Notable Science of the Recent Past

In comments to my earlier cranky post about the New York Times, Carl Zimmer pointed out that they hadn’t released their “Ten Best Books” list, so there was still an outside chance of a science book turning up. They posted the list today, and there’s nothing on it that wasn’t also on the Notable Books list, so no dice.

Another common response to my complaint was along the lines of “Do they ever list science books?” I was looking for a way to kill a little time at one point yesterday, so I went back through the last few lists and counted science books. The tallies for 2003-2006 (using a fairly broad definition of “science book”– I’ll list titles below the fold):

  • 2006: 3
  • 2005: 5
  • 2004: 6
  • 2003:10

The huge drop from 2003 to 2004 is deceptive, because the whole list was longer in 2003. I didn’t count, but if I had to guess, I’d say they went from 100 fiction and 100 non-fiction in 2003 to 100 total in 2004. This is another data point in the “watch the slow death of American intellectual life” series…

On a more upbeat note, if you’d like some positive recommendations (other than what’s in the comments to my earlier post, and the non-Jane Austen parts of the Making Light post, Carl Zimmer also notes the existence of the “Stevens Seventy,” John Horgan’s list of the seventy “greatest science books” in his estimation.

The list of science books deemed “Notable” by the Times in recent years:


  • Field Notes from a Catastrophe, by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson
  • Programming the Universe, by Seth Lloyd


  • American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin
  • Collapse, by Jared Diamond
  • 1491, by Charles Mann
  • Spook, by Mary Roach
  • Warped Passages, by Lisa Randall

    (Notes: American Prometheus is a biography of Robert Oppenheimer. I’m not entirely sure about whether 1491 should count– it might be more history than archaeology, based on some of what I’ve heard about it, but I haven’t read it.)


    • The Ancestor’s Tale, by Richard Dawkins
    • Beasts of Eden, by David Wallace
    • The Fabric of the Cosmos, by Brian Greene
    • On the Wing, by Alan Tennant
    • Out of Gas, by David Goodstein
    • Soul Made Flesh, by Carl Zimmer

    (Notes: Again, I’m not entirely sure about Out of Gas, which is a “Peak Oil” argument, and could easily be more of a politics/ economics book than a science book. The blurb notes that the author is a physicist, though, so I put it on.)


    • Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps, by Peter Galison
    • The Empty Ocean, by Richard Ellis
    • The Founding Fish, by John McPhee
    • Isaac Newton, by James Gleick
    • Merchants of Immortality, by Stephen Hall
    • Monster of God, by David Quammen
    • Our Own Devices, by Edward Tanner
    • Shortcut Through Time, by George Johnson
    • A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
    • The White Rock, by Hugh Thomson

    Now, the inclusion of some of the books on that list might be a little dodgy, and some of them might not be all that great as science, but there’s no doubt that the Times has considered science books “Notable” in the recent past. You can also see a hint of a decline in the number of science books included, even without the precipitous 2003-2004 drop. It’s not due to a decrease in the number of science books published, either, as 2005-6 was loaded up with String Theory Wars books– Krauss, Susskind, Smolin, Woit, not to mention Oerter’s The Theory of Almost Everything which was outstanding. And, of course, there’s no shortage of books about the life sciences– I just tend to remember the physics books.

    As I’ve said in several of the other threads discussing this, I also don’t believe that there weren’t any worthy science books published this year– again, I would point to David Lindley’s Uncertainty and Natalie Angier’s The Canon, both of which I thought were excellent. I also hear good things about Walter Isaacson’s Einstein biography, and a number of people have suggested The World Without Us as a worthy candidate.

    There might not have been as many outstanding science books as in some other years, but I have a hard time believing that there were no science books more deserving than Tina Brown’s book about Princess Diana.


  1. #1 Geoff Wozniak
    November 29, 2007

    I would be hard-pressed to count 1491 as a science book, although it does involve a fair bit of discussion of archeology. Still a good read, though.

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    November 29, 2007

    Social advocacy does not tolerate inert intelligence – the paradigm of institutional racism.

    Tina Brown’s book about Princess Diana.

    Third World landmine whore Princess Di did Dodi Fayed (Arabic, Emad El-Din Mohamed Abdel Moneim Fayed) whose uncle Adnan Khashoggi (Turkish, Adnan Kaşıkçı) was a major supplier of landmines to the Third World. Recursion: see “recursion”.

  3. #3 Oliver Morton
    November 29, 2007

    Interesting — my own take on the science content of those same lists is broadly similar but different in detail, which shows that its a fuzzy category.

    If American Prometheus is a science book in 2005, though, why isn’t Rhodes’s Arsenals of Folly this year. I’ve read neither, but if AoF is anything like The Making of the Atomic Bomb then its a science book as well as whatever else it is…

    Also, again though I haven’t read it, is there no sense in which Helen Epstein’s “The Invisible Cure” is a science book? From the first review on Amazon:

    “Epstein, a molecular biologist who has written widely on public health issues, combines rigorous science and the anecdotal evidence of substantial field research.”

    I think I’ll need another year or two of data for a clear trend, myself

  4. #4 Coin
    November 29, 2007

    If we’re allowed to recommend “notable” science books from 2006 as well, then I would strongly recommend “Chasing Hubble’s Shadows” by Jeff Kanipe.

    Also “Vaccine” apparently came out in January of this year, where I had thought that was a 2006 book. I haven’t read “Vaccine” yet but have heard some fairly positive things about it. It sounded more promising than a couple of things on the NYT list anyhow…

    It does seem there was a dropoff in noteworthy science writing between 2006 and 2007– this is not to say that there wasn’t any, or wasn’t enough some should have made the list, but it does seem like one doesn’t really have to try to name noteworthy science books from last year whereas one does this year. Not sure why that happened. I wonder if we’ll see a rush to publish popular books on the subject when the first LHC results come back… actually come to think of it weren’t some of the first books on the Dover trial supposed to have been coming out about now?

  5. #5 Markk
    November 30, 2007

    I think 1491 is a “popularizing” science book where the science is archaeology, and anthropology. It is using all the more modern discoveries in, for example, the extent of farming in the Amazon, as a basis for a look at what are some main hypothesis of what the population and life of people in the Americas was before 1491. It is a “science” book the way other popularizations of science are. Another example would have been McPhee’s geology based books.

    Another vote for Oerter’s book. It has many equations but is the best overview of things I’ve seen, and has this great great stuff on the first couple pages:

    “There is a theory in physics that explains, at the deepest level, nearly all of the phenomena that rule our daily lives … It surpasses in precision, in universality, in its range … every scientific theory that has ever existed … it is, perhaps, the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement to date.”

    Nothing like that to get you going!