Recommended Reading: Science and Nature

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to read at least one book a week, and I have a lot of science books on that list. Here are some of my favorites, and some I’m still looking forward to exploring. If you’re looking to read more science books, too, hopefully you can find some inspiration here.

Evolution is one of my favorite scientific topics to read about, and since it’s become such a hot topic for debate and a lot of schools don’t teach it anymore, it’s important to educate yourself. Two very good introductory books are Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne and The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins*. Both are very accessible even if you aren’t a huge science geek, but you’ll still learn an amazing amount. For something a bit more in depth, I absolutely adored Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. Modeled after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it takes you back through history step by step and describes the major divides in the homo sapien family tree, starting with our split with chimpanzees and reaching all the way back to single celled organisms. It’s a bit more dense than the others I’ve recommended so far, but still fascinating.

General biology is a topic where I need to catch up on my reading. Richard Fortey’s Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth is an overview of prehistoric life. It’s written in language that’s easy for laymen to understand, but still gives a pretty wide knowledge base. Another book that’s been sitting unopened on my shelves for far too long is Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity by Bruce Bagemihl. By now most of us have heard about gay penguins, but this book covers over 190 species where homosexual or transgender behavioral patterns have been observed.

Earth science is another fun topic. Earth: An Intimate History by the same Richard Fortey gives a basic overview of plate tectonics and geological processes, but in a conversational style peppered with interesting historical and modern-day anecdotes. If oceanography is more your speed, Susan Casey’s The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean looks at killer rogue waves and other ocean phenomena while also taking you on a tour of the world’s big-wave surfing hot spots with professional surfers who fly halfway across the globe on a moment’s notice to surf waves approaching 100 feet high. Another oceanography book that’s on my list to read this year is Moby-Duck:
The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hohn. It tells the story of 28,800 rubber ducks and other bath toys that were washed off a cargo ship in 1992 and how they’ve since travelled all over the globe, along with the history and manufacturing of the (actually plastic) toys and the environmental impact of trash in our oceans. (Coincidentally, my copy got destroyed when our garage flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Lee, so I need to pick up another one. Hopefully I can keep it dry next time!)

Eaarth: Making a LIfe on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben is an amazing book on the environment. It details the havoc being wrought by global climate change, the devastating human and economic cost if we do nothing to try to combat it, and suggestions of how we may still be able to turn things around. Many of our current problems were predicted by McKibben in his first book, The End of Nature, back in 1996. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s another one that I’m hoping to get to this year. Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us tackles the environment from another point of view – what would happen if every human being suddenly vanished. Our cities would be destroyed faster than you could possibly imagine, with, for example, NYC’s subways flooding within days and undercutting the skyscrapers above them. However, after some initial chaos due to our abandoned oil refineries catching fire and spreading toxic chemicals and other short-term catastrophes, nature would take over and the earth would be just fine without us. I could wish that Weisman had tied the different sections together for a more cohesive outlook, but it’s still a very interesting read.

I’m still not quite sure how I haven’t gotten around to reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time It’s one of the fundamental books on astronomy, astrophysics, and the nature of time itself. I have read and can highly recommend Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson (y’all knew I’d have to include him!). Apparently there are a lot of ways for the universe to wipe us out and he describes them in gleeful detail, while also lamenting that Hollywood just can’t be bothered to get the night sky right. His The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet is one I still need to read; part of me is still sad about Pluto’s demotion but scientifically I suspect I’ll agree with him once I read the evidence and reasoning behind the decision. I’m also looking forward to the release next week of A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss, which looks at the newest information about how everything in our universe came to exist.

Physics is definitely one of my weakest areas when it comes to reading. Michio Kaku is probably the best known physics writer for popular audiences; both The Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel and The Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 come highly recommended and I’m hoping to get to at least one of them soon. I honestly can’t remember ever reading any chemistry books for fun, so I’d welcome any recommendations.

The last book on my to-read list for now is Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (or at least, it’s the last book that I think anyone else could possibly be interested in!). It’s one of the best selling popular science books out there, and covers a little bit of everything. If the rest of this list seems overwhelming, this one is probably a good place to start.

So what are y’alls favorite science books? Anything that I’ve left out that you’d recommend to your fellow readers? Leave them in the comments below!

*I am aware of the controversies around Dawkins being a big ole sexist jerk, but his books are amazing. I hope no one is offended that I included them, but it’s pretty much impossible to avoid his writings if you want to learn about evolution. For what it’s worth, many have been remaindered and they’re widely available used or in libraries, so it’s easy to get the information without him seeing a single dime of your money.

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

12 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: Science and Nature”

  1. Cool list! I’m also looking forward to A Universe from Nothing – only a few more days! I have a number of favorites in evolutionary biology that may be of interest to you guys. A couple are oldies-but-goodies: Why We Get Sick, by Randolph Nesse and George Williams, is the seminal work on evolutionary medicine, and The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner, is a great account of speciation in action (using Darwin’s Galapagos finches, no less). A fun book on sexual selection is Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, by Olivia Judson. One of the most valuable books I read as an undergrad is The Agile Gene, by Matt Ridley (a student of Richard Dawkins); I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions, but the book’s thesis and original title, Nature Via Nurture, perfectly sums up the solution to the obsolete nature-versus-nurture conundrum.

  2. You mention some of my favorites here! And I love seeing Coyne used to hold down the evolution side of things – he’s a great read. And, BONUS, there are lots of books here I haven’t picked up. Off to the bookstore I go!

    Also, I just want to echo Hillary’s point that Dawkins is a really fantastic evolutionary biologist and his work in that field should be evaluated independently of his work in other areas. He is a clear writer who has real understanding, deep understanding, into the workings of evolution and evolutionary theory.

    1. Coyne’s book was so good! I wound up reading a lot of it out loud trying to get my kiddo to sleep. Have you read Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish”? I loved that one too, but it was a little more geeky so I left it out of the post.

      And besides, where would internet memes be without “The Selfish Gene”?

      1. I did! At the time that I read it, I was expecting it to be more technical (I’m not sure why? I guess that reading scientific papers to the exclusion of other reading material for months and months warped my brain…) but now re-reading it, I just really like it a lot. I have especially vivid memories of his description of the jaw and ear bones through time.

        And seriously! Wasn’t it Shakespeare who once said, “Memes by any other name wouldn’t meme so meme”? Something like that.

  3. I like Bill Bryson’s Short History…, and I also liked Brian Greene’s Elegant Universe.  One of my faves is This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin – it’s for both your left and right brain.  Fun and informative!

    I’d also recommend The Plutonium Files by Eileen Welsome, though it does get a little tedious about 2/3-3/4 the way through.  And of course, since reading about epidemiology was my hobby for about 15 years, I like some oldies like And the Waters Turned to Blood by Barker, and Virus X by Ryan.  For a bit of the macabre, there’s Dead Men Do Tell Tales by William Maples.

    I haven’t been in the science reading mood lately, but I got African American Women Chemists by Jeannette E. Brown for Christmas, and I’m excited to read it.  I stumbled across it while looking for something else on Amazon, and added it to my wish list.  Yay for my sister abiding by my wish list!

    Otherwise, I’m reading humor books right now – currently Mindy Kaling’s book, and then, as soon as it comes out, Baratunde’s.

  4. For what it’s worth, I (a Humanist, indeed) always find Dawkin easier to stomach when I remember he has a silly voice. For me, the science books being read tend to be more in the realm of psychiatry and psychology. However, I will suggest: Head Trip by Jeff Warren, Counting Sheep by Paul Martin, Bonk by Mary Roach and anything by Brian Greene.

    Love your suggestions!

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