descent of gould
December 30, 2008 1:40 AM   Subscribe

Science reading for the informed layperson.

Ive been reading a bit of Gould and have really enjoyed how he dealt with complex discoveries at the cusp of scientific research - making it accessible without watering it down while also leaving in the minute details that make it fascinating. The fact that it was written in the 80's however means that its a bit out of date. I actually enjoyed finishing his essays, then spending an hour or so catching up on the latest - so I'll continue to read his stuff, but i was wondering if there was something on par that is being written currently -

something with his wit and charm would be lovely, but more importantly, up to date.

I have a couple science blogs book marked, but they are unfortunately largely devoted to hating fundementalist christians and their efforts. I am a member of that choir - don't get me wrong - but id like a little more meat you know?

can you recommend some blogs, or books/authors which would fit my needs?
posted by nihlton to Science & Nature (23 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Brian Greene is writing some pretty good books about modern physics. James Gleick (particularly in Chaos and his Feynman book) does a great job with mathematical history, which is often obscure enough to seem new. Fermat's Enigma is about a centuries-old hypothesis that only was only recently proven by modern mathematics and is an enjoyable read. It really does take a few years for science to really solidify and completely understand newish discoveries, so things from the 80's really aren't that out of date. Most lay people would have a very hard time understanding physics that was discovered in the 1950's.
posted by 0xFCAF at 2:12 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: I buy the annual version of this book each year.

Also, Scientific American magazine is usually a pretty good bet for up-to-date stuff.
posted by trip and a half at 3:07 AM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You may enjoy Natalie Angier's The Canon, although it's received mixed reviews.
posted by aheckler at 3:43 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: As a contrast to Gould, you might enjoy Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett.
posted by xchmp at 3:47 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: My SO is big into this stuff and loves Steven Pinker (I've only read The Language Instinct) and a book called Conversations on Consciousness which features several science writers - might give you some places to follow up on.
posted by mippy at 3:49 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: I'm not sure if it's too basic for you, but Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything would be a great jumping off point. He reviews all the big foundational discoveries in major areas of science in a really entertaining way.
posted by canine epigram at 5:12 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: The Knight Science Journalism Tracker comments on the value of today's science journalism and can help you find good science journalists. It has an RSS feed.
posted by loosemouth at 5:21 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: A lot of the modern direction evolutionary biology is taking is "evo devo"--the relationship between evolutionary and developmental biology. Gould wrote a book on that a long time ago Ontogeny and Phylogeny

Sean Carroll is a biologist working in that area right now who is quite a good writer--check out Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

My other very favorite modern book on the evolution of our understanding of evolution is Evolution's Eye by Susan Oyama (which I've recommended on Metafilter a number of times), who talks a lot about environmental effects and other epigenetics and culture and rethinking the levels of selection and the importance of genotype and phenotype. Oyama is a psychologist, so a lot of her work is directly related to the effects of genes and environment on the human mind.

Richard Lewontin is a primatologist who works along very similar lines. I haven't read The Triple Helix but I've heard great things about it.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:29 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: Another vote for A History of Nearly Everything, but you might also enjoy the prolific Matt Ridley.

John Brockman's Edge site brings together a host of excellent science writers.

Don't forget Oliver Sacks! Or Steven Mithen, especially The Singing Neaderthals

I enjoyed Susan Blackmore's Conversations on Consciousness, which brings together most of the leading thinkers on the subject.

And there's The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge.

posted by pyotrstolypin at 6:10 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek's The Lightness of Being (2008) is a very lively and readable survey of the frontiers of particle physics. It's a good primer for understanding what scientists are hoping to discover with the Large Hadron Collider.
posted by otio at 6:33 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: Two more physics books that are well-regarded:

Gödel, Escher, Bach
The Dancing Wu-Li Masters

The Bryson book mentioned above was both a great read and a great source for more books as he is presenting an overview of a range of topics and he (generally) mentions further reading for each, should you be interested.
posted by kcm at 7:35 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: More Simon Singh:
The Code Book (crypto)
The Big Bang (cosmology)

More math:
The Riemann Hypothesis
Mathematical Mysteries: The Beauty and Magic of Numbers (a bit advanced)
Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra
posted by kcm at 7:41 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: Though I'm not a fan of his anti-religious zealotry, Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene and other writings on biology and evolution are very interesting and well-done. Though they are rather old at this point, the points he makes (especially in correcting common misunderstandings of evolution) are still very much valid.

I used to loooove Discover magazine for this kind of stuff, too. Like any magazine, each issue had collections of little snippets, page-long columns, and full-length articles about new discoveries in a wide variety of scientific disciplines. I don't have time to read it anymore, but I miss it a lot.
posted by vytae at 8:03 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: Feynman's Six Easy Pieces (and his Six Not-So-Easy Pieces) may be too basic for you, but Feynman always has "wit and charm" in spades.

Seconding Dawkins (for science, not for atheism), but if you already know the basic concepts of evolution, I'd recommend The Ancestor's Tale over The Selfish Gene for being broader and more recent. It traces our ancestry through time and evolutionary space and touches on a ton of topics on the way - pretty great stuff.

Eric Kandel is kind of annoying, but his book/autobiography In Search of Memory does a good job of surveying the history of neurology and the current study of learning and memory.

Lastly, remember Jonathan Weiner! The Beak of the Finch is his more well-known work, but Time, Love, Memory, which is about Seymour Benzer and his fruit flies, holds a special place in my heart.
posted by flawsekno at 8:34 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: As far as blogs though some good ones are:

Bad Astronomy
The Loom

and really anything at Scienceblogs.

If you want the more meatier entries just just look for the "Research Blogging" sign. It means that the post is specifically about peer reviewed research. You can find them aggregated here .
posted by Midnight Rambler at 9:15 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: The Loom is super duper and Zimmer's Soul Made Flesh is one of the most vivid science books I've read.

Natalie Angier may not write at the high level you are looking for, but she has some good stuff.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:43 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: Ed Yong blogs at Not Exactly Rocket Science and writes exactly the kind of accessible material you're looking for.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:40 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: Whenever people ask this, I always send them to

Cocktail Party Physics | the great pop-sci book project


Cosmic Variance | The Thousand Best Popular-Science Books?

From these two you'll also find suggestions in the blog comments and links to other people's similar lists. Happy reading!

P.S. No one has yet said the obvious, so I'll say it: Carl Sagan. Everyone knows Cosmos and Pale Blue Dot, but I've felt for a long time that The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark should be required reading for high school and college students. Or anyone. To me, it's one of the best of the last twenty years.

P.P.S. The two most popular recent books among the small set of people I know are by physicists: Warped Passages by Lisa Randall and The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene.
posted by jeeves at 11:13 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: Nthing Dawkins' science writing. The Blind Watchmaker is a fantastic read.
I also liked Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach.
Since you asked for more current writing, I'll suggest the very recently published How Biology and Technology Shape Sex and War- I haven't read it myself but I've really liked several articles by its co-author Thomas Hayden.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:41 AM on December 30, 2008

Response by poster: there is enough here to keep my busy for AGES! thanks for the wonderful response mefi.
posted by nihlton at 12:14 PM on December 30, 2008

Fantastic thread. Here are a few cognitive science/neuroscience suggestions:

Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran & Sandra Blakeslee.
Gut Feelings by Gerd Gigerenzer.
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.
Descartes' Error by Antonio Damasio.
The User Illusion by Tor Norretranders.

Not sure if this counts, but here is a social science suggestion:
Mistakes Were Made, but Not by Me by Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson.
posted by tickingclock at 3:58 AM on December 31, 2008

Up to date is relative: for sure most books here aren't cutting edge science, but then cutting edge doesn't really translate well into popular science most of the time. Evidence: many books here are also listed in a thread two years old.

Neuroscience: Oliver Sack's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Consciousness Explained (Daniel Dennett), Blackwell Companion to Consciousness, Shannon Moffett's Three Pound Enigma.
posted by wei at 7:05 AM on December 31, 2008

Amazing popsci blog about the brain by the author of Proust was a Neuroscientist (great book btw): The Frontal Cortex. Awesome thread!
posted by oqrothsc at 7:09 AM on December 31, 2008

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