House of Fate: A Natural History of Heredity by Jennifer Ackerman. This poetic and allusive book ranges across the life sciences, though evolution is never far from her thoughts.
The Genome War: How Craig Ventner Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World by Jamie Shreeve. There are nearly as many books about genetics as about evolution, and in my opinion this is the best of the lot. It’s hard to believe that a technological achievement as momentous as the sequencing of the human genome took place in a Rockville Pike office building opposite a Honda dealership, but Shreeve shows with humor and insight how it happened
The Double Helix by James Watson. It’s such a classic that it can’t be left off any list of good science books. Watson has done lots of fascinating things in his long and exotic life, but this book will probably be his most enduring legacy (along with the discovery in chronicles, of course).
Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human by Joel Garreau. A writer for the Washington Post, Garreau predicts that the “GRIN” technologies — genetic, robotic, informational, and nano — could soon result in a world-transforming “singularity,” where an ever-accelerating pace of change launches human beings into a new age.
Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe by Joel Achenbach. Another book by a Post writer, which really could go into either the biological sciences or physical sciences category. I recommended it in the Washingtonian article mostly because it’s so fun to read.
The Physical Sciences
Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Scienceby David Lindley. As is the case with evolution and with genetics, there are zillions of good books about physics. I picked this one because it’s new and because Lindley is such a clear and engaging writer. For example: “The uncertainty principle makes scientific knowledge itself less daunting to the nonscientists and more like the slippery, elusive kind of knowledge we daily grapple with.”
Annals of the Former World by John McPhee. McPhee writes in the old New Yorker style, which means that his tour of North America’s geological history is decidedly unhurried. But like a slow float down a long river, it’s a trip well worth taking.
The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius Who Discovered a New History of the Earth by Alan Cutler. This is another geology book, so it overlaps with McPhee’s work, but it’s so much more focused that it almost belongs in a separate category.
The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal by Mitch Waldrop. This book uses the life an unsung MIT professor and Defense Department official to tell the story of modern computing. Licklider was at the center of the group of visionaries, techies, and cranks who converted computers from ominous behemoths in the backrooms of corporations and government agencies to the tools on our desks.
The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture by John Battelle. I’ve included this book, even though it’s really a book about technology and about society, because Google is so much a part of our lives now.
This is a category that I need to fill out. Any suggestions?
Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos by Mitch Waldrop. Waldrop details many of the basic concepts of complex systems by profiling the iconoclastic researchers associated with the Santa Fe Institute in the 1980s.
Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks by Mark Buchanan. Buchanan shows how brains, economies, ecosystems, and social networks may behave in very similar ways
The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex by Harold Morowitz. A polymath at George Mason University who writes as eloquently about sailing as about thermodynamics, Morowitz describes 28 emergences, from the origins of the universe to the blossoming of human spirituality. The text is drier than in Morowitz’s earlier books of essays, but the ideas are profound.