What is a good math/science book for a non-math/science person?
December 13, 2005 4:32 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend science or math books (non-fiction) that are interesting but accessible to someone with a limited math/science background?

I'm looking for interesting, well-written books that are explanatory or descriptive of some scientific or mathematical aspect. But I'm very much a verbal over a math person (for lack of a better way to describe this) and while I'm relatively well-educated, my science ended with the intro college level courses and calculus stymied me on the math side. Recommended books can be intricate and detailed, but hopefully also comprehensible with this limited knowledge base.
posted by Caz721 to Science & Nature (45 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The Book of Numbers covers a variety of topics, has pretty pictures, and is easy to read.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions is fiction but it's such a classic, I couldn't help mentioning it. It's so old it's online now too.
posted by mto at 4:45 PM on December 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

Richard Feynman's QED is a perfect little explanation of quantum electrodynamics for the layperson.
posted by nicwolff at 4:47 PM on December 13, 2005

I recently read Richard Dawkins's The Ancestor's Tale, a story of evolution starting with humans and tracing ancestry all the way back to bacteria. Clear, thoughtful writing, and fascinating material. No equations. The book is broken up into 40 "concestor points" where the human branch meets in next ancestor, and equally many side stories about a particular animal or organism related to that branch of the tree, that make it excellent late-night reading.

Feynman's QED (Quantum Electrodynamics) is great too (as is all Feynman) and will leave you bewildered.
posted by ldenneau at 4:47 PM on December 13, 2005

A Brief Histor of Nearly Everything (or whatever it's called) by Bill Bryson.
posted by dobbs at 4:49 PM on December 13, 2005

Math: Fermat's Enigma, by Simon Singh. Awesome read.

Science: A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. A fantastic history of science, the universe and everything. Filled with great stories and people. Very accessible. It was being recommended in another thread a couple of days ago, I think. I can't recommend it highly enough. I'm not sure if it's what you're looking for in terms of a science book, but take a gander at it and I'll bet you'll get hooked.
posted by Dasein at 4:50 PM on December 13, 2005

I am a fan of Escher, Godel, Bach: And Eternal Golden Braid.

It's a bit of a brick, but you'd be surprised at how fast it moves.
posted by Sallysings at 4:50 PM on December 13, 2005

Blast! I'll get you, dobbs...
posted by Dasein at 4:50 PM on December 13, 2005

The late Steven Jay Gould wrote many fascinating books for the lay person on paleontology and evolution. Wonderful Life in particular is excellent, but I really enjoy all of his stuff.

Second Dawkins, as well.

The Double Helix by James Watson is a good first-person account of the discover of the structure of DNA.
posted by trip and a half at 4:51 PM on December 13, 2005

er, "discovery"
posted by trip and a half at 4:52 PM on December 13, 2005

To Fermat's Enigma I'd add Simon Singh's other books: The Code Book is only a teeny bit mathy, but fascinating, and Big Bang was pretty good too.
posted by Jeanne at 4:55 PM on December 13, 2005

Oh, another good math book that comes to mind: Innumeracy, by John Allen Paulos, but it's not a story like Singh's book is.
posted by Dasein at 4:56 PM on December 13, 2005

On the mathematics side, G.H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology is an eloquent argument for/description of the study of pure mathematics.
posted by trip and a half at 5:00 PM on December 13, 2005

William Dunham's books are good introductions to the world of math, but I don't think they be impossible for someone without a great math background

The Mathematical Universe

Journey Through Genius

Sorry mto, but I found Flatland to be unbelievably dull
posted by Xalf at 5:00 PM on December 13, 2005

I'd strongly recommend Simon Singh's The Code Book. It's a very easy-to-read examination of cryptology and its signifigance from ancient times to today. Everything even remotely mathematical or technical is explained in context, so you don't need to know anything going in. The book is deeply fascinating, and touches on aspects of finance, politics, hacking and a lot more.

ldenneau mentioned Richard Dawkins, and you could read any book of his (except The Extended Phenotype, which is very dense and technical) for a nice primer on DNA/genetics/evolution. If you were going to pick one, make it River Out of Eden or The Blind Watchmaker. Both those titles are geared to a layman audience, and are very thought-provoking, as well.
posted by chudmonkey at 5:00 PM on December 13, 2005

The Faber Book of Science is an anthology of writings about science and covers the evolution of science over the last 500 years or so. It includes everything from source documents from the time of particular discoveries (eg. from Newton, Galileo) as well as others writing about particular discoveries or theories (eg. George Bernard Shaw on Lamarck). The editor's main criteria for inclusion in the anthology is that is must be well written, understandable and make the reader want to read it more than once. A great book.
posted by prettypretty at 5:01 PM on December 13, 2005

Another very enthusiastic vote for A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Also, this may be not quite what you have in mind, but I really enjoyed Dead Men Do Tell Tales.
posted by scody at 5:04 PM on December 13, 2005

Another very enthusiastic vote for A Short History of Nearly Everything.

I concur.
posted by bradlands at 5:07 PM on December 13, 2005

The top science-looking books on the Modern Library's list of top non-fiction are The Double Helix and The Lives of a Cell.
posted by Dasein at 5:09 PM on December 13, 2005

- I enjoyed Oliver Sacks' book Uncle Tungsten [my review] which is the story of him growing up in Great Britain as a kid with a science fascination. Very readable and you learn all sorts of science-y stuff.
- Primo Levi was a chemist by training and he has a memoir called The Periodic Table [my review]
- Who Got Einstein's Office? [my review] is a great exploration of how the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study got started.
- And, a Short History of Nearly Everything [my review] is very very worth it.
posted by jessamyn at 5:26 PM on December 13, 2005

Second The Code Book. It's especially good right after you read Cryptonomicon.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:29 PM on December 13, 2005

The Science Masters series.
posted by russilwvong at 5:36 PM on December 13, 2005

While it's not strictly a science book, Richard Rhodes wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning account of the making of the atomic bomb that includes a primer on early twentieth century atomic physics. It's called, oddly enough, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. I thought it was fantastic in no small part part because of his in-depth treatment of the science and scientists whose work made the bomb possible.
posted by mollweide at 5:47 PM on December 13, 2005

In no particular order:
Matt Ridley is an accessible (perhaps a little too much so) author for themes in biology, evolution, human behavior...

The Beak of the Finch
for modern-day look at Darwin's theory of evolution and interesting details on how scientists are researching it in the field.

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers made me start loving biographies, especially those of mathematicians.

If you end up liking Richard Feynman, try Why Do You Care What People Think which is generally different (and of course interesting & amusing) essays that he wrote, but most notable for his firsthand experience investigating the Challenger explosion (not overly technical, but occasionally kind of boring in the details).
posted by artifarce at 6:01 PM on December 13, 2005

Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos: With Applications to Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Engineering by Steven Strogatz is a fantastic book. You can skip over the math stuff and get the general ideas about the fascinating stuff fractals and chaos are made of, but if you can get the math it makes everything all the better. This book is science candy.
posted by ozomatli at 6:10 PM on December 13, 2005

The Pinball Effect by James Burke is a pretty interesting take on science and history.
The Cartoon History of the Universe and The Cartoon Guide to Physics by Larry Gonnick are both excellent.
posted by plinth at 6:37 PM on December 13, 2005

Another enthusiastic vote for Gödel, Escher, Bach. Even in small doses it's powerful stuff.

I also recommend The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose. It takes kind of the opposite stance to GEB on artificial intelligence. While I think evaluating this point may be the weak part of the book, in the meanwhile he takes you on a thorough exploration of modern physics and computability. It's fairly technical but you will still follow the book even if you skip the math.

It's hard to believe no one has recommended the quintessential A Brief History of Time, which is still very relevant, so a token vote for that here.

Another weighty tome is A History of Mathematics, which is hard to approach but engrossing when you get into it. Really thoroughly enjoyable.
posted by cacophony at 7:08 PM on December 13, 2005

Well, a book which I've recommended and people have enjoyed is Made to Measure: New Materials for the 21st Century by Philip Ball. It's a very nice look at Materials Science (which is an enormously broad discipline) and covers a lot of science at a very accessible level. Ball is a good choice for science for non-scientists.
posted by JMOZ at 7:14 PM on December 13, 2005

"Space Land" by Rudy Rucker. It is a contemporary take on "Flat Land" by A. Abbot, also a good read. "Flat Land" is, I think, in the public domain so you can probably find the whole work online.
posted by Mr T at 7:21 PM on December 13, 2005

Isaac Asimov wrote many, many essays on a wide variety of scientific topics. Anyone of his collections would be interesting and accessible to the casual reader.
posted by SPrintF at 7:27 PM on December 13, 2005

Another vote for Asimov. As I move through the entries, I see that I was not the first, but let me contribute some useful wormholes:

Non-fiction books by Isaac Asimov
Catalog of Isaac Asimov's books
- look at the nonfiction category, about 25 titles
Wikipedia entry
posted by yclipse at 8:13 PM on December 13, 2005

The Elegant Universe by Bryan Greene for an interesting intro to string theory that goes into a reasonable amount of depth without presupposing any physics background.
posted by musicinmybrain at 8:25 PM on December 13, 2005

anything carl sagan, anne druyan, albert einstein, richard dawkins, or richard feynman ever wrote. hofstadter is great but quite a bit heavier.

in particular sagan's "cosmos" is a tremendous classic, and is also available to rent on dvd at many video stores.

also, there is an excellent series of serious cartoon books of the form "introducing X" for X in {the universe, quantum mechanics, evolution, chaos, ...}. they are published by icon in the UK, totem in the US.
posted by paradroid at 8:42 PM on December 13, 2005

If anyone is considering Flatland, I would instead recommend Flatterland. It's Like Flatland, Only More So.
posted by Mike C. at 8:43 PM on December 13, 2005

Another vote for The Code Book here.
posted by pompomtom at 9:35 PM on December 13, 2005

Also, if you like audio books (or have never tried them), Audible.com has a terrific one of the Bill Bryson book. I couldn't stop listening to it. (The books a bit big to lug around, so it was a perfect trade off.)
posted by dobbs at 9:39 PM on December 13, 2005

John McPhee's a good one if you count natural history writing within your genre:

Basin and Range: Geology of the Great Basin, which covers much of Nevada and a good patch of Utah.

Curve of Binding Energy: About atomic bombs and the risks of rogue pocket nukes.

Control of Nature: Man's struggles against the unstable geography of Southern California, Iceland anb the lower Mississippi.
posted by Good Brain at 10:08 PM on December 13, 2005

I strongly second mollweide in recommending The Making of the Atomic Bomb, it is one of the most well-written books I've ever read.

I also second artifarce wrt The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.

One thing all the folks who recommended The Code Book might be interested in reading would be David Kahn's The Codebreakers. My wife gave me The Code Book right after I'd finished Codebreakers, and it seemed like St. Josephs Baby Cryptography in comparison.
posted by popechunk at 10:09 PM on December 13, 2005

Richard Feynman's Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! is the most enjoyable of the many lay science books I've read.

For the strange world of the quantum, I like Taking the Quantum Leap by Fred Wolfe.

A really good new book in biology is Sean Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful. It describes some very new info on how animal embryos develop and how those processes have changed (really, how it's stayed the same) over 500 million years of evolution.

A fascinating prequel to that would be Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life--The Burgess Shale and The Nature of History. It's the story of a remarkable fossil bed and how it revolutionized our understanding of animal evolution.

A good pair of astronomy books is John Gribbin's In Search of the Big Bang and The Birth of Time--How We Measured the Age of the Universe.
posted by neuron at 10:31 PM on December 13, 2005

If you want to delve into what I call "conceptual histories" I'd suggest:

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife


The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero by Robert Kaplan
posted by theonetruebix at 11:02 PM on December 13, 2005

Proofs and Refutations by Imre Lakatos is a great book about how mathematical theories evolve, told as a sort of socratic parable / roman a clef.
posted by fleacircus at 11:06 PM on December 13, 2005

Add my name to the Bryson recommendations.....
posted by brettski at 1:19 AM on December 14, 2005

Euclid's geometry.
posted by ewkpates at 5:05 AM on December 14, 2005

You might check out the logic puzzle books of Raymond Smullyan. A bit twee at times, but for well worthwhile.

Second Rudy Rucker's stuff.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:40 AM on December 14, 2005

Turns out there's a film about Smullyan as well
posted by IndigoJones at 5:53 AM on December 14, 2005

How to Lie with Statistics. I had to read it in high school and it did more form my understanding of the world than I could imagine at the time. It was written in 1954, but appears to be recently updated now.
posted by juggler at 7:51 AM on December 14, 2005

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