Perhaps the best writer in the field of biology is Darwin, whose most famous works are On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, and The Voyage of the Beagle. The Norton Critical Edition of Darwin’s writings is a useful one-volume abridgement. The Voyage of the Beagle is both a travel book and a science book; I recommend it highly; it can be compared to Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels... and Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago.
For more on Darwin’s theory, consider Edward Larson’s book, Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. Larson also wrote An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science. Consider also Alan Moorehead’s Darwin and the Beagle. Moorehead is best known for The White Nile and The Blue Nile, both of which deal with explorers in Africa.
During Darwin’s lifetime, one of his staunchest supporters was the biologist Thomas Huxley, dubbed “Darwin’s Bulldog.” Thomas Huxley’s grandson, Julian Huxley, was a famous biologist in the early to mid twentieth century. Though a leader in the field, Julian often wrote for a lay audience. One of his chief works was Evolution: The Modern Synthesis.
Gavin de Beer was a contemporary of Julian Huxley. In the 1930s, de Beer collaborated with Huxley on a study of embryology. De Beer’s writings on evolution won high praise from Stephen Jay Gould. For his popular-science writings, de Beer received UNESCO’s Kalinga Prize. De Beer was at home in the humanities as well as the sciences. He wrote two books about Hannibal, Rome’s nemesis. Perhaps de Beer’s chief love was The Alps; he wrote several books about The Alps, and he wrote about people connected to Switzerland and The Alps, such as Gibbon, Rousseau, and Hannibal.
Another famous biologist from this generation was J.B.S. Haldane, whose books are “still thoroughly readable and instructive” (according to Bill Bryson). Adventures of a Biologist is one of Haldane’s titles; another is What is Life?. Haldane’s remarks on “test tube babies” influenced Aldous Huxley’s futuristic novel, Brave New World.
In the 1970s, Lewis Thomas became a popular writer on biology and medicine. His first collection of essays was called The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. Thomas had a keen interest in words, and wrote a book on etymology called Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher.
Like Thomas, Stephen Jay Gould was a popular writer on biology, and like Thomas, Gould published several essay-collections that were aimed at a general audience. Gould’s first essay-collection, Ever Since Darwin, was published in 1977 and became a bestseller. Gould also wrote larger-scale works, such as Wonderful Life, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, and the massive Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which attempts to summarize the current state of evolutionary biology, as Julian Huxley had attempted to do sixty years earlier with his Evolution: The Modern Synthesis.
A good general work on biology is A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology, by Jim Endersby.
If you want to read about man’s impact on nature, consider Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People. Also consider two books by William Cronon: Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England and Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Cronon also edited a book called John Muir: Nature Writings. Muir is a fine stylist and a deep thinker; he deserves comparison with Thoreau and John Burroughs. Tom Wessels wrote a highly-regarded book called Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England. An interesting book on the watery part of the world is Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky.
A popular book by a scientist on the cutting-edge of knowledge is James Watson’s The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (available in a Norton Critical Edition).
One of the leading biology writers today is Colin Tudge. Tudge has found a “happy medium” between scholarly and popular. Tudge has written about trees, birds, genetics, etc. Tudge wrote a tome called The Variety of Life: A Survey and a Celebration of All the Creatures That Have Ever Lived, which traces the ascent of life from the first organisms to the present time. Richard Dawkins traces the descent of life from the present time to the first organisms in a book called The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. Dawkins spices science with stories and anecdotes.
Another leading biology writer is Richard Fortey. Fortey became interested in the field as a youngster; he found his first trilobite fossil when he was 14. One of his books is on trilobites, another is on fossils. One of Fortey’s books is called Life: An Unauthorized Biography: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth. Fortey deals with geology in Earth: An Intimate History. As Stephen Jay Gould was associated with New York’s Museum of Natural History, so Fortey is associated with London’s Museum of Natural History (Fortey wrote a book about the museum called Dry Storeroom no. 1).
A good book about Mendel is The Monk in the Garden, by Robin Henig. Henig also wrote Pandora’s Baby, which deals with in-vitro fertilization (“test-tube babies”).
If you’re interested in early man, consider
If you want to learn about the human body and medical science, consider the works of Sherwin Nuland, such as The Wisdom of the Body. Nuland writes about contemporary medicine and also about the history of medicine. He even ventured beyond medicine, writing biographies of Maimonides and Leonardo.
Another medical writer, from a later generation, is Atul Gawande. Gawande is a Boston surgeon who has written several popular books, including Complications and Better. An English doctor, Gabriel Weston, wrote an acclaimed book called Direct Red, which describes her work as a surgeon. Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote an award-winning book called The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.
Consider also the alternative-medicine writers, like Gabor Maté, author of When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection. Robert Sapolsky, who studied baboon groups, wrote a well-known study of stress, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.
Tracy Kidder wrote a bestseller about fighting disease in poor nations; it’s called Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World.
The British writer Roy Porter wrote a history of medicine called The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity. Porter also wrote about the British Enlightenment and British social history.
A classic on the interface of medicine and biology is Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters, which discusses Pasteur and other explorers of the microscopic world.
Oliver Sacks is a neurologist who has written about people with brain problems. Among his books are Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, and Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.
Gary Zukav makes modern physics accessible to the layman. Zukav’s book, The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics, was a bestseller in many countries. Zukav is interested in philosophy and the occult, and he brings out the philosophical significance of quantum physics. Another popular book about modern physics is Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. David Kaiser, an MIT professor, recently wrote How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival. Another recent book on this subject is Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality, by Manjit Kumar.
George Gamow was a leading physicist who wrote numerous works of popular science, such as Gravity and Biography of Physics. Stephen Hawking wrote a bestseller called A Brief History of Time; later Hawking wrote The Universe in a Nutshell, A Briefer History of Time, and other works. Another scientist who wrote for a general audience is Carl Sagan; Sagan wrote Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, Comet, Cosmos (a book version of the popular documentary), etc. Timothy Ferris is a journalist and science writer who often writes about astronomy; his best-known book is Coming of Age in the Milky Way. If you want a historical perspective on astronomy, consider Watchers of the Sky: an Informal History of Astronomy From Babylon to the Space Age, by Willy Ley.
If you want to learn about Einstein, consider Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson (Isaacson also wrote biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, etc.). Abraham Pais wrote Subtle is the Lord: The science and the life of Albert Einstein. Like Richard Fortey, Pais received the Lewis Thomas Prize, which is given to a science writer whose work is poetic and philosophical. In addition to his study of Einstein, Pais wrote a study of Niels Bohr, a history of modern physics (Inward Bound: Of matter and forces in the physical world), a book about twelve physicists (The Genius of Science: A Portrait Gallery), and other works.
One of the most popular and readable books about Einstein is E=mc2, by David Bodanis. Bodanis also wrote a history of electricity, Electric Universe, which won the Aventis Prize, and a book about the science of everyday things, The Secret House (the hardcover version has photos).
One of the few modern novelists who was also an authority on modern science was the British novelist, C. P. Snow. In addition to fiction and literary criticism, Snow wrote The Physicists, which contains lively sketches of leading modern physicists. Snow is best known for his lecture “The Two Cultures,” in which he laments the rift between the humanities and the sciences in the modern world — laments the fact that literary people are ignorant of science and vice versa.
Steven Shapin is a Harvard professor and the author of Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (co-written with Simon Schaffer). Shapin also wrote The Scientific Revolution. Dava Sobel wrote several popular science books, including Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter, a study of the planets, and a study of Copernicus.
Erik Larson wrote about the development of wireless communication in Thunderstruck, which tells the stories of the scientist Marconi and the murderer Dr. Crippen. (Larson has written other popular non-fiction books, including The Devil in the White City, which is about a series of murders that occurred in Chicago in 1893, during the World’s Fair.) James Gleick discussed the digital revolution in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. Gleick is also known for Chaos: Making a New Science, and he wrote biographies of Newton and Feynman.
Philip Ball has written several well-regarded books about chemistry, including The Elements: A Very Short Introduction and Elegant Solutions: Ten Beautiful Experiments in Chemistry. Primo Levi (mentioned earlier for his Auschwitz memoir) wrote a fictional work, The Periodic Table, which deals with chemistry; in 2006, it won a competition for best science book ever. Cathy Cobb has written some popular books on chemistry, such as Creations of Fire: Chemistry’s Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age (co-written with Harold Goldwhite). Sam Kean has written several popular science books in recent years: The Disappearing Spoon deals with the periodic table; The Violinist’s Thumb deals with genetics; and The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons deals with the brain.
Sharon McGrayne wrote about applications of chemistry in modern industry (Prometheans in the Lab: Chemistry and the Making of the Modern World). Another book about applied science is Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which is both scholarly and readable, and won numerous awards. A well-regarded book about the space program is Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts; it’s about 700 pages long. A shorter book, focusing on one space flight, is Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13.
A popular introduction to many different sciences is Bill Bryson’s book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson’s book is anecdotal rather than profound, fun rather than philosophical. But if you’re a stranger to science, Bryson’s Short History might be the perfect book. The bibliography and footnotes are useful, and can lead you to further study. The illustrated version is also useful; I suggest reading the text-only version first, then flipping through the illustrated version to review what you learned. Like Lewis Thomas, Bryson is interested in words; Bryson wrote a book called The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way.
John Gribbin has written numerous books on the history of science. Like Tudge’s books, Gribbin’s books are both scholarly and popular. While Tudge focuses on biology, Gribbin focuses on physics and astronomy; one of Gribbin’s best-known books is In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat: Quantum Physics And Reality. But Gribbin also deals with biology in books like The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors. By the time Gribbin was 60, he had written more than 100 books.
An even more prolific writer on science, from an earlier generation, was Isaac Asimov, who wrote more than 500 books. Asimov is best known for his science fiction, such as The Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation); this trilogy has been called the best science fiction ever written. If you want a quick taste of Asimov’s science fiction, consider his short story “Nightfall,” which is often called the best science-fiction short story.1 Asimov was considered one of the Big Three of science fiction, along with Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke.
Asimov also wrote many non-fiction books about science, such as A Short History of Chemistry and Asimov’s New Guide To Science, which attempts to survey all branches of science.2 Asimov’s writing is clear and readable; he makes science interesting, without sugar-coating it with lots of anecdotes. Asimov wrote many books for young readers. He also wrote many historical works, such as The Greeks; some of his historical works are suitable for young readers.
If you want to learn about geology, consider James Powell’s Mysteries of Terra Firma and Jon Erickson’s Plate Tectonics. Consider also the books of John McPhee, such as Rising from the Plains. Simon Winchester wrote about the history of geology in The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology.3
John Derbyshire has written two well-regarded books on the history of math: Unknown Quantity: A Real And Imaginary History of Algebra, and Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics.
In recent years, several books have been written about scientific societies. One of the most acclaimed is The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, by Jenny Uglow (also called The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future: 1730-1810). The five friends are
Another book about a scientific club is The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World, by Laura Snyder. This book deals with four 19th-century English scientists: William Whewell, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and Richard Jones.
Louis Menand wrote about a group of philosophers in The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. The people in this club were William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., etc. For more on William James, consider the biography by Robert Richardson. Consider also A Stroll With William James, by Jacques Barzun. If you want to read James himself, Richardson edited an anthology, The Heart of William James.
Lisa Jardine, whom I mentioned earlier in connection with Francis Bacon, wrote a well-regarded book about the Scientific Revolution, Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution. John Gribbin focused on the English role in the Scientific Revolution in The Fellowship: The Story of a Revolution.
Richard Holmes wrote The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. The Age of Wonder is a nice blend of history, biography, and science; it pays special attention to the astronomer William Herschel and the chemist Humphry Davy. Holmes also wrote acclaimed biographies of Coleridge and Shelley, and a book called Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage.
Humphry Davy’s protégé was Michael Faraday, who in turn was a mentor of the young James Clerk Maxwell. Faraday and Maxwell are the subjects of a book by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon: Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics. And Mahon wrote a short, readable book called The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell.
Todd Buchholz has written some acclaimed books on economics, such as From Here to Economy: A Shortcut to Economic Literacy, and New Ideas from Dead Economists: An Introduction to Modern Economic Thought. Buchholz is known for predicting economic events, such as the problems in the Eurozone. He has academic experience (he received a teaching award from the Harvard Economics Department), business experience (he was a hedge fund director), and political experience (he served in the White House under Bush père).
A similar writer, from an earlier generation, is Robert Heilbroner, who’s best known for The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers. Heilbroner also co-wrote (with Lester Thurow) Economics Explained, which went through several editions in the 1980s and 1990s. Thomas Sowell, a prominent conservative thinker, wrote a popular book called Basic Economics.
Randy Charles Epping deals with the basics of international economics in his popular book The 21st Century Economy: A Beginner’s Guide (this book is an updated version of Epping’s earlier book A Beginner’s Guide to the World Economy).
Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith were both born in the early 1900s; Friedman was a leading conservative economist, Galbraith a leading liberal economist. When Galbraith made a 15-hour documentary on economics, Friedman responded with his own documentary. Among Friedman’s books are Money Mischief: Episodes in Monetary History, and a more general work called Free to Choose. Among Galbraith’s books are
Galbraith was more literary, less mathematical, than today’s economists. He wrote several novels, including A Tenured Professor.
A classic on the stock market is Edwin Lefèvre’s Reminiscences of a Stock Operator. Alan Greenspan called Lefèvre’s book “a font of investing wisdom.” I recommend the edition annotated by Jon Markman and published by Wiley.
Michael Lewis’ first book was Liar’s Poker (1989), which described his experiences on Wall Street. Later he wrote The Big Short, which dealt with the economic crisis of 2008, and Boomerang, which dealt with how the 2008 crisis affected Iceland, Greece, Ireland, etc. Lewis wrote about baseball in Moneyball, and about football in The Blind Side. He’s a lively writer, and many of his books have been bestsellers.
Nassim Taleb is best known for The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Taleb thinks that people often assume that the future will resemble the past, people make the mistake of predicting the future based on the past. Taleb thinks that unforeseen events, like the 9/11 attacks, have a major impact on the markets, and on history in general; he calls such events “black swans.” Although Taleb is an investor, and a very successful one, he often writes in a philosophical vein; he says that only four pages of Black Swan deal with investing.
Taleb liked to buy options, which did well if the market collapsed. He criticized sellers of options, saying that they presumed to predict the future, and weren’t prepared for black-swan events. One such seller of options was a firm called Long-Term Capital Management, which was ruined as a result of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and the 1998 Russian crisis. A well-known business writer named Roger Lowenstein wrote When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management.
Charles Geisst is a prolific business writer; among his works are Wall Street: A History and The Last Partnerships: Inside the Great Wall Street Money Dynasties. William Cohan is the author of The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Frères & Co., which won an award as the best business book of 2007. Cohan has also written studies of two other Wall Street firms, Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs. Charles R. Morris is the author of numerous business books including
John Steele Gordon has written about American economic history in such books as
James Grant is known for criticizing Fed policy, and advocating a gold standard. He writes well, and has a sharp wit. Among his books are
One of the most popular business books of recent years is Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. Another popular book, on a similar theme, is Predators’ Ball: The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham and the Rise of the Junk Bond Raiders, by Connie Bruck.
That concludes this essay on the Western classics, which has been a cartographer’s attempt to meet the needs of miners, and to show them where gold can be found.
|1.|| “Nightfall” can be found in various anthologies, including Nightfall and Other Stories, and The Complete Stories Vol. 1 (both by Asimov). In 1990, two years before his death, Asimov expanded “Nightfall” into a novel, with help from Robert Silverberg. back|
|2.|| If you want a book that surveys all branches of science, I wouldn’t recommend Asimov’s New Guide, which is dated and overly detailed. I’d recommend Nigel Calder’s book, Magic Universe, or John Gribbin’s book, Almost Everyone’s Guide to Science. back|
|3.||Simon Winchester began his career as a geologist, then worked as a journalist before becoming an author. He wrote about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary in The Professor and the Madman (also called The Surgeon of Crowthorne); he also wrote about the Oxford English Dictionary in The Meaning of Everything. He wrote about China scholar Joseph Needham in The Man Who Loved China (also called Bomb, Book & Compass). He wrote about natural disasters in Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, and A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. He recently wrote The Men Who United the States, which deals with explorers, canal-builders, railroad-builders, highway-builders, etc. back|