Science books! Favorites and recommendations

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Science books! Favorites and recommendations

Postby Dr. Venture » Thu Jul 19, 2007 10:32 pm UTC

Since we have a well-read and scientific-minded group here, I was wondering which books on various scientific fields xkcders* would recommend. Which books have given you a good understanding of a field you knew little of before? Which ones are your favorites, and which ones would you recommend to someone who wants to know more about a specific field? And, if there are any you'd steer people away from, tell us about them. Please give a short description, rather than just listing titles.

I'll start off with a basic one: Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World. An excellent book on critical thinking, debunking of pseudo-science, and the importance of scientific thought. I'd recommend it to anyone.

One I wouldn't recommend is Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. He tries to explain string theory without using any math or even equations, and only succeeds in making things more confusing.

So, here we go: what are yours?

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Postby Jesse » Thu Jul 19, 2007 10:33 pm UTC

How The Mind Works by Steven Pinker.

I also second The Elegant Universe.

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Postby Token » Fri Jul 20, 2007 1:44 am UTC

I quite liked Unweaving the Rainbow, by our old friend Richard Dawkins. Just a neat collection of scientific explanations for things you might not usually think about. It's been a while since I read it, though, so I'm fuzzy on the details. It's not technical or anything - an example is a chapter on the mathematics of coincidences. Nothing beyond simple probability, but not something you'd really ever consider.

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Postby ks_physicist » Fri Jul 20, 2007 2:28 am UTC

I liked the Demon Haunted World, and also the earlier "The Dragons of Eden".

"The Astronomer's Universe" by Friedman is a great read.

"A Brief History of Time" was a great book to read when I was in 6th grade and starved for scientific learning.

For scientific biographies, I really, really like the Einstein bio by Fölsing. Haven't read the one by Issacson yet, but have heard good things about his bios.

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Postby Alisto » Fri Jul 20, 2007 6:21 am UTC

I liked The Elegant Universe. If I wanted to learn about string theory based on math, I can read any of the many theoretical physics publications.
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Postby Oort » Fri Jul 20, 2007 7:21 am UTC

A Brief History of Time or A Briefer HIstory of Time or The Universe in a Nutshell. They're all pretty similar.

A Cartoon Guide to Genetics. (Or physics or statistics or chemistry if that's your thing.)

The Way Things Work.

The Physics of Superheroes. (It's sort of scientific.)

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Postby SpitValve » Fri Jul 20, 2007 7:52 am UTC

Surely you must be joking, Mr Feynman - not really science, but basically silly tales of Feynman's life, very much from his physicist perspective. From how he learnt to crack safes while working on the Manhatten Project, to tricks to play on waitresses through to performing as a percussionist.

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Postby Pseudomammal » Fri Jul 20, 2007 9:15 am UTC

The User Illusion, by Tor Nørretranders. "Cutting consciousness down to size." Thermodynamics, information theory, and crazy ass-counterintuitive cognitive psychology explain why you think there's a you there to think, and provide a sound scientific basis for geeks to trust their intuition. Written for science-literate laypersons who don't need any condescension. This is the book that convinced me it was reasonable for a computer nerd to become a biologist.

The Generous Man, by the same author, is also good, though aimed at a much less sophisticated audience. "How helping others is the sexiest thing you can do." Why altruism is all about getting laid, and why it's no less noble for it. Costly signaling theory may be easy to abuse, but it's also a lot of fun.

Language and Human Behavior, by Derek Bickerton. The anti-Chomsky. Evolution of language and human consciousness without all the magic anthropocentric hand waving. Could easily be totally wrong, but gave this linguistics noob a lot to think about.

iGenetics, by Peter Russell. A molecular genetics textbook that doesn't suck. Russell is both sharp and enthusiastic. Surprisingly approachable for beginners.

The Molecular Biology of the Cell, by numerous folks. In my experience, multi-author textbooks are usually terrible. This is the exception. Freaking comprehensive.

The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman. Not technically a science book, but very enlightening for anyone curious about the world of human-made things. The best book for programmers that never mentions programming.

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Postby Stickmaster » Sun Jul 22, 2007 3:50 am UTC

e=mc^2: A Biography Of The World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis. It takes a historical view of e=mc^2, and anything that either led to it's development, or what it led to. It's a really interesting read - while the science stuff is probably known by most people on these boards, I found the historical aspect of it enthralling.

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Postby chrispy1 » Sun Jul 22, 2007 12:24 pm UTC

So...I liked The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. Thought it explained things well, and I actually went off and did a whole pile more reading on string theory.

I also have the Einstein's bio by Isaacson, but haven't started it yet - too big to bring on public transit, so maybe when I'm on vacation. Very excited though.

I also have a book called "From Magic to Science: Essays on the Scientific Twilight" by Charles Dinger that I'm really excited to read.

others that I really enjoyed, in no particular order:
The Golden Ratio by Mario Livio
Physics of Superheroes by J Kakalios (heh heh heh - i said kaka :D)
Developmental Neuropsychology by Spreen (drove a couple of my papers in completely different directions in university...)
The World as I see it/Out of my later years by Einstein
and although completely outdated now, The Second Creation: Doly and the Age of Biological Control by Ian Wilmut really piqued my curiousity when I bought/read it in 2000.
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Postby Zohar » Sun Jul 22, 2007 10:19 pm UTC

The Feynmann Lectures on Physics, for a start. I suppose I should get over my giant crush on Richard Feynmann, but it's so much fun. :-)

I don't read that many science books. I enjoyed the "Science Of Discworld" series a lot (although some chapters are very very boring) and A Short History of Everything (Bill Bryson) is interesting sometimes, especially if you're into geology.
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Postby Herman » Mon Jul 23, 2007 1:04 am UTC

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is probably the best starting point for understanding world history. But it belongs in this thread because its approach is scientific rather than historical. The book is all about developing a model of why human societies do what they do, instead of telling a specific story.

The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg is a great book about the Big Bang theory, and cosmology in general, but it's a little outdated now. (Although there's an extra section that goes over discoveries made since the book came out in the sixties).

The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, provide a rigorous but accessible (and fun to read) explanation of evolution.

The Trouble With Physics by Lee Smolin explains why string theory is bad science. It's also a quick and entertaining history of twentieth-century theoretical physics.

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Postby skeptical scientist » Mon Jul 23, 2007 1:32 am UTC

I would like to extend the Demon-Haunted World recommendation to anything by Carl Sagan - I've enjoyed every book of his that I've read. I'd also recommend Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas - I know physics seems to get all the glory these days, but Lives is a really nice biology book.

And while not strictly a science book, I very much enjoyed The Code Book by Simon Singh, which is a popular book on Cryptography but also includes enough mathematics (split between the main text for the easier stuff and the appendices for the harder stuff, like the algorithm behind RSA) to satisfy the mathematically literate reader.

The Trouble With Physics by Lee Smolin explains why string theory is bad science. It's also a quick and entertaining history of twentieth-century theoretical physics.

Interesting. I'll have to check that one out.
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Postby mrguy753 » Mon Jul 23, 2007 2:32 am UTC

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Postby Oort » Mon Jul 23, 2007 11:50 pm UTC

I want to read "surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman." I found this website: http://www.gorgorat.com/. It contains a lot of the book, but I don't know for sure if it's the whole thing. Can you tell me?

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Postby Arabella » Wed Jul 25, 2007 5:14 pm UTC

I really enjoyed A Short History of Nearly Everyhting by Bill Bryson too. i think maybe he dwelt a bit much on classification but he described things really well. I have a massive pile of science books to read, about 15 or so. I've started most of them but I tend to get distracted. and i dont have any here so i can't think of any i've finished.

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Postby miles01110 » Wed Jul 25, 2007 8:23 pm UTC

Arabella wrote:I really enjoyed A Short History of Nearly Everyhting by Bill Bryson


Anything by Bill Bryson is downright hilarious, and usually interesting too.

One of the better 'science' books I've read that wasn't a textbook lately was Simon Singh's Big Bang. It delves into the history behind the theory in a thoughtful and logical way.

I started reading Neal DeGrasse Tyson's Origins, but on page 3 there is the phrase "degrees Kelvin" so I stopped there and returned the book.

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Postby UmbrageOfSnow » Fri Jul 27, 2007 6:06 am UTC

Despite my man-crush on Carl Sagan, he's been done completely in this thread so something new and less famous.

Genome, by Matt Ridley.
Amazing book, you should all read it, it is quite accessible and yet interesting even to genetics majors. The subtitle is something like Autobiography of a species in 23 chapters. Each chapter is named after a chromosome and has some tie in to a gene on that chromosome, but the subjects cover a lot of genetics and biology material. Great all around and holds interest.
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Postby Alioth » Tue Aug 07, 2007 9:54 am UTC

Phantoms in the Brain, by V.S. Ramachandran. It's really neat, a little random and rambly sometimes, and well-aimed at the knowledgeable-layman crowd. Also, neuro/cognitive science FTW.

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Postby bbctol » Tue Aug 07, 2007 10:56 am UTC

A short and only somewhat sciency book is The Secret House, by David Bodanis. It chronicles a single day in a house from an ultra-scientific perspective.

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Postby Maseiken » Tue Aug 07, 2007 10:56 am UTC

Not so much science, but still...

Everything by Voltaire...
yeah...
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Postby I Zimbra » Wed Aug 08, 2007 6:46 am UTC

David Foster Wallace wrote a book about the history of infinity (as a mathematical concept) that is both entertaining and informative.

Jared Diamond's stuff is interesting, but I think he can be kind of...reductionary. Is that a word?

Feynman's Six Easy Pieces is a great summary of basic physics, and kind of a fun read.

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Postby Jesse » Wed Aug 08, 2007 7:11 am UTC

Symmetry of the Monster, by Mark Ronan.

Amazon wrote:Mathematics is being driven forward by the quest to solve a small number of major problems - generating excitement in the mathematical world and beyond. Four famous challenges have been Fermat's Last Theorem, the Riemann Hypothesis, Poincare's Conjecture, and, now, the quest for the 'Monster' of Symmetry. It is this latter that forms the topic of this book. Although its roots go back much further, the quest to understand symmetry really begins with the tragic young genius Evariste Galois, who died at the age of 20 in a duel. He used symmetry to understand algebraic equations, and he discovered that there were building blocks or 'atoms of symmetry'. Most fit into a table, rather like the periodic table of elements, but there are 26 exceptions. The biggest of these was dubbed 'the Monster' - a giant snowflake in 196,884 dimensions. At first the Monster was only dimly seen. Did it really exist, or was it a mirage? Many mathematicians became involved. The Monster became clearer, and it was no longer monstrous but a beautiful form that pointed out deep connections between symmetry, string theory, and the very fabric and form of the universe. The story of the discovery involves some extraordinary characters, and Mark Ronan brings these people to life, and recreates in accessible language the growing excitement of what became the biggest joint project ever in the field of mathematics - the hunt for the Monster.

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Postby notyouravgjoel » Wed Aug 08, 2007 1:04 pm UTC

The God Delusion was interesting and moderately world-shaking.

I actually really enjoyed The Bother Tongue by Bill Bryson, although one might not typically classify it as scientific.

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Postby Meowsma » Thu Aug 09, 2007 11:12 am UTC

Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, by Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan.

It's probably the greatest book I've ever read. The best way to explain it is that it takes the Second Law of Thermodynamics, explains how it's the most important physical law in the universe, and then applies it to every scale of our lives, from the nonliving to the living to the macroscopic and to the societal. It is absolutely amazing to learn how it can explain and affect everything in the world, and new perspectives are shed on ideas like abiogenesis and environmentalism.

I HIGHLY recommend it to everyone, scientist or no.

Herman wrote:Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is probably the best starting point for understanding world history. But it belongs in this thread because its approach is scientific rather than historical. The book is all about developing a model of why human societies do what they do, instead of telling a specific story.


Why did that book have to be so godawfully BORING, though?! It was required reading for my Warfare and Violence class, but I just couldn't force myself through it. The other book on how apes started to eat roots was far more interesting.

--------------

For those who want to learn about Quantum Mechanics:

In Search of Schrödinger's Cat
Schrödinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality

Both by John Gribbin. He's an excellent author and presents the problems and issues of quantum mechanics in a very clear, very understandable reader. There's no math at all and while it's written for the layperson, it was just as enriching for me, someone who had dabbled in the field before and is in physics-oriented studies (in contrast to Feynman's QED, which was far too un-technical to keep my interest).

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Postby Vaniver » Thu Aug 09, 2007 6:57 pm UTC

Why did that book have to be so godawfully BORING, though?! It was required reading for my Warfare and Violence class, but I just couldn't force myself through it. The other book on how apes started to eat roots was far more interesting.
I remembered it being interesting... but, then again, I have a vested interest in the development of civilizations (playing a lot of Civ will do that to you).
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Postby ATCG » Sat Sep 01, 2007 1:16 am UTC

Given the number of times that The Elegant Universe has been mentioned in this thread, I'm surprised that Greene's follow-on book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, hasn't come up. While I enjoyed the former book, I did find stretches of it to be a slog. I enjoyed the latter book far more; it casts a much wider net in attempting to survey the current state of modern physics (special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, and quantum gravity), cosmology, and, at the root of it all, the fundamental nature of space and time. Anyone who can read this book without having their jaw repeatedly drop in amazement just isn't paying attention.

One further distinction between Universe and Cosmos: Greene, while on book tour, claimed that his mother, a New York City real-estate agent, attempted to read the first book and gave up after five pages. She did, however, make it all the way through the second book and professed to having enjoyed it.
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Postby Lyra Ngalia » Sat Sep 01, 2007 5:21 am UTC

Oort wrote:The Way Things Work.


Do you mean the book with the mammoths explaining how everything worked? Because I loved that book. I actually went back to it this year and was surprised how much detailed they showed in explaining how turbojets work (it might actually have included a turbofan...).

I haven't read Roving Mars by Steve Squyres yet, but it's been so highly recommended that I think I should. Has anyone here read it and have an opinion either way?
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Postby Oort » Sat Sep 01, 2007 6:26 am UTC

Lyra Ngalia wrote:
Oort wrote:The Way Things Work.


Do you mean the book with the mammoths explaining how everything worked? Because I loved that book. I actually went back to it this year and was surprised how much detailed they showed in explaining how turbojets work (it might actually have included a turbofan...).


That's right. They even workeed up to basic nuclear reactions in there.

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Re: Science books! Favorites and recommendations

Postby Minerva » Sat May 31, 2008 4:54 pm UTC

Warped Passages, by Lisa Randall, certainly deserves a mention.

And, yes, I'm going to plug Carl Sagan's books again just because... well, it works, bitches!
Even if you can't be bothered reading all the books, everyone should have a chance to beg, buy or borrow the recently released Cosmos DVD set.
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Re:

Postby Amarantha » Sun Jun 01, 2008 7:04 am UTC

notyouravgjoel wrote:The Bother Tongue by Bill Bryson,


Best. Typo. Evar.

One thing that got me interested in science in general and astronomy in particular was a book I was given as a small child (maybe 5 or 6 years old). It's called "The Stars: Steppingstones into Space", was written by a bloke called Irving Adler and was published some time in the 50's. I loved it madly and still do. When I read Sagan's Cosmos, I fell in love with science all over again :)

I was reading a thread in the Maths forum recently and someone mentioned having learnt serious maths at an early age from "The Big Golden Book of Mathmatics". Having just begun a maths-heavy Master's degree, I decided to see if I could find it. I found a copy in my University Library (of all places), and lo and behold, it was written by my old idol Irving Adler! According to the library catalogue, he's written all sorts of educational books on such diverse topics as coal and the sun. I decided then and there that if we have kids I shall buy every Irvin Adler book I can find. That way, they have a chance to get introduced to non-fiction topics in ways they might find interesting. Hopefully , once school starts, that will pre-empt the intimidated reaction of this-looks-hard-and-boring-so-I-won't-even-try, which can happen if these subjects are introduced through poor teaching.

In summary, yay! for Irving Adler, Carl Sagan and everyone else who's ever made science accessible to kids and to the general public.
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Re: Science books! Favorites and recommendations

Postby hideki101 » Tue Jun 10, 2008 2:24 am UTC

I liked the Elegant Universe and Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene. I know it doesn't have much math in it, but I was under the assumption that he was writing the book for the layman; rather, someone who wants to know facts and general "what does this mean" type of thing than slog through advanced physics equations that would stump a professor.

The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond was interesting (was required reading for AP Bio), and I still need to read Guns,Germs, and Steel.

Another interesting book is The Great Beyond by Paul Halpern. Interesting read if you are interested in the history of the modern physics era, and the quest for the theory of everything.

Also, Just for fun, I would throw in the Cartoon Guide to Physics.

EDIT: also throw in anything by Michio Kaku, esp. Hyperspace and Physics of the Impossible. He delves into string theory, so if you aren't into that, you may want to skip some of his books but Physics of the Impossible deals with the future of science and technological advances that come of next gen science.
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Re: Science books! Favorites and recommendations

Postby Various Varieties » Tue Jun 17, 2008 1:40 am UTC

Climbing Mount Improbable - Richard Dawkins
I haven't read that many books by Richard Dawkins, but I preferred this one to the more famous The Blind Watchmaker due to an even more fascinating choice of examples. (Also, I wasn't keen on the chapter late in TBW where he criticises punctuated equilibrium; I didn't follow it on first reading as the concepts involved were more subtle concept than anything else in the book.)

From Here to Infinity - Ian Stewart
Very interesting outline of the range of disciplines covered by modern mathematics and some major problems in each field. (Ian Stewart is also one of the coauthors of The Science of Discworld books, which are also excellent.)

Chaos - James Gleick
Fractals and butterfly effects and nonlinear dynamics and strange attractors and bifurcation and things. There's also Does God Play Dice by the aforementioned Ian Stewart.

The Big Bang - Joseph Silk
I'm not sure whether to classify this as a very thorough popular science book or a textbook: the main text is mainly qualitative descriptions rather than maths, and unlike Real TextbooksTM it's cheap; but the tone is dry, and there is some optional maths in the appendix if you want to go further.

I do think it should be the first port of call for anyone who wants to go further than most popular science cosmology books, but doesn't want to get into the heavy maths of a textbook.

Time Travel in Einstein's Universe - J. Richard Gott
Fun! Although some readers seem to take issue with his obsession with using of the Copernican Principle to estimate how much longer various things (such as the human race) are likely to last.

Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction
This is the only one of OUP's Very Short Introductions I've read, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. :)

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Re: Science books! Favorites and recommendations

Postby ian » Wed Jun 18, 2008 2:59 pm UTC

hideki101 wrote:I liked the Elegant Universe and Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene. I know it doesn't have much math in it, but I was under the assumption that he was writing the book for the layman; rather, someone who wants to know facts and general "what does this mean" type of thing than slog through advanced physics equations that would stump a professor.


He was, much like the couple of tv documentries he has done. I've had the elegant universe for over a year now and still not read it, though I'm finally at the point where I'm reading quicker than I'm buying books. Though my amazon wishlist seems to extend exponentially.


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