100 greatest popular science books of all time- or, how I learned to stop reading and build the bomb!

5 10 2010

My first brush with reading science was Cosmos, by Carl Sagan. That is nothing unusual. Cosmos probably created as many science fiction fans as Ray Bradbury, Bobby Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke combined. First off it was one of the most popular PBS series of all time, second the book had really amazing pictures. I don’t mean to say that people are illiterate, or incapable of getting through complex pros, but a two page glossy picture (i.e. painting) of the Crab Nebula tends to grab a ten year olds attention a little more than Charles Darwin’s winning Victorian super-sentences. Carl Sagan created a sort of pictorial travel guide to the heavens. It was like getting a copy of a Let’s Go: Universe!, if you will. I don’t think Cosmos changed the world like Darwin’s Origin. The fallout of Darwin’s book is still, well, falling out, but Carl Sagan was not being exactly controversial. Sagan was going more for interesting and dare I say- fun.

I bring this up because I was recently tipped off to a list of the one-hundred greatest popular science science books of all time as compiled by oedb.org. Oedb does not stand for “Old extra-Dirty Bastard.” It is a website that seemed to be interlaced with for-profit-pedagogy, otherwise known as “The Future, get used to it.” I went beyond the list and read a few years worth of the blog on the site and there are many awesome distractions to be found, but back to the list.

Here is a brief list of my personal favorites (of the 42 I’ve actually read)

1. Cosmos- Like I said, this book was pivotal in my early love of space. I moved to Cocoa Beach around the time I first read this in my uncles barber shop so I had the gorgeous images of nebula and stellar death in my head as I sat on the beach and watched spaceships heading starward.

2. The Right Stuff- I was glad to see Mr. Wolfe’s story of the early astronauts on the list. I read it after seeing the film and the though both are great, the imagery of the book is still, miraculously, more potent.

3. On the Origin of Species- One-hundred and fifty years have passed and the debate rages on. I have a reprint of the

Young, sexy Darwin

twenty-fifth edition, it is still in print.

4. Wonderful Life- Stephen J. Gould’s story of the Burgess Shale. Discovered by Charles Wolcott (the man that helped found

The Burgess Shale, Eden in stone.

NASA) in 1909, this fossil outcrop in British Columbia changed the way we look at the Cambrian Explosion when complex life flourished for the first time. While looking over the samples at the Smithsonian, researcher Simon Conway proclaimed, “Oh fuck, not another phylum!” That was eighty years after it’s discovery.

5. The Complete Guide to Rocks and Minerals- It is on my fossil shelf right now. It isn’t even dusty.

Now, I want to make a few suggestions. These are my favorite popular science books not included on the list:

1. A short History of Nearly Everything- Bill Bryson really pulled no punches in this “meta-tome.” It is a scientific history of every field, every discipline and nearly every debate. I’ve read it four times.

2. Basin and Range- John McPhee gathered the help of dozens of geologists to make you fall in love with the America that you hardly ever see because it is below your feet.

3. Krakatoa- I could have picked any number of several Simon Winchester books from his tale of the first stratigraphical map, “The Map that Changed the World,” to “A Crack in the Edge of the World,” about the 1906 San Fransisco Earthquake. Yet it is Krakatoa that is, to my mind, the greatest masterpiece. I once convinced an anti-evolutionist the ere of his ways by making him listening to all thirteen hours of the audio book without a break.

4. Guns, Germs, Steel- Jared Diamond has about a thousand interesting ideas in this book regarding everything from human evolution to modern warfare. Read it and you will never look at the shape of continents the same again.

5. Something with dinosaurs in it… you know, for kids- I think that no list of children’s books on science can be considered complete without some dinosaurs. I’m thinking “The Dinosaur Encyclopedia.” It has a nice blend of science and pictures of T-Rex ripping a Hadrosaur to pieces.

You may wonder what all this has to do with science fiction. Plenty. Science fiction involves a great deal of writing about science, much of it fake, most of it poorly conceptualized. It is rare to find prophetic sci-fi in the vein of Clarke’s premonitions about geosynchronous satellites, or Heinlein’s nuclear power grid, but it is not impossible. A good way to get a handle on cutting edge science is to read what scientists are writing. I read the popular science magazines and muddle through the scientific journals from Nature to the New England Journal of Medicine. The best way to get a handle on science short of becoming a scientist, is to read the literature. The books of this list will take you a long way toward not coming off as a jackass.

That is the Science of Fiction

Congrats to the upcoming Nobel Prize winners.

Andrew C. Porter

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9 responses

9 10 2010
Scott W. Baker

I “read” Cosmos in eigth grade science class. It was a little tough to swallow for a kid like me at the time. I should really give it another go.

A light read I enjoyed was “The Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition”. It’s a survey of where science and SF are getting close to each other. “The Elegant Universe” is good, too, as is the NOVA special based on it, but it’s a little less accessible (read as: lots of math stuff).

Good list. Thanks for the link.

9 10 2010
Scott W. Baker

Oh, and “The Ulimate Dinosaur Book” is on the list…near the bottom. #96.

10 10 2010
silverstairs

Well damn. You’re right… as usual.

30 11 2011
consumerbanking

Thanks indeed for the list, though I agree with you that there are quite some books missing. And the problem with these lists is of course that each day new science books come out. I saw that someone had compiled a top 5 of the best popular science books on biology that have been published in 2011 (http://popsciencebooks.com/best-biology-books/) and I bet that in an update of this list, at least one of those 5 books will (have to) be included.

30 11 2011
silverstairs

The failures of any list of greatness or infamy are legion. Thanks for the link by the way. I just bought numbers 4 and 5 because of it! Do you have any other suggestions? I have been meaning to revisit that list in the future and outside help is always appreciated.

3 12 2011
Frank

I can’t seem to find a useful link that I found earlier about the best popular science books of all time. Let me do one further deep dive to digg it up.

In the meantime, I hope you’ve seen the article about from the New Scientist as couple of days ago: http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2011/11/popular-science-books-to-put-on-your-christmas-list.html

10 06 2012
Timothy D. Miley

The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil

10 06 2012
Timothy D. Miley

The Singularity is Near is a ground breaking book that anyone in science should read. Ray Kurzweil sees the future like no other from research of the past. Almost all futurists got it wrong about our future and Dr. Kurzweil got it right.

11 06 2012
silverstairs

Couldn’t agree more.I have had the honor of a correspondence with Vinge and he agrees with you.

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