Tuesday, 3 September 2013

As if my reading pile (...well - heap, really) weren't big enough already

As a few people on Twitter have pointed out, I have been seriously neglecting my blog of late.  I mean to remedy that, starting now.

I've been doing a lot of reading lately on the sciences, but I find that my lack of any formal education in any scientific discipline gives me real problems with knowing where to go for good information.  Lacking any sort of grounding in the basics, I dip in and out of subjects with various books, and never really know how broad a scope I gain from doing so.  I can't be the only layperson to be frustrated by this problem, so I asked people on Twitter for their suggestions.  I'm going to list these recommendations here along with some of my own, and I intend to keep updating this post in the hope that it might serve as a useful resource for people in a similar situation to my own.  I've linked all the kind Tweeps who contributed below; please follow and show some love!  Oh, and as always - comment below if you've any suggestions of your own, or comments on any of the books here recommended.

There is a (sort of) system here; if it's in bold I've read it; if it's not I haven't (yet!) and I'm passing it on based on somebody else's recommendation.

Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Great grounding in the basics and history of science, although upon rereading about a year ago I noticed a few bits among the physics stuff that's now out of date. Recommended by lots of people!

R. Barker Bausell: Snake Oil Science

George Hrabovsky: The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics

Terry Pratchett (with others): The Science of Discworld series.  This should only be half-bolded since I've only read some of them, but those I've read I enjoyed (and understood!) and you can never have too much Pratchett in your life

Stephen Hawking: The Universe in a Nutshell

Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time.  One of those books I read avidly, more or less understood at the time although I had to read some pages twice, and now can't remember very well.  A reminder to me to reread!

Christopher Lloyd: What on Earth Happened? and What on Earth Evolved?

John Gribbin: In Search of Schrodinger's Cat and The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of its Greatest Inventors.

Peter Atkins: Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science

Armand Marie Leroi: Mutants.  A beautifully written book on embryology and evolution, reads like classical literature but full of meaty science (and a few gory bits)

Brian Cox: Wonders of Life, Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe.  Lots of recommendations for these!

Thomas S Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Lawrence Krauss: A Universe from Nothing. Brilliant and baffling.  I got about ten pages in before going back to Amazon and ordering Krauss's Fear of Physics to read first

Sherry Seethaler: Lies, Damned Lies, And Science

Richard Dawkins: The Greatest Show on Earth and Climbing Mount Improbable.  Oh, and The Magic of Reality, which bruised my ego by forcing me to wonder why I hadn't wondered about these things before.

Hugh Aldersley-Williams: Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements

Paul Davies: About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution

Charles Darwin: On the Origin of Species.  OK, a bit obvious.  And if you're anything like as impressionable as I am you'll speak like a Victorian for a week after finishing it.  But it's fascinating both historically and scientifically, and a model for clarity of reasoning and expression.

Richard Feyman: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.  I want to bold this, but can't honestly do so.  It's been on my bookshelf for months, but it's not doing me a lot of good there!

Matt Ridley: The Red Queen.  Another book I need to reread, dense but fascinating.  And it's about sex, so there's that.

Matt Ridley: Genome and The Rational Optimist. Also on my bookshelf.  I'm going to find time to read them, I swear.

Marcia Bartusiak: The Day We Found the Universe

Ben Goldacre: Bad Pharma and Bad Science

Daniel Dennett: Darwin's Dangerous Idea.  Dennett makes my brain hurt, but in a good way.

Ullica Segerstrale: Nature's Oracle: The Life and Work of W D Hamilton.  Reading this at the moment.  Not wonderfully written, but fascinating and contains lots of weighty science in Hamilton's own words.

Brian Greene: The Fabric of the Cosmos

Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the last 13,000 Years

Murray Gell-Mann: The Quark and the Jaguar

Victor Stenger: God: the Failed Hypothesis.  Hesitated about recommending this one, because for my money it would have been a better book (albeit one with far fewer sales) without the God stuff.  But the science is interesting and accessible, so recommended for that.

Jerry Coyne: Why Evolution is True

Michael Shermer: Why Darwin Matters: The Caste against Intelligent Design.  This one I found to be just a little too basic, although engagingly written; but it's interesting to know what the enemy is thinking...

Donald Prothero: Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters

Martin Nowak: Supercooperators: Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour

Carl Sagan: Cosmos.  I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't read this one!

Steve Jones: Almost Like a Whale: The Origin of Species Updated.  Clear, easy to read and entertaining.

Sam Harris: The Moral Landscape.  I find Harris heavy going, but his ideas and the information upon which he bases them are interesting so this is worth sticking with.

Adrian Forsyth: A Natural History of Sex: The Ecology and Evolution of Mating Behaviour

Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries

Stuart Firestein: Ignorance: How it Drives Science

Chris Impey: How It Began: A Time-Traveler's Guide to the Universe

Neil Shubin: The Universe Within

...riiight.  I spend my entire life with my nose in a book.  I read in the shower, FFS.  How can I have read so few of these?!  In my defense, I have neither my bookcase  nor my Kindle in front of me to remind me of books I have read, and I've also read an awful lot of science books I wouldn't recommend.  But still, the paucity of bolded, "read" books in that list is pretty damning, I'm sincerely embarrassed by that.  To Waterstones!

(And I may amend this post later when I've gotten home and looked at my bookcase, to make myself feel better.)

*     *     *

My thanks to loads of helpful Tweeps:  @IntenseGas @One_Trick_Pony_ @geoffsshorts @mart_brooks @KeefJudge @weyendrote @Patricknising @tauriqmoosa @GasDocGraeme @NickSpellman @tcc300892 @NotungSchwert @Patchlaythe @neilhanman @neilenator @gomijacogeo @Metamagician @JDofAndersonia @Andrew_Hulme @Graham_Gowland @thelandlord28 @robhuntvarg @Timlove_1981 @bobgeoghegan @MarkTBullets @Christo_77 @Kyle_McEvoy @heafnerj @Alexdurrant7 @MiguelOSilva @MikeyM_101 @joatca @ingStHawk @talace @MCGiorgi @MrMRM513 @hitchfan1 @ThejemR @bradparkin @RLHyde @tchrquotes @bigrumdaddy @willCpierce @crash121ss @Christoph_er @Shadow_ofaDoubt @vomatt @perisabil


  1. I would suggest you skip Cosmos. It's very, very dated at this point. There is a lot of good history of science in it, if you like that sort of thing.

    Gribbon has also done "In search of the Big Bang" which was good... also dated (I read them in high school which was longer ago than I care to think about).

    You should add Shubin's "Your Inner Fish". It's very well written.

    Also Sagan's Demon Haunted World is a good read.

  2. Snake Oil Science is very good, and covers the topic in more detail, and better, than other, similar books.

  3. I have some of them in PDF here:

    How can you read in the shower?? I do listen books in the shower, here's some audiobooks from Bryson, Feynman, Pinker, Sagan, Dawkins, Russel and Chomsky