Favorite History of Science Books
September 22, 2007 9:25 AM   Subscribe

What are the best history of science books for the intelligent layperson? Some examples along these lines include Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb", David Bodanis' "E=mc2" and Dava Sobel's "Longitude"; books which mix equally well the explanation of scientific concepts with historical/biographical storytelling, and are not intended for practitioners of the field. In addition to general suggestions, specific recommendations about the history of probability & statistics and the history of science in the ancient/medieval world would be appreciated. Thanks in advance!
posted by lorenzism to Education (37 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Oh man, this sounds exactly like Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything". Loved this book. It brings the historical figures surrounding the key moments in scientific history to life. Very entertaining and educational. It's a broad survey, broader-sounding than the ones you cite.

It explains the contentious history of aluminum vs. aluminium. That alone is worth the purchase price!
posted by kookoobirdz at 9:39 AM on September 22, 2007 [3 favorites]

Pretty obvious, but have you read Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything?
posted by vytae at 9:39 AM on September 22, 2007

posted by vytae at 9:40 AM on September 22, 2007

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson seems to fit what you're looking for. I enjoyed reading it and learned a bit from it too. It did a good job of providing a human side to the scientific discoveries of the past, and explained the science well for laypersons.
posted by Trinkers at 9:41 AM on September 22, 2007

Oh, the joys of preview....when I remember to use it.
posted by Trinkers at 9:42 AM on September 22, 2007

The Code Book by Simon Singh about the history of cryptography is quite good. (But for interested people is probably better to read the much more comprehensive The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet)
posted by rpn at 9:46 AM on September 22, 2007

Science: A History by John Gribbin.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 10:00 AM on September 22, 2007

More obviousness: Connections by David Burke. Oldie but goodie.
posted by Quietgal at 10:07 AM on September 22, 2007

Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions might be a little more philosophical than you are looking for, but I highly recommend it.
posted by puffin at 10:08 AM on September 22, 2007

I think you're looking for Daniel Boorstin's The Creators and The Discoverers, which tell the story of the major achievements in science and arts via biographies of the people who made it happen, starting in antiquity and moving to the modern era. I love these and revisit them every few years.

I'll also second Singh's book on cryptography, and raise you one more by him: Fermat's Enigma. I found it thoroughly engaging, as did my wife who is much more of a math type.
posted by jquinby at 10:14 AM on September 22, 2007

Kuhn is philosophy of science; it's not a historical survey.
posted by futility closet at 10:17 AM on September 22, 2007

The Eighth Day of Creation is a very good book about the origins of molecular biology in the 60s/70s - it covers both the history and the science, like the Making of the Atomic Bomb.
posted by pombe at 10:34 AM on September 22, 2007

The Lunar Men (own it, haven't read it) and Chaos (have owned it for years, still re-read it every couple of years, is out of date now), The Neandertal Enigma (the science is out of date).

For this kind of "what else would I like" query, I suggest LibraryThing's recommendation engine. I just wish they'd learn a bit about application design. And security. Check out the recommendations for your books:

The Making of the Atomic Bomb


Longitude (Galileo's Daughter? The Map That Changed the World? Nathaniel's Nutmeg?)
posted by Leon at 10:35 AM on September 22, 2007

I liked The Substance of Civilization for a survey of the usage and development of materials, and The book nobody read : chasing the revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus. The latter has a lot of modern book-chasing, but in-between it develops a story about the original owners (and readers) of the De Revolutionibus.
posted by janell at 10:51 AM on September 22, 2007

You would be interested in Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer, about the historical development of scientific understanding of the brain. Fascinating book, and full of scientists who you probably have heard of, but not in the context of the research mentioned here.
posted by Schismatic at 10:52 AM on September 22, 2007

The Origins of Modern Science by Herbert Butterfield.
posted by camcgee at 11:00 AM on September 22, 2007

Also, The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler
posted by camcgee at 11:02 AM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

James Gleick's "Chaos", assigned as supplemental reading in a high school summer program I was in, is a great mix of biography and science concentrating on chaos theory. John Barrow's "Pi in the Sky" does the same for the philosophy of mathematics. Both of these books helped to spark my interest in academic science.
posted by transona5 at 11:18 AM on September 22, 2007

Coming of Age in the Milky Way is absolutely fantastic. It reads like a novel. Amazon link here.
posted by selfmedicating at 11:18 AM on September 22, 2007

The God Particle, Leon Lederman. It's awesome. You'll love it.
posted by InnocentBystander at 12:18 PM on September 22, 2007

Boorstin's books mentioned above would probably fit the bill. I think an argument could be made though that there was no such thing as science during the European middle ages. Maybe magic, some medicine, but not science as we might recognize it. I can recommend a couple of books on those topics in lieu of medieval science history.

In the Wake of the Plague
by Norman Canter is a pretty fascinating picture of how Europe tried to figure what was happening and why, when struck with the Black Death.

And both of Kiekhefer's major books on medieval magic, Magic in the Middle Ages and Forbidden Rites, are pretty good reads.
posted by Toekneesan at 12:21 PM on September 22, 2007

I haven't read it but my chemistry professor recommends a play called Copenhagen.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 12:38 PM on September 22, 2007

Seconding the Singh recommendations (Fermat, The Code Book). You may also want to check out work by Amir D. Aczel: I've read (and enjoyed) "Pendulum" and "Mystery of the Aleph". On a more biographical note: Hoffman's "The man who loved only numbers", about Erdös. Finally, you can't go wrong with any book by Ian Stewart.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 1:17 PM on September 22, 2007

Second on Connections, but you might find it easier to find under James Burke. I also enjoyed The Pinball Effect, which is thematically similar to Connections.

James Burke is one of those rare people to come into science. From his television programs, he appears to be a total science geek, when in fact he's really a Latin Scholar - but I've said all this before it seems.
posted by plinth at 1:42 PM on September 22, 2007

The Faber Book of Science, edited by John Carey, is not a history, but an anthology - a collection of beautiful, and beautifully lucid, scientific essays often written by the scientists themselves.
posted by Holly at 1:52 PM on September 22, 2007

I suggest Jacob Bronkowski's The Ascent of Man for a truly sweeping look at the history of science. I think it was also made into a television series.

For a look at physics in particular, you can't go wrong with the collection On the Shoulders of Giants, edited by Stephen Hawking.

And I heartily agree with Bryson's Short History. A fantastic, amusing and highly readable book! My S.O., a one-time art history major, claims this as a favorte book.
posted by OlderThanTOS at 2:33 PM on September 22, 2007

It's perhaps a bit more academic than you were looking for, but Making Modern Science by Peter J. Bowler and Iwan Rhys Morus is a very good, modern overview of key aspects of the history of science. It's lower on narrative and stories than the more popular stuff, but better on analysis.
posted by chorltonmeateater at 4:22 PM on September 22, 2007

Carl Boyer's A History of Mathematics is often used as a textbook in history of math classes. It's very readable.

For probability, there is Ian Hacking's The Emergence of Probability: A Philosophical Study of Early Ideas About Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference.

The Thomas Kuhn volume I would recommend is The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought.
posted by needled at 5:47 PM on September 22, 2007

Another book comes to mind. A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester.
posted by Toekneesan at 6:06 PM on September 22, 2007

N-thing "A Short History of Nearly Everything". I would also recommend "The Coming Plague" which is a slightly scary and completely fascinating story of emerging diseases and the people who study and try to prevent them. The Codebreakers (mentioned above) is also really good.
posted by procrastination at 6:55 PM on September 22, 2007

I recommend Mayr's The Growth of Biological Thought. Aside from the masterful presentation of the history of biology, I enjoyed the discussion of the heuristic value of qualitative vs. quantitative observations, and the explanation of why biology must be studied differently than other sciences (eg chemistry). Through this book, I understood what Dobzhansky meant by, "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution."
posted by Jorus at 7:28 PM on September 22, 2007

Maybe not quite what you're looking for, but maybe worth a look: A Random Walk in Science by Weber and Mendoza.
posted by ChromeDome at 8:19 PM on September 22, 2007

Phillip Ball writes lovely explanatory narratives about science. Since my earlier comment, I saw his Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color on the shelf.
posted by janell at 8:27 PM on September 22, 2007

I read the heck out of The Second Creation when I was a kid -- tells the story of the creation of the standard model in particle physics.

Re probability and statistics, I will second Hacking's _The Emergence of Probability_ and add his _The Taming of Chance_.
posted by escabeche at 9:21 PM on September 22, 2007

Just thought of something that isn't exactly science, but I think is just what you're looking for: The Gutenberg Revolution: The story of a genius and an invention that changed the world. The spread of scientific knowledge wouldn't have been possible without the printing press and its knock-on effects.
posted by Leon at 9:56 PM on September 22, 2007

i love these sorts of books. i've read many that have been listed so far, but unquestioningly my favourite is "A Terrible Beauty" while not strictly about *science* it's a "conceptual history of the 20th centaury" and in my mind should be required reading for anyone interested in history. Predictably, it's a massive book, but I found it impossible to put down. The amount of knowledge I got from that book over such a huge range of subjects was incomparable.
Other than that, I suggest:
Adam's Curse by Bryan Sykes (learnt a lot about genetics through this one)
Collapse by Jared Diamond in fact any of his books are well worth the time, his knowledge of a vast variety of subjects is truly amazing. I also highly recmmend "Guns, germs and steel"
oh and of course Fermat's last theorem by Simon Singh

again, of course, If you really are into this stuff as much as I am, pick up terrible beauty from the library. amazing read.

good luck and happy reading!
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 4:13 AM on September 23, 2007

If you are into geology, I recommend The Floating Egg by Roger Osborne.
posted by rmless at 2:09 PM on September 24, 2007

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