Scientists share in this article a few of the books that drew them into their fields. Perusing such articles is a good way to find excellent works that we might otherwise miss, or remind ourselves to go back to works we’ve started to read but have put aside.
Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature has been reviewed on this blog. Of the others, Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table and John Ramsbottom’s Mushrooms and Toadstools are now on my must-read list.
It pleases me that Brian Cox found Carl Sagan’s Cosmos such an inspirational book. For me, however, the Sagan book that really did it was The Dragons of Eden, Sagan’s meditation on the evolution of human intelligence. By all means, take the time to read both.
If I could encourage you to read only one other book of science, it would be Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973), the story of the scientific exploration of human civilization. All books of science eventually become dated, but the best ones retain a gloriously-accurate evocation of the scientific spirit. Such is the case with Bronowski’s work. Having read it, you’ll never view science in a narrow way again.
James Watson’s and Francis Crick’s The Double Helix will always be one of the most important books of history ever written. Yet, I feel ashamed as a man every time I contemplate it because of the extraordinarily-shabby way the two of them exploited the work of Rosalind Franklin. She did the work they could not, but they got credit for it. Read it for the details of how DNA’s structure was finally teased out, but do not expect to find a spirit of scientific generosity within it. Darwin and Wallace would be turning over in their graves.
Most of the books mentioned in the article are broadly written for a general audience. That’s fine with me. There are many, many people in the wide world who hunger for such books and are quite capable of taking up any challenge that science throws at them. Once we get a broad, strong foundation under our feet, we are ready for deeper studies in more specific fields. Books like Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and The Greatest Show on Earth come to mind, but so does a book you’ve probably not heard of before: The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World, by Guido Majno, a fascinating study of how wounds were treated from Mesopotamia to Rome. A superb text, with generous, useful illustrations on every page.