Dear Dr Hentzau
What are your favourite books about SCIENCE (fiction or non-fiction) that are at least relatively accessible for us poor non-scientists?
This is a handy question because I’ve been meaning to make a post in this kind of vein for quite a while! What’s put me off is that most of what I read (or have read) are textbooks and thus not the sort of thing you can easily buy on Amazon – or if they are, they’re bloody expensive. Now that you’ve asked, though, I cannot help but answer.
Light and fluffy popular science.
As far as I’m concerned the gold standard for popular science books is Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson is a travel writer and journalist, not a scientist, which means he’s perfect for writing about science from a layperson’s perspective. Even better is that he manages to cover an astonishing range of subjects – physics, chemistry, biology, geology, paleontology – without ever dropping into dull, tedious prose of the sort that more serious popsci books are all too fond of. It’s all presented in a light-hearted, humorous way that remains constantly entertaining and interesting throughout, and what’s especially good about this book is that it’s as much about the history of science (to be expected given the title) as it is about science itself. This is an aspect of science that I think modern scientific teaching overlooks, often to its detriment since understanding how we got here is a very important part of understanding where we are. If I had to make one criticism it would be that Bryson doesn’t get everything right, but his miss rate is low enough that it doesn’t really matter when weighed up against the astonishing number of scientific anecdotes you can use to bore the pants off your friends the next time you’re at a party.
More serious fare is provided by Simon Singh’s Big Bang and Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe/Fabric of the Cosmos. Big Bang does what it says on the tin: it is a potted history of the Big Bang theory and modern cosmology, and after you read it you will nearly understand both of these things. My opinion of Brian Greene is a little more complicated: on the one hand, he is literally the only popular science writer I have ever come across who could explain quantum mechanics in even a halfway lucid fashion. This is not a quality to be dismissed lightly. On the other hand Brian Greene is a string theorist and spends half his books writing about string theory and he couldn’t convince me he knew what he was talking about there, so when you buy one of those books you are essentially buying the half that’s about quantum mechanics.
Gnarly serious science.
Thomas A. Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Very dense, but practically a required text if you really want to understand why the modern scientific method works the way it does.
Richard Rhodes: The Making of the Atomic Bomb. A weighty tome that could probably be used to stun a charging wildebeest, this is an incredibly in-depth look at the politics, physics and personalities behind the Manhattan project. I personally couldn’t put it down even though it weighs a ton, but you should be warned that it is not for the faint hearted; it took me two weeks to finish it.
Richard Feynman. Oooh, Feynman, a man I both love and loathe in equal measure. Feynman was, to put it mildly, a bit of a dick. He was a massive penis to women and a shameless show-off and braggart to boot. However, he is also possibly the greatest physics teacher there has ever been. One of his precepts for lecturing was that if you couldn’t explain a complicated scientific theory to a first year university undergraduate you didn’t really understand it yourself, and this is something that really rings true with me. By far the best way to truly understand something is to teach it, and Feynman grasped this far better than anyone else I’ve ever come across. His Lectures on Physics are an incredible set of textbooks, but they carry the tiny caveat that they are a) hard to find these days and b) really expensive. I’m lucky enough to have a set sitting on the bottom shelf of my bookcase, but you may have to settle for Six Easy Pieces and Six Not-So-Easy Pieces. Each of these slim volumes takes a selection of six lectures from the above set and presents them in bite-size format so that you at least know what you’re getting into.
A tricky one because most fiction books that focus on science over story tend to be really bad. Some good examples that do spring to mind are:
Joe Haldeman, The Forever War. Vietnam in space with the added spice of time dilation. Every time the narrator goes out on campaign he returns to a world that has moved on by decades – even centuries – in his absence. The war is actually the least interesting part of the book; instead, it’s the presentation of time dilation and the ever-changing socio-political state of Earth that I find so fascinating.
Isaac Asimov, Foundation Trilogy. Asimov was a more than bit of a hack when he wasn’t writing short stories, but these three books work because they are essentially a collection of connected short stories set in the same universe. It’s set in the far future and there’s very little worthwhile science beyond standard 1950s pulp fare, but the concept of psychohistory is an interesting one that keeps these three books engaging more or less throughout.
Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age. Neal Stephenson doesn’t really write stories as such; his books are more fictional screeds on whatever subject Stephenson is finding particularly interesting at the moment, and what semblance of plot they actually contain are decidedly juvenile. Fortunately he has a writing style and a way with language that I really enjoy, and some of the ideas he plays around with are fascinating. The Diamond Age’s subject area is nanotechnology with a healthy dose of neo-Victorianism (think steampunk without the steam) thrown in, and it’s worth reading for a look at some of the more fantastical things nanotech might be capable of in the future.
Iain M. Banks, Culture series. Because if I’m going to live in the future it may as well be the hedonistic communist utopia of the Culture.