Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

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Altercator
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Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby Altercator » Sun Aug 31, 2008 11:26 pm UTC

Here's a situation: I'm a Malaysian college dropout slacker who's just started working in a retail book store. However, I'm growing a slightly strong interest in the areas of sciences, particularly astronomy, physics, & biology.

Which book would you recommend me to read, besides the obvious ones by Darwin, Einstein & Newton?

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby hitokiriilh » Sun Aug 31, 2008 11:29 pm UTC

For physics:
Feynman Lectures (Feynman)
The Road to Reality (Penrose)

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby Qwake » Mon Sep 01, 2008 2:27 am UTC

The Penrose book will tell you if your cut out for math and physics real quick.

A Brief History of Nearly Everything [Bill Bryson] --very anecdotal but very entertaining history of physical science

Big Bang [Simon Singh] --history of astronomy, Singh is fantastic writer. (not to be confused with the Nerve's "The Big Bang")

Entanglement [Amir Aczel] -- good history of quantum mechanics, EPR and Bell's theorem. Drags a bit in the end.

The Elegant Universe [Brian Greene] --I disagree with string theory but this book still has the best explanation of both quantum mechanics and general relativity I've ever read.

Extra Credit:
I know geology wasn't on your list of interests but I have to add a geo book to the end.

Annals of the Former World [John McFee] --John McPhee really earned his pulitzer. This is actually four books and an essay covering the geology of North America as seen on Interstate 80. Rocks really are interesting!
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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby gwillums » Mon Sep 01, 2008 3:18 am UTC

Be wary of Road to Reality. While it's an immensely cool book, and packs a lot of information in it, it moves blindingly fast. It's probably better to read it after you have some SERIOUS background in physics and advanced math. Of course, not to say that you can't read it to get a sense of how modern theoretical physics works, but don't expect to understand everything (or even anything...)

I can easily second the reccomendation of the Feynman Lectures. Be warned again, though, they are pitched at a pretty high level and while they do an amazing, if not the most amazing, job of explaining concepts, I don't think they're what you would want to learn physics from. Or at least, I think they're like fine art - beautiful, but you can get so much more out of them if you already know the basics and can appreciate their elegance.

If you do want to delve into physics, my reccomendation would be to get a good university intro-level textbook and get crackin'. Be sure to work lots of problems,as that's always been the best way to get a grip on the physics.

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby justaman » Mon Sep 01, 2008 3:30 am UTC

I can recommend Campbell's Biology as a great text book. It is excellently written with good diagrams etc. Lewin's "Genes" is a good comprehensive genetics text, though rather wordy.
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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby motoron » Mon Sep 01, 2008 4:34 am UTC

Read The Theories of General And Special Relativity by Einstein. It's actually a lot more readable than it would sound, Einstein tried to write the book for non-majors, and so he simplifies a lot of the math and presents a conceptualized version of Relativity, as opposed to the math behind it.

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby Sungura » Mon Sep 01, 2008 12:46 pm UTC

Pick up old used textbooks for cheep and read them.
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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby Matterwave1 » Mon Sep 01, 2008 2:36 pm UTC

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (or you could go with A BriefER History of Time)

That's pretty easy to follow, and a pretty good read imo.

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby NathanielK » Tue Sep 02, 2008 3:45 am UTC

Isaac Asimov's Atom is a short history of physics, Kip Thorne's Black Holes and Time Warps is a good math-free relativity book, and Richard Feynman's QED is a good math-free book on quantum mechanics. The last is also available in video form at http://www.vega.org.uk/video/subseries/8. If you don't mind doing some calculus, I'll second The Feynman Lectures on Physics.
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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby Zaha » Tue Sep 02, 2008 12:16 pm UTC

For easier reading than university textbooks, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is definitely a classic and a great read.

A bit to the side from your main interests but encompassing many different fields of science, anything from Jared Diamond, especially Guns, Germs and Steel, probably the best popular science book I've read so far.

And I think Richard Feynman was already mentioned.

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby Interactive Civilian » Wed Sep 03, 2008 3:44 am UTC

Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" will give you a pretty good overview of the universe. "Pale Blue Dot" gives an excellent overview of the past and future of space exploration.

If you want to get some ideas about rocket science without having to get into the nitty-gritty of it, check out some of Arthur C. Clarke's older short stories (especially the ones from before the moon landings). "Red Sands of Mars" (I think that's the title) is a nice collection of short stories. From the perspective of this non-rocket-scientist, he gets the physics of moving around in space right and the stories are interesting reading.

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby Zamfir » Wed Sep 03, 2008 11:15 am UTC

A bit of meta-advice, which other people might not all agree on. I would start by books written by journalists or other relatively amateurs (if they have good reviews), and stay away from popular books written by scientists, especially new and hypey ones.

Scientists have the tendency to focus on new, hip ideas, especially their own, while not paying a lot of attention to older, more accepted and usually more important ideas. For a newbie, this gives a very distorted view. Hawking, Brian Greene and Jared Diamond have nice books, but there are more or less controversial ideas in them that only experts can judge on their merits. Darwin and Einstein would fall in the same category, but they have been proven so right that their views have become the standard one. The same is probably true for Feynman and some others, if their books have survived through the decades.

'A short history of nearly everything' by Bill Bryson is a decent book if you really are just starting to learn about scientific topics. In his foreword, the author says that at a moment he realized that he didn't know squat about scientific stuff, and he then spend several years reading popular science books and talking to scientists, to write a sort of short intro to everything. Everything in the book, including the zillion anecdotes, can be found in other books, but it is a good starting point from which to proceed to more specialized books

I think 'Evolution: triumph of an idea' by Carl Zimmer is the best introduction to evolution. It is well readable and covers a good range of topics.

Another favourite of mine is "Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software" by Charles Petzold. This basically explains how computers work, starting from extremely simple concepts and continuing all the way to a detailed description of the instruction set of a microprocessor.

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby O'Steen » Wed Sep 03, 2008 1:35 pm UTC

I found "Fear of Physics" by Lawrence Krauss to be a good read in general, and specifically the section on relativity was eye opening for a non physicist.

Best of luck to you, I admire what you're doing.

P.S. Don't forget the math books; math is the language that everything else interesting is written in.
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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby McHell » Wed Sep 03, 2008 11:09 pm UTC

Zamfir wrote: Karl Zimmer 'Evolution: triumph of an idea'

I loved his "on the water's edge", haven't read that one. "Triumph of the Embryo" by Wolpert is also good in that corner. Just stay away from any Dennett and Dawkins... "nothing to see, just move on folks!".


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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby GabrielF » Mon Sep 08, 2008 5:37 am UTC

I definitely second The Selfish Gene.

If you're interested in more literary stuff:

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi is not really a book about science, but it was recently voted the best science book of all time, and its really, really good. Basically, Levi was a chemist and a Holocaust survivor and the book consists of a series of essays/stories about his life, all related to an element from the periodic table.

Uncle Tungsten is a memoir by the neurologist Oliver Sacks about his childhood love of chemistry. Its beautifully written with a lot of scientific information.

Some great popular science books:

In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall - about her work with chimps
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks - (or alternatively An Anthropologist on Mars) - fascinating stories of neurological illness, written with tremendous humanity
The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker - nature vs. nurture

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby Yakk » Mon Sep 08, 2008 6:53 am UTC

Zamfir wrote:A bit of meta-advice, which other people might not all agree on. I would start by books written by journalists or other relatively amateurs (if they have good reviews), and stay away from popular books written by scientists, especially new and hypey ones.

Scientists have the tendency to focus on new, hip ideas, especially their own, while not paying a lot of attention to older, more accepted and usually more important ideas. For a newbie, this gives a very distorted view. Hawking, Brian Greene and Jared Diamond have nice books, but there are more or less controversial ideas in them that only experts can judge on their merits. Darwin and Einstein would fall in the same category, but they have been proven so right that their views have become the standard one. The same is probably true for Feynman and some others, if their books have survived through the decades.
I agree, he should read Feynman.

If he wants to be amused, pick up "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!", which is a funny walk through a great man's life. Or "Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character" which is both that book and the sequel in chronological order.

Read the review:
http://www.amazon.com/Classic-Feynman-A ... im_b_njs_3

Sure, that book won't teach you physics -- but it will make you fall in love with Feynman, and might inspire you to make it through the entire Feynman lectures!
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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby Altercator » Mon Sep 15, 2008 9:41 pm UTC

Is it a good idea to start with Dummies or Complete Idiot's Guide books to jumpstart my journey into science?

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby McHell » Mon Sep 15, 2008 10:07 pm UTC

I doubt it very much. I've only read a few "dummies" guides to computing/languages/whatever, but (a) I'm not and hope you're not a dummy, and (b) they were bad. Especially those in smaller languages (which is kind of fatal if you try to learn say italian from the dutch book --- that's just criminally bad).

I'm really dismayed people still keep bandying Dawkins stuff around. It's interesting in a larger context, but in themselves it's mostly promoting a gene-centric view that's been thoroughly debunked 15years ago. Read any book by Evelyn Fox Keller, whether a biography of an unsung genius in evolutionary genetics (Barbara McClintock) or The Century of The Gene. Here the difference with Dawkins is clear: he tried to get his point across, presents the story so it fits his thingy, and if you're really not in luck he'll bang his drum about the worthless "extended phenotype" concept. She will show you how the conflicting (equally valid and all of them used and useful for specific things) concepts/definitions of "gene" enter into it and shape your framework --- you'll never in a lifetime see that from Dawkins. Thus all the unfulfilled promises of the Human Genome Project (remember, genotype-phenotype maps etc, and logically Jurassic Park like DNA->animal maps) are perfectly understood after 200pages of The Century of The Gene (if I remember the title correctly); after four Dawkins books you feel warm and fuzzy but don't even realize all the failures.

Yes, Dawkins had the best press advice ever, the EDGE Network which to me is equivalent to Freemason/Illuminati/Scientology type of corrupt "we know better than the plebs" manipulation. I think the attraction to physics/maths background people is that it is their sort of thinking, which just doesn't apply to biology. Yes, you can make a career out of it, and you can still get away with teaching these "biological" models that are relabelled fluid dynamics things, and in the other direction there's physics envy, but it's all not helpful.

It strikes me that old Feynman is both to physicists and outsiders the best-read (or most-suggested) writer, I don't expect a similar figure to exist in biology... maybe because there's more directions to go (ethology? ecology? evolution? development? you really can take any of the four without the rest, or any combination. Travel stories? Furry animals? One species or an ecosystem? One interaction? Describing an ideal or point in time? Doom-and-gloom about trends? Geophysical? Geographical? Choices, choices).

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby Altercator » Mon Sep 15, 2008 10:15 pm UTC

What about Freeman Dyson or Stephen Jay Gould? Can I start with either as well?

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby rflrob » Thu Sep 18, 2008 8:29 am UTC

For an interesting read, try What is Life, by Erwin Schrodinger (yes that Schrodinger). It's fun to see how far biology has come since the 40's, but also how much was already in place.
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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby JimmyB » Thu Sep 18, 2008 3:05 pm UTC

The Science of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack S. Cohen is very good. It's not like other 'Science of' books, by which I mean it doesn't try to explain the Discworld itself in terms of science. That, as they mention in an introduction, would be silly. Rather, there are alternating chapters - one by Pratchett, and one by the scientists. Pratchett's consist of a framework story based around the wizards on the Discworld creating a mini-universe they call 'Roundworld' - better known to us as Earth. Each of these chapters is followed by a chapter explaining the science behind the wizards' observations of Roundworld.
It works very well, and is highly entertaining as well as very good at explaining some fundamental scientific concepts.
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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby Monty40xi » Thu Sep 18, 2008 3:39 pm UTC

Altercator wrote:Is it a good idea to start with Dummies or Complete Idiot's Guide books to jumpstart my journey into science?

I've heard good things about the "Cartoon Guide to ____" series by Larry Gonick - Cartoon Guide to Genetics in particular. That one was published 17 years ago so it's missing a few things, but it would be a good framework to build from. His series also covers physics, chemistry, astronomy, statistics, and history.
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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby gnutrino » Fri Sep 19, 2008 4:37 pm UTC

lots of people wrote:Road to Reality - Roger Penrose
Personally I preferred "The Emperor's New Mind" and part 2 of "Shadows of the Mind" (the sequal to ENM, the first half is all about turing machines and non-computability if that turns you on (although alot of it is covered sufficiently in ENM (imo (nested parentheses are fun!))) but part two stands on it's own fairly well as a more physicsey work) from Penrose. But then I'm a sucker for quantum measurement theory.

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby niko7865 » Fri Sep 19, 2008 6:26 pm UTC

If you attempt to read Penrose's book and want to check your work, here's some solutions to the problems http://www.roadsolutions.ox.ac.uk/ and http://camoo.freeshell.org/roadtoreality.html
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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby jmorgan3 » Fri Sep 19, 2008 8:48 pm UTC

Zamfir wrote:Another favourite of mine is "Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software" by Charles Petzold. This basically explains how computers work, starting from extremely simple concepts and continuing all the way to a detailed description of the instruction set of a microprocessor.

I just finished reading that book based on your advice, and I loved it. I'm not exactly a science noob, but I had almost no idea what went on inside a computer until I read that book. Thank you, Zamfir.
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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby Tez » Wed Sep 24, 2008 2:19 pm UTC

For an ideal introduction to special relativity: "Space-time Physics"- By Wheeler

I also strongly recommend "physclips", a website with visual demonstrations and simulations of physics concepts

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby wst » Wed Sep 24, 2008 5:24 pm UTC

Matterwave1 wrote:A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (or you could go with A BriefER History of Time)

That's pretty easy to follow, and a pretty good read imo.

This. He takes the science down to pictures, and only has one equation in the book, but he still explains in enough detail for you to get stuck in.
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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby Poobar » Mon Oct 06, 2008 4:16 pm UTC

Tricky to get hold of, possibly, but the Sky at Night series by Sir Patrick Moore is a fantasticly interesting and accesible set of astronomy books from the perspective of an amatuer astronomer (albeit a legendary one).

Apart from that, I second (third?) Bill Bryson and the Science of Discworld series.

If linguistics apeals, Bryson also has a couple of books on that, of which (I think) Mother Toungue is the best- also check out The English Language by David Crystal- it was on the reading list back in school, and it was so interesting in nearly made me study linguistics at uni instead of astrophysics.

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Re: Recommended reading for science newbie, please?

Postby troyp » Wed Oct 08, 2008 10:04 pm UTC

Altercator wrote:What about Freeman Dyson or Stephen Jay Gould? Can I start with either as well?

No to Gould! He's a loon.
Dawkins is always good, but for a first book on evolution, I recommend "The Theory of Evolution" by Maynard-Smith.

edit: I recommend against "Dummies" books as well. The ones I've seen are appalling. Maybe if you want a basic intro to an application program (and you've got money to waste) they'd be okay, but not for anything else.
I don't know much about ecology, but I read "The Diversity of Life" by E O Wilson and it seemed like a decent non-mathematical introduction. Major textbooks are good for serious study, of course, but I'm guessing you don't want to invest that much time initially (particularly if you want to learn about a range of sciences).


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