Page-turner science book
August 9, 2011 6:58 AM   Subscribe

Can you recommend a science book along the lines of Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything"?

So I'm on my (at least) sixth re-read of ASHNE, but I'm looking for other takes on science that are similar.

Do you know/recommend any that are written in a similar style (interviews, some history)? I'm not terribly worried about level of depth, but let's steer away from senior-level in college with 3 hours of lab each week.

As far as the topics go, ASHNE was good shotgun approach to science, but if there's a stand-out book just on, say, biology or genetics or astronomy or X, that's certainly welcome, too.
posted by fijiwriter to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 87 users marked this as a favorite
Cosmos by Carl Sagan

I'll also be watching the answers to this with interest!
posted by in a dark glassly at 7:02 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Larry Gonick's cartoon guides are good for the standouts-on-a-particular-topic.

Daniel Boorstein's The Discoverers is skewed a bit more towards the social sciences, but he also dips into chemistry, geography, biology, and engineering. ...What The Discoverers is is a history of "the history of how mankind learned to relate to these four basic concepts" -- things like Time, Society, and Living Things - and then he traces the origins of each one and relates all the little weird things that happened along the way.

So, for instance, the section on "time" starts back with the people living along the Nile thinking "huh, this river seems to flood in some kind of pattern, I wonder if it may not be a bad idea to start keeping track of that", and it goes through the different calendar systems, the astronomical observations that people picked up in the course of working on it, how the rise of Christianity influenced people's choice to start keeping track of the hours in a day, the engineering involved in developing a clockwork mechanism, the other weird types of clocks people thought up (my absolute favorite anecdote involved a guy who invented a clock that used the sense of taste to tell the time), the rise of the time zones, and it ends with the development of the atomic clock.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:05 AM on August 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Electric Universe by David Bodanis which is a very readable history of electricity. Also E=Mc² by the same author.
posted by arzakh at 7:07 AM on August 9, 2011

Haven't read the Bryson but I'm 2/3 the way through A Shorter History of Time and...still reading and loving it! (I'm not sure if I finished the original out of some odd sense of duty to books or Hawking or science but if so I'm sure I didn't retain much).
posted by ecourbanist at 7:08 AM on August 9, 2011

A Short History of Nearly Everything strongly reminded me of The Secret House, by David Bodanis. Bodanis is more focused on science rather than history, but both books have a similar breezy style full of interesting facts.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:09 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale uses a really interesting conceit for discussing human evolution; it's as engaging as I found ASHNE, but a different style.

Phantoms in the Brain centers around really really fascinating case studies of patients with cognitive deficits, which in turn elucidate normal brain function. It's the book that got me into neuroscience, and it's aged relatively well.
posted by supercres at 7:09 AM on August 9, 2011

Mary Roach's books.
posted by neushoorn at 7:10 AM on August 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

You might enjoy Connections by James Burke.
posted by workerant at 7:18 AM on August 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh jeez, I can't believe I didn't think of Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley.
posted by workerant at 7:19 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Life: An Unauthorised Biography" by Richard Fortey (US version is called "Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth"). I think the UK name is more engaging but the US on gives a pretty good description of what it is, and overall it's one of my most favourite books.
posted by shelleycat at 7:40 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing James Burke's Connections and anything by Mary Roach. Good stuff, that. The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean might be up your alley as well.
posted by southpaw at 7:45 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm partway into The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and finding it fascinating. Part science, part biography. Definitely qualifies as a page-turner for me.
posted by mireille at 7:46 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Everything written by Isaac Asimov. You wanted a shorter list? OK, start with the "Asimov on X" series (where X is Numbers, Chemistry, and so on). The only thing to watch out for is that some books are a bit dated, but you can check the reviews and use a little common sense...for example intro level math hasn't changed appreciably, intro level astronomy unfortunately has.
posted by anaelith at 7:47 AM on August 9, 2011

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
posted by tetralix at 7:48 AM on August 9, 2011

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley

I enjoyed reading most of that book, but be warned that he occasionally gets a bit cranky about the fact that governments regulate things. The book's still worth reading, but every so often I skipped a page or two with "oh, he's riding his hobby horse again."
posted by benito.strauss at 7:58 AM on August 9, 2011

Have you read Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking"? It's rightly a MeFi favorite: McGee uses food as the jumping off point to write hundreds of little pieces that tie in a lot of chemistry and history. It's neat. And I keep it on my cookbook shelf for regular consultation.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:59 AM on August 9, 2011

Thanks, everyone. Keep them coming.

wenestvedt's rec of "On Food and Cooking" made me realize that food/cooking is a suitable realm I'd consider. (I've also read some Polan work and Cooking for Geeks.)
posted by fijiwriter at 8:36 AM on August 9, 2011

Not quite what you're asking, but if you enjoyed Bryson's "...Nearly Everything" you should try his book "At Home: A Shot History of Private Life." His style makes just about any subject matter engaging.
posted by Brodiggitty at 8:54 AM on August 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Flannery's The Eternal Frontier about the North American continent.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:01 AM on August 9, 2011

I would recommend "The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography" by Simon Singh, a really great read.
posted by alienzero at 9:18 AM on August 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Most of Henry Petroski's books, especially To Engineer Is Human and The Evolution of Useful Things.
posted by scruss at 9:24 AM on August 9, 2011

The End of Science by John Horgan. As a caveat, I'm a total layperson and I don't know how much of this 1997 book may be outdated now. (Books that try to predict the future do tend to get outdated.) The customer reviews on Amazon are very mixed. But I find it entertaining and fascinating, and it's filled with interviews of luminaries like Stephen Hawking and Karl Popper.
posted by John Cohen at 9:43 AM on August 9, 2011

Your Inner Fish! More single-topic focused than some other suggestions, but so fascinating!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:58 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite nonfiction books ever is the forgotten Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler. An amazing history of science, particularly astronomy. He dramatizes the discoveries of Kepler and Galileo with detailed readings of their diaries and other primary documents that bring their stories and their contexts to live in a novelistic way. I do think this book is still in print, but I've never heard anyone else mention liking it.
posted by Philemon at 10:50 AM on August 9, 2011

The Disappearing Spoon, a history of every element in the periodic table (and the table itself!)
posted by Afroblanco at 2:58 PM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'll go so far as to recommending "Conceptual Physics" by Paul Hewitt, which is a high-school Physics textbook that is so engaging and readable as to meet your standards. I used it briefly in a high-school class before transferring to a different section, and always wanted to go back to it. I bought a copy at a university bookstore, and read it cover to cover. It's a fantastic and very accessible book, taking you from basic mechanical physics all the way through special relativity. Highly recommended.
posted by holterbarbour at 4:39 PM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Connections, for sure and if you like it, also look into The Pinball Effect.
posted by plinth at 5:03 PM on August 9, 2011

Everything by Paul Davies. Very similar armchair-in-a-cozy-pub fireside chat approach to mindboggling science stuff.

Different, but maybe also likely to scratch your itch, is Salt (and to a lesser extent, for me anyway, Cod) by Mark Kurlansky.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:34 PM on August 9, 2011

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks (autobiographical with references to the history of chemistry)
Colour by Victoria Finlay (the history of dyes and pigments)
posted by kjs4 at 8:50 PM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might like some of the books written by Oliver Sacks
posted by backwards guitar at 9:23 AM on August 10, 2011

First Light: The Search For The Edge Of The Universe is Richard Preston's incredible book about the history of Astronomy. This was as much of a page turner for me as any thriller.
posted by shimmerbug at 10:18 PM on August 10, 2011

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