The Guardian’s 100 greatest nonfiction books

For some reason, the Brits do “best book lists” much better than Americans.  The Guardian just published its list of the “100 greatest non-fiction books,” and it actually looks pretty good.

Sadly, only 5 of them are science books, but these choices aren’t too bad. I would have left off Hawking, but for general readers it’s a decent list.

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
Darwin’s account of the evolution of species by natural selection transformed biology and our place in the universe

The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynmann (1965)
An elegant exploration of physical theories from one of the 20th century’s greatest theoreticians

The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)
James Watson’s personal account of how he and Francis Crick cracked the structure of DNA

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)
Dawkins launches a revolution in biology with the suggestion that evolution is best seen from the perspective of the gene, rather than the organism

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)
A book owned by 10 million people, if understood by fewer, Hawking’s account of the origins of the universe became a publishing sensation

Here are some contenders I thought of:

The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson.  An underrated and underappreciated book.  As I’ve said, this is the best history of molecular genetics around.

The Peregrine by J. A. Baker.  Still the greatest natural history book I’ve ever read.

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins. Perhaps not as “scholarly” as The Selfish Gene, but maybe a better read for the layperson.

The Collected Essays of Stephen Jay Gould. This book doesn’t exist, but stands for his entire output of 300 essays for Natural History. It’s very hard to pick just one collection.

The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg.  I try to read popular physics books, but I’m often defeated. Maybe I’m just attuned to evolution.  This one, however, did engage me.

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. Still his best, and a classic.

Coincidentally, my own pick of the five best evolution books, accompanied by a long interview in which I wax eloquent about them, will appear in a few days on Five Books. (That site is rapidly becoming a must-bookmark for bibliophiles; check out the latest picks of other scientists in the “interview” section.)

Free free, as always, to weigh in.  I’d especially appreciate hearing about some good physics books for the inquiring biologist.

h/t: Matthew Cobb

82 Comments

  1. litchik
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Only two books under religion. I get the feeling the list was put together but the arts and lit editors, though.

    • SWH
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      I agree. Would have thought that, for example, “The Wealth of Nations”, would be an easy pick. I was impressed by the depth of time that they covered, although inevitably the 20th century, in particular the second half it likely overrepresented. Would be interesting to see a similar list 200 years from now and know whether, for example, “The Female Eunuch” or for the matter “The Double Helix” are still rated so highly.

  2. Matt
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Is it worth it to read The Origin of Species in this day and age? I usually will not read a non-fiction book that was published before 1970 simply because so much information has moved on since then and any good points of the book are summarized in later works or have become common knowledge.

    • Frank
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      I think so. I have read it multiple times with a biology class Honors reading group, students who already know something about evolution. It is worth reading mainly for historical reasons – to judge where Darwin got things wrong (often because he had no knowledge of genetic mechanisms and an understandably inaccurate geological time)as well as where he was ahead of his time and hinted at research questions that are still current. At the end of each semester, my students consistently said they found the reading and discussion rewarding, and the were uniformly impressed by Darwin’s ability to pull together information from such disparate fields.

      • Phere
        Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

        I agree. There is also elegance in the simplicity of the book. You don’t need to have a major in biology to thoroughly understand ‘On The Origin of Species’.

    • Stephen P
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      If you specifically want a textbook, then books before 1970 probably do have limited use in many areas of knowledge. (In IT precious few books prior to 2005 are still useful as textbooks.)

      But there are plenty of reasons for reading older non-fiction books. Surely that should be obvious in the case of autobiographies for example.

      Some books simply retain their intrinsic value. L.T.C Rolt’s book on the history of railway safety, “Red for Danger”, was published in 1955, but as far as I know no-one has improved on it. I read Mackay’s book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” not so long ago, and probably 80% of it is still relevant a century and a half later.

      But even when the actual content has been superseded, books that had a major influence on history are surely still interesting for that reason, and in that regard few rank higher than On the Origin of Species. I’ve read it twice. I would recommend the first edition.

    • David Ratnasabapathy
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Oh yes. Pretty much every book on evolution I’ve seen (Jerry Coyne’s, Richard Dawkins’ and Daniel J. Fairbanks’ excepted) assume evolution is true and go on to discuss its mechanism. Carl Zimmer’s book, “Evolution”, was a major disappointment wrt this.

      Darwin starts off from a position of `not proven’ and then proceeds, in, what, 300 elegant pages to convince you that evolution is true. No-one’s done it better, though Coyne, Dawkins, Shubin and Fairbanks do a decent job of chasing behind.

      If you’re a laymen who wants to know why evolution is true you can’t do better than Darwin. (Sorry Prof. Coyne.) Though you do need to browse a Biology textbook first, for background.

    • Alex, adv. diab.
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      It is not very useful as a means of learning evolution since it contains stuff that is known to be wrong, and Darwin was of course completely confused about how reproduction works (and how should he have known…). You have to know some basics in order to appreciate what he’s doing in the book, and where he’s wrong. But it’s a charming and impressive example of how to make and clearly present an argument for a theory from a wealth of data in an accessible fashion. Richard Dawkins, in TGSOE, basically adopted (admittedly) Darwin’s idea how to introduce and make plausible the subject to a critical audience. What I also found very amusing is that many of the main creationist arguments against evolution we still hear today are already refuted by Darwin himself in his book, in the chapter “Problems on theory”.

    • Microraptor
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      As others have said, it’s a very interesting and well written book. The only real problem is that, of course, being written 150 years ago it can be hard to understand some of the things he talks about, given how much English has changed since then.

    • jose
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

      If you decide to read it (something I wouldn’t recommend if you’re not a dedicated aficionado but are just interested in what evolution is about), make sure you pick the final edition of 1872. Otherwise, you could end up attributing to Darwin views he rejected later on or missing on important parts he added after the first editions.

    • Posted June 19, 2011 at 5:02 am | Permalink

      I’ve found The Origin of Species of practical use. I leave it by the front door. Whenever Jehovah’s Witnesses come round and start ‘quoting’ from it, well, if it does nothing to disturb their faith, at least it makes them think about the bollocks they’ve been peddling about evolution.

    • latsot
      Posted June 21, 2011 at 4:11 am | Permalink

      Definitely read it. It’s beautifully written and wonderfully argued. I also highly recommend the audiobook. Sadly, it isn’t narrated by the author but by the next best thing: Richard Dawkins.

      He also narrates Voyage of the Beagle, which is also a great read and listen.

  3. Barry
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Surely the 2 religious books should have been in the Fiction list.

    • Stephen P
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      I think you need to look at them a little more closely.

      • Posted June 18, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        Agreed, Stephen. The two religion books listed are legitimately non-fiction. One assumes the Bible, along with other holy texts, will fall under the Fiction/Fantasy category once it is generated.

  4. Frank
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Dennett’s best book and accessible to a nonscientist. The ‘skyhook’-‘crane’ analogy has caught on with a number of folks.

  5. Phere
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Hrm…I may get scoffed at, but one of my favorite books is Bill Bryson’s ‘A Brief History of Nearly Everything’.

    • Divalent
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      I read it. He got a lot wrong: historically, and his understanding of some of the things he purports to explain. Big disappointment for me. (Whenever you read a book that covers a lot of disciplines, and the author botches the stuff you know about, you wonder about his credibility of the things you don’t know about.)

      • Alex, adv. diab.
        Posted June 18, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, doesn’t it. When once again I read an article close to my field of expertise in some newspaper or magazine which (and that is unfortunately the rule rather than the exception) completely misses the point or confuses and misrepresents research, I always think – they *do* get the politics and economics part more right, do they? Because if those are just as wrong as the bits I know something about, we’re in trouble.

        • Posted June 19, 2011 at 3:19 am | Permalink

          Evolution and religion are so difficult to write about in clarity and honesty. For, if you did, you d see (almost instantly) why there cannot be (a) god(s). You d see instantly (still thinking honestly) how bllions of people have been, and are being, brainwashed till today. For greed and/or power.

          Eonomy, on the other hand, is as tricky. With 100 economists in a room, you ll have 100 different versions/opinions. Most likely, therefor, that any such article will have it wrong.
          Take today’s economical crisis. As governemt you should see that your economy recovers as quickly as possible. That is the only (viable) solution.
          Anyway … that s off-topic here.

    • Gabrielle Guichard
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      It allowed me to detect that many things that were said at the kingdom hall were plain lies.
      It may contain errors but thanks to it I made my first steps in science. (Tiny steps. I didn’t understand half of what I read.)

    • Neil
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      Skip Bryson and read Natalie Angier’s The Canon.

      • Posted June 18, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        The Canon is superb. I wish she would write a follow-up or updated version.

    • Posted June 18, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      @Phere –

      I really enjoyed that one. I first owned the audio version, since my daily commute is approx. 3 hrs.

  6. Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Reinventing the Bazaar: A Natural History of Markets by John McMillan. (not a physics book) An excellent book that explains what markets actually are and how they work (or not work as the case may be) and actually winds up explaining why communism and central planning cannot work, as well as the limits of markets, free or otherwise.

  7. Ajh
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    There are much better books on linguistics for the lay reader than The Language Instinct. (Start, for instance, with David Crystal on anything.) I agree that TLI is readable and enjoyable, but the problem is that Pinker presents – as unproblematic and uncontested – views on language that are accepted by only a minority of specialists. Many if not most psycholinguists do NOT consider language learning to be the result of an innate, specialised language organ or language instinct as Pinker, following Chomsky, believes. Of course, it’s possible that Pinker and Chomsky are right and the others are wrong. But when writing for a general audience it’s basically dishonest to present one side of an issue of active controversy as if it was all settled and decided. You would never know from reading TLI, for instance, that basically all the grammatical analysis Pinker presents is rejected by many schools of thought in linguistic theory!

    • bric
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

      I would like to suggest Guy Deutscher’s ‘The Unfolding Of Language: The Evolution of Mankind`s greatest Invention’ as an alternative

    • Posted June 20, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      “There are much better books on linguistics for the lay reader than The Language Instinct. (Start, for instance, with David Crystal on anything.) I agree that TLI is readable and enjoyable, but the problem is that Pinker presents – as unproblematic and uncontested – views on language that are accepted by only a minority of specialists.”

      So, Pinker is the Gould of linguistics?

      • Posted June 20, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

        I see Crystal as completely different than Pinker. Crystal comes more from the literary side, Pinker from the biological.

  8. glbrown
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    I have been studying unification trying to understand just why we have 2 unique sets of physical laws instead of one.

    Cambridge University Press publishes a book by James Lidsey entitled ‘The Bigger Bang’. It is a quick read containing both the history of physics and the current open questions.

    I found it very accessible and compelling.

    -gary-

    • Alex, adv. diab.
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Whatcha mean by 2 unique sets of physical laws?

      • Tony Ryan
        Posted August 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        I believe the two unique sets of physical laws glbrown is speaking of, are quantum mechanics and general relativity. At the quantum level, the laws of general relativity break down.

  9. Norm
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    For physics books, I really enjoyed “Perfect Symmetry” and “The Cosmic Code”, both by Heinz Pagels. I guess they’re a little out of date now but both are great reads.

  10. Divalent
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    I’ll put a plug in for Simon Singh’s “Big Bang” (particularly as a companion read for “The First Three Minutes”). One of the best science books I’ve read in a while.

    • Norm
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Yes! Loved it.

    • Posted June 20, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      Yes, I third the recommendation. It covers a lot of ground but has a unifying theme. There are a few minor points which are not completely clear and/or where I have read other interpretations; I have a list of things to ask Singh about in an email.

  11. Marta
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    My all-time favorite physics book is The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? by Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi.

    Undoubtedly, there are physicists in the audience who can point to the problems about this book, but I just don’t care. For a lovely and fun description of the Higgs boson and a passionate manifesto about why the LHC really matters, this is your book. I’ve read it at least 3 times.

    Additionally, (although I’ve only read each once), I recommend The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of Science, and What Comes Next by Lee Smolin–together with Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory, and the Search for Unity in Physical Law by Peter Woit.

    • Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      I liked The God Particle too, especially for the cute historical anecdotes. I paased it around at work, and for a while there, if anybody criticized one of my equations, I could challenge them to a sword duel. (And they would laugh.)

      The relatively new book Quantum by Manjit Kumar also has lots of good history in it.

  12. Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    A better book about time, in my opinion, is Time’s Arrow and Archimedes Point by Huw Price. It’s much more than a book about time, moreover, arguing that quantum strangeness can be explained without nonlocality as due to advanced action, as in Wheeler-Feynman electrodynamics. (This is where one takes the equations of electrodynamics, which are time-symmetric, at face value, keeping time-advanced as well as time-retarded effects.)

    One particular criticism I have of Brief History of Time, is that Hawking does not distinguish between the essential big-bang singularity of general relativity, and physical reality. To play the singularity of GR as having a deep meaning other than the mere failure of a theory outside its area of applicability is usually a pander to theism. The fact that physicists seek a quantum theory of gravity shows that they don’t think a extramathematical origin of existence is acceptable.

    I can also recommend either of Smolin’s Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, or Life of the Cosmos. LOTC addresses the problem of cosmic tuning, and how black-hole universes that so reproduce are also likely to favor carbon and organic chemistry, due to an interesting feature of carbon nuclear chemistry. (As a Platonist, the anthropic problem is no concern to me, but Platonism can coexist with Smolin’s proposal, just fine.)

    I forgot to mention that Huw Price is known as the person who got in an argument with Hawking about time and won. Hawking capitulated.

    • Marta
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      oh, now you’re just showing off 🙂

      • Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        You are so onto me!

        Also, go to a bookstore and read the introduction of Penrose’s Road to Reality for a nice Platonism advocacy. That book is not otherwise one for simple casual reading, though.

        • Posted June 20, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

          Indeed.

          Has anyone seen the film Happy Go Lucky (directed by Mike Leigh with Sally Hawkins in the starring role)? I recognised about 5 or 6 titles in the bookshop, having read them all. Penrose’s The Road to Reality is one.

    • Kamaka
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      I have to second Smolin’s “Life of the Cosmos”. There is much to ponder in this book for the “why is there something instead of nothing” question.

  13. simbol
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    I’d especially appreciate hearing about some good physics books for the inquiring biologist.

    Steven Weinberg:

    Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature.

    • Marta
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      yes, that one was very good.

  14. Neil
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Recommended physics books.

    Alpha and Omega and Decoding the Universe by Charles Seife are enjoyable to read, as are books by John Barrow and Lawrence Krauss.

    To really understand stuff: The best book I have ever found on relativity is Relativity Visualized by Lewis Carroll Epstein (probably out of print). On quantum theory: Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed by Jim Al-Khalili. On the standard model of particle physics: The Theory of Nearly Everything by Robert Oerter.

    Also, The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch is the best thing to read on the Many Worlds Interpretation of QM, and The Labyrinth of Time by Lockwood is the best I have found on explaining space and time.

    • Posted June 18, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      +1 for Deutsch.

      It’s possibly the best expositions of the physics of QM that I’ve ever read — and I did my Ph.D. in the field. (And I was very glad to meet him at TAM London to tell him so!)

      And it’s much broader than just QM.

      (Deutsch’s new book, The Beginning of Infinity, looks very thought provoking.)

      /@

      • Mike
        Posted June 21, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        Read both of Deutsch’s books — they are fantastic — highly recommend

  15. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    As a good physics book for the enquiring biologist I would advocate :

    “The fabric of the cosmos” by Brian Greene.

    The non biologist should not be afraid to read “The extended phenotype” right after “The selfish gene”. The reader will be richly rewarded by doing so. (I am lawyer not a biologist.)

  16. Marc-David Aresteanu
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    For physics…Anything by Lawrence Krauss… I’d recommend Fear of Physics as a starter.

    For biology, you can’t go wrong with anything by Dawkins or Ridley.

    As for philosophy or cognitive sciences, anything by VS Ramachadran, Pinker, Dennett or Humphrey. They all take different angles, but as far as im concerned, they’re zeroing on similar conclusions.

    • Divalent
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      “Phantoms in the Brain” by VS Ramachadran is most excellent. As is Pinker’s “Blank Slate”.

    • Microraptor
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      I wouldn’t recommend The Ancestor’s Tale for a beginner, thanks to the size and scope it covers. It’s a phenomenal work, it’s just a little too much for someone to start on.

      • Marc-David Aresteanu
        Posted June 18, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

        Yeah…I wouldn’t recommend that either. My personal favorite is The Extended Phenotype, but that’s actually a quite difficult book. The Selfish Gene is probably the book I’ve bought the most times, seeing as I lend or give it away at any chance I get. I swear I’ve bought that book like 10 times already…mostly used of course. That’s the essential evolution book to read, according to me.

        • Microraptor
          Posted June 18, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

          I haven’t read The Extended Phenotype yet. The library doesn’t have it, neither do any of the local used bookstores, and I haven’t gotten around to ordering it online yet.

          I admit that one of my life’s goals is to have a complete collection of autographed copies of Richard Dawkins’ books. I’ve got The God Delusion and The Greatest Show On Earth there already, just need to catch him the next time he does a lecture tour to get a few more.

        • latsot
          Posted June 21, 2011 at 4:30 am | Permalink

          > The Selfish Gene is probably the book I’ve bought the most times,
          > seeing as I lend or give it away at any chance I get. I swear I’ve
          > bought that book like 10 times already

          Heh, I do that too 🙂

          I wouldn’t say The Extended Phenotype is a difficult book though, especially once you’ve read The Selfish Gene. It has lots of information, densely packed, but the arguments themselves are perfectly simple and accessible.

    • Daniel Schealler
      Posted June 20, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      I thoroughly enjoyed Atom.

  17. Jim Thomerson
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I have used “The Double Helix” as a class reading assignment a number of times, and students have enjoyed it. At one time it was the most successful popular book by a scientist.

    I have read “A Brief history of Time” and been frustrated. A much more readable book is “Grand Design” by Hawking and co-author.

  18. Posted June 18, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Ok, I am going to make some recommendations that would be appropriate for someone who has had the type of science/mathematics classes that a scientist or engineer would have.

    The Shape of Space by Jeff Weeks.
    Prerequisites: none, but you’ll get more out of it if you had a calculus course in your background. It talks about the mathematics used in the study of space-time. If nothing else, the pictures are cool.

    The Knot Book by Colin Adams
    Prerequisites: none, but again, some exposure to calculus would be helpful. This talks about “knot theory” (the way that knots lay in space) and touches on the subjects that Dr. Coyne had complained about.

    A Primer for Quantum Mechanics by Daniel T. Gillespie

    Prerequisites: ok, some linear algebra (you should know what an eigenvector is and what an inner product is) and some probability theory (you should know what a density function is)

    This book gives a mathematical explanation for the weirdness of QM such as why measurements affect states, why particles can be in several different places all at once, etc.

    This is not a pop-level book but its mathematical demands are within reach of non-physics majors.

  19. Cents
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    For the all the skeptics in the audience and in particular the string theory skeptics (there is so much hype by its proponents, Brian Greene being a leader and in the lay press, that this very speculative hypothesis is the “Theory of Everything”). I recommend Smolin’s “The Trouble with Physics” and Peter Woit’s “Not Even Wrong.” Peter writes a great blog by the same name covering the current weekly hype, etcetera on string theory.
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/

  20. tmplikeachilles
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Feynman’s “QED : The Strange Theory of Light and Matter” is the best layperson’s physics book I’ve ever read. The Feynman lectures on physics are also really good, though they cross over into textbook territory.

    Jared Diamond ought to have been in the Guardian list for either of “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee”. And “Consciousness Explained” (D Dennett) ought to have been in the Philosophy section.

    There are some terrible choices in that Guardian list alongside the good ones. Freud? Foucault? Bettelheim?? Barthes? McLuhan? … Really??

  21. Posted June 18, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    For loop quantum gravity at its finest, I’d recommend “Random Acts of Badness: My Story” by Danny Bonaduce.

  22. Insightful Ape
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Among “politics” books, there was one that gave me
    the creeps:
    “The Prince”, by Niccholo Machiaveli.

  23. randyextry
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to nominate The Origins Of Virtue, by Matt Ridley and the “biography” of the equation E=MC^2, by David Bodanis. Also, Genius, by James Gleick – a biography of Richard Feynman. And, not science related, but Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand was a damn good read. Which reminds me (last one, I promise), Obama’s first book was very good, too.

  24. Posted June 18, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I might have overlooked this, but nothing by Sagan. Cosmos? Pale Blue Dot?

    The Dragons of Eden remains a personal favourite, but it’s probably dated quite badly.

    /@

    • Microraptor
      Posted June 18, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Sadly, The Demon Haunted World remains all too relevant today.

  25. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    For anyone with a taste for mathematics I cannot recommend enough“Journey through Genius” by William Dunham. It is an easy read. The last two chapter are a pure delight for anyone curious about infinity. They are : “The non denumerability of the continuum” and “Cantor and the transfinite realm.”

  26. Alex, adv. diab.
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m really annoyed. I feel like slapping these literature people that were in charge of the selection for their limited horizon. Of the non-fiction books they could come up with, virtually all deal with feeling the pulse of humans and their pesky social life over and over and over and over again – 5 books about understanding the entire rest of the cosmos. In their eyes, science is one nonfiction subcategory (the boring one they were bad at in school) filed between “scented candle making” and “sclerotherapy”. Why did Dawkins and Darwin make the list? I’m sure it’s because the editors felt that they had an important impact on how they feel about themselves. Ok, ‘nough ranted. Maybe I’m being unfair. They could’ve done worse.

  27. Kassul
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Not sure if I *love* these sorts of posts, or hate them with a passion.

    So many intriguing book suggestions for me to read up on… Too many… 😥

  28. Max
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    By my quick count, 65 of their 100 books come from the 20th century or later, and 48 were published in my lifetime. It reminds me of a teenager’s All-Time NBA team.

    Anyway, assuming that the point of the exercise is just to name some worthwhile titles, here are a few older works that might be of interest here:

    Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

    Lucian, Satires (especially “Alexander the False Prophet” and “The Death of Peregrinus”)

    Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (for “Of Miracles” and “Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State” and incidentally for “Of Liberty and Necessity,” a classic statement of compatibilism)

    Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew (if The Praise of Folly is non-fiction, then so is this)

    Also, if I were to limit myself to two titles from East Asia, as the Guardian folks do, I think I’d dump The Art of War and go with The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon — still fresh, elegant, witty, moving and full of beauty after 1000 years.

  29. Dale Franzwa
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to suggest (as a read only, I don’t care if it’s on anybody’s “best science books” list) quite a bit of negative press, Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design. The reason I like it is that it the builds on what we already know (e.g., Feynman’s understanding of the two slit experiment and how that implies the existence of a multiverse), its power (just the idea that everything that exists can arise spontaneously from nothing), and the theory’s basic simplicity.

    The “simplicity” part requires a little elaboration. I’m not a physicist (just a layman) but I’ve followed the popular press’ versions of a variety of “origin of the universe” theories and they all seem to require prerequisites. For example: The universe has always existed, expanding from a very small particle to the point where it collapses back to that particle then repeats that cycle forever. New universes are born from the collision of pre-existing universes. New universes are born from the collision of “branes” (M-theory, membranes). All of these require that there is some kind of pre-existing time, space, and/or primal energy.

    The “origins” theory presented here requires none of that. Absolutely nothing pre-exists. Not time or space (hard to get your head around), no laws of nature, no causality, no certainty. Therefore, anything is possible including the explosion of “something” (the multiverse) from nothing. No gods or pre-existing conditions required. That’s why I like it. Utterly simple.

  30. Posted June 19, 2011 at 3:43 am | Permalink

    If these theological titles are non-fiction, I would ve liked to see 1984 and Animal Farm in there. Both give accurate descriptions of certain political behaviour.

    Funny to see Tzun_tzu (probebly spelled incorrectly) under the heading of Politics. It is, of course, about warfare, and how to win battles.

    What I did like to see was Erasmus … the first Dawkins??

  31. self employed hobo
    Posted June 19, 2011 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Im surprised no one has mentioned Neil Tyson’s “Death by Black Hole” as an enjoyable physics book for the non-physicist. Sure, it’s a collection of essays and not a front to back book. It also doesn’t cover ideas in their greatest depth, but it gives you the essential point of various physics concepts in a witty format while also relating these concepts to everyday life.

  32. Jeremy
    Posted June 19, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Well I’d just like to submit “Why does e=mc^2” by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw as the BEST explanation of Einstein’s relativity work that I’ve read. It’s perfectly explicable to the interested non-physicist. I understand it at last!

    • Posted June 20, 2011 at 4:32 am | Permalink

      What Jeremy said! (I was just going to post the same)

    • latsot
      Posted June 21, 2011 at 4:43 am | Permalink

      Yeah, that book is pretty good. I’d vaguely hoped to hate it as I generally find Cox a bit annoying, but I ended up liking it quite a lot. Some books on this sort of thing seem to try to make the subject seem more mysterious than it needs to be. This one doesn’t.

  33. Posted June 19, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    The Growth of Biological Thought by Ernst Mayr
    Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin
    The Ancestors Tale by Richard Dawkins

    are three of my adds

  34. Diane G.
    Posted June 19, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    (subscribing)

  35. Posted June 20, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    “I’d especially appreciate hearing about some good physics books for the inquiring biologist.”

    While obviously missing new developments, essentially anything by Isaac Asimov can be recommended. (He is a biochemist by training, though he wrote about many different fields.) As a non-expert himself, his books present a more objective view of the field. It seems that some of the better, or at least better selling, academic writers are mavericks to a greater or lesser extent (Penrose, Pinker, Gould) which is certainly not obvious to a non-expert.

    I haven’t read it yet, but based on reviews and having heard talks by him and met him personally at a conference, definitely go for Bob Kirshner’s book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Extravagant-Universe-Exploding-Accelerating-Princeton/dp/069111742X/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1308587742&sr=8-1-fkmr1

    It concerns what Science called the breakthrough of the century (the acceleration of the universe) told by one of the principal players.

  36. latsot
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    I would have to add Godel, Escher, Bach. I know this pisses off Hofstadter, but his book was responsible for my becoming a computer scientist.

    I should clarify that: as far as I know, Douglas Hofstadter is not pissed off that I became a computer scientist. But he does seem to be vaguely annoyed that people think of him as a computer scientist and that he inspired so many computer scientists when in fact he has no particular interest in computers at all.

    • latsot
      Posted June 21, 2011 at 4:53 am | Permalink

      Oops, I’ve just spotted that book on the list anyway. Missed it first time, somehow.

  37. Cleve
    Posted July 1, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Physics: the making of the atomic bomb by Richard rhodes A survey of 20 th century theoretical physics and it’s eponymous application. Check it out


%d bloggers like this: