Greatest Science Book?

Over at the new Seed blog, here on ScienceBlogs, Katherine Sharpe asks about the best science books ever (a topic that was also discussed at Cosmic Variance some time back.

I've been sort of swamped this week, but that's only part of the reason why I haven't responded. The main reason is a shameful secret:

(Below the fold... Isn't this suspenseful?)

The fact is, I don't read many pop-science books, and I never really have. I'm not sure why that was in the past, but these days, it just seems too much like work. Not "work" in the sense of being difficult, but "work" in the sense of "this is how I spend my days, and by God, I'm not reading about it in my free time."

I do dimly recall reading more non-fiction when I was a kid, but most of it was pretty much unexceptional. I just read whatever was in front of me, and don't particularly remember much of it. More recently, I've occasionally read some of the Important non-fiction blockbusters-- A Brief History of Time, Goedel, Escher, Bach, The Language Instinct, Guns, Germs, and Steel-- but I don't make a habit of it. I actually own a copy of The Elegant Universe, because I figured that if people are going to insist on asking me about the damn thing, I ought to at least give it a chance, but I have yet to crack the cover.

I do usually try to read at least some of Physics Today (though I'm way behind on that), but really, the only science book that stands out from the last few years is Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Of course, the real origin of Katherine's question is more an interest in what turned people on to science originally. So, you might think that would be a better topic to pursue.

Sadly, I'm not much better there. I can cite a few tv shows that were vaguely inspiring-- Cosmos and Connections come to mind-- but I literally don't remember a time when I wasn't interested in science, and planning to become a scientist someday.

What kind of scientist I planned to become has changed a lot over the years-- I went through the obligatory dinosaur-crazy phase where I wanted to be a paleontologist, I wanted to be a marine biologist for a while (I think that's what I said in the cute story my parents tell about me boggling my kindergarten teacher), I was interested in archaeology for a while, and chemistry, and astronomy, and so on. I still find most of them fascinating subjects, and often regret not being a marine biologist on days when I find myself spending a glorious sunny summer day working in a windowless room in a damp basement...

In the end, though, I was pretty much always interested in science, in one form or another. I ended up in physics because of my high-school physics class (which I took as a junior, for complicated reasons), and ultimately because quantum mechanics is just the coolest theory in the history of theories.

How did I know that, if I didn't read great pop-science books? That one, I can answer: science fiction. That's another thing that I've been into almost as long as I can remember-- I've always read a lot of SF (though again, I wasn't terribly discriminating as a youngster, and would read pretty much anything involving words in a row), and I first encountered all sorts of strange ideas in the context of SF stories.

So, if you're looking for the book that really got me started, you're probably after the earliest science fiction book I can remember reading. And that one, I can actually answer (well, there was a book with pictures in it, involved slightly lumpy aliens who lived in tunnels underground, the title of which I can't begin to remember, but which I think I got out of the kids' room at the library about a dozen times): the first SF novel that I can definitely remember reading and enjoying as SF was Red Planet by Robert Heinlein.

So, there you go Katherine. Sorry I wasn't more helpful. But while I'm writing in this vein, I might as well tell a wasn't-I-precocious anecdote, in another post.

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Thanks for the reply! You've anticipated my follow-up to the 'best science books' question: my most recent post on Stochastic tries to get at the question of what novels scientists like to read. Do scientists dig science fiction? Based on anecdotal experiences, my hypothesis is: mostly, yes. So thanks for backing the hypothesis up.

I, too, was really interested in science when I was a kid, mostly thanks to public television, I think. I remember the kids' show 3-2-1 Contact, but even more than that, Nova and a show that was, I think, called Planet Earth, thaks to which I was super into plate tectonics for a while. Yeah, I was a weird kid.

Incidentally, a few months ago I had an opportunity to see Douglas Hofstadter, the author of Godel, Escher, Bach give a lecture at Stanford University. He's an amazing speaker, affable and compelling and radiantly smart. He gave an overview of his recent thinking about the mind and thought, sketching his belief that the concept of analogy is crucial: if I'm interpreting him right, he thinks that the crucial building block of thought is 'x is like y.' It sounds simple, but it gets wonderfully complicated really fast!

Me too!

I also went through the palentologist phase-- which actually lasted quite a while for me (from age 5 or 6 until age 11 or 12). After that, the Space Phase took over, and I guess it never fully ended (sicne I'm an astronomer now). But I did major in Physics, and when I went to grad school thought I might do some sort of nuclear physics, and indeed my PhD is in physics, and I'm a professor of Physics and Astronomy. And, yes, I had a very good AP Physics class I took my *junior* year of high school from a very good teacher which helped kindle my love in general for physics. (Plus, physics was just the best science; the experimnts didn't stink, it wasn't all squishy like biology, and you don't have to memorize all kinds of organic molecules and things.)

But where did it all start? Probably science fiction. I read, and sitll read (*), a lot of science fiction. When I was a kid, I'd watch reruns of Star Trek (there was only one at the time). But I also watched Cosmos, and remember that Science News (to which we had a subscription when I was in 7th/8th grade and thereabouts) had some sort of space/astronomy picture on the front cover every week, and I was into that kind of stuff.

Sturgeon's Law tells us that most of science fiction is crap (just like most of everything else), but there are gems in there. Even the things that aren't gems, though, can fire that part of your imagination that drives you to learn new things about how the world works.


(*) English is a funny language. The first "read" in that sentence is supposed to be past tense, the second present tense. They are pronounced differently. But it isn't so obvious in writing that they are supposed to be do different words....

I picked up physics from reading a book abou the development of quantum mechanics by a Soviet author Daniil Danin (can't remember the title). For me, it was the most important -- but very old-fashioned.

Then it was mostly the Polish edition of Scientific American.

By Roman Werpachowski (not verified) on 07 Apr 2006 #permalink