Make my 10th grade bio teacher proud!
April 4, 2008 5:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to college soon. (Age 24; been working a desk job in health care since I was 18.) I've got an inkling I want to study biology. Recommend me some books to help me get the lay of the land and get fired up about this.

Things that are awesome, weird or fascinating: evolution, viruses (where do they hide in your body, anyway?), fungi, genetics, the human body and especially the brain, insects (what are they good for?), dinosaurs, biotechnology (for starters, what the hell is it?), diseases (we had this one patient with a bone infection — I didn't even know there was such a thing), organ transplanting, ecology.

What books would you recommend to get a curious non-scientist oriented and excited about any of those subjects?

Things I'm not interested in: nursing or med school, dental hygiene, "customer service."
posted by Attackpanda to Science & Nature (23 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I hate studying biology, but I really enjoyed The Selfish Gene.
posted by phrontist at 5:28 PM on April 4, 2008

OK wait a sec, I don't really understand your question: you're going to college, and you think you want to major in biology, so you're asking for books to get you interested in biology? Why? I'm confused :(

I can't really think of any bio books (The Selfish Gene was a great read though) but I hope you don't mind if I stick my two cents in anyway: getting yourself into your major is a great idea, it's terrible to be stuck in a major that you don't like. BUT colleges (at least in North America) will require you to fulfil general education requirements; i.e. you'll have to take some math/english/natural science/art classes.

I recommend you work on filling up the gen. ed. reqs first while shopping around in the bio classes (at the start of semesters in most schools you can attend pretty much any class and no one cares) and see if they interest you. You can probably spend your entire first year doing just gen. ed. classes, including an introductory biology class; the biology class will fulfil a gen. ed. req if you decide biology is not the major for you, and if you do go on to major in bio the introductory class will probably be a pre-requisite for the major programme.

Ummm this is assuming you are going on a 4-yr american B.A. programme. :P I hope this answer wasn't too worthless.

OH and talk to your academic advisor about majors and how to select classes. In fact, contact the college and talk to an advisor; most colleges offer this service to even prospective students.
posted by Xianny at 5:42 PM on April 4, 2008

The thing I always loved most about learning biology was the visuals—this includes pictures of real living things, figures depicting the inside of a cell, and diagrams of biological processes. A good undergraduate college textbook will be loaded with visual stimulation. Popular science books can sometimes seem pretty dry to me because they lack this. So with that in mind, I would recommend either of the textbooks written by Neil Campbell and colleagues: either Biology (written for college biology majors) or Essential Biology (for non-majors), depending on how much you feel like delving into things. The book for biology majors will be interesting, and probably not that challenging so you might consider it more. Of course, if there's ever anything you don't understand, you can always search on the internet or ask here.
posted by grouse at 5:49 PM on April 4, 2008

My most favourite book ever: Life: An Unauthorised Biography by Richard Fortey (the US edition has a slightly different name). Covers a lot of ground with decent scientific rigour but still easy to read and captivating. I've read a few of these evolutionary biology / history of life type books and reckon this one is by far the best. I found his geology book less captivating sadly.

My second most favourite book ever: Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi. I've had other science geek friends also rave about this one, it's just so damn interesting! A layperson will definitely be able to follow it and it's well referenced if you want to go deeper. Covers developmental genetics and physiology (particularly what happens when those things go wrong) with a bit of science history type stuff thrown in.

The Selfish Gene is a good start if you're into genetics. It's pretty old by now but a lot of his ideas and ways of thinking about science are still relevant.

Lastly, my most recent favourite book: A Guinea Pig's History of Biology by Jim Endersby. Gives an overview of the history of genetic research using the model organisms as a hook rather than the more usual person-drive history. Again easily read but scientifically good and I think it gives a really nice insight into how to actually do great science as well as just full of cool information. I this this is a good book for someone wanting to go into research particularly if you're at all interested in biochemistry or genetics.

I read a LOT of science fact books in my spare time and these four stand out particulalry when taking into account your list of interests. Both Armand Marie Leroi and Jim Endersby are first time authors and I hope they write more books in the future.
posted by shelleycat at 5:54 PM on April 4, 2008

Response by poster: @Xianny - I'm looking for books that will give me a more in depth view of what I'm curious about. Perhaps I phrased my question weirdly. My advisor is doing fine job helping me plan my classes, I'm set for Cellular and Molecular Biology when I start. I am looking for book recommendations to read before I start. Do you have any?
posted by Attackpanda at 5:54 PM on April 4, 2008

Oo fun! I hope people post some good answers. I really enjoyed
Guns Germs and Steel - dieases bring down civilizations!
Last Chance to See - Douglas Adams covers extinction in a manner that is both touching and hiliarious
The Hot Zone - scary virus kills people almost instantly
I read a really good book a while back on prion disease like Mad Cow, but I can't for the life of me remember the title. It was a pretty popular book a few years ago, maybe this one?

Oliver Sacks has some good books about the crazy things your brain can make you do, and his books are usually pretty easy reads and not too technical.

I'd also recommend reading up on the 1918 Influenza pandemic. They were able to resurrect the virus that caused it by digging up people who died from it and were buried in Alaskan permafrost. Creepy stuff.

on preview - I also liked Mutants
posted by fermezporte at 6:03 PM on April 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

OK wait a sec, I don't really understand your question: you're going to college, and you think you want to major in biology, so you're asking for books to get you interested in biology? Why? I'm confused

Whereas it makes total sense to me. I study biology and have worked for a number of years in this field. I'm currently a PhD student so spend all day (often every day) doing biology. I read extensively about my project and subject area. And it's all interesting but it's pretty specific.

But I also read popular science type books in my spare time, and they're what keeps me really interested and fired up about my field. It was this wide reading that made me aware of the area I'm now in and that reminds me of how my stuff fits in with the overall subject. Plus it's just damn interesting. Hopefully reading about how life evolved or how a genetic mutation can cause extra fingers can keep Attackpanda excited about studying the much more boring stuff that is done in class.

Science is about learning how to think as much as anything. I think a good popular science book can help with that, and the ones I suggested should also impart some really cool knowledge along the way.

(I'm hoping someone recommends a really good book about insects, that's something I don't know enough about)
posted by shelleycat at 6:04 PM on April 4, 2008

Read this book by Lewis Thomas.
posted by mds35 at 6:34 PM on April 4, 2008

Flip through Neil Campbell's Biology, which will probably be your General Biology textbook anyway. It may or may not be a dry textbook to you - but whatever it is, that's what's coming your way. Used editions run about $50, previous editions are even cheaper.
posted by Xere at 6:53 PM on April 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm hoping someone recommends a really good book about insects

Holldobler and Wilson's The Ants.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 7:19 PM on April 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson --- from the big bang to extinction, with plenty of biology mixed in. A great read.
posted by headnsouth at 7:36 PM on April 4, 2008

Sorry, hit post instead of preview there, here are the full titles and authors.

Bumblebee Economics - Bernd Heinrich

Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History - Stephen Jay Gould

Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence - Carl Sagan

The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature
- Matt Ridley

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA - James D. Watson
posted by sophist at 7:47 PM on April 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just pick up Biology (mentioned upthread). You might as well get a jump on it.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 8:48 PM on April 4, 2008

nth-ing Biology. It'll more than likely be your default undergrad textbook anyway, the text is arranged so you can dip in and out of chapters as they interest you, and it's actually a pretty damned good read.

It's often coupled with Henderson's Dictionary of Biology, which is a good pocket (if you have large-ish pockets!) reference to all the life sciences, for not much more than the price of Biology itself.
posted by Pinback at 8:59 PM on April 4, 2008

The Diversity of Life by E. O. Wilson. A must read for any biology student or anyone interested in the state of the planet. I read it as I was doing my biology degree and think of it often.

How To Think about Weird Things was incredibly useful as a general science resource. It makes you question any statistic you have ever heard.

Finally, I'll give a +1 for The Hot Zone, mentioned above. Not literature, but it will get you fired up about viruses.

Have fun. Biology is a huge, amazing field.
posted by ms.v. at 9:32 PM on April 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was a Molecular & Cell Biology, Neurobiology emphasis (originally Molecular Biology emphasis) in college. If you're interested in brain, mechanics, and behavior, I recommend the books by Oliver Sacks. They're collections of extreme case studies but really engaging reading if you have any remote interest in the complex relationship of brain and body. There's little in the way of serious biology but a lot of interesting concepts and ideas are presented that would get you excited about studying neurobiology and neuroanatomy.

For generics and drug discovery, I found Her-2: The Making of Herceptin and the Billion Dollar Molecule to be tremendously interesting reads. Again, not straight biology but material to get you excited to study biology and learn the fundamentals.
posted by junesix at 11:40 PM on April 4, 2008

Many books by Stephen J. Gould got me going. E.O. Wilson and Carl Sagan also come to mind. I could always leaf through a textbook of general biology, evolutionary biology, ecology or genetics and find some really interesting things to pique my interest.
posted by premortem at 11:48 PM on April 4, 2008

I'll recommend Robert Sapolsky for genetics, neurobiology / the brain, and behavior. His writing style is really accessible, and he is hilarious to read. I'd recommend Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals and The Trouble with Testosterone to start. They are great essay collections that cover a wide range of topics. If you like those then you could move on to Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, his longer book about stress and stress related diseases. And finally, A Primate's Memoir is a great account of his experience as a young field biologist studying baboons in Africa.
posted by jenne at 12:22 AM on April 5, 2008

You mentioned getting "fired up" about the topic. For a less-than-rigorous but very exciting little tour of the intersection of technological development and cutting edge biological research at least for '02, try Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine Benyus. For a preview of Benyus's style and excitement, try her TED talk (2005).
posted by Gr0wl at 1:24 AM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

-"Dead Men Do Tell Tales" - a book by an anthropologist who walks you through post mortem medical cases (why did this person die and how can you figure this out?). I read this book while I was teaching undergraduate anatomy courses -- and I will admit, I learned a few interesting facts and tidbits along the way.

-"Parasite Rex" - parasitology is facinating - there are parasites that can alter the behavior of the host (causing a rat to walk up to a cat, eaten by the cat, and the parasite was successful - now it can continue its life cycle in the cat).

-"Evo Devo and The Making of the Animal Kingdom" - a bit of embryology, genetics, and evolution. This book is a tad more up to date than some of the other books out there that you may be recommended to read.

I would also highly recommend that you follow either current science information. There are a few ways you can do so and learn what is new in the field of biology. For example, the podcast 'Nature' summarizes the most salient science stories of the week (published in the journal) and interviews the researcher. Perhaps you can subscribe to Nature after a few years of listening to the podcast and taking more biology courses.

Also, in your second or third year, if you become interested in a topic - don't stop at the book. Go find a peer reviewed scientific article -- it will be far more up to date than a book, and -- if written well, you can learn more about the the scientific techniques, tells a story, etc. You can ask your prof for suggestions (or go look up the articles written by your prof). Finally, if you find a topic you enjoy -- medicine or general science -- you can subscribe to the journal (see if you can get access online through your uni) -- or if you want to save $ but learn what is new and interesting, get the cover page sent to you by email. Some of the journals offer free supplemental info -- eg, go check out New England Journal of Med right now. They have a video of an ascaris worm in the intestinal tract, and in other months will have a video of a medical procudure or an animation describing how a device works. Spmetimes they will offer a free article or two - a few are interesting info to the lay person.

Have fun.
posted by Wolfster at 6:22 AM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

While books are great and all, why don't you also check out some biology blogs? ScienceBlogs Life Sciences section has a bunch of interesting stuff hiding there, and people blog both about life as a scientist and recent peer-reviewed research. Plus, if you have any questions, you can leave a comment and start a discussion with the author really easily.

If you want more science news type stuff, there's also ScienceDaily for recent research and the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. I only follow up on the second, really. The guy there blogs about all the science news articles he can find, which includes a lot of ecology and other bio-related stuff.

Good luck with biology! I'm two years in (as an undergraduate) and love it.
posted by mismatched at 7:32 AM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a person with a background in molecular biology (researcher and lab manager for almost 10 years) now working for the past 10 years in the 'tools' life science business (think of the fine chemicals needed for research, kits for doing experiments, and equipment needed for performing those experiments), I'd like to give my own 2 cents' worth here.

We are currently living in the most exciting time in the history of biology, in particular the genetic basis underlying common diseases. ABC News recently wrote this up - and I still believe that the 'general public' has yet to grasp the impact of the kinds of research going on. (Disclaimer: I currently am employed by one of the two large microarray suppliers that manufactures the chips that do these high-resolution genomic scans of variation, and these experiments are often budgeted in the high six-figures or low seven-figures, so it is big business.)

There are many good reads recommended in this thread, nothing new for me to add there, but I'd say that you are choosing a GREAT time to study biology, in particular molecular biology. I'd say (if I were to do it all over again) I'd take additional classes in population statistics and epidemiology, as these form an increasingly important tool in addition to the fundamentals. The intersection of computer technology, organic synthesis chemistry (i.e. the ability to manufacture synthetic DNA/RNA probes inexpensively) and the Human Genome Project and related International HapMap Project (mapping human variation) and now the 1000 Genomes Project are already showing remarkable results; there are some 60+ 'GWAS' or Genome-Wide Association Studies to-date, and just about every week Science and Nature are publishing the results of these efforts.

I can't begin to explain how excited I am as a scientist at the remarkable pace of progress in this area, and we are right at the beginning of a new age in biology. Best of luck!
posted by scooterdog at 1:09 PM on April 6, 2008

I'd recommend E.O. Wilson's Diversity of Life or Biophilia

I know you asked for books, but if you want a multimedia experience, I recommend any of the BBC's nature videos narrated by David Attenborough.
posted by doriangray at 11:34 AM on April 7, 2008

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