Here I have highlighted my favorite works of science fact.
Isaac Asimov – Physics and More
- Understanding Physics: Motion, Sound, and Heat (1966, Dorset Press, ISBN 0451626621)
- Understanding Physics: Light, Magnetism, and Electricity (1966, Dorset Press, ISBN 0451626354)
- Understanding Physics: The Electron, Proton, and Neutron (1966, Dorset Press, ISBN 0451626346)
Asimov’s talents as a science popularizer exceeded his gifts in science fiction. This classic work, often available as three separate and independent volumes, is a splendid overview of basic physics. Asimov’s conversational style and judicious use of history helps smooth the way.
- The Left Hand of the Electron (1972, Doubleday & Company, ISBN 0440947170)
This charming collection of Asimov’s essays for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction between 1970-72 is a great example of his far-reaching interests and success at writing about almost any subject.
Eric J. Chaisson – Astronomy
- The Hubble Wars (1994, HarperCollins, ISBN 0674412559)
Chaisson was a senior scientist of the Space Telescope Science Institute. His book’s true value lies not in its astronomy, but in its tale of the Hubble’s troubles. It is a valuable insight into the outrageous world of “big science”.
Robert X. Cringely – Computers
- Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date (1996, HarperBusiness, ISBN 0887308554)
The librarian has read a number of tomes on computer history, from Basic Book’s Computers to Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine to exposés of Apple and IBM. Cringely’s is the best of the bunch. He is acerbic, irreverent, and most importantly, insightful. He offers marvelous analogies and goes beyond the usual reportive recitation to offer the reader glimpses not only into the amusing and amazing foibles of computer industry leaders, but also to see how and why America leads in this field.
Timothy Ferris – Cosmology
- Coming of Age in the Milky Way (1988, William Morrow & Co., ISBN 0385263260)
Ferris teaches science writing and astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. The above masterwork won the 1988 American Institute of Physics Prize. It tells the story of how, through the workings of science, our species has arrived at its current estimation of the dimensions of cosmic space and time.
Ronald Florence – Astronomy
- The Perfect Machine: Building the Palomar Telescope (1994, HarperCollins, ISBN 0060926708)
Florence shows the birth of big science in his fascinating tale of technology and tenacity.
Martin Gardner – Physics and Pseudoscience
- The Night Is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995 (1996, St. Martin’s Griffin, ISBN 0312169493)
Gardner was born in Tulsa and once worked for the Tulsa Tribune. He has authored over sixty books and edited the Mathematical Games column for Scientific American for years. His prose is unusual in its clarity of thought. This collection of essays shows his far-ranging interests: physical science, social science, pseudoscience, mathematics, the arts, philosophy, and religion. This book actually lives up to its blurb: “A superb volume, a mansion of a book.”
- Relativity for the Million (1962, Macmillan, ISBN 0025425404)
The above book is the best conceptual introduction to special and general relativity I know of, and for all his mathematical expertise, Gardner manages to hold himself to only a handful of equations. A few parts of the book are dated, mainly the discussion of the now discredited steady-state theory of the universe. Nevertheless, this is the book to read if you want to know what in the world Einstein was talking about. Vintage issued a revised paperback edition of this book in 1976 entitled The Relativity Explosion (ISBN 0394721047).
- Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus (1981, Prometheus Books, ISBN 0-87975-573-3)
This sequel to Gardner’s much earlier Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science tackles the pseudosciences. Gardner’s critiques of ESP, faith healing, psychokinesis, psychic surgery, and Uri Geller are devastating and delightful. Gardner satirizes, humorizes, and always informs. If you were tempted to read Carl Sagan’s last book, The Demon-Haunted World, read this one instead.
James Gleick – Modern Society
- Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (1999, Panethon/Random House, ISBN 0-679-40837-1)
Best known for his books Chaos: Making a New Science and the Richard Feynman biography Genius, Gleick is much more readable and enjoyable here with his visit to the Directorate of Time and many short muses on the acceleration we sense, abhor, and embrace in our everyday living. The book is notable for its clever prose that goes beyond the reportorial style of many technology books.
Stephen Jay Gould – Natural History
- The Mismeasure of Man (1981, Norton, ISBN 0393314251)
Gould was a renowned Harvard professor of biology, geology, and history of science. Above is his classic on the ignoble origins of the intelligence tests, craniometry, and other misguided efforts to measure man. A recent edition includes an attack on the infamous “Bell Curve” book.
- The Reflections in Natural History Collections – Gould began writing his monthly “This View of Life” column in Natural History Magazine in January 1974. This is the origin of most of the essays in the following collections, an eclectic sampling from this master of science popularization and true polymath. The descriptions of the first five collections come from Gould himself.
- Ever Since Darwin (1977, W.W. Norton & Co., ISBN 0393308189)
This collection centers upon the basic explication of Darwinian principles.
- The Panda’s Thumb (1980, Norton, ISBN 0393308197)
Develops the largely unrecognized extensions and corrections to Darwinism that run so counter to many sociocultural hopes and expectations (as in the principle of imperfection embodied in the title example).
- Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (1983, Norton, ISBN 0393311031)
The central focus is the attack of “creation science” (biblical literalism) upon teaching evolution, and the victories both in courtrooms and in cogent and decent argument.
- The Flamingo’s Smile (1985, Norton, ISBN 0393303756)
Emphasizes the importance of randomness and unpredictability in the history of life.
- Bully for Brontosaurus (1991, Norton, ISBN 039330857X)
Combines the themes of the mechanics of Darwinism with the unpredictability of complex temporal sequences to form a full scale disquisition on the nature of history and its primary theme of contingency.
- Eight Little Piggies (1993, Norton, ISBN 0393311392)
- Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995, Harmony Books, ISBN 0517888246)
- Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (1998, Three Rivers Press/Random House/Harmony Books, ISBN 0-609-80475-8)
- Ever Since Darwin (1977, W.W. Norton & Co., ISBN 0393308189)
Leon Lederman (with Dick Teresi) – Physics
- The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? (1993, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0385312113)
Lederman is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who ran Fermilab for a decade. His brilliance and wit make this an entertaining read, lifting the veil of respectability and showing that physicsists are human too. With his “old friend” Democritus (of atomic fame), Lederman takes the reader on a romp through two thousand years of atomic theory, eventually giving insight into why we spent several billion dollars on the never-finished superconducting supercollider.
Robert W. Lucky – Information Theory
- Silicon Dreams: Information, Man, and Machine (1989, St. Martin’s Press, ISBN 0-312-05517-X)
Lucky was the executive director of research for Bell Labs when he received the 1987 Marconi Fellowship and wrote this excellent book. It is a clear and lucid introduction to information theory. Lucky deals with the representation of information in varying formats, including text, speech, and graphical images. I’ve never seen information theory so clearly presented, so if you are curious as to how ZIP files work or why the recently approved high-definition television will rely on MPEG-2 video compression, this is a great place to start.
Desmond Morris – Anthropology
- The Naked Ape (1967/1984, McGraw-Hill/Laurel/Dell/Bantam Doubleday Dell, ISBN 0-440-36266-0 or 0385334303)
This controversial book takes you apart and claims that much of your behavior reflects your evolutionary heritage. While you may not agree with every part of his analysis, Morris will certainly entertain you, and you’ll likely find yourself nodding and laughing as you read this work. Self-reflection may reveal the hairy beast lurking under your clothes.
Henry Petroski – Engineering
- To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (1982, Random House, ISBN 0679734163)
Petroski, a civil engineering professor at Duke, explores the relationship between success and failure by analyzing and explaining a series of famous disasters precipitated by flaws in engineering design. A later work, Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering, is similar but suffers from a lack of detail. The same charge cannot be levelled at his works The Evolution of Useful Things or The Pencil, for they would actually benefit from a Reader’s Digest-style condensation.
Michael Rubin – Computer Graphics
- Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution
This is an expensive book because it is incredibly detailed with scads of helpful illustrations. Take a look at how computer graphics evolved and revolutionized the movie industry, with a focus on both the technological breakthroughs as well as the business side of the digital revolution.
Oliver Sacks – Neurology
- An Anthropologist on Mars (1995, Alfred A. Knopf/Vintage, ISBN 0679756973)
Sacks is perhaps best known for Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The above book is also a case history collection, and Sacks combines empathy, intellectual curiosity, and brain physiology in his most readable prose. The cases will fascinate and perhaps haunt you.
Carl Sagan – Astronomy and Biology
- The Dragons of Eden (1977, Random House, ISBN 0345346297)
It probably seems strange to see Carl Sagan listed for a treatment of biology, for his fame rests upon his popularization of astronomy and his memorable Cosmos PBS television series. The librarian, however, found the above text on the evolution of human intelligence to be this Pulitzer prize-winning author’s most compelling work. The earlier Broca’s Brain on “the romance of science” is also worthy of attention, while the later Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is tedious for the lay reader.
- Cosmos (1980, Random House, ISBN 051712355X or 0394715969)
This book is based upon the thirteen-part series Sagan created and hosted for public television. Avoid the regular-sized paperback edition like the plague; you must have the hard-bound edition with its 250 full-color illustrations or the large paperback version to appreciate this work.
Simon Singh – Codes and Ciphers
- The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography (1999, Doubleday/Random House, ISBN 0385495315)
This is by far the most readable book on codes and ciphers I have encountered. Singh superbly explains the ciphers of the past, present, and future and the methods of codebreaking. He avoids bogging down in details yet fully explains the basic principles of each cipher, including its shortcomings. He is careful to intersperse the dryer parts with interesting anecdotes and historical information, bringing a balanced and nuanced approach to the subject.
Dava Sobel – Instrumentation/Biography
- Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love (1999, Walker Publishing Company, ISBN 0802713432)
A lovely story expressed in a magnificently conceived and executed hardcover edition; no future “electronic” book will ever match up to this wonderful tome. Sobel guides the reader through Galileo’s life with clear prose punctuated with wonderful letters to him from his daughter Suor Maria Celeste, aka Virginia Galilei. Sobel has a clear grasp of how Galileo’s religious faith co-existed with his search for physical truth, and her storytelling leaves one in tears at how love can transcend all things.
- The Illustrated Longitude (1998, Walker Publishing Company, ISBN 0-8027-1344-0)
Science writer Sobel’s little book Longitude was a smash hit in 1995. It told the fascinating story of the longitude puzzle and prize, which was eventually claimed by one John Harrison. The illustrated version of the same book is a treasure, with all of the charm of the original tome and much more.
Hans Christian von Baeyer – Physics
- The Fermi Solution: Essays on Science (1993, Random House, ISBN 0-679-40031-1)
von Baeyer is a physics professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and is a mesmerizing writer of prose. He has won several literary prizes, and three of the essays in the above collection received a National Magazine Award. von Baeyer pursues the following question in this collection: “What do the breakthroughs and revolutionary insights at the cutting edge of science mean for ordinary people?” You’ll enjoy his answers.
Gary Zukav – Physics
- The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (1979, William Morrow, ISBN 0-553-26382-X)
Zukav’s entrancing book strips the mathematics off of quantum physics and allows the layman to plumb its mysteries. Zukav’s style is exciting and clear, but you’ll have to forgive his occasional excesses as he dances his way into Eastern mysticism. Stick with the physics and enjoy – the movement you need is on your shoulder.