Help me find some new books to love.
February 22, 2014 8:33 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for something in the area of science biography. Particularly, I enjoy reading about the inner lives of great minds. I'm not really interested in gossipy type info, but more about the personal growth and development of the scientist him/herself that paralleled their work.

I also have an affinity for Renaissance men. DaVinci, Newton and others who though deeply about science and art/theology/philosophy.

Lastly, I love biographies of IDEAS. I found Zero fascinating and fun. I enjoyed:
The Drunkard's Walk,
Tesla: Man Out of Time,
I Died for Beauty,
The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior
Pendulum: Leon Foucault and the triumph of science

I have NOT enjoyed some of the more popular books on recent scientific topics such as Bursts, The Invisible Gorilla and such. I think my real taste is for timeless ideas and expansive minds, and I prefer when these minds and ideas are presented in well-written, engaging prose.

Suggestions? Fill my bedside table, please!
posted by JanewayJunior to Science & Nature (18 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers is about the mathematician Paul Erdos, an odd and well-connected character.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:37 AM on February 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is more engineering than science, but I'm almost finished with "One Day at Kitty Hawk" by John Evangelist Walsh, and it may be the kind of book you're looking for. A great deal of time is spent on Wilbur Wright's personal history, his process of experimentation and design, and his efforts to control media engagement. Really interesting and entertaining, lots of nitty gritty nerdy details.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:40 AM on February 22, 2014

It may be more lighthearted than you're looking for but if you want a glimpse into a brilliant mind, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! is amazing.

I'll second the Erdos book, too.
posted by telegraph at 9:12 AM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Came in to suggest Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? (I forget which is supposed to be first.) You may also appreciate Genius, a biography about Feynman, which is pretty thorough about both his ideas and his life in general.
posted by blnkfrnk at 9:23 AM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved is about the proof that the quintic equation has no general algebraic solution--one of the great early results of abstract algebra. It's also about the two young mathematicians, Niels Abel and Evariste Galois, who discovered the proof and invented the modern framework for studying algebraic equations, and died early in their twenties (Abel by tuberculosis, Galois in a duel) before being recognized by the mathematical community of their time.
posted by Aquinas at 10:02 AM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Invention of Air, by Stephen Johnson, on Joseph Priestly, an Enlightenment scientist, theologian, and political figure. Johnson is very readable.

Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, by David Foster Wallace, focuses on Georg Cantor's work. It's dense but rewarding. (If you like DFW and or Neal Stephenson, the foreword is not to be missed.)
posted by BrashTech at 10:02 AM on February 22, 2014

I really like Amir Alexander's book Duel at Dawn, which, like the book Aquinas linked, centers on Abel and Galois, but which situates their work in the history of ideas, especially what their ideas about mathematics had to do with the Romantic movement that was springing up around them. Plus: lots of great stuff about Bolyai and the development of non-Euclidean geometry, the invention of modern analysis by Cauchy, etc. Here's my review.

If you want to read about renaissance types, major scientists who really cared deeply (and made progress on) questions in theology / philosophy politics, you should read something about Blaise Pascal -- I'm not sure what the right book is, though, but there are tons of biographies out there.
posted by escabeche at 10:10 AM on February 22, 2014

Luis Alvarez was something of a Renaissance mind. He had a position at Lawrence Berkeley Labs where they told him pretty much to work on whatever interested him.

Later in his life, what interested him was his son Walter's work on the K-T boundary layer, when the dinosaurs died out. Luis came up with the theory of a giant asteroid impact as being responsible, which later research has pretty much confirmed, though there is still some controversy about it. (The actual crater from the impact survives and was found a few years later.)

Walter Alvarez wrote up a book about the whole thing called "T. Rex and the Crater of Doom" which concentrates mainly on the personalities involved and the process by which they eventually came up with that theory, which I think would fit your requirements nicely, even though it isn't exactly a biography.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:34 AM on February 22, 2014

If you're interested in the beginnings of neuroscience, you might like Recollections of My Life, the autobiography of Nobel laureate Santiago Ramon y Cajal, whose technical and analytical work essentially launched modern neurobiology at the turn of the 20th century.
posted by underthehat at 10:41 AM on February 22, 2014

The Electric Life of Michael Faraday was quite good.

Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness looks at how ideas about gender differences have influenced theories of psychology. Fascinating and very worthwhile.
posted by Corvid at 10:47 AM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Okay, I have not read this, but it sounds up your alley. My organic chemistry professor recommended it (over and over and none of us read it, but I actually would like to) - Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks. It's a memoir.
posted by Ouisch at 11:10 AM on February 22, 2014

There is a chapter in Women on the Margins by Natalie Zemon Davis on Maria Sibylla Meria, a 17th century female artist and naturalist. Maria left behind extensive scientific observations on insects and plants in addition to personal writings, and Davis uses this information to really bring her to life. I think the whole book is fascinating, but this portion in particular may appeal to you.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 3:23 PM on February 22, 2014

Well, there's always the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. (I've only read a little bit of it.)
posted by Huffy Puffy at 4:19 PM on February 22, 2014

I have read the autobiography of Ben Franklin, and it is quite fascinating. But it doesn't include anything about the revolution; it ends before that. For me, at least, that was a huge disappointment.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:05 PM on February 22, 2014

This biography of Paul Dirac- one of the giants of modern physics, a founder of quantum mechanics but a famously elusive and reticent personality.
posted by Rufus T. Firefly at 6:12 AM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

A sort of autobiography, that gives you an insight into the person, their worldviews, and those of their colleagues, but not details on their scientific work:

Disturbing the Universe

It's not exactly a biography but you'll probably like:

Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality

Also a podcast series of 15-min bios of mathematicians and their ideas that you'll enjoy and which might suggest people you want to read more about:

A Brief History of Mathematics
posted by philipy at 8:03 AM on February 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nthing the Dirac and Erdös books. Also Miss Leavitt's Stars by George Johnson.
posted by wavelette at 11:23 AM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks, everyone, for the suggestions. I'm excited to dig into this list!
posted by JanewayJunior at 6:48 AM on February 26, 2014

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