Terra Sigillata

Great science, great literature

The weekend version of the Wall Street Journal (sorry, sub reqd) included John Gribbins’ list of influential science books that also make for good literature. Gribbin trained originally as an astrophysicist and recently finished writing his 100th book.

The list:

1. On the Loadstone And Magnetic Bodies – By William Gilbert – 1600

William Gilbert of Colchester was the first person to set out clearly in print the essence of the scientific method of testing hypotheses by experiment. He also made discoveries in the field of magnetism that were not improved on for two centuries.

2. Micrographia – By Robert Hooke – 1665

Hooke described not only the microscopic world but also astronomy, geology and the nature of light, setting out ideas that Isaac Newton later lifted and passed off as his own. For centuries in Newton’s shadow, Hooke is now rightly regarded as Newton’s equal in everything except mathematical prowess. He was the rock on which the early success of the Royal Society of London was built — and he wrote much more entertainingly than Newton.

3. On the Origin Of Species – By Charles Darwin – 1859

Quite apart from its scientific importance, this is a beautifully written book that raises the question why scientists today are so much less literate, by and large, than their 19th-century predecessors. Darwin was an avid reader of his contemporaries, such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens, and it shows.

4. Fragments Of Science – By John Tyndall – 1871

A contemporary biographer wrote: “Prof. Tyndall occupies the foremost place among his contemporaries, his only rival being his friend, Prof. Huxley” — that is, Thomas Huxley, the great Victorian defender of Darwin’s theories. Tyndall was a prolific author, but “Fragments of Science” (the original, full title added “for Unscientific People”) is probably his best book. Its wide-ranging topics include the nature of heat and light, spectroscopy, a voyage to Algeria to observe an eclipse, glaciology and the composition of the sun.

5. Six Easy Pieces – By Richard P. Feynman – Addison-Wesley, 1994

Something of a self-indulgence to conclude with. One of the biggest influences on my scientific career, and later my career as a popularizer of science, was the multivolume “Feynman Lectures on Physics,” which appeared in the early 1960s. “Six Easy Pieces,” the epitome of that masterwork, really does offer an easy guide to the essence of physics — and science in general. Feynman explores the most fundamental scientific theories — the structure and behavior of atoms, quantum mechanics and gravity. These fundamentals ought to be as well known to intelligent people as Shakespeare, Mozart and Picasso.


  1. #1 coracle
    April 15, 2007

    So where in the list did Levi’s Periodic Table come? Was there not enough science in it to qualify as a science book?

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