The science books that inspired eight science writers (and me)

Yesterday’s Guardian has nice survey of eight science writers (many of them working scientists): “‘I was hooked for life’: Science writers on the books that inspired them.” They don’t make it clear that they’re really asking about popular books, as some of the books that “fired my imagination”, as the article notes, weren’t science trade books but technical books written for professionals. I suppose they wanted books that the layperson could read with profit.

Nevertheless, I’ll list the writers queried by the Guardian and link each name to the book they found inspiring. (If you don’t recognize someone, the Guardian identifies them.)

Brian Cox
Gaia Vinc
Garry Kasparov
Andrea Wulf
Adam Rutherford
Claudia Hammond
Richard Fortey (and a second book)
Venki Ramakrishnan

Now of course I’m going to ask the readers to name the science book or books that most inspired them, and to be fair I’ll have to give my own list. I’ve divided it up into two parts: trade (popular) books and technical books. I’ll surely forget some of them, but I have a limited time here to remember them! I’m listing only the books that influenced me when I was younger, before I was a professional scientist, but over at Five Books I’ve also listed some books I greatly recommend to the general reader. (The only recommendation I’d change is the Gould book; I’d now recommend reading an early collection of his essays.)

Trade books

The Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif. Now almost forgotten, the book, though perhaps a tad overwritten, infected me with a love of research–the thrill of the hunt for facts)–when I was very young.

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis. de Kruif in fact collaborated with Lewis when he wrote Arrowsmith, telling Lewis about science and basing the book’s characters on real scientists he’d known. It’s the only novel on my list and the best science fiction (i.e., fiction book about doing science) I know of. Again, it’s written in Lewis’s sometimes breathy style, but portrays the wonder of science better than any novel I know.

On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. This was, after all, a book written for the public, and it sold very well. I needn’t say why this was influential except that it shows you how to make one long and unanswerable argument, and testifies to the need for anal thoroughness and hard work when you do science

Technical books

Systematic and the Origin of Species (1942) and its updated version Animal Species and Evolution (1963) by Ernst Mayr. These books and the next one were the books that got me interested in speciation, and drove me to the path of studying the evolutionary genetics of speciation.

Genetics and the Origin of Species by Theodosius Dobzhansky (1937). This is generally seen as the book that launched the “modern synthesis” of evolution, in which the observations of natural history and experiments were made consonant with the findings of genetics. Note the similarity of title to Mayr’s books: both saw the “species problem” as paramount in evolution: the observation that nature isn’t a continuum but is divided into discrete and pretty objective units: the populations we call “species”. That in fact was the major problem of evolution that Darwin didn’t solve, despite the title of his most famous book, which turns out to be more about the origin of adaptations within species than about species themselves. Here’s a statement of “the species” problem from the second page of Dobzhansky’s book:

“Organic diversity is an observational fact more or less familiar to everyone.  It is perceived by us as something apart from ourselves, a phenomenon given in experience but independent of the working of our minds. A more intimate acquaintance with the living world discloses another fact almost as striking as the diversity itself. This is the discontinuity of the organic variation.

If we assemble as many individuals living at a given time as we can, we notice at once that the observed variation does not form a single probability distribution or any other kind of continuous distribution.  Instead, a multitude of separate, discrete, distributions are found. In other words. the living world is not a single array of individuals in which any two variants are connected by an unbroken series of intergrades, but an array of more of less distinctly separate arrays, intermediates between which are absent or rare.”

Isn’t that good? It’s a succinct and clear statement of “the species problem.” And it was largely solved by Mayr and Dobzhansky. (Mayr was one of my mentors at Harvard and Dobzhansky was my academic grandfather: the advisor of my own advisor, Dick Lewontin.,

All three of these books are remarkably well written, especially considering that Mayr’s native language was German and Dobzhansky’s Russian. It’s rare to find technical books these days written with such clarity and style. These are the books that, along with The Origin, made me an evolutionary geneticist. And they inspired me by showing me that the problem they raised in the Thirties and Forties had lain fallow for several decades thereafter, with few people that interested in speciation. As a student I saw a vacant niche I could fill, especially doing genetic studies of reproductive isolating barriers, and hence my career. That culminated in the book I’m proudest of having written, Speciation (2004) with H. Allen Orr. It’s a technical book, but rereading it recently I realized that I’ve lost the intellectual acumen I had when Allen and I wrote it. I couldn’t do that now: my mind and ability to synthesize diverse material were keener 13 years ago.

As I said, Speciation is a technical book, so I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who hadn’t studied a lot of evolution. My friends who bought it because they liked me did so against my advice, and found out I was right.  But I hope to write a short popular treatment of speciation for Oxford University Press, and that’s why I’m rereading the earlier book, as well as reviewing the literature on speciation since 2004.

This turned into a bit of an autobiography, and I didn’t mean to do that. At any rate, be you scientist or layperson, put in the comments the science books that most influenced or enthralled you.


h/t: Matthew Cobb


  1. Marc Aresteanu
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    My go-to list:

    The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
    Godel Escher Bach by Douglas Hofstadter
    Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky
    The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker
    Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

    • rickflick
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Except for the Minsky, I’ve really well appreciated each of these.

      • Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        Same for me. I would only add Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker and Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature

    • Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      I would also list The Selfish Gene (but add The Blind Watchmaker), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and The Blank Slate. I’ve been eyeing Godel Escher Bach on bookstore shelves for decades, slightly intimidated. I want to be talked into going for it. Can you give me a short explanation of why I should read it? I just can’t bring myself to do it for some reason.

      • Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        Also I would add The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley which helped me understand the purely naturalistic explanation for morality. The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod and Moral Minds by Marc Hauser also helped, but I read them later. Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer also had a big influence on me.

      • Posted July 11, 2017 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        Read GEB, you won’t regret it. It’s an odd book discussing self-reference, information, translation-transposing, mirroring of information and such subjects.

        They’re presented with the titular examples that make everything understandable. Every second chapter (if memory serves correctly) presents ideas in philosophical riddles, dialogues and story.

        It’s hard to summarize, and as a book about thinking and ideas, it does not teach much concrete knowledge. It is however a wonderfully inspiring book.

      • Posted July 11, 2017 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

        You should read GEB because it is amazing. Yes it’s big and thick, but it is really very approachable.

        The only thing I would say is that the parts about artificial intelligence are totally out of date and a little naive as the author admitted in a later work.

        Another book you might try is Copper, Silver Gold, an Indestructible Metallic Alloy by Egbert B Gebstadter, which is notable for having a reference to an isomorphic but fictional book in its bibliography.

        • Posted July 11, 2017 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

          GEB gets you knee deep into the notion of recursivity, non-linear mathematics, emergent properties, things that may (or may not) be lurking around the origin of life and consciousness in organisms (even the progress of decades in science hasn’t swept away the fundamental questions Hofstadter was dancing across back then). Incidentally, I read it in the chapter order (I’m that way), though Hofstadter insists you can read it in any order you like, its more of that recursivity thing. If you’re a lover of the three main names, Godel for undecidable propositions in math and logic; Bach for the fugue on steroids tropes that Hofstadter draws on in his analogies; and Escher for, well, the delight of seeing strange scenes of people walking up and around optical illusions, then any of those can act as ghosts hovering in your imagination as he embarks on his own “Eternal Golden Braid”.

          Sales pitch for why you should read GEB done.

    • jay
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

      GEB was probably the single most influential book in my life.

  2. Posted July 11, 2017 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Your first two: The Microbe Hunters, and Arrowsmith.
    But in truth those were discoveries in my teens.
    One of many books that really got me going when very young was The World We Live In, which is a tome published by Life magazine. There were many others, but that one was highly precious to me. Some time ago I spent hours and hours combing through used book stores to buy a copy. Every page is a powerfull memory.

    • Luis Servin
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      “Arrowsmith” was given to me as a birthday present by my dad, when he found out I had an inclination for Biology. I was 15 years old and found it fascinating. I remember finishing the book and immediately re-reading it. I guess it did influence my career choice, as I ended up working in bacterial genetics!!

      • Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        It was made into a movie in 1931, and I think the script was very faithful to the book, maybe even word for word in large part. Although the dialogue in the book seems very stilted, the same dialogue in the movie worked really well, I think. I very much recommend it.

        • Luis Servin
          Posted July 11, 2017 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          I’ll see if it’s available in Amazon!!!

      • Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        I loved Arrowsmith. I read it during my medical Internship and it was perfect timing. As much as I loved it, though, it ranks third for me on my list of favorite Sinclair Lewis novels, behind Babbit and Main Street, but ahead of Elmer Gantry. I’ve only read those four.

        • Luis Servin
          Posted July 11, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

          The only other novel I read from Sinclair Lewis was Kingsblood Royal. It’s very good and makes me realize how some of the race issues he describes have not yet been solved to this day.

  3. jwthomas
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Since I’m not a professional scientist I can only name the earliest popular books that made me a nerd but not a pro.

    “The Mysterious Universe”
    by Sir James Jeans

    “The Universe Around Us” by the same author

    “The Nature of the Physical World” by Sir Arthur Eddington

    “King Solomon’s Ring” by Konrad Lorenz

    I read these books when I was still a sub teen. Miraculously they’re all still in print but hoplessly outdated.

    I resolved then to become a scientist. Then I found out that you needed to be good at math to be a scientist. I changed my goals.

    • jwthomas
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Oh, and Willy Ley’s “Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel” was a big influence on me in my pre teen years. By then I had also discovered science fiction.
      While double checking my titles
      on Amazon I see that a new biography of Willy Ley is about to be released: “Willy Ley, Prophet of the Space Age.”
      I’ll have to read that one.

  4. Bruce J. Cochrane
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    I’m a research contemporary of Jerry’s with similar interests. My book list includes Jacques Monod’s “Chance and Necessity”, Will Provine’s “The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics” (Will let me read the galley proofs when I was an undergrad at Cornell), Dick Lewontin’s “The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change”, and “The Eighth Day of Creation”, by Horace Freeland Judson.

    • Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      Put me down also for the Monod and Judson.

      • Posted July 11, 2017 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

        I read the Judson when I was already a professor, but yes, it’s a magnificent book.

  5. Posted July 11, 2017 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    “Big Bang” by Simon Singh. This is a wonderful book, not only about the theory but also about the history of physics and science in general.

    • Posted July 11, 2017 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      I really enjoyed Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem.

      I’m not a mathematician by any means but Singh’s a terrific writer and I never once felt out of my depth.

      He also constructs his books like a thriller so you get the gradual build up of clues and then a race against the clock finale when the protagonist realised he is about to be trumped by a competitor or (in The Big Bang) when there’s some technical problem that might prevent a satellite giving confirmation of background radiation needed to support the theory.

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I read a lot of Stephen Jay Gould books in my youth as well as a lot of anthropology books (text books and popular) — I had an above average reading comprehension so, though I’ve come to understand that the elementary school system had labelled me an idiot for having difficulty in math, they failed to recognized that I was gifted in language so often looked to educate myself and fill my own curiosity.

    • nwalsh
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      Dianna, Stephen also wrote a very good baseball book.

      • nwalsh
        Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

        Diana, sorry.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 11, 2017 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I remember his baseball obsession but I was never interested in sports ball after elementary school.

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 11, 2017 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps you were thinking of me? I love baseball. And I loved Gould’s writing about it. George Will also wrote a good baseball book.

  7. Hempenstein
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Currently I’m big on The Vital Question (Nick Lane) and I’d recommend it to anyone, particularly undergrads in advance of taking General Chemistry, to provide an impetus for working hard to understand the redox tables and grasp their probable broader significance – to evolution and abiogenic origins.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink


    • Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      I got it a few days ago (in german) but I have to admit it is a very hard read as it is notably above my level of knowledge.

  8. Posted July 11, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    When I was a youth, some 60 or so years ago, C. W. Ceram’s “Gods, graves and scholars”. (C. W. Ceram was a pseudonym for K. W. Marek.) Fascinating study of legendary, tho dubious, archaeologists like Schliemann and their finds. Guaranteed to give a kid like myself a thrill about archaeology, well before the era of that Jones guy.

    Oliver Sacks’s “Musicophilia”, a fascinating book for anyone interested in music and that is my other interest.

    A similar excellent book on language is Stephen Pincker’s “The language instinct”.

    Of course, “Thr origin…”, tho I only read it last year. I was fascinated by Darwin’s erudition and the extent of his studies.

    • jwthomas
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Gods, Graves and Scholars was another of my early reads.

    • Peter
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 5:33 am | Permalink

      C. W. Ceram’s “Gods, graves and scholars”. I was 10 at the time, and it was fascinating.
      The paleontologist Von Koenigswald published popular books in Dutch about Pithecanthrops erectus, his excavations for Homo soloensis on Java, and him finding Gigathopithecus teeth in a chinese medicine shop, available in the local library. Romer’s Pelican edition of Man and the Vertebrates privided fascinating reading too.

  9. David Andrews
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    “The Lives of a Cell” -Lewis Thomas

    Anything by Stephen Jay Gould

    • Posted July 11, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      I would add, anything by Lewis Thomas. Great writer.

  10. Christopher
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Three science books that inspired me were Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (recommended by my philosophy professor at Penn Valley community college), Oliver Sacks, Awakenings, which caused me to become quite obsessed with Sacks and read everything he wrote, and Bernd Heinrich, A Year in the Maine Woods, which reawakened in me my childhood desire to be a scientist, but sadly about 15 years and $21,000 in student loans too late.

    • Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      +1 on Sacks, R.I.P.

      • Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        The first Sacks book I read was The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and that blew me away. I had no idea there were such people. Hell, I didn’t even know I was on the autistic spectrum. I just thought everyone was more or less like me.

      • Hempenstein
        Posted July 11, 2017 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

        If you haven’t heard it already, Sacks is mentioned (along with Christopher Hitchens) in the new Conor Oberst song, It’s a Little Uncanny (start @ 34:15).

  11. Posted July 11, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    What got me into philosophy of computing: _Goedel, Escher, Bach_.

    What got me into natural science (in so far as I follow textbooks and popularizations and slices of the primary literature when I can): _A Brief History of Time_

    What convinced me that brains are computational (important for some of my interests): _Vision_ (Marr) and _The Computational Brain_.

    My inspiration for science-oriented metaphysics: _Treatise on Basic Philosophy, Volume 3_ by Bunge and _A World of States of Affairs_ by Armstrong.

    What got me into serious programming (which sounds weird): _Apple Logo II Reference Manual_.

    • Mark Reaume
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      I’ll have to check out Goedel, Escher, Bach, it is one of those books that I keep seeing referenced but never actually looked into yet. I was trying to think of a good CS popular science book but I couldn’t think of any as most of these books are meant for developers specifically (e.g. Code Complete, Design Patterns, Mythical Man Month, anything by Donald Knuth etc…).

      • Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        _Algorithms to Live By_ is pretty good, though it hasn’t affected me much since it only came out last year.

        _The Mythical Man Month_ almost made my list.

        • rickflick
          Posted July 11, 2017 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

          Few other than software engineers will have heard of “The Mythical Man Month” by Fred Brooks. It was quite an illuminating read when I encountered it in the 1970s. Another foundational text was “The C Programming Language” by Kernighan and Ritchie.

  12. John Dentinger
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I never became a scientist (how do people DO math?) but I was astounded in 1967 when I read Morris’s The Naked Ape. I haven’t read it since, and I’m sure that most of it must be out of date–but boy, did it convince me that religion was even more bogus than I had previously thought. Apes don’t need gods.

    • jwthomas
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      The Naked Ape was also one of my early reads.

  13. mfdempsey1946
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m no scientist. My hapless efforts in high school and college science classes revealed that if I were to devote all my efforts to becoming any kind of scientist, on my rare best days I would barely be able to graze the lowest level of mediocrity. I simply do not have whatever mental qualities are necessary to make a scientist.

    But some science texts have moved me and fortified my respect for science, especially in conjunction with my abandonment of theism.

    Some examples:

    “From So Simple A Beginning” — Edward O. Wilson issued this collection of four Charles Darwin books in a single volume: “Voyage of the HMS Beagle,” The Origin of Species,” “The Descent of Man,” and “The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals.” I read every word of this volume because after having encountered so many paraphrases of what Darwin supposedly said, I felt that it was urgent to read what the man actually said. His actual words in these titles have had lasting resonance.

    “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” — Richard Rhodes gigantic, exhaustively detailed chronicle of the entire process I have read twice. And not because I understood the numerous scientific activities described in the book — I didn’t, during either reading. What the book has given me is a lasting appreciation for the vastness of the number of these experiments, theories, and explorations, both the fruitful ones and the blind alleys, that, over more than a century, finally culminated in the unleashing of nuclear power. Also — food for ongoing reflection on how this power can be, has been, and could be used for both noble and evil purposes. And finally — a forceful emphasis on the truth that scientific breakthroughs are seldom if ever the achievements of just one individual.

    “The Blind Watchmaker” — I want to cite not only Richard Dawkins’ book, which was a complete eye opener for me when I read it, but also Lee Dembart’s review of the book (published on November 25, 1986 in the Los Angeles Times), which brought the book and Dawkins to my attention. Dembart not only championed this Dawkins work with unstinting enthusiasm but also was allowed by the Times to reveal without reservation or apology his own atheism — a most uncommon thing in such a high-profile, multi-million-subscriber newspaper at that time, This review also remains a major piece of inspiration for me.

    “Why Evolution Is True” (both the book and the ongoing website) continue to fall into this category of mine as well. I am grateful for both.

    • Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I think The Blind Watchmaker remains the clearest explanation of the logic underlying evolutionary theory.

  14. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink


  15. Danny Kodicek
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Top of the list is Nick Lane’s “Life Ascending”, a superb overview of the origins of life, especially the very early stages. It’s structured around the big events: the origin of replicating molecules, ATP, photosynthesis and so on. I find it very inspiring, especially as an answer to those who say we can’t possibly know how life began – never underestimate the forensic genius of scientists! Lane’s other books are also good – I just read the one on mitochondria recently.

    ‘Godel Escher Bach’ is the book that had the biggest influence on me of all, and I would put it first except that it’s a stretch to call it a ‘science book’.

    ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ is the best Dawkins book in general, with ‘The Extended Phenotype’ the best on his theories.

    ‘Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman’ is a great book about science as an activity

    And for sheer science fun, I’m a big fan of ‘The Physics of Superheroes’ by James Kakalios

    • Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      I read Godel Escher Bach because – bizarrely – it was cited as an inspiration for several of the later Tom Baker Doctor Who stories.

      • Posted July 11, 2017 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

        So is somebody willing to compile a list of all of these books? it would be a huge help.

      • Danny Kodicek
        Posted July 12, 2017 at 2:04 am | Permalink

        I read it because my Mum picked it off a shelf in the bookshop and said “Oh, this looks like your kind of thing”. I had to skim through a lot of it the first time through (I was 13) but it was mind-blowing. I wouldn’t be the same person I am now without it.

        Actually, although GEB is the one that had the biggest influence on me, the book of his I find the most interesting of all is his most technical, “Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies”, a compilation of papers written about his work in AI. Well worth a look.

    • Peter
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 5:36 am | Permalink

      I fully agree ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ is the best Dawkins book, and let me add that ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ is so bad it should not have been published. I wonder whether the other Dawkins books will stand thet test of time.

      • Danny Kodicek
        Posted July 12, 2017 at 6:33 am | Permalink

        There was a period when Dawkins just kept writing the same book over and over again with a different metaphor. Climbing Mount Improbable, River out of Eden and The Greatest Show on Earth are all basically interchangeable.

    • mrclaw69
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 5:49 am | Permalink

      Life Ascending is the best pop biochemistry book ever.

  16. jimroberts
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I suppose that a very big incentive to learn more science and maths was the Bible. Surely God’s Word and God’s creation should not contradict each other, but superficially they certainly seemed to. As it turned out, the more you know about each, the greater the incompatibility.

  17. tomh
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I’m no scientist, in fact, I went to work straight out of high school in the sixties and never went further. But I’ve always loved to read, especially non-technical science books, and read Gould and many of the others posted here. But my favorite, in fact probably my favorite all-time book, is Darwin’s worm book, “The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits.” The amount of detail he discovered about their complex behavior, how he related worms to fields like archaeology, ecology, etc., just astounded me. Heck, he conducted a 30 year experiment on how objects are buried and ruins are preserved by worms. An amazing book.

    • Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink


    • Danny Kodicek
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 2:05 am | Permalink

      I’m going to have to check that out now, thanks – wouldn’t have thought to read it otherwise!

  18. Charlie Jones
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    “The Ancestors Tale” by Richard Dawkins is by far the best general history of life I’ve read. In addition to the excellent writing, this is because each step along the way comes with an interesting lesson in biology, so the book balances the specifics of “one damn thing after another” with nice meaty thoughts.

    “Dry Storeroom #1” is a powerful argument for why we need natural history museums that employ people who follow their pure curiosity. He includes some amazing stories about people whose obscure research interests suddenly turn out to be incredibly important.

    “The Seashell on a Mountaintop” is a history of science that focuses on Steno and his important contributions to anatomy, mineralogy, and geology. Sometimes it is nice to go back to the basics and see how careful observations and reasoning led to major insights. And then, of course, Steno gives up science and protestantism to become a Catholic archbishop. A strange twist, but he is currently only one miracle away from becoming the first geologist-saint!

  19. Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful post. I love to talk books.

    Let’s see, these aren’t necessarily science books per se.

    Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow
    On the Origin of Species
    A World Lit Only by Fire by Manchester
    Engineering in the Ancient World by Landels
    The Selfish Gene by Dawkins
    A Sand County Almanac by Leopold
    The Third Chimpanzee by Diamond
    Why We Get Sick by Nesse and Williams
    Structures, Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down by Gordon

    Many others too …

    • Mark R.
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      I forgot about A World Lit Only by Fire. That was a great read; I just looked and I still have it. I’ll have to re-read it. I also liked Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel which I was reminded of when I saw Manchester’s work.

  20. Steve Zeoli
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Not a scientist, but am curious. I can’t name a specific title, but I’ll say that the non-fiction works of Isaac Asimov were very helpful to me in trying to get a grasp of relativity and other strange aspects of physics, as well as cosmology in general.

    • Doug
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      I devoured everything I could find by Asimov–fiction, science, history, literary annotations. James Randi’s “Flim-Flam” was a real eye-opener and probably changed the way I think more than any other single book. I was astonished to find out that the Bermuda Triangle, ancient astronauts and the rest were bogus, but the book convinced me. Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” was awe-inspiring.

    • Colin McLachlan
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 5:45 am | Permalink

      I rather like Asimov’s collected essays in The Tragedy of the Moon.

  21. nwalsh
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    The Seven Daughters of Eve – Brian Sykes
    Genome – Matt Ridley
    The God Delusion – Dawkins
    Anything by Carl Sagan

  22. Posted July 11, 2017 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    oh brother. My to-read list was already too long. at least one here, tho, i already have and is in queue, and i have read a couple others. thanks, i think, for enlarging the list.

  23. Randy schenck
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    I cannot list a bunch of science books because it is not my expertise. Why Evolution is True is the finest but my hobby has always been American History. Now religion books by Scientists would include The God Delusion, Faith vs Fact, and The End of Faith.

  24. CJ
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I keep an “ACCESSIBLE Science Books Everyone Must Read” list. And one big criteria is that it must be inspiring.

    Here they are in no particular order:

    Cosmos – Carl Sagan
    The Demon Haunted World – Carl Sagan
    The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins
    River Out Of Eden – Richard Dawkins
    The Magic Of Reality – Richard Dawkins
    Why Evolution Is True – Jerry Coyne
    Faith Vs. Fact – Jerry Coyne
    The Story Of The Human Body – Daniel Lieberman
    The Blank Slate – Steven Pinker
    The Rational Optimist – Matt Ridley
    Free Will – Sam Harris
    Thinking Fast And Slow – Daniel Kahneman

    The last one might not be considered an easy read, but i had to have a book in there that expains how buggy our brains are and i haven’t read a more accessible book that has done that very well. At least not yet.

  25. W.Benson
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Robert Ardrey – “African Genesis”
    Loren Eiseley – “The Immense Journey” and “Darwin’s Century.”

  26. Jeff Morgan
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Alas, I am only an elderly non-scientist but with an interest in finding out things. I would recommend three books which all inspired me, not necessarily for their thoroughness but because they inevitably act as the starts of seams which simply ask to be mined:

    “The Diversity of Life” and “Wonderful Life” by Wilson and by Gould. “QED” by Feynman.

    Read these and they take you towards most of the other authors mentioned above and more.

    And I would heartily recommend Kipling’s Friends as vital to any attempts to self-educate.

  27. Blue
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Definitely a gender – of – author thing going
    on here. Guess I am not too inspired.

    Not enough to try to think up of one. Anymore.


  28. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I’ve primarily worked in software engineering and pure math, but have been an avid amateur astronomer and follower of astrophysics.

    Most of all, as a young child I was fascinated by Irving Adler’s “The Golden Book of Mathematics”. He was a math professor at Yale who could explain what was poetic about advanced ideas in math to a 7 year old child. One chapter covers the first week of a calculus course. This is the most underrated popular math/science book I know!!!!

    As an adult, the one really inspiring computer book I know is “The Elements of Programming Style” by Kernighan and Plaugher, which skillfully compares writing a robust computer program to writing an expository essay. The book is based on “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, the classic guide to good writing.
    On the more technical level, there Donald Knuth’s magisterial “Art of Computer Programming”

    My fascination with astronomy was triggered by a really old book in my grandmother’s library “The Stars for Children” (written before the discovery of Pluto!!!).

    I got started on relativity and quantum physics with Martin Gardner’s “Relativity for the Million”.
    (He kept retitling the book as he revised in in light of new discoveries.
    updated 1976 as The Relativity Explosion
    enlarged 1997 as Relativity Simply Explained.)

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      When I was a kid I thought I could save up my allowance and buy a telescope big like the ones at observatories.

      A Meade 8″ SCT was my first purchase as a young adult when I got my first full time job.

  29. Posted July 11, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Animals Without Backbones by Ralph Buchsbaum. There are all these invertebrates that are crazily different. And yet they all do show signs of having evolved from a common ancestor!

    Darwin’s Origin, not so much. He was a good writer for a Victorian, but his prose is in the end still Victorian, with long sentences and too many subordinate clauses.

  30. nicky
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    The first book I read that inspired me to get more into biology was some picture books where you had to cut out the coloured pictures and glue them to the right page, the one about about 100(?) cats, no idea about the author, stands out. There were several books like that. And then there was a booklet about evolution and dinosaurs. Later I found out it was based on Rudolph Zallinger’s famous mural.
    Konrad Lorenz’s “Solomon’s Ring” (although rereading it I find it very dated, to put it kindly) was the first book of which I can remember the author. Rachel Carson’s “The Sea Around Us” and much later SJ Gould’s “Ever since Darwin” also set me on the track. The latter really got me interested in the mechanisms of evolution.
    Many of the better books mentioned above I read quite a bit later.
    [Why, as a student, I switched from biology to medicine? I have no good explanation, regret it to this day. Was it my pessimistic old biology professor (he taught us from Hardy-Weinberg to Krebs to the vertebrate skull-bones) who said most of us biology students would end up as school teachers? Was it others who complained about the difficulty of getting funds for research? Other reasons, like wanting to help the needy? The false idea that as an MD I would be my own boss? Don’t remember.]

  31. Purshia
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    The two books that inspired me to become a scientist were

    Silent Spring (Rachel Carson)
    A Sand County Almanac (Aldo Leopold)

    Since becoming a scientist, three (non-technical) books that have kept me going are

    The Origin of Species (Charles Darwin)
    Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin)
    The Invention of Nature ((Andrea Wulf)

  32. Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Pinker’s books on language – The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought are outstanding. They are also very funny, and the chapter on swearing is worth the cover price alone.

    His other books are good but these are definitely his best.

  33. Paul S
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Not a scientist, however my love of science began in 1967 while visiting my uncle at NASA, Huntsville. He worked on the navigation systems for Apollo missions.
    Then there was the board game my sister created, Hide and Seek with Madame Curie. I wish we would have kept it, but after 50 years it’s just a memory.

  34. Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I like Genetics – A conceptual approach by Benjamin J Pierce. I like evererthing about this book the fonts, the images ,explanation
    Now I am reading Sapiens by Yuval noah harrari and I like it

    • mrclaw69
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 6:23 am | Permalink

      Sapiens is really good in places, but his definition of what constitutes a “religion”, whihc he uses throughout, is waaaaaaaaaay too wishy-washy. And he uses it to prop up some very tenuous and tendentious points.

      Still, overall recommended – just with a pinch of salt.

  35. Perluigi Ballabeni
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Tinbergen, Curious naturalists; Lorenz, King Salomon’s ring; Monod, Chance and necessity; all in Italian translations. Not really science: an autobiography of Darwin in German translation. Krebs and Davies, An introduction to behavioural ecology.

  36. challedon
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    The Eighth Day of Creation
    – Horace Freeland Judson

    One Renegade Cell
    – Robert Weinberg

    The Double Helix
    – James Watson

  37. Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Here’s one not mentioned above, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. It is a wonderful mixture of interesting history, personal travel narrative and very sound science.

    • Posted July 11, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      If I go for things that inspired me as a youngster, there would be Half Mile Down by William Bebe and The Overloaded Ark by Gerald Durrell. Both inspired me to want to do science in a natural history vein. Then, an inspiring college teacher (Daniel Mazia) diverted me off to laboratory science.

    • nicky
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 5:52 am | Permalink

      Yes, “The Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen is definitely one very interesting and inspiring (for conservation) book and should be mentioned in addition to the all the great books mentioned above.
      He stands up for Wallace, although I do not think Darwin was as bad as described. Wallace himself didn’t think so.
      Did anybody mention Matt Ridley’s “The Red Queen”? or Ed Wilson’s “Biodiversity” yet?

  38. µ
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Chance and Necessity, Jacques Monod
    The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus

    • Posted July 12, 2017 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      Agreed. Given your tastes, you could read (if you have not already done so) “Brave genius” by Sean B. Carroll (the biologist, not the physicist). It’s a biography of Monod and Camus and the story of their friendship, explaining why Monod quoted Sisyphus in his book.

      • µ
        Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

        thanks. I did not know about friendship between Monod and Camus. Promise to read Brave Genius.

  39. Tom
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I hesitate to include my own meager example of a book that influenced me decades ago but here goes.
    It was Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
    The reasons are:-
    1) It gave a rational explanation for religion.
    2) Most importantly for the first time I viewed consciousness as a evolutionary process which hasn’t stopped
    Many of Jaynes assertions can be treated with suspicion but the core idea that the brain can continue to evolve I still find intriguing.

    • Posted July 11, 2017 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      The Bicameral Mind was referenced recently in Westworld.

    • Posted July 12, 2017 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      I read that book, or much of it, and detested it. I worked with a diversity of animals and didn’t feel you could simply consider them not conscious. Perhaps, though, that feeling made me miss important parts of the work.

  40. Bob Bottemiller
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    A book more prosaic than the above classics is “The Flying Circus of Physics” by Jearl Walker. It joyfully communicates the basis of much everyday experience. It’s just cool to understand how a whispered utterance next to a wall can be heard by a listener some distance off (but still next to the same wall). As I recall, it is related to the same physics that governs electronic signals down a waveguide.

  41. Posted July 11, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Not a scientist but interested in the natural world. “The Lives of a Cell” by Lewis Thomas, and others by Thomas. As a child, those books about animals and plants with stickers to place in the books, already mentioned. Any and all books about cats written by scientists.

  42. Steve Pollard
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    So many great reads listed above.

    I have one to add in each category – both first read as a schoolboy 50 years ago!

    Popular: Banesh Hoffmann: “The Strange Story of the Quantum”. By a colleague of Einstein; an entertaining, quirky account of what quantum theory looked like by about 1960. Some lovely asides, eg:

    “First we had the luminiferous ether,
    Then we had the electromagnetic ether,
    Now we haven’t e(i)ther”.

    Technical: WC Kaye and TH Labey: “Tables of Physical and Chemical Constants”. I used to love dipping into this book as a would-be chemist; I still do (as a long-lapsed chemist). Needless to say it was one of the most frequently consulted volumes in all the labs I worked in!

  43. chris
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I was inspired by Lawrence Durrell
    “Science is the poetry of the intellect and poetry the science of the heart’s affections.”

  44. darrelle
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    The science books that first got me interested in science were all of the science fiction books on my father’s bookshelves. I can’t remember what I read first, but starting around 8 years old I spent years working my way through them.

    Earlier in life I was more interested in physics and chemistry rather than biology, though I’ve always enjoyed wildlife. I first became interested in biology in the early 2000s at the same time that I became aware of and started following what came to be called New Atheism. So many of the issues involved evolution and so many of the people were biologists I began reading a lot about the biological sciences, from blogs to books.

    A stand out book for me during this phase was Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish. It is like reading an exciting adventure story combined with a convoluted detective story, and it’s all true. And the science is simply fascinating. I wanted (still wouldn’t mind!) to be Neil Shubin. If I could go back to my 1st year of college I’d do it different. Biology and or paleontology.

  45. Raymond Cox
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Anything by Peter Medawar for a combination of readable prose and solid sceptism. His takedown of Teilhard de Chardin is an alltime clasaic.

    I am also a great fan of David Quammen, particularly “Song of the Dodo”.

    And Janet Browne’s masterly 2-volume biography of Darwin.

  46. Scientist
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    As a kid I was a bird watcher, so it was the Petersen field guides that pulled me closer to science. And, the science fiction: Asimov in particular, but also The Illustrated Man (Bradbury), The Martian Chronicles (Bradbury), and Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein), Dune (Herbert).

    • W.Benson
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, most definitely!

      • Colin McLachlan
        Posted July 12, 2017 at 5:48 am | Permalink

        Totally agree, and must add Clarke, and more recently Iain M Banks.

    • Mark R.
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      I’ve read all the authors you mentioned and admire them all. My favorite though would be Herbert. The Dune books are on such a high level of imagination and universe-building it simply blows my mind. Asimov and Bradbury had formidable imaginations as well, but I love sci-fi authors who build a universe from scratch and populate it with memorable characters. Zindell’s Neverness series is right up there with Dune imo.

  47. Steve
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    The God delusion – Dawkins
    A universe from nothing – Lawrence Krause

  48. Mark R.
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    I have favorite science writers moreover than books and have enjoyed every book I’ve read by them. I’m no where near being a scientist, as English Lit was my major, but I’ve always been curious about the natural world and science in general.

    In alphabetical order: Coyne, Darwin, Dawkins, Dennet, Gleick, Gould, Pinker and Sagan.

    I also loved Feynman’s books What Do You Care What Other People Think? and Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman . I know they’re not science books per se, but I laughed a lot and learned a lot.

  49. Posted July 11, 2017 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Children of the Universe
    Hoimar Von Ditfurth.

    Von Ditfurth was a German science writer and broadcaster. He made a TV series “Science in Cross Section”
    Not very impressive title but you know what they say about books and covers.
    4 decades plus 4 living on this planet and this book found me from the possessions of a dead man and his sister. They owned a book shop in a very small town where i never went.
    Strange but true, I still wear his dressing gown with affection and he did not know me.
    This book extinguished any residue of gods and religions and set me down the road of science and yes… wonders.

  50. Jamie
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    So many good books, I can’t remember them all… but the one that popped into mind first is Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. It’s a bit old now but it had a great impact on me.

    Also worth mentioning is Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold by Tom Shachtman. And there was another one that was a history of refrigeration that was fascinating that I read not too long ago, but I can’t remember the details. I think the title was simply Cold, but I don’t recall the author so I can’t look it up.

    And reaching way back into my childhood, Animal Architecture by Karl Von Frisch is (was?) a great book for young people.

  51. Derek Freyberg
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    I’m a chemist by science training, and chemistry books tend to be dry, but Sacks’s “Uncle Tungsten” was a wonderful read on the members of his extended family, and for some of his early chemical experiments.
    Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”, for the development of the sciences – and the arts. I saw the BBC TV series he did first and read the book later.
    Stretching “science” a little:
    science fiction – Neal Stephenson’s “Anathem” has as major premise the survival of the sciences in monastic communities, and a number of his others are loaded with science, plus being fun to read;
    biography, etc. – Michael Lewis’s books explore some fascinating people and their work – I’ve recently read “The Undoing Project” on Kahneman and Tversky and their studies on decision making, and now am on Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.

  52. Posted July 11, 2017 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    My formative era was the 1980s, certainly David Norman’s still effective Dinosaur Encyclopedia jumpstarted my interest in dinosaurs specifically but paleontology generally, Hofstadter’s Godel Escher Bach was a thought-kindling mixture of issues, biological and cognitive, and Gould’s monthly Natural History essays inspired me, even as I avoided snagging on the semicolons.

    Incidently, The Microbe Hunters (which is available free online if you hunt for it) figured oddly as the sole source for British creationist (and working microbiologist) Mark Toleman, an interesting tale I’ll stick a link to at the risk of the wrath of the Moderator.

  53. Ken Pidcock
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    When I graduated high school in 1972, my biology teacher gave me a copy of Dobzhansky’s Genetics of the Evolutionary Process. No way I could understand it nor imagine I ever would. Later, I came to appreciate that it was his way of saying, “You’re going to be a biologist. At some point, you should probably read this.”

  54. Posted July 11, 2017 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Gödel Escher bach, an Eternal Golden Braid is my number one influence. It didn’t start my interest in computers, but it was like pouring petrol on the fire.

    GEB led me to The Mind’s I edited by Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett which is not on my list, but it contained an extract from the Selfish Gene, which led me to read the whole book. The Selfish Gene is my number two influential book because there a paragraph in the chapter on memes that serves as the boundary between faith and rationality for me. At the beginning of it, I was a Christian and at the end of it I was an atheist.

    I guess my number three book is The C programming Language by Kernighan and Ritchie.

    • darrelle
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      “The Selfish Gene is my number two influential book because there a paragraph in the chapter on memes that serves as the boundary between faith and rationality for me. At the beginning of it, I was a Christian and at the end of it I was an atheist.


      • Posted July 12, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        So I am in an exclusive club with Douglas Adams in that we are the two people converted to atheism by The Selfish Gene.

  55. Charles Minus
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    Not a scientist but books that fundamentally influenced my thinking include:
    One Two Three, Infinity (George Gamow)
    Capital (Karl Marx)
    The Mismeasure of Man (and lots of others by S. J. Gould)
    The Language Instinct (Stephan Pinkar)
    Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin)
    Our Mathematical Universe (Max Tegmark)

    • mrclaw69
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 6:18 am | Permalink

      Shubin’s book is great – and *really* easy for the layman.

      I was going to put it in my list, as it does a good job of making a pop-anatomical case for evolution. I decided to put Don Prothero’s What the Fossils Say in instead.

    • Danny Kodicek
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      The Shubin is currently sitting on my Kindle waiting to be read after a recent recommendation from someone else.

      I just gave Mismeasure of Man to my daughter who is about to start her Psychology A-Level

  56. Larry Smith
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    In no particular order, I don’t think, here are the books that come to mind as contributing to, changing, or enriching my way of looking at the world:

    “Nature and Man’s Fate,” Garrett Hardin
    “The Annotated Alice,” Martin Gardner
    “Games People Play,” Eric Berne
    “Why I Am Not a Christian,” Bertrand Russell
    “My Best Games of Chess, 1908-1923,” Alexander Alekhine
    “The Mind’s I,” Hofstadter and others
    Books cited above by the likes of Gould, Eiseley, Lewis Thomas
    the poems of W.B. Yeats, the novels of Thomas Hardy, and anything by Borges

    • rickflick
      Posted July 11, 2017 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

      “Why I Am Not a Christian,” was very important to me as well. Before reading Russell, I hadn’t noticed any important people who declared and explained their atheism.

      • nicky
        Posted July 12, 2017 at 5:56 am | Permalink

        I’ll second that!

  57. Angelica Crottini
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    Here is my list:
    in younger age
    – Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, Last chance to see.
    – all the books of Gerald Durrell

    as a University student (early 2000s)
    – C. Darwin, On the Origin of Species
    – Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda’s Thumb… and basically all his other books (with the exception of Ontogeny and phylogeny, which unfortunately I have not been able to finish… will try again in a few years)
    – Richard Dawkins, the selfish gene.
    – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

    • Danny Kodicek
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 6:45 am | Permalink

      I was a huge Durrell fan as a kid – I even won an opportunity from a Saturday morning TV show to go and stay with him in his zoo for a week. Lovely man.

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 12, 2017 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

        Oh, how wonderful!

  58. pck
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    Selfish Gene and, believe it or not, Speciation 🙂
    I suppose the dozens of dinosaur books I owned as a kid helped me along as well.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 13, 2017 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      Me too re: dinosaur books. I was probably the only kid and definitely the only female that proclaimed at the age of 10, that I wanted to be a palaeontologist.

  59. Posted July 12, 2017 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    There were two books that did it for me – both in the 1970s.
    The Hot-blooded Dinosaurs: a revolution in palaeontology (1975) by Adrian Desmond – latere biographer of Huxley & Darwin. That opened my eyes to the revolutions in palaeontology. Then there were Robert Ardrey’s book, The Territorial Imperative, [& African Genesis & The Social Contract to be honest], which opened me up to thinking about humans as just another animal species. Inspiring.

    • Peter
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 5:44 am | Permalink

      The Hot-blooded Dinosaurs: a revolution in palaeontology (1975) by Adrian Desmond was the topic of coffee conversation in the lab for weeks at that time.
      Robeet Ardrey is very outdated. His theories were formulated before most hominin fossils were found, and his view of man is more of man in his own time than about hominins.

    • nicky
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 5:58 am | Permalink

      Not to mention Robert Bakker’s “The Dinosaur Heresies”. As a youngster I found (and still find) that very inspiring.

  60. mrclaw69
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    I’ll try to cover a few sciences (no particular order). I’m not a scientist (my degree was in philosophy!) – just scientifically inclined:

    1. On The Origin – Charles Darwin (biogeography/evolution)
    2. The Feynman Lectures – Richard Feynman (physics)
    3. Life Ascending* – Nick Lane (biochemistry)
    4. The Ancestor’s Tale – Richard Dawkins (systematic classification/evolution)
    5. Evolution: What the Fossils Say***… – Don Prothero (paleontology)
    6. The Language of the Genes – Steve Jones (genetics)
    7. The Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker (psychology/social science)
    8. Trick or Treatment – Singh/Ernst (medicine)
    9. Guns, Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond (anthropology)

    So many to choose from, this is hard! So many I feel left off!

    *If you haven’t read it please do. I might even say it’s my favourite book on evolution (yes, even beating Darwin!).

    **It’s a bit old now (although there’s an updated edition out I haven’t yet read), but Jones is such a brilliant and witty writer. There are some other good pop genetics books out there (Matt Ridley’s Genome, etc), but Jones is just such a joy to read.

    ***Much as I love a good creationist bashing, I do find Don does it a bit too much in What the Fossils Say. Still, he’s it’s amazingly well researched, and he marshalls the evidence extremely well and logically. It’s the most in-depth paleotology book for the non-specialist I’ve yet found.

    • mrclaw69
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 6:19 am | Permalink

      Tempted to add Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer. Made me (weirdly) learn to love parasites!

      • Danny Kodicek
        Posted July 12, 2017 at 6:40 am | Permalink

        I totally loved that book and as you say, it made me see the world completely differently. A lot of it has become a bit old hat now, it’s been the basis of books, TV shows and video games, but it was completely new and exciting to me when I first read it.

    • Danny Kodicek
      Posted July 12, 2017 at 6:43 am | Permalink

      I think you might actually be me.

  61. Danny Kodicek
    Posted July 12, 2017 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    Oh – and I really recommend Darwin’s Black Box by Behe – it’s totally wrong but it’s very readable and I think it’s always important to read influential things and think about where their errors are – and indeed to apply the same critical thinking to things you *do* agree with.

    In a similar vein, Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind is really fascinating: the first three quarters is one of the best summaries of science, computing and their history I’ve ever read, and then he follows it up by drawing a huge string of completely fallacious conclusions

    • Posted July 12, 2017 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Penrose was one of the reasons I got into philosophy of computing – negatively.

      I still wonder how a mathematician cannot understand what is routinely taught all matter of students in philosophy and computing about the incompleteness theorems and (un)decidability.

      I did find it interesting eventually figuring out that “algorithm” has a slightly stronger usage in mathematics than in computing, which might be part of the problem.

  62. Posted July 12, 2017 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    The Burgess Animal Book for Children was probably the first. (My grandmother used to read it to my father when he was sick. When I was in grade school she gave it to me to read when I was sick. I still have it.) Also a big coffee table book called Evolution, with fascinating pictures, also belonging to my grandmother.

    King Solomon’s Ring. The Herring Gull’s World. In it’s different way, Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds. Those little Golden book field guides. For technical books, Grant’s The Origin of Adaptations.

    I read and enjoyed Speciation. Borrowed it, unfortunately. I mean, I’d like to reread it.

  63. Posted July 12, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    The book that hooked me, when I was maybe six years old, was the award winning children’s book “Red Man, White Man, African Chief — the story of skin color”, by Dr. Marguerite Lerner, copyright 1960. The science in it is still not outdated, though other aspects are, by the politically correct standards of today. Still, it makes clear the fact that race should not be an obstacle to any child’s dreams.

  64. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 13, 2017 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    I thought of some books I didn’t see here yet – Like stones in a river, I toss them to WEIT :

    Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
    Jurassic Park by Michael Chrichton – I note that read this on the rising edge of the biotech boom

    Error Analysis by John Taylor
    Biophysical Chemistry with applications to the Life Sciences – Eisenberg and Crothers

    • Posted July 15, 2017 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      I would add “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein, too. No book have I read as many times as that one.

  65. rickflick
    Posted July 13, 2017 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    It just occurred to me that, while Jerry’s book Why Evolution is True came a little too late to be the initial inspiration for many on this forum, it certainly will be listed by many in the next generation of serious thinkers about the issues we find interesting.

  66. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    Oh and

    The complete Sherlock Holmes needs to be here. Or any list, really.

  67. Posted July 14, 2017 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    Influenced by my early uni books on Zoology and Botany, including Darwin. Later, books by Feynman, Dawkins, Hawking, Coyne, Sacks, Audubon’s Birds of America, Sean Carrol, Krauss, Pinker, Dennett, Norman Doidge, Helen Fisher. Also “An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Redfield Jamison and “When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress” by Gabor Mate.

  68. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    Arrowsmith – Nobelist Lewis’ Pulitzer winner – just got a copy of a 2008 paperback with intro by Sally E. Parry (no idea). How did I never hear of this til now?! Dare I quote this part?!:

    “the scientist is intensely religious — he is so religious that he will not accept quarter-truths, because they are an insult to his faith” (p. 278). Martin Arrowsmith “prayed then the prayer of the scientist”

    !!!! Why Lewis couldn’t simply see the difference between religion and discipline?!

    It appears amazing this was written in 1925, with terms like “synthesis of antibodies”….

    Good call PCC(E)!

  69. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 27, 2017 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    At long last, after hearing about it here, I just started Microbe Hunters – I love this! The writing is lively. I love the biographical organization. Leeuwenhoek is a great opening chapter, I love the historical flavor, etc.

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