While I was off at DAMOP last week, the Guardian produced a list purporting to be the 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time. Predictably, this includes a tiny set of science titles– five in the “Science” category, two under “Environment,” and one each under “Mathematics” and “Mind.” And that’s being kind of generous about the boundaries of science.
This sort of thing is so depressingly common that it’s almost hard to be outraged about it any more. Almost. Because, really, your list has room for Herodotus, but not Galileo or Newton? The modern world owes vastly more to the early scientists than it does to credulous ancient Greeks, but the idea of using math is evidently a little too scary. And a few of the science-y books they did pick are a little dodgy (*cough*cough*Freud*cough*).
This is partly explainable by the structure of science, which has only occasionally advanced through the publication of books, and rarely celebrates the original books as objects of literature. Almost nobody learns physics by reading Newton– instead, we get it from more modern textbooks that use more elegant notation and, you know, aren’t deliberately opaque. Which means that while the Principia Mathematica is almost certainly one of the most influential nonfiction books of all time, it’s not something that’s read widely as a classic, so even that subset of the intelligentsia that is comfortable with math isn’t likely to vote for it on this kind of list.
But really, to read this list, you’d think that the crowning achievements of human civilization were found in fields like memoir and cultural commentary, rather than, you know, understanding the universe in which we live well enough to make the technologies that free people up to be book reviewers in the first place. And there’s something deeply wrong about that.