The Frontal Cortex

The Best Science Books (Redux)

Last week, I mentioned that the Royal Institution in London had come up with short list of the best science books of all time. After some excellent feedback from readers, and because I love making lists of my favorite things (just in case I’m ever stranded on a desert island), I’d thought I’d offer up an amended list. Here are the top ten science books, in no particular order:

Microbe Hunters: Paul De Kruif
The Double Helix: James Watson
The Periodic Table: Primo Levi
The Selfish Gene: Richard Dawkins
Chaos: James Gleick
The Beak of the Finch: Jonathan Weiner
The Making of the Atomic: Bomb Richard Rhodes
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: Oliver Sacks
The Naturalist: E.O. Wilson
The Principles of Psychology: William James

Of course, part of the pleasure of making lists is noticing what you left off. So please tell me, once again, what I’m missing. The two absent authors that immediately come to my mind are Stephen Jay Gould and Lewis Thomas.


  1. #1 dileffante
    October 31, 2006

    I’m glad to see Microbe Hunters at the top (even if the order was not intended to be a ranking). It there was any single influence that lead me to science, it was that book. And it doesn’t get old.

  2. #2 Avinash
    October 31, 2006

    What about H F Judson’s ‘The Eight Day of Creation’? It does have enough science in it (even though it is more of a science history book) to qualify as one.

  3. #3 CCP
    October 31, 2006

    Quammen! The Song of the Dodo!!

  4. #4 Jonah
    October 31, 2006

    Both excellent suggestions, although I have yet to read Judson’s masterpiece. (I’ve heard great things, though.) But what would books would take off the list?

  5. #5 cephyn
    October 31, 2006

    not only in no particular order, but no consistency in author:title format….at least be consistent!

  6. #6 Jonah
    October 31, 2006

    Thanks for noticing my sloppiness, cephyn. Problem fixed.

  7. #7 Michael Anes
    October 31, 2006

    I’d take Sacks off the list and put Ramachandran and Blakeslee’s Phantoms in the Brain on instead. Rama’s a more wide-ranging scientist in his thinking overall, and that informs his neurology well, I think.

  8. #8 Michael Kenward
    October 31, 2006

    Why not visit the blog by the guy behind the RI’s event?

  9. #9 JYB
    October 31, 2006

    OT: I just read that EO Wilson just won a TED award.

  10. #10 david dobbs
    November 1, 2006

    Jonah’s implied requirement that one must remove a book to add one is just; call that Rule 1 of the How-Would-You-Do-It game. And I myself don’t feel right displacing a book I haven’t read. Call that Rule 2.

    And so, flinching with pain but certain it’s the right thing to do, I state I would remove Wilson’s “The Naturalist” to make room for Judson’s “Eighth Day of Creation.” Meanwhile, I must hurry to read the four books I’ve not yet read so that I can nominate one to be displaced by David Quammen’s ‘Song of the Dodo’ — a fantastic book that does a complex science justice, tours the world, lets us know many fascinating people deeply (including the author), and treats us to a scene in which a biologist seeking to restore birds to a tropical isle traps a mongoose near the birds’ nests and then, not quite sure what to do with said beast — with Quammen there on the cliff with him — suddenly grabs mongoose by the tail, swings it fast over his head, and smacks it against the cliff, killing it.

    “Cor,” says said biologist. “You don’t see that everyday.”

    What a book.

  11. #11 Otto
    November 15, 2006

    That’s a good list, though I reckon William James is in the list for influential, rather than best content reasons. That said, I’d remove James and add Chalmer’s The Conscious Mind.

  12. #12 Yeppa
    April 12, 2009

    Thank you for book list. Really good article.

  13. #13 Tribal House
    April 21, 2009

    Thank you 🙂

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