Scientist-Approved Beach Reading

Summer is here, which means vacations for lots of people, which means "beach reading"-- trying to read a book or two while kicking back somewhere. The ideal beach read is something that isn't so heavy as to bring you down or demand too much attention, but is also serious enough that it's not embarrassing to be seen in public reading it.

Clearly, the best choice for beach reading this summer is How to Teach Physics to Your Dog-- it's got real, solid physics, but also a talking dog. What more could you want?

What if you've already read How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, though? Are there other scientist-approved books for beach reading that you should be checking out? Well, the Washington Post is here to help, with a list of books recommended by scientists (for some value of "scientists, anyway").

What do we learn from this list? Well, basically, we learn that scientists don't read new books. Only 22 of the 28 books on the list were written in the last ten years. The split between fiction and non-fiction was exactly even-- 11 of 14 fiction books were pre-2000, as were 11 of 14 non-fiction books. Admittedly, this has a lot to do with the phrasing of the question ("We asked several of them to name their favorite beach reads over the years, both novels and nonfiction with scientific themes."), but still, this isn't exactly selling scientists as cool and up-to-date individuals. A couple of them list only fiction written in the 1960's or earlier-- I'm not sure if this is because they haven't liked anything more modern, or because the last time they read a novel on the beach was in 1968.

In the interests of establishing a little pop-culture credibility for scientists, though, let's throw this open to the wise and worldly readers of ScienceBlogs:

Recommend two books written in the last ten years, one fiction and one non-fiction, that have some science element and would be good beach reading.

I'll put my choices below the fold; you leave yours in the comments. Between us, we ought to come up with a better list than the Post did.

On the fiction side, my first choice would be to recommend Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman books, which are science fiction novels in which the main character progresses through the plot by thinking like a scientist-- she reasons her way to some surprising conclusions about the nature of her world, and the people and creatures inhabiting it. That would be cheating, though, because while two of the four books were written after 2000, the first two were significantly earlier.

Sticking to the strict rule, then, I've got two recommendations, one serious and one frivolous. The serious one is Robert Charles Wilson's Spin, which won awards and thus shouldn't really need me to publicize it further. The frivolous one is Charlie Stross's The Atrocity Archives, which is a deeply silly Lovecraft-meets-Dilbert sort of thing-- not to all tastes, but if you like this sort of humor, it's good fun.

On the non-fiction side, aside from How to Teach Physics to Your Dog (also available in Portuguese, in case the beach you're reading on is near Rio), I can recommend another physics book that I really did read on a beach, or at least on a patio overlooking the Caribbean while on vacation in the Virgin Islands: The Theory of Almost Everything, Robert Oerter's book on the Standard Model. It's a great popular-level introduction to the fundamental physics that we know to be true, without racing off into speculative stuff that might not work out in the end.

If that's too physics-y for you, go with A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, or if that's too heavy to carry, The Canon by Natalie Angier.

So, those are my science-themed beach read recommendations. What are yours?

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The mystery/graphic novel "Cash & Carry."

It's the story of a guy who does odd jobs for a living. In this instance he's been hired to take a case from Chicago to Las Vegas. But he's being chased by industrial spies, finds a dead body in a hotel room and doesn't know who to trust or whether he'll make it home alive. It's gotten great reviews from Crimespree Magazine and the American Library Association and was optioned for television by Warner Bros.

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I am going to echo 'cyptonomicron' by stephenson, as it mixes adventure with some exciting science themes (mainly cryptology).

for non fiction, one of my favorites in the last few years would be 'music of the primes' by du Suoty. like reading about the number theory again behind cryptology. (hmmm seem to notice a theme in what i like.)

By josh einsle (not verified) on 02 Jul 2010 #permalink

"Only 22 of the 28 books on the list were written in the last ten years."

Did you perhaps mean only 6 of the 28 WERE...?

(I use Oerter's book as a required text in my quantum-physics-for-poets type class... it's not perfect, but I've yet to find a book that does the job better.)

Fiction: The Speed of Dark - By Elizabeth Moon
A worthy spiritual successor to Keyes' excellent Flowers for Algernon.
Runner-up: Little Brother - By Cory Doctorow
Very politically relevant to now, which I think is the point of the "last ten years" restriction.

Non-fiction: The Manga Guide to Calculus - by Hiroyuki Kojima
Very well done, genuinely improved my understanding of something I thought I already understood.
Runner-up: The Mange Guide to Statistics - by Shin Takahashi
It was tough to pick between these two, so I didn't.

I cheated -- but it's hard to pick just one of anything, isn't it?

On the fiction side, I'm going to recommend:

- For The Win by Cory Doctorow

as my first choice. Whilst Little Brother was quite good, I found the writing a little awkward because he kept on stopping the plot to give little sermons about cryptography, privacy and things like that. Whilst there is still some preaching in FTW, it seems to flow better and the plot is more interesting because it involves multiple threads and multiple cultures. Cory is clearly getting better at writing juvenile fiction.

I'll also recommend:

- The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

because I don't want people to get the idea that readers of this blog are only interested in science fiction.

By the way, Cryptonomicon is a good book, but that is not exactly beach reading by most people's standards.

On the nonfiction side, you can brush up on your history of quantum mechanics by reading one of:

- Uncertainty - David Lindley
- Quantum - Manjit Kumar
- Einstein: His Life and Universe - Walter Isaacson
- The Strangest Man - Graham Farmelo

I guess the biographies are better for the beach, since they contain more juicy details about personal lives rather than being full on science exposition all the way. From that point of view, Isaacson is the better beach read because Einstein's personal life was way juicier than Dirac's.

Fiction: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (hurry, before the movie comes out!)

Non-fiction: I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstader (the spiritual prequel/sequel to Godel, Escher, Bach, but MUCH more accessible.)

By Dale Sheldon-Hess (not verified) on 02 Jul 2010 #permalink

Stephen Baxter - "Flood" and "Arc" - must-read SF. Baxter is becoming one of our top hard SF writers. He knows his science and he is a good writer to boot - killer combination. Baxter does the big picture and the human impact equally well, and his characters are complex and compelling. His earlier book "Evolution" turned me on to him, and his latest series, about a near-future flooding earth and humanity's various coping stratagems, is simply excellent. Please read him!!

I just started the first Steerswoman book, and I got a warm, fuzzy feeling when she started drawing graphs to figure something out. Graphs!

Fiction: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. One of the best books I've read in recently years. Fantasy, but elements of science scattered throughout. Science mixed and melded with a healthy dose of magic.

Nonfiction: Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time by Peter Galison. This book has decidedly mixed reviews on amazon, but I found it fascinating. I've always been interested by the history of science, and this book does a very nice job of putting into a historical context work that we often perceive as springing from a vacuum. Furthermore, he provides fascinating details (for example, on the establishment of time zones and the mapping out of longitudes around the world.

Neither book is something I'd be ashamed of reading on the beach, or recommending or loaning to a friend. Though the name of the wind is a bit heavy (literally, 800 or 900 pages), so it may appear just a bit off putting to the casual beach goer.

I fear I violate a couple of your assumptions. (1) That I would read at the beach. I like to be moderately comfortable when I read. and (2) That I frequent beaches. Not my thing. Nasty places full of people.

If I may substitute natural locales that I do frequent, such as the forests of Nawth Alibam, then I would offer up: fiction - anything written by Asimov, Piper, Heinlein, either of the Smiths, or Pohl; nonfiction - a good history book. I do not read general consumption science books unless I am reviewing them because they collapse the state of relaxation.

Non-Fiction: "The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession", by Chandler Burr. Copyright 2004. Interesting acount of the perfume industry, with a quest to find out how our sense of smell actually works.

Fiction: I confess I rarely read recent fiction, i.e. written within the past ten years -- I like to wait to see what stands the test of time, and I read a lot of classics. (Moby Dick, anyone?) I've read some Iain M. Banks (The Algebraist, Matter, Look to Windward), but didn't like it enough to recommend it here -- not quite enough meat to it, for my taste. But here's one that was written in 1994 that I thoroughly loved: "Arcadia", play by Tom Stoppard. Intelligent and VERY funny. Underpinnings of Chaos Theory.

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 03 Jul 2010 #permalink

Screw pop-culture credibility and read Feynman Lectures on Physics.

As a reader I couldn't care less when the book was written (as long as it's still understandable). Actually the older a recommended book is the better the chance it is really good since bad ones are being forgotten as time passes.

For the nonfiction, I'd say Neil Shubin's "Your Inner Fish". For someone who has never been all that interested in evolutionary biology I thought this book was fascinating as well as fun to read. I will exempt our fearless host since he'd be #1 on any list... For honorable mention I'd say Phil Plait's "Death from the Skies" and also Steve Ettlinger's "Twinkie Deconstructed".

On the fiction side I'd go with Kage Baker's "The Empress of Mars", since that is the only company novel I've read so far that had been published in the past ten years. Honorable mention to Scalzi's Old Man's War series.

Question for you Cryptonomicon fans: I've read it, but I felt Stephenson screwed the reader over with the left turn in the last 20 pages or so. Up to that point, I was fine with the book, but he pissed me off by building up to something and then abandoning it for a completely different POV/ending. What am I missing?

I rarely read fiction these days. Looking over the list, I found nothing written in the past ten years. The closest I can come is Aftermath (1997) by LeVar Burton (yes, the actor of "Roots" and the man who played Geordie LaForge in "Star Trek: The Next Generation.") It has some defects, but I enjoyed it and it would make a good beach read.

For non-fiction, I'll recommend two books published in 2005:

Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum by William F. Ruddiman documents his work on the hypothesis that humans began changing the climate about 8,000 years ago. It's the most objective and least political book on climate change I've read so far (although Dr. Ruddiman does touch on that aspect in Chapter 17.)

Where Mountains Are Nameless by Jonathan Waterman takes the reader inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on a few of the author's many visits. The book also visits the history of Alaska since about 1940 and the politics of oil exploration there. The science comes in the form of ecology.

By Chris Winter (not verified) on 03 Jul 2010 #permalink

Fiction: one on from Cryptonomicon is the trilogy by Neal Stephenson called The Baroque Cycle - not science fiction, exactly, but speculative historical fiction, featuring such heros as Newton, Leibnitz, Hooke, Wren and other luminaries of The Royal Society - along with some precursors of some of the characters in Cryptonomicon. Unfortunately, I couldn't get on with his Anathem at all. Also very good was Brasyl by Ian McDonald - totally immersed in Bazilian cuture and mixing in Deutsch's Multiverse stuff - brilliant! His subsequent short stories and novellas set in India 30-odd years in the future, called Cyberabad Days is also excellent, likewise the following novel set in India - River of Gods. But to my mind his subsequent book set on Mars, the name of which I've forgotten, was just a rubbishy potboiler. Go figure.

For non-fiction, I cannot recommend Brian Greene's 2004 book, Fabric Of The Cosmos, highly enough. I'm not a scientist (graduated in Psychology 45 years ago) - but I think I might still have appreciated a little simple math within Brian Greene's book, had he included it. Which reminds me - that if you can find a copy of Lieber & Lieber (or was it Leiber & Leiber?) The Einstein Theory of Relativity - published in the 1950s (maybe try Abe Books) and you like being taken from junior high school algebra to tensor calculus rather painlessly - you might really enjoy this book.

@Pineyman (14) - no - you didn't get it wrong.
I think Neal Stephenson just lost patience and needed to finish the book fast. After Snowcrash he did get somewhat self-indulgent and his writing became somewhat bloated - but, that he is a genius, there is no doubt. The Baroque Cycle is definitely bloated, and could have benefited from some detailed maps and architectural drawings - but it is still a very very worthwhile and stimulating read.

John V. Karavitis There are a number of good science and science fiction writers out there. For science, give Clifford A. Pickover a shot, esp. his "Strange Brains and Genius". A lot of people who are recognized as geniuses who contributed to our modern world appeared to have been suffering from OCD, autism, etc. For science fiction, I recommend Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "retrieval Artist" novels. Start from her first and work your way forward, you will NOT be disappointed. John V. Karavitis

I cannot believe no one mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson. Yikes! "The Years of Rice and Salt" where the plague killed all the Europeans, and Islam reigns. The Americas are populated by what we call Native Americans. And the trilogy about climate change, and what it might be like on an everyday basis: Forty signs of rain, Fifty degrees below and Sixty days and counting. Really. Fun. ;-)

By parclair NoCal USA (not verified) on 04 Jul 2010 #permalink

perry in #2 recommends Age of Enlightenment by Louisa Gilder and I 2nd the motion. A brilliant novel-like treatment of The Quantum Ten + Weyl + Bohm + J.S. Bell and the current work in Quantum Entanglement. Highly recommended, and worth a re-reading.

Thanks to Chad (thanks Chad) I am re-reading House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds. Even better on the 2nd reading.

I'd only vaguely heard of Stephen Baxter, so thanks to Alex in #8 above. I did a little research and have decided Vacuum Diagrams would be the best introduction for me. Twenty-one short stories in 500+ pages about the future of humanity, each story father ahead in time than the previous one, and beginning in the year 3600 by a hard s-f author seems right up my alley.

All the talk about Stephenson reminds me I never read his original novel, Snow Crash, so I ordered that too.

For science, I'm thinking Mathematical Physics. A nice light introduction to the rather important subject of Group Theory, the mathematics of Symmetry, seems in order. What would you recommend there, Chad? I did a little research and will start with Fearless Symmetry: Exposing the Hidden Patterns of Numbers (New Edition) by Avner Ash, and Robert Gross. If you know of a better math-but-not-textbook-math intro to Group Representation Theory, Professor Orzel, pls advise.

I have also ordered Oerter's book and thanks for the heads up on that one too.

Beach reading is more important than ever thanks to BP. Heck no I'm not going in the water anymore that's for sure. Why should we swim there and come out with a sheen of oil on our bodies? Uh uh, not me. Me chicken. Ciao.

While this is not physics, I still highly recommend Rebecca Skloot's non-fiction great read: "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"!

Elizabeth Moon's the Speed of Darkness popped into my head, so glad somebody else mentioned it. Instead I'll recommend "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" by Alan Bradley. An English country mystery set in 1950 with a chemistry obsessed 11yo protagonist.

For nonfiction Bernd Heinrich's "Ravens in Winter" is fascinating (I think it was published w/in the last ten years but it may be older than that).

I'll also recommend some books for the tween to teen set:
For fiction either "The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet." by Reif Larson, a crazy "monologue" by a 12yo who obsessively maps his world to try to make sense of it or any of the mysteries by Blue Balliet.

For nonfiction, you can't go wrong with Joy Hakim's HIstory of Science trilogy. She's an amazing author, we regularly reread her books. We also regularly reread Bill Byson's A Short History.... Currently my 9yo has latched onto GeekDad's book of projects and is wishing he could trade in his boring naturalist parents for a set with more up to date skills.

More than two books but perhaps I'll be forgiven.

The biographies of scientists engaged in theoretical research are often exercises in adulation (interestingly, there are far fewer biographies of experimental scientists). Two recent books, however, take a different tack:

To see how weird AND dysfunctional, theoreticians can be, there is

The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family

The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness

By Richard Gaylord (not verified) on 05 Jul 2010 #permalink

For nonfiction, I'll give a plug to A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe by Marcelo Gleiser. He discusses the asymmetrical nature of the universe, including his misgivings on the possibility of finding a Theory of Everything that is true.

For fiction, the "last ten years" constraint pushes me in the direction of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. Here I'll suggest Making Money, where you will find some parallels between banking in Discworld and banking in the so-called real world (there is a brilliant line on the subject of trust about two chapters in).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 05 Jul 2010 #permalink

I'll "third" Elizabeth Moon's Speed of Darkness. In a similar vein of ASD people using ultra-rational reasoning, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night makes a great read and is truly heart-rending in its climax.

For non-fiction, Terry Tempest Williams Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place blends a naturalist's view of a period of Salt Lake retreating with her mother's fatal illness. And I'm in the middle of Newton and the Counterfeiter and having trouble putting it down to do work. It ties in nicely with the Stephenson Baroque Cycle trilogy.

In the spirit on not reading recent books...
Non-fiction: Richard Rhodes "The Making of the Atomic Bomb", Daniel Kevles "The Physicists" and Peter Matthiessen "The Snow Leopard".
Fiction: I would echo all the recommendations for "Cryptonomicon"

Fiction: "The Housekeeper and the Professor" by Yoko Ogawa. An utterly charming story of a brain-damaged math professor with only 80 minutes of short-term memory, his housekeeper and her son. Poetic and insightful on the meaning of family, the romance of number theory, and making fairly advanced math concepts accessible to a 10-year old.

Nonfiction: "Before the Dawn" by Nicholas Wade. The NYT science reporter very ably tells the story of the encounter of paleo-anthropology and genomics and what it has taught us about our human heritage. Fascinating.

For those biologists out there who like fiction I would recommend "Peeps" by Scott Westerfeld (2005). Its a modern twist to a vampire story rich with biological and medical explanations that are excellently written making it a very fun read

Thanks for a guide to a bunch of good reading. But come on, bunnies, it's for the beach. A little shorter, with good plots, - how about Eric Flint's 1632 and its follow up series with fan help; or L.E. Modesitt's Imager on the fiction list. For the science, Tim Friend, The Third Domain:The Untold Story of Archaea and the Future of Biotechnology. It caught me up on a field that is changing with every issue of the journals, and couldn't be more up to date with the search for something to eat up that BP mess.

By Gamma Sue (not verified) on 13 Jul 2010 #permalink

Just one recommendation. Non-fiction. 101 Theory Drive, A Neuroscientist's Quest for Memory, by Terry McDermott. Easy to read and fascinating insight into the life, personalities, politics, drudgery and the occasional spectacular revelation in a working research lab.

By Alan Pomeroy (not verified) on 14 Jul 2010 #permalink


"Endless Forms Most Beautiful" by Sean Carroll (and other books of his). A bit on the geeky side, it's a fascinating overview of how studies in genetics, development, and evolution fit together.

"Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation" by Olivia Judson. She uses fictional letters from various creatures with questions about their amazing and complicated sex lives. Fun, engaging, and the evolutionary explanations are right on.

"Genome" by Matt Ridley. About the human genome.

"Your Inner Fish" by Neil Shubin. Already mentioned above. A fascinating story of evolutionary discovery, it discusses some features of human biology that only make sense in a evolutionary context.

Bryson's "short history" is good fun and informative. It leans toward physics, chemistry, etc.

I'll second the plug for "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." It came out this year, and I actually did read it on the beach this summer.

Another good nonfiction beach read is "Bonk," by Mary Roach, about the science of sex (and scientists that study sex). Roach also wrote "Stiff," about the science of dead bodies.

By phenocopy (not verified) on 20 Jul 2010 #permalink

The Invention of Clouds - a lovely book both inside and out, which matters to me. And even the name seems right for summer.

The Parrot's Theorem - fun for all ages.

Fiction: Accelerando (Singularity) by Charles Stross. It picks up the "living in cyberspace" thread that Stephenson started with SnowCrash and then runs like a banshee with it thru the artificial intelligence singularity. If the breathless "OMG!" style of the singularity non-fiction leaves you exhausted, then this is a great way to wrap your head around the topic. And good science fiction too.