Some of us simply don’t pick up books on science because we fear we will never understand them. The gift of great science writers is that they can explain complex ideas for the non-specialist in a way that piques interest and never feels like the writer is talking down. One often has the sense of being in the lab or in the field with the person saying, “let me show you this!” The books I’ve listed are ones I’ve read that I’d be happy to come back to for another read. As with other posts in this series, I’ve limited myself to ten. Between the ones I’ve just left off, and those I haven’t even read once, I’m sure you will want to add to this list!
Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us. Most of us know Carson for Silent Spring, but her lyrical accounts of the wonders of life under the sea and the topography of oceans are ones I easily could read again and again in a book free of environmental advocacy.
Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. The book is still controversial, long after Gould’s death, but it is incredible writing about the Cambrian explosion of life discovered in fossil deposits.
Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe. My wife turned me on to this. Greene is wonderful in explaining physics, and introducing us to multiple dimensions and the nature of string theory.
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. Hawking was probably the first to introduce me to things like the Big Bank, quarks, and the nature of time and the challenges of reconciling general relativity and quantum mechanics.
Edward Larson, Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. Whatever you think about evolution (and let’s not get into that here), this is a great history of how the theory developed, the controversies both outside and inside the scientific communities, and present day developments. Don’t read this for polemics, but for understanding.
Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac. Strictly speaking this is more nature- than science writing, but Leopold’s careful observation of an ecosystem and his love for the land he observes makes this a wonderful read.
Matthew Ridley, Genome. What is all this “human genome” stuff? The book has a chapter for each of our 23 gene pairs, and explores how the genome provides the blueprint for our “self assembly,” genetic diseases, and the different ways genes express in men and women.
Francis Su, Mathematics for Human Flourishing. I read this just recently and it rekindled an interest in math for me. Su explores the way mathematics both answers to deep human longings and nurtures human virtues that contribute to our flourishing in life.
Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell. This is a wonderful collection of essays that I probably read sometime in the 1980’s. The first essay introduced me to the truth that the mitochondria in every human being, originated in another organism, but became a critical part of our own cells. It just gets better from there.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. I have friends who are astrophysicists and Tyson helped me understand things like dark matter, and what a weird and wonderful universe we inhabit.
Science writing opens our eyes to the wonders of our own bodies, other life, the planet, and our universe. We truly are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and part of a wonder-filled universe. We care for what we love. Reading such books help re-enchant a world we often take for granted.