Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Science Book Lovers’ Meme

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Here is a meme that I was tagged with recently by the good peeps at Science on Tap. The author writes;

Imagine: YOU are asked to assign a half-dozen-or-so books as required reading for ALL science majors at a college as part of their 4-year degree; NOT technical or text books, but other works, old or new, touching upon the nature of science, philosophy, thought, or methodology in a way that a practicing scientist might gain from.

Post your list, and forward the meme to a half-dozen-or-so other science-oriented bloggers of your choosing.

As you know, even though I am an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist, I have taught quite a few university courses in biology, biochemistry, genetics and chemistry, so I actually do think about this question a lot. Further, you also know that I read a lot of very good science books, but .. which are the half dozen (or so) best? I have chosen two books that discuss evolution, but I need some help choosing the best books in other scientific disciplines;

  1. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. This clearly and logically written book combines genetics with evolution to give the reader a good understanding of genetics and for how evolution occurs at the molecular level.
  2. The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner. This book is beautifully written and documents the evolution of Darwin’s Finches throughout a period of severe drought — it brilliantly explores the complex and subtle interrelationship between evolution, environment and behavioral ecology.
  3. The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction by Robert Bakker. This book is wonderful because it not only changed our thinking about dinosaurs, but the author’s logic is beautifully argued and provides insight into how scientists think about the data they collect.

Which books would you recommend I add to this list?

I also am tagging these blogs with this meme, and I give them permission to post a list that is biased towards their field, just as I have done;

  1. Sandy at Discovering Biology in a Digital World
  2. John at Stranger Fruit
  3. Chris at Highly Allochthonous
  4. Carl at The Loom
  5. Kevin at The Other 95%
  6. Henry at The End Of The Pier Show GrrlScientist note: as expected, Henry wins the most unusual list award.
  7. And at least one science blog writer, Dan, who is a postdoc at the University of Cyprus, liked this meme enough to also participate by writing Required Reading for Biology Majors.

I would also ask my good friend, Bob O’Hara toparticipate, but it seems that someone (not naming who) already convinced him to post his list in the comments thread here.


  1. #1 Bob O'H
    February 12, 2009

    Ouch, ouch. I feel my arm being twisted…

    So, here’s a few:
    How to Lie with Statistics by Donald Huff – Still a classic, describing all those basic errors people make (deliberately or not)

    Bad Science by Ben Goldacre – An undergrad course in statistical thought all by itself.

    The Cartoon Guide to Statistics by Gonick and Smith – Covers the basics, and good fun (the Cartoon Guide to Genetics is also good)

    Laboratory Life by Latour & Woolgar – an important text on the sociology of science. I like the way it gives us several different views of how science is done.

    and finally this:

    By the Sea by Henry Gee – as a warning: you may turn into the sort of person who writes books like this.

  2. #2 John Callender
    February 12, 2009

    I’m not a scientist, and am not sure the book qualifies, but I can’t let the opportunity pass without plugging my favorite popularized-science book: David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo. I recently re-read it, and found it beautiful and heartbreaking. I think humans generally (including scientists) are going to be dealing with the consequences of living during the Holocene extinction event for the foreseeable future, and Quammen’s book is a good introduction to the subject.

  3. #3 Kim
    February 12, 2009

    Either Annals of the Former World or The Control of Nature by John McPhee. I’ve had intro college classes read both of these.

  4. #4 Bob O'H
    February 12, 2009

    John – I’ve heard good things about that book too. I really should read it.

    But why aren’t you recommending Sibley? 🙂

  5. #6 Paul Sunstone
    February 12, 2009

    I have a special fondness for Thomas Kuhn’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Whether or not one agrees with his notions, the book is likely to stimulate interest in the history of science while perhaps adding a bit to one’s understanding of human nature.

  6. #7 "GrrlScientist"
    February 12, 2009

    i have been adding amazon links for each title, by the way, so interested readers can purchase these books that we are listing here. while i was poking around on amazon, i found another title that might be of interest; The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: A Reader’s Guide by John Preston.

  7. #8 Eric Johnson
    February 12, 2009

    I agree with your choice of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and in the same general field, although to very different effect, I would add Watson’s The Double Helix.

    I would also add Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World, the transcription of Feynman’s popular lectures titled QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, Feynman’s Lectures on Physics (I know you don’t want text-books, but there are quite a few lectures in there that take a very qualitative view of physics.), and Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.

  8. #9 Albatrossity
    February 12, 2009

    No science education is complete without:

    Science as a Way of Knowing – John Moore’s explication of why science works, and why it is important. Moore was a soft-spoken man, but a champion of evolution and science education.

    And no biology education is complete without:

    On Becoming a Biologist – John Janovy’s insightful and witty book that covers everything from philosophy to career counseling.

    and, of course, Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold.

  9. #10 Bob
    February 12, 2009

    I would add a couple of beautifully written books in the category of what used to be called “natural philosophy”:

    Pilgrim at Tinker Creek‘ by Annie Dillard

    The Moon by Whale Light: And Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians, and Whales‘ by Diane Ackerman.

  10. #11 John Callender
    February 13, 2009

    I read Pilgram at Tinker Creek as a kid, and loved it. I’ll have to check out The Moon by Whale Light.

  11. #12 travelgirl
    February 13, 2009

    i’m surprised folks haven’t listed “a brief history of time“, stephen hawking, or “surely, you are joking“, richard feynman…

    both are easily understandable and well-written. before someone takes my head off for the “lack” of science in feynman’s book, i’d say the book is embued with teaching people how to do science, how to investigate, leave your mind open to all possibilities, etc… it’s also quite a riot; the man was not just one of the great physicists of all time, but a free spirit.

  12. #13 DeafScientist
    February 13, 2009

    I’m going to stick pretty closely with the theme of a scientist-in-training, rather than general popular science. My choices are a little dated, but they are at least books I have actually read!

    Advice to a Young Scientist, by Peter Medawar

    The Statue Within: An Autobiography, by François Jacob, translated from the 1987 French edition by Franklin Philip. Basic Books, 1988.

    What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery, by Francis Crick (Basic Books reprint edition, 1990) ISBN 0-465-09138-5

    Hmm, three Nobel laureates as authors. Biased, eh?!

    There are any number of autobiographies and biographies that are inspirational in various ways, but they will always be personal picks, so people really just have to find their own in my opinion. Desmond’s “Huxley” is one I like, what a life. I have trouble with many biographies, in that they oversell the subject, particularly by leaving out what doesn’t seem so “nice” about the subject.

    One thing I would recommend is learning how to write well, presenting speeches and posters, etc. It might seem an odd suggestion, but communication is pretty important. I hate “self help” books, they’re not usually much use and are usually written to boost the ego of the reader to encourage them to buy the book! Strunk & White has to be in there somewhere. For posters & presentations, I think I’ve actually picked up a fair bit from books intended for web design, oddly enough. Presenting graphs properly is another; some people’s graphs are shockingly bad (probably including my early ones!)

    Another thing I recommend is learning the history of science in general, and your chosen area in particular. It’s hard to claim you know an area, if you don’t know it’s history. I’ve read a couple of histories of molecular biology, included one strongly centred on where I did my Ph.D., which was interesting to see the past of the older scientists around me! I’m not convinced any of the books I have do the overall history of science justice.

  13. #14 scicurious
    February 13, 2009

    Bob O’Hara: you are absolutely right. The cartoon guide for statistics is fantastic. It’s also amazing how many people get out of undergrad with no experience of statistics at all.

    Is it too mean to suggest Popper?

  14. #15 Henry
    February 13, 2009

    Help! Help! I am being held prisoner in an Israeli mezuzah factory!

  15. #16 "GrrlScientist"
    February 13, 2009

    hey, that’s not verse, henry!

  16. #17 Henry
    February 13, 2009

    Free verse.

  17. #18 DeafScientist
    February 13, 2009

    Opps, thanks for the links, I should have stuck them in myself. Sorry…!

    I’d be interested in recommendations for the history of science. But nothing too dry, this is “spare time” reading, after all!.

  18. #19 Henry
    February 13, 2009

    DONE IT!

  19. #20 Bob O'H
    February 14, 2009

    Yes, Henry, you have. I don’t know what you’re so gleeful about, somebody’s going to have to clean it up now.

    DeafScientist – Henry takes up the writing well theme. It’s something he feels strongly about, as a journal editor.

    For history of science, I often recommend Fabulous Science. It takes a look at several well-known stories in science and shows why the legends we have now are wrong.

  20. #21 "GrrlScientist"
    February 14, 2009

    DeafScientist — John Lynch (Stranger Fruit, linked above) should provide the list you are seeking, so do go bug him to post his list for all of us to read.

  21. #22 John Lynch
    February 15, 2009

    I’ll get to this when I return home tomorrow … been traveling this week.

  22. #23 Gary Greenberg
    February 18, 2009

    Here are two I think are very important – “The sleep walkers” by Arthur Koestler (an impressive history of astronomy) and “The dancing Wu Li Masters” by Gary Zukav (a very readable account of quantum physics).

  23. #24 samk
    February 18, 2009

    Brave New World

  24. #25 killinchy
    February 18, 2009

    “The Self-Made Tapestry” (Pattern Formation in Nature) by
    Philip Ball is a book I keep returning to. It’s just so interesting.

  25. #26 Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
    February 18, 2009

    Kai Nielsen “Naturalism without Foundations”

  26. #27 toby
    February 19, 2009

    To the others I would add Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and its Enemies” to make the point that science can only be practiced at its best in a free and democratic society.

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