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Popular science books everyone should read

June 3, 2010

This came out of the comments at a friend’s new bad-science-journalism blog, Atomic Spin. It’s all in the title, really: good, non-academic books about scientific subjects. The below recommendations are all ones I have actually read; I’m currently looking for stuff to fill in the summer holidays, so please, comment away.

Sobel’s book tells the story of John Harrison, who invented the first clock accurate enough to have longitude derived from it, and revolutionised navigation.

Both of these books are brilliant, undoubtedly. However, there’s no getting around the fact that ABHT, especially, is rather dense. The solution is twofold: firstly, get illustrated editions; and secondly, read The Universe in a Nutshell first. It’s a little less packed-in, and its bits-and-pieces structure means it’s much better suited to being read in chunks.

This is the book that got me interested in genetics. Some bits of it have been superseded, but it’s also remarkably clear and easy-to-follow when laying out the basics of genetics – stuff which, with its talk of exons and introns and bases and helices, can easily sound like gibberish. Ridley’s style is very good.

Singh tells the story of history’s most infamous mathematical problem, and takes in vast swathes of maths history and current practice on the way. Also very lucidly written.

Singh again, this time tackling the history of cryptography from its earliest inceptions up to the bleeding edge of quantum ciphers (uncrackable by virtue of the laws of the universe, we think.) Also a very handy primer, in that it teaches you how to both compose and break a lot of common ciphers; useful if you need that sort of thing.

Translation is too a science. Well, even if you don’t consider it to be a science in the strict sense (I don’t think Hofstadter does), the book is replete with scientific thought: in the course of his musings on translation Hofstadter deals at length with psychology, neurology and AI.

And so is (socio)linguistics. Crystal is a legend in his field, writer of innumerable set books on English Language courses (I’ve read at least four in that context alone) and this is one of his best, tracing the origins of English from its roots in Anglo-Saxon through to the language of the Internet age.

This one is an enormous textbook and no mistake, but seriously. If it is to do with the English language and worth knowing, it is in this book. Accents. Dialects. Nonstandard grammar. Slang. Rhyme. Rhythm. Internet-speak. How to write a letter. Everything.

I love Bryson’s travel writing, and it turns out that his style translates rather well to accessible writing about science. Almost the best bit of this is how well he conveys the sense of slightly boggle-eyed wonder that witnessing Science so often brings on.

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I’d like more recommendations – please comment!

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2010 12:23 am

    To expand on what I said on my blog, I can definitely recommend:

    The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould
    In my opinion, a very important book. It focuses on how biological essentialism – in particular, attempts to quantify intelligence and then claim it is some correlated to race or sex – are fundamentally flawed. I want to throw it at every journalist who’s ever written an “It’s true! A survey of 15 people conclusively proves women can’t read maps/men can’t multitask!” article.

    The Double Helix by James Watson
    An interesting look at the discovery of DNA, written by the very man who helped discover it, although it downplays Rosalind Franklin’s role massively and tries to her off as a cold feminist stereotype. I’ve heard good things about Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox, though I’ve not read it.

    Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
    The title says it all, really. Adapted from his Guardian column, the most recent edition includes a chapter available for free on his website which I think everyone should read even if they don’t read the book itself, about the dangers of pseudoscience.

    The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins
    I’ll be honest – I’m not the biggest fan of Dawkins’s writing on religious topics. He labours his points and seems to forget the difference between attacking Christianity and attacking Christians. His writing on biology however is unparalleled, and The Selfish Gene is one of the few books that can genuinely be said to have changed the course of an entire field of science.

    Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman
    A bit of a cheat, since there’s not really much science in it, but it’s a brilliant autobiography of one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century.

  2. Paul Skinner permalink
    June 5, 2010 12:25 am

    Dammit. I was hoping “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (which incidentally is his largest book to date) wouldn’t be on your list so I could recommend it.
    Curse Bryson for getting famous.

    “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” should always get a mention, if only to make the people in GCHQ prick up their ears.
    I see “Bad Science” has also been mentioned. I read the first 3 chapters of this, hungover and waiting for other people to wake up. It is pretty good.

    Seeing as you’ve already deviated from Science by mentioning language books, I shall go with Bryson’s “Mother Tounge”. He examines the many varieties of English.

    As you can probably tell, I also am a Bryson fan and have quite a pile of his books by my bedside.
    He actually did a televised series of his “Notes From a Small Island” book which was pretty interesting.

    Alas, Wikipedia is pretty much always the place I go to read about Science these days, so I imagine 30% of what I’ve learnt over the last 3/4 years has been made up and posted by a fool.

  3. June 6, 2010 10:56 pm

    To add some female works to the list, I LOVE all three of Mary Roach’s books: “Stiff” about cadavers, “Bonk” about the science of sex, and “Spook” in which she explores the supernatural and the people who seek it. “Spook” is, in my opinion, the most riotously entertaining of the bunch, but all will make you laugh out loud in every chapter.

  4. June 6, 2010 10:58 pm

    Femonomics also reviewed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which tells the story behind the Hela cells used very broadly in scientific research today.

  5. wickedday permalink
    June 7, 2010 12:50 am

    I spotted The Immortal Life… in Waterstones the other day. Looked interesting. I’ll have to keep an eye out for the other three.

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