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