What are some exciting non-fictional books on Science for beginners?
November 7, 2020 5:13 PM   Subscribe

I am keen on learning more about Science since my background is mostly social sciences and humanities. What are some interesting enriching science-oriented non-fictional a beginner would enjoy reading?

I am looking for subjects on biology, botany, health, maths, genetics, medicine, AI, et cetera. I would like to learn more about natural sciences as well as someone wanting to appreciate maths and understand more about medicine/brain/health and bontany too. I would also like to learn more about Alan Turing as well. I recently downloaded the book Natural wonders every child should know by Edwin Tenney Brewster from Tibees' YouTube Channel, which is a fantastic physics/maths Channel that has been helpful. I am open to all kinds of sciences, but chiefly biology, medicine, AI, botany, biology, health, and appreciation for maths/geometry for beginners.
posted by RearWindow to Science & Nature (20 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
A fascinating book about the history of American medicine and, specifically, Bellevue Hospital, is Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital by David Oshinsky. So good!
posted by bookmammal at 5:21 PM on November 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

"A Short History of Nearly Everything", while a few parts of it are slightly outdated, is a really well-written and funny popular science book by Bill Bryson. As the title suggests it covers most areas of science. It has a great audiobook as well.
posted by vogon_poet at 6:26 PM on November 7, 2020 [17 favorites]

Carl Sagan was one of the great science communicators, and books like his Broca's Brain and The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark are great ports of entry to the philosophy of scientific thought, even when some of the facts presented in them have been displaced by more recent advances in knowledge.

The best science book I've seen recently for a general audience is Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson—mind-bending scientific insights on the nature of the universe.
posted by Flexagon at 6:34 PM on November 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

A science-loving family member recently enjoyed We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe. There are a lot of cartoonish illustrations & jokes, but the information is really interesting.
posted by belladonna at 6:49 PM on November 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

A Mind for Numbers is both an explanation of the science of learning as well as a great way to learn how to learn science and math!
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:01 PM on November 7, 2020

Asterisks are my guess at "difficulty level" but they are all written for laymen and I think all are readable. And I love them all.

Eating the Sun*, Oliver Morton. Plants and photosynthesis. Some bits might be hard, but those are skippable (as the author himself says).

The Emerald Planet, David Beerling. Botany; structured as ~5-6 pieces on plants at different points in the Earth's history.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Sean Carroll. Superb account of how organisms do things like grow limbs.

, Armand Leroi. Genetics and human physiology, woven into accounts of the people who've had very visible effects from their mutations. Told with care; the opposite of a freakshow.

Disturbing the Universe, Freeman Dyson. Memoir of a famous physicist (and excellent writer.) More memoir than science but you get a taste.

Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution**, Nick Lane. Biochemical innovations in evolution.

The Vital Question**, Nick Lane. Biochemistry and energy usage.

The Logician and the Engineer**, Paul Nahin, about mathematician Boole and circuit design pioneer Shannon. Fascinating people, but also this is the book that made me understand how you could actually wire up a circuit to do math.

How to Invent Nearly Everything, Ryan North. That's the comic book author who did Squirrel Girl, and should probably have a negative difficulty score.

Animal Weapons, by Douglas Emlen. The gimmick is comparing them to human weapons, which is stupid and you can skip that and just learn a ton about beetles from someone who studies them. And the beetle patriarchy.

Several that have very good reviews from people I trust and are up near the top of my list: Lab Girl (memoir by Hope Jahren, a plant scientist), Soul of an Octopus, Immunity: An Innoculation.
posted by mark k at 7:26 PM on November 7, 2020 [4 favorites]

Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris is a history of astronomy from ancient times to the present -- along the way it teaches a lot of astronomy. I have read many astronomy books and this is my favorite. Besides the excellent content, it is more beautifully written than most science books.
posted by JonJacky at 7:33 PM on November 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

Larry Gonick has done several "Cartoon Guides To" history, math, physics, etc, and they're very fun and accessible to the layman, while not being actually kids books.
posted by The otter lady at 7:48 PM on November 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

The Beak of the Finch is a good family adventure story in the Galapagos plus it explains Darwin’s theory of evolution plus how continuing research has improved and applied it. And bird life!

Lots of John McPhee is good on explaining science and how it was worked out.
posted by clew at 7:51 PM on November 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have found Stephen Jay Gould's popsci books, many of which are collections of articles, enjoyable and informative. I gather he's a controversial figure among biologists and I hesitate to endorse a few of the things he says about stuff other than biology. (I don't know enough about the biology to comment.) But, they're very readable and cover a wide range of topics.

Adam Rutherford's A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is also a popsci book that's worth a look. It's anthropology, but with a lot of genetics.
posted by eotvos at 8:08 PM on November 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed The Birth of a New Physics.
posted by phunniemee at 8:56 PM on November 7, 2020

My favorite science book of all time is The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. It's about evolutionary biology. It was published way back in 1976, but it's held up well -- and I linked to the 40th anniversary edition. Richard Dawkins is a fantastic writer and one of my favorite intellectuals. Actually, if you don't have any particular background in biology, you may want to start with another book by Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker. It covers some of the same ground as The Selfish Gene, but it's a bit more accessible.

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan is another favorite book of mine.

If you're at all interested in the history of psychiatry, I would recommend two books by Robert Whitaker: Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill and Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America.
posted by alex1965 at 5:58 AM on November 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Poisoner's Handbook is about the birth of forensic toxicology in the 1920s.

Siddartha Mukherjee has written Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer and The Gene: An Intimate History, both of which are excellent.

For books about the brain, you can't go wrong with Oliver Sacks.
posted by basalganglia at 6:34 AM on November 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

I still enjoy the old science books that Carl Sagan wrote; they're all several decades old so some of the science is very outdated but the pattern of thinking and wonder is still vibrant and inspiring.

For more up-to-date science writing, I enjoy the annual The Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology. You can go back several years and still be reading about current science. The articles are all short and engaging with a lot of variety so you can cover a lot of ground quickly. It's also easy to skip or abandon a particular article if it isn't interesting to you.
posted by ElKevbo at 7:55 AM on November 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

I second Oliver Sacks, especially if you're an humanities person. He was inspired by classic writing in science which had a literary bent. I've particularly enjoyed:
An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales
The Mind's Eye
Uncle Tungsten
On the Move: A Life
(the last two are less about science and more about his life in science).

I read his Seeing Voices whilst learning Sign Language. There's a Sacks book for almost every interest.

His books on Goodreads.
posted by BrStekker at 12:01 PM on November 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

"Surely you're joking Mr Feynman" - but its less about Science and more about adventures of this famously curious character.

Wigner's "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences" not the most beginner but influential (you can tell because it has its own wikipedia page!) - "why does math describe things?" That age old question even the Greeks debated.

Nigel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" (also with its own wikipedia entry) even Dennis Dutton has said is likely the most widespread & influential thought experiment on consciousness.

"Chaos" by James Gleick and anything by David Quamenn ("Natural Acts" or his books on evolution or viruses etc).
posted by rubatan at 12:09 PM on November 8, 2020

I really like Bernd Heinrich’s books on natural history. He has done years of observation and research and he writes beautifully. The Mind of the Raven is a good place go start.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 2:03 PM on November 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Highly recommend Mary Roach's books - very accessible and informative.
posted by Twicketface at 2:09 PM on November 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

"In Search of Schrödinger's Cat" by John Gribbin is, if I recall, a pretty good history of quantum physics.

"Relativity Simply Explained" by Martin Gardner is pretty good, too. Martin Gardner in general is good. I wonder if some of his older material ages well. He wrote a LOT, over a long span of time.

My favorite of Richard Dawkins's books is "The Ancestor's Tale," which while huge, feels to me more accessible and less preachy than much of his other work.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:17 AM on November 9, 2020

I loved Black Hole Blues by Janna Levin.

Also, I haven't read Hidden Figures yet, but the Guardian liked the book more than the movie.
posted by kristi at 7:05 PM on November 11, 2020

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