Recommendations for books on the history of science?
October 19, 2014 1:37 PM   Subscribe

My question is two-fold, really. First, please recommend to me all of your favorite titles on the history of science, math, technology, and medicine. Secondly, how do you go about searching for good books in these topics? My favorite booksellers don't have a "history of science" search tag, unfortunately. Some of my past favorites and extended explanation below the fold.

My usual practice in looking for new books to read is to check through recommendations at Amazon or go to my local bookstore and browse the shelf. But I often find it difficult to tease out the particular type of book that I like - if I go to the science section of the website, there's no way to search for history, and vice-versa. So how do you all do it, fellow science-history lovers? Is there some trick that I'm missing? Or do I just repeatedly bug the hive mind every time I need some new books?

In the past I have enjoyed:

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum
Zero, the Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Siefe, and
The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

I really enjoy books that explain not only about the science and/or technology involved, but also place it in a historical and cultural context. More recent history is good, but I really love reading histories from earlier time periods, like WWII and before. Thanks everyone in advance for your help!
posted by backwards compatible to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
It's all pretty cursory, but I'm getting great enjoyment out of The Science Book.
posted by mibo at 1:39 PM on October 19, 2014

I really enjoyed Fermat's Laat Theorem (/enigma) by Simon Singh.
I found the Plague Race fascinating as well.
posted by 92_elements at 2:01 PM on October 19, 2014

it's fiction but I'm learning enormous amounts of stuff from Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, and very much enjoying the ride.
posted by philip-random at 2:03 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee is fantastic.
posted by telegraph at 2:15 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

My college text on the subject was William Dampier's History of Science. It was published in 1929, so no modern science.
posted by pheide at 2:15 PM on October 19, 2014

The Age of Wonder is an essential on any history of science shelf. Holmes' latest book, Falling Upwards, is about a very niche science subject but is just delightful and as exciting as an adventure novel in places-- while being, as it were, very light-hearted.
The Information is a great single-subject overview.

Aside from browsing around bookstores, I find amazon's "customers who bought this also bought.." lists aren't bad.

On preview-- oh yes Longitude is definitely a must-read.
posted by Erasmouse at 2:18 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would check out MIT Open Courseware.

Also, Rensselaer University's graduate program in Science and Technology Studies posts some of it course syllabi listing assigned and suggested reading here.
posted by invisible ink at 2:22 PM on October 19, 2014

First off I will recommend the incredibly dry but excellently informative The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World. It is a massive tome for something advertised as a handbook, though.

I also enjoyed:

- Mechanics of Pre-Industrial Technology
- Engineering in History (a bit more in the popsci format)
- Engineering in the Ancient World (a quick read)

Also, Lionel Cassan has a handful of books on naval mechanics and seamanship in antiquity and they are all really great (if you are into that kind of thing obvsly).
posted by poffin boffin at 2:23 PM on October 19, 2014

Best answer: The Computer, from Pascal to von Neumann, by Herman H Goldstine (1972 & 1993, Princeton Univ.)
posted by lathrop at 2:28 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I really enjoyed Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon. It was a history of the periodic table via the elements own discovery. I also greatly enjoy Mary Roach's books. If you like Bryson's writing style, check her out. Her books tend to be less a deep dive into a subject's history but more overarching context- like her book on the space race or the alimentary canal.
posted by cheap paper at 2:54 PM on October 19, 2014

For math:
James R. Newman, The World of Mathematics
E.T. Bell, Men of Mathematics
posted by languagehat at 3:03 PM on October 19, 2014

John Banville, Copernicus and Kepler (both novels)
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (the all-time best-selling book on history of science and one of the most influential books in the humanities)
Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution (earlier case study, very detailed)
Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump (the second best-selling)
posted by grobstein at 3:31 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Logicomix (graphic novel dramatizing the birth of mathematical logic)
posted by grobstein at 3:33 PM on October 19, 2014

Napoleon's Buttons and The Disappearing Spoon are both fantastic.

Also try Last Chance To See.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:38 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I really liked Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson.

Also, Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter gets pretty technical, but its all interesting.

Also seconding The Information and The Baroque Cycle.
posted by hobgadling at 3:46 PM on October 19, 2014

I enjoyed Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air, about the work and world of Joseph Priestley. I knew the name from high school chemistry, but had no idea how he influenced Ben Franklin.

Amazon led me right to Johnson's How We Got to Now, so off to the bookstore and the PBS archives I go.
posted by Kakkerlak at 3:58 PM on October 19, 2014

If you liked The Ghost Map, you might enjoy The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology.

Also, my favorite book on the history of modern computing, Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer, is getting an update soon to cover the past 15 years. Whichever version you get, it's a gripping read, even though it's as thick as a telephone book.
posted by topophilia at 4:01 PM on October 19, 2014

Best answer: Steven Shapin's The Scientific Revolution is a short but rich book with a lot of pointers to further reading.

As for finding new books, there are a lot of good history-of-science blogs out there, but I find Whewell's Ghost particularly helpful as a round-up of new stuff.
posted by verstegan at 4:11 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have recommended it here before, but Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World is a very readable account of the man who discovered synthetic chemistry.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:45 PM on October 19, 2014

Best answer: I absolutely loved Chris McManus' Right hand Left Hand, The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms and Cultures. Here is a blurb about it:

A labor of love and enthusiasm as well as deep scientific knowledge, Right Hand, Left Hand takes the reader on a trip through history, around the world, and into the cosmos, to explore the place of handedness in nature and culture. Chris McManus considers evidence from anthropology, particle physics, the history of medicine, and the notebooks of Leonardo to answer questions like: Why are most people right-handed? Are left-handed people cognitively different from right-handers? Why is the heart almost always on the left side of the body? Why does European writing go from left to right, while Arabic and Hebrew go from right to left? Why do tornadoes spin counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere? And how do we know that Jack the Ripper was left-handed?

McManus reminds readers that distinctions between right and left have been profoundly meaningful—imbued with moral and religious meaning—in societies throughout history, and suggests that our preoccupation with laterality may originate in our asymmetric bodies, which emerged from 550 million years of asymmetric vertebrate evolution, and may even be linked to the asymmetric structure of matter. With speculations embedded in science, Right Hand, Left Hand offers entertainment and new insight to scientists and general readers alike.

It's written with fantastic clarity and thoroughness and the footnotes in the book are supplemented online here.
posted by glasseyes at 4:57 PM on October 19, 2014

It's been a while since I read it, but The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity was interesting and enjoyable.
posted by dilettante at 5:47 PM on October 19, 2014

Seconding Shapin's work. Drier but more erudite and historically situated.
posted by lalochezia at 6:52 PM on October 19, 2014

I don't read much history of science so I can't recommend any books, but here is some general advice about how to find books to read.

bibliographies are very useful. look in the backs of books you like for the books the author was reading while writing.

following authors is also helpful. if you liked one book someone wrote odds are you'll like the others. and if an author you like writes reviews or is on Twitter or keeps a blog or whatever it is that kids these days are doing, those will also be good ways to find more books you'll like.

and I'd like to recommend something like a subscription to Scientific American but I don't know enough about the history of science to recommend something that would actually be useful, so instead I will say that magazines and journals are a good way to familiarize yourself with a field and leave finding out exactly which ones would be best to you.
posted by spindle at 8:47 PM on October 19, 2014

Daniel Boorstin "The Creators" and "The Discoverers"
posted by mearls at 9:09 PM on October 19, 2014

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is quite good. And seconding The Invention of Air!
posted by Grandysaur at 11:21 PM on October 19, 2014

There are two (recent) books about Fermat's Last Theorem. I haven't read Simon Singh's, but I have seen him speak and he was good. I have read Amir Aczel's Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem and I really enjoyed it.
posted by stinker at 3:11 AM on October 20, 2014

I have a fetish for all things Ben Franklin, but even taking my bias into account I thought Bernard Cohen's book, Benjamin Franklin's Science was quite scholarly and good.
posted by CincyBlues at 4:41 AM on October 20, 2014

For a broad exploration of technology and civilization before the era of monothematic TED talk sound bites consider Lewis Mumford's "Technics and Civilization".
posted by bdc34 at 8:14 AM on October 20, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you all for the great recommendations! I have lots of reading to do!
posted by backwards compatible at 8:33 AM on October 20, 2014

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