Neuron Culture

Last month, when all the “Best Books of 2007” lists came out, several regulars on a science writers list-serve I’m on expressed chagrin that most of the most prominent lists held few science books. Even defining “science book” broadly, the New York Times Review Notable Books list contained just one science book (How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman) The Amazon Best 100 lists held somewhere between none and five, depending on how you defined science book. (For more on that, see my sieve of their list at bottom.) John Dupius, who keeps the blog Confessions of a Science Librarian, took to task The Atlantic for including no science books on its list.

To be fair, quite a few places (including Amazon) did put out lists of best science books or included some in their general Best OF lists. Dupuis the Science Libraran covers most of them. But the Times and Amazon’s neglect was enough to spark disgruntlement on the sci writers listserve. Best Of lists are great fodder for arguments, of course, and part of the ire in the science writers group was, naturally enough, that fewer of our books were on there. Damn! Still, in an age when science drives much of the economy and culture, to say nothing of health, this low representation was discouraging. And science writers naturally aren’t eager to entertain the idea that the low science selection was because no one writing about science was writing well.

The solution, we figured, was to put out our own list. That didn’t happen, perhaps because we got such a late jump. Mine, however, is below. Comments, alternate nominations, and arguments welcome.

Best Science Books of 2007

(according to David Dobbs)

Weisman takes his stunning essay of a couple years ago — an imagination of what the world becomes were we humans to suddenly vanish — and somehow improves upon the original shorter form. An improbable and enthralling accomplishment.

Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson

By general acclaim. Nice to have this bio of Einstein on the same list with a highly different work from Weisman, who got his start imagining Einstein’s Dreams.

The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology, by Bernd Heinrich

Heinrich has written one splendid, fascinating book after another. This one adds another dimension as it traces his family and scientific lineage. Charming and utterly absorbing.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer

A fine book, and frighteningly good coming from someone just 26. (He’s probably sick of hearing that — but there are worse problems to have.) We’ll see more of Mr. Lehrer.

How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, by Atul Gawande

Groopman gets a bit less press than his fellow New Yorker doctor-writer colleague Atul Gawande, perhaps because he’s been around longer. But in this case I think Groopman’s is the stronger of these two very strong books, with more to say about what ails medicine. However. my father, a retired surgeon, found otherwise — though maybe that’s just solidarity with fellow surgeon Gawande.

The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS, by Helen Epstein

I’m relying on informed outside opinion here.

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks.

Chance, even simple fairness, would suggest that Sacks would eventually produce a book that is less than fascinating. That day has not yet come. Sacks has been collecting these stories of musical wonders and curiosities for decades, it turns out, and they supply, once again, riveting surprises and conundra from the meeting of brain, culture, and individual sensibility, all filtered by Sacks’ unique intelligence and curiosity. A highly companionable read.

That’s just eight. I have a haunting feeling I’m leaving something out. Possibly books by friends. Please feel free to draw my attention to oversights.

The (arguably) science books from Amazon’s Best 100 Books of 2007:

Some people wouldn’t include any of these in a strict definition of science book — Einstein is a biography, Better and Musicophilia deal with medicine and neurology and music, Weisman is a futuristic riff. I’m more catholic in my definitions: I say let ’em all in.

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks.

Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, by Atul Gawande

“I Am a Strange Loop” (Douglas Hofstadter), which apparently plumbs the roots-of-consciousness question in a way that considers but then sets aside a reductionist scientific approach.


  1. #1 Chris
    February 14, 2008

    Try the link below for a list of science books:

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