Steve Pinker recommends five science books

The A.V. Club put up this video last year of Steve Pinker recommending five science/psychology books that he particularly enjoyed or recommends:

One Two Three Infinity. . . Facts and Speculations of Science by George Gamow

The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World by David Deutsch

How the Mind Works by Pinker Himself

I’ve read all of them save the two by Gamow and Deutsch, and share his enthusiasm for the ones I know. I’ve often given my own recommendations, some of which coincide with Steve’s, and hence needn’t put them here. But readers should feel free to recommend their favorite science books, particularly ones that came out recently.

It has not escaped my attention that my own book escaped Pinker’s attention. But really, it doesn’t belong on a list of books like those.

h/t: Bryan


  1. yazikus
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    I just recommended our host’s book to a friend yesterday. Another book I enjoy is Evolution: A Visual Record by Robert Clark. I got it to read with kiddo prior to a trip with the (YECer) grandparents. It is beautiful.

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I just got One Two Three… Infinity from the library and I really like it. The contrast with modern popular science writing is very interesting.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted April 6, 2019 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      Oh I forgot to recommend-particularly in the old science book category, and particularly for fans of Dava Sobel’s Longitude, – don’t let the title bowl you over – James R. Newman’s The World Of Mathematics – particularly because the modern popular book Longitude by Dava Sobel (this was a best seller) appears heavily drawn from Newman’s volume 2, part V., 3. The Longitude by Lloyd A. Brown (p. 780).

      • yazikus
        Posted April 6, 2019 at 10:05 am | Permalink

        Oh- I tried to read Longitude as a teen and found it hard to get into. I’m thinking I ought to try again?

        • John Taylor
          Posted April 8, 2019 at 7:17 am | Permalink

          That’s one of my favourite books. Discovered it by reading excerpts over the shoulder of a fellow bus rider.

  3. Stephen Barnard
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I’ve read all of them. One Two Three… Infinity was the book most influential in sparking my interest in science and mathematics when I was a kid.

    I’ll recommend another well known classic: The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas.

  4. Steve Pollard
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    I strongly recommend “10 women who changed science and the world”, by Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans”, recently published by Robinson. I should say that one of the authors is a good friend of mine.

    The ten women scientists range from those most of us have heard of (Marie Curie, Dorothy Hodgkin) to the less well-known, such as Henrietta Leavitt and Elsie Widdowson. Each chapter interweaves a brief biography of the subject with a clear account of the science, aimed at the lay reader. The authors show the problems that their subjects faced as women scientists, but resist the temptation to turn them all into feminist icons. The book is well-written and entertaining, and I enjoyed it very much.

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Will always and everywhere recommend Abraham Pais’s, ” Inward Bound”—a history of quantum mechanics. The mathematically illiterate are excused. Chomsky’s, “The Logical Structure of Linquistic Theory”, is another great read. The mathematically literate are equally excused.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted April 6, 2019 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Pais’s biography of Einstein is another good read.

  6. norm walsh
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    The Seven Daughters of Eve by James Sykes got me on the right path years ago.

  7. Christopher
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    I still haven’t read Gamow, but by all accounts he was quite the character.
    In a semi-related vein, I recently stumbled upon videos of Julius Sumner Miller and can’t get enough of his fantastic physics demonstrations and quirky personality. His books, even the so-called mass market paperbacks, are quite pricey online.

    • Rita Prangle
      Posted April 6, 2019 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      One of the Gamow books contains and intro by his son (he was enrolled in the course), who describes his father’s attempt to demonstrate some principle while teaching a lab class. There follows a minor accident, further followed by a series of hilarious mishaps while Prof. Gamow attempts to stop the damage.

  8. rgsherr
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 11:08 am | Permalink


  9. cicely berglund
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Currently reading: by David Reich— ‘who we are and how we got here’
    Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past.
    Up to date from Sykes-The Seven Daughters of Eve’
    Totally absorbing.

  10. Posted April 6, 2019 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    The other Sean Carroll (the developmental biologist) had a new-ish book out called The Serengeti Rules. I absolutely loved it. It is about the history of discovery of how living systems regulate themselves through feedback mechanisms. Of course it describes those mechanisms (how cells regulate their biochemistry and how ecosystems regulate themselves), but this book emphasizes more the lives of the various people who made these discoveries and so created major paradigm shifts in their fields of research. I thought it was going to be ‘merely’ interesting. But it turned out to be fascinating.

    I think the joint resume’ of ‘The Carrolls’ must be pretty impressive.

    • merilee
      Posted April 6, 2019 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the reminder on Serengeti Rules. I have it around, unread, somewhere. Love the “other” Sean Carroll.

    • Posted April 6, 2019 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

      I suggested Sean Carroll to Sean Carroll as a guest on Sean Carroll’s podcast.


      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted April 6, 2019 at 10:57 pm | Permalink


        I’m a fan of Mindscape, Sean Carroll’s podcast.

  11. Posted April 6, 2019 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  12. Posted April 6, 2019 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    neil degrasse tyson: Astrophysics for people in a hurry. Only about 150 pages. Good explanations concerning galaxies, nebula, dark matter, dark energy, radio telescopes, et al.

  13. Charles Kinsley
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    “The Human Use Of Human Beings” by Norbert Weiner

  14. Posted April 6, 2019 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    That’s a good list of… 6 books. I’ve read The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker but the others I will have to add to my queue.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 6, 2019 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

      Another compulsive counter 😉

      It was the first thing I did. Maybe Pinkah could explain how my mind works.

      Not sure if it should go on my shelf alongside the science books or the car workshop manuals. 🙂


  15. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I’ve only read three of the six, the two by Dawkins and Pinker’s one. But then I’ve read all of their books (except Pinkers’s latest -the ‘Enlightenment Now’ one- I bought it but can’t find it).
    I would have added a book by Nick Lane, eg. “Power,Sex, Suicide: mitochondria and the meaning of life” or “The Vital Question”.
    And Shubin’s “Inner Fish” of course.
    I also particularly liked “Out of Eden” by Stephen Oppenheimer. And there is so much more, by Matt Ridley, Steve Jones (I hate he often gives no references), Mithen, Mark Ridley, Quammen, Frans de Waal and many, many more.
    And Jerry, I think you are too modest: either WEIT of FvsF would not have been fanciful at all in that list, methinks

    • dabertini
      Posted April 6, 2019 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. PCC(E)’s chapter on human evolution is hipnotizing

  16. grasshopper
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Gamow’s book can be downloaded at…Infinty19471988. Download the PDF in preference to the other formats which are based on text-recognition scans and are consequently discordantly formatted.
    I liked Gamow’s presentation of Hilbert’s Hotel which illustrate the confounding concept of different sized infinities. (page 17 if you want to cut to the chase)

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 6, 2019 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      That link doesn’t work, unfortunately.


  17. Posted April 6, 2019 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    WEIT is my permanent bedside book.
    A strong contender for top five science books.

  18. merilee
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    David Quammen – The Tangled Tree
    Adam Rutherford –
    David Reich – Who We Are and How We Got Here

    • Joe Dickinson
      Posted April 6, 2019 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

      I like Quammen but it was pointed out previously on this site that “The Tangled Tree” badly overstates the extent to which horizontal gene transfer upsets modern evolutionary theory.

    • phoffman56
      Posted April 6, 2019 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      “Adam Rutherford –” :’A short history of everyone who ever lived’

      and now: ‘Humanimal’

      As to the first, from it I learned (and it’s hard to believe but I do) what a mathematical statistician (Chang IIRC) at Yale some time ago proved:
      As little as 3600 years ago, some human beings lived, each of whom is an ancestor of every human alive today.
      When one thinks about the histories of Australian aboriginals, Greenland Inuit, indigenous Amazonians, Pygmies in Africa, etc., it seems pretty hard to believe at first. But isolation is never complete, and genes spread fast. Rutherford, originally a research geneticist and now a terrific writer, never lets us forget our horniness.

      • merilee
        Posted April 6, 2019 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

        And as Reich reminds us, horniness even with Neanderthals.

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted April 6, 2019 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

        If you have two parents, and four grandparents, and eight great grandparents, etc., and you follow the etc. back a ways, you find that like grains of wheat on a chessboard, it piles up very fast.

        You have 16 ancestors 4 generations back. They each did too, so you have 256 ancestors 8 generations back. They each did too, so you have 65,536 ancestors 16 generations back. They each did too, so you have 4 billion ancestors 32 generations back. Except there weren’t 4 billion people back then, and you’ve gone back only 1,000 years or so.

        So yeah, we are all related a little bit.

        • phoffman56
          Posted April 7, 2019 at 7:57 am | Permalink

          Yes, the exponential increase in the number of genealogical lines backwards, together with the ‘small’ number of people in total, implies there must be many crossings of those lines back from any individual; that is, many who are your ancestors in more than one way.

          But that argument is far too little for Chang’s surprising fact: Suppose that Australian aborigines and Greenland indigenous people (they wouldn’t have been Inuit, maybe Dorset people) had each been settled and completely isolated genealogically since 5,000 years ago. Then they could not possibly have a common ancestor alive 3,600 years ago, despite something like 100 or more generations in 3600 years. The exponential 2**100 is larger then 10**30 (easy from

          2**10=1056 bigger than !0**3=1000)

          And 10**30 (one million trillion trillion) is vastly larger than the number of humans who have ever lived.

          • phoffman56
            Posted April 7, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

            Sorry, 1054.

  19. merilee
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford. I keep mixing up the Reich and the Rutherford titles…

    • phoffman56
      Posted April 6, 2019 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, replied to 18 before reading 19.

      The Reich book certainly seems very important stuff. Negative critics so far are not convincing to me. I wonder whether Reich etc., including Paabo Svante as well, will eventually get a Nobel prize for the ancient DNA techniques and insights.

      • merilee
        Posted April 6, 2019 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

        I’m only 1/4 of the way through the Reich, but it seems very convincing so far. Have read a bunch of short pieces on/by Paabo Svante. Very impressuve guy! Maybe also saw a bit on Nature or Nova a while back?

  20. merilee
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    And sub…

  21. Joe Dickinson
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I have read all but the first and agree that all are excellent. I’ll check my local library for that one.

  22. Posted April 6, 2019 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    If you have had linear algebra, differential equations and calculus, A Quantum Mechanics Primer by Gillespie is good. It gives you the basics behind the 1-d Schrodengier (sp) equations.

  23. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted April 6, 2019 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    I’ve got Pinkah’s The Language Instinct on my to-read pile, right after my current reading of Just For Fun by Linus Torvalds (which, since it deals with the birth of the most ubiquitous operating system kernel on earth, now in everything from refrigerators to smartphones to supercomputers, is one hell of a title 🙂

    The Blind Watchmaker was the first of Richard Dawkins’ books that I read, and it not only blew me away intellectually (in making my atheism logically justifiable by removing any lingering need for ‘Goddidit’) but his prose style was a delight.


    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted April 7, 2019 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      I read that Torvalds book – it was a fun read!

  24. Richard Thomas
    Posted April 7, 2019 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    I will list some besides WEIT (which I like so much that I have bought additional paperbacks and left them here and there, hoping they will be picked up and read.
    Anyway, I take the liberty of listing pretty recent books that I think are especially god and not the classics like The Selfish Gene:
    Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture (I’m currently reading the other Sean Carroll’s Serenghetti Rules)
    Richard Wrangham’s The Goodness Paradox and also his Catching Fire. The Goodness Paradox
    Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back.
    Daniel Fairbanks’ Evolving: The Human Effect and Why it Matters.
    David Wooton’s The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution.
    Robert Hazen’s The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years From Stardust to Living Planet.

  25. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted April 7, 2019 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    As a list of science books, I note it has a common problem of presenting overreach. Deutsch is an overreach philosopher, and while Sean makes a lot of nice points I don’t embrace his overreach framing of reality.

    The last best book I read was Brian Greene’s “The Elegant Universe” – the string/brane theory parts should keep.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted April 7, 2019 at 7:08 am | Permalink

      What is “overreach” – is it what I think it is – a sort of extending things too far?

      I like that Deutsch book.

    • phoffman56
      Posted April 7, 2019 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      If “overreach” refers only to:

      1/ Deutsch’s strong advocacy of the Everett (many-worlds) interpretation of quantum theory; and

      2/ more generally his strong stance that theoretical science as a human activity is for its explanatory value, not merely as a calculational device to check agreement with experiment (e.g. the utterly unobservable live (non-bird) dinosaur is more than such a device for most paleontologists!);

      then I’d disagree.

      However, Torbjorn was likely referring to other aspects of Deutsch’s philosophy as well. However Sean is also an Everett advocate IIRC.

  26. elissa
    Posted April 7, 2019 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I very much enjoyed reading Dennett’s – Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

    • merilee
      Posted April 7, 2019 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Dennett’s book was terrific!

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