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Popular science written by scientists?
November 29, 2010 2:14 PM   Subscribe

Recommend me some popular science written by practicing scientists.

I'd like to find high-quality popularizations of science written by scientists (not science journalists) who are leaders in their field--books that deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Faraday's Chemical History of a Candle and Oliver Sacks' Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat.
posted by IjonTichy to Science & Nature (32 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
Why We Get Sick - Nesse and Williams

Harold McGee, albeit localized to food science
posted by weaponsgradecarp at 2:17 PM on November 29, 2010


Any of Stephen Hawking's stuff would fit the bill.
posted by jquinby at 2:27 PM on November 29, 2010


Steve Pinker's books are great, accessible books about language and cognition - The Stuff of Thought is the most recent and it has a whole chapter on swearing, along with more traditional topics like verb meanings.
posted by heyforfour at 2:29 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Six Easy Pieces and Six Not-So-Easy Pieces by Feynman.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 2:29 PM on November 29, 2010


Stephen Jay Gould's work also fits the bill.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:30 PM on November 29, 2010


Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics is an interesting insight into the field by a top theoretical physicist.
posted by auto-correct at 2:30 PM on November 29, 2010


Here are some names in linguistics and cognitive psychology, off the top of my head:
Steven Pinker — language and cognition
David Krystal — language from a social science viewpoint
Ray Jackendoff — language and mind
George Lakoff — language and society
V. S. Ramachandran — consciousness
Sian Beilock — attention
Paul Broks — neuropsychology
posted by Nomyte at 2:31 PM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Richard Dawkins, "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution"

Anything by Carl Sagan, though my favorite is The Demon Haunted World.
posted by dnash at 2:39 PM on November 29, 2010


Baboon Metaphysics is one of the best science books written for a general audience I've ever come across.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:40 PM on November 29, 2010


The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of The Universe, by Sir Roger Penrose. Is this really a popularization...I don't know.
posted by klausman at 2:41 PM on November 29, 2010


Isaac Asimov was a practicing scientist (his Ph.D. was in biochemistry) for a while, and then bagged it for a career in writing. So he wasn't doing science while he was writing about it (one of many, many things he wrote about) but he did have a science background rather than a journalism background.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:45 PM on November 29, 2010


Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe.

And I second Stephen Hawking, especially his classic A Brief History of Time.
posted by bearwife at 2:45 PM on November 29, 2010


About Time, by Paul Davies.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:45 PM on November 29, 2010


Anything by Lewis Thomas.
The Dancing Wu Li Masters.
Even though he's a more a journalist than a scientist, anything by John McPhee.

Also I un-ecomment Stephen Hawking, who's a great scientist but and indifferent writer who doesn't do popular.
posted by KRS at 2:58 PM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


E.O. Wilson's The Ants (1990, won a Pulitzer in 1991) & Journey to the Ants (1994)
posted by christopherious at 3:15 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I second the Stephen Jay Gould--especially Wonderful Life and Hen's Teeth and Horses Toes.
posted by oohisay at 3:16 PM on November 29, 2010


Ack, I meant The Ants.
posted by christopherious at 3:17 PM on November 29, 2010


Also, Paul Stamets' Mycelium Running.
posted by christopherious at 3:22 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not The Dancing Wu Li Masters. Zukav doesn't have a scientific background.
posted by Zed at 3:27 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


More theoretical physics:

Warped Passages by Lisa Randall

The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene.

These books are pretty excellent. Greene in particular has a gift for making his incredibly fascinating but abstruse field somewhat accessible to the rest of us.
posted by eugenen at 3:36 PM on November 29, 2010


Oh, and seconding the "unrecommendation" of Stephen Hawking. The Grand Design, in particular, is opaque, weirdly glib, and totally unenlightening.
posted by eugenen at 3:46 PM on November 29, 2010


I've enjoyed Lewis Thomas and Atul Gawande and their writing about medicine. Food Politics by nutritionist/public health and policy expert Marion Nestle is an indispensable look at how national-level nutrition decisions are made in the US.
posted by jessamyn at 3:54 PM on November 29, 2010


Seconding Sagan, Dawkins, Gould, Pinker, and Crystal, all of whose books I've enjoyed, although none of them work(ed) in my field so it's hard for me to judge their scientific work.

For mathematics, which may or may not be included in your personal definition of "science", Ian Stewart.
posted by madcaptenor at 4:25 PM on November 29, 2010


Richard Fortey. His Life: An Unauthorised Biography covers the origins of life, biology, and evolution; Earth: An Intimate History covers the geological history of earth; Trilobite! is a lovingly indulgent book about his true passion; and Dry Storeroom No. 1 is a behind-the-scenes look at the Natural History Museum.

Since everyone is unrecommending Hawking on the grounds that his writing is passionless and unengaging, I'd like to unrecommend Dawkins on the grounds that spending at least 1/3 of any given book quietly, dispassionately, and patronisingly dissecting why anyone who disagrees with you is a credulous self-deluding object of pity, makes the author an insufferable prat.
posted by Pinback at 4:32 PM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Dawkins' older work is not like that. He was much less insufferable back before he started crusading for atheism.
posted by madcaptenor at 4:33 PM on November 29, 2010


Dawkins' older work is not like that. He was much less insufferable back before he started crusading for atheism.

Yep. I'm immensely annoyed by his tone in the last few years, but The Blind Watchmaker is one of my favorite books of any kind, ever. Grokking evolution as Dawkins explains it in that book is probably the closest I'll ever come to a "finding God"-type epiphany, ironically enough.
posted by eugenen at 4:42 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Agreed. Even though I have some issues with his earlier books - mostly due to the fact that he tends to draw a long bow by expanding his basic arguments to encompass social and moral concepts - I kept reading in hope of a return to science rather than ever-increasing polemic. I found The Blind Watchmaker to be barely tolerable, River Out Of Eden was OK, but from then on it's pretty much downhill…
posted by Pinback at 5:51 PM on November 29, 2010


The First Three Minutes and Dreams of a Final Theory by Steven Weinberg are terrific.
posted by lukemeister at 9:02 PM on November 29, 2010


The Infinite Cosmos by Joe Silk.
posted by edd at 3:28 AM on November 30, 2010


Big Bang by Simon Singh, is a first rate history of astronomy/cosmology. Very readable explanation of scientific discovery and the use of indirect evidence to discern nature of the universe, going back to the Greeks etc. But strictly speaking, don't know if this meets your criteria: Singh is a Phd in particle physics but makes a living as an author/journalist, not as a scientist.
posted by Kevin S at 5:08 AM on November 30, 2010


I'd like to unrecommend Dawkins on the grounds that spending at least 1/3 of any given book quietly, dispassionately, and patronisingly dissecting why anyone who disagrees with you is a credulous self-deluding object of pity, makes the author an insufferable prat.
posted by Pinback at 12:32 AM on November 30


I'm afraid this is simply untrue and hugely unfair, and demonstrably so to anyone who actually bothers to read any Dawkins besides "The God Delusion". Dawkins' early books in particular are wonderfully-written layman's guides to evolution - I particularly recommend "The Blind Watchmaker". and "The Ancestor's Tale". I'd also second Brian Greene and Steven Pinker.
posted by Decani at 3:17 PM on November 30, 2010


It's an opinion, it's mine, and, as I hinted in my second comment, I've read almost all of Dawkins' books. I agree that The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype are quite good reads (despite that fact that I think, as I mention above, he extends his ideas a little too far sometimes), but The Blind Watchmaker is where, for me, he starts to get annoying. River Out Of Eden and The Ancestor's Tale are fine, but The God Delusion is where I gave up, about 3/4 of the way through - and it's almost unknown for me to abandon a book without finishing it. I have looked through The Greatest Show On Earth, and declined.

To add some context: It may also partly be my intense dislike for American-style popular writing, particular when it comes to popular science or technology. I'll admit I can't stand to read feature-length articles from the NYT, Atlantic Monthly, etc., or anything from McSweeneys. Dava Sobel's Longitude was OK, if annoyingly jumpy and a bit shallow (but the dearth of contextual source material wouldn't have helped), Kidder's Soul of a New Machine was interesting but plodding (particularly in the second half, and despite my being intensely interested in the subject), and I had to force myself to finish Johnson's Ghost Map.

Now, Dawkins is decidedly not American, but his style has headed in a similar expository and populist direction, with the added overhead of his patient "if I explain it one just one more time, then the credulous will just have to give in to my by now self-evident logic". I feel it's patronising, I feel it's annoying, and I think it actually causes more problems than it helps.

But I know my opinions aren't that well-shared on this particular subject, so I don't mind people disagreeing. I think that Fortey and Steven J Gould are better and more engaging writers on their respective subjects; Fortey, in particular, often gets overlooked in the rush to recommend Dawkins and Gould.

I'll also mention the potentially un-Australian fact that I don't particularly like Tim Flannery's books, although his style is engaging, his ideas thoughtful, and his subjects interesting.
posted by Pinback at 8:14 PM on November 30, 2010


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