Books about the universe, time, and evolution

My darling Marcie has been avidly watching The Universe on the history channel. She has developed a lot of interest in the Big Bang theory and in the idea of an ever expanding universe; she has also renewed her interest in the evolution of life.

Since her birthday is September 15, I thought a few books on these subjects might make good gifts; along with something more romantic, of course.

Any suggestions as to books would be most appreciated. I’ll deal with the romantic stuff myself, thank you.

Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” is probably the standard book about the universe.

Evolution from the beginning, no recommendations; evolution in terms of what’s going on now, I will, as I always do, recommend David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo. One of my Top Ten Ever books.

I’m no expert, but the following two books, read in order, explained a whole lot to me:

River Out of Eden, Richard Dawkins.
The Panda’s Thumb, Stephen Jay Gould

Of course these are pop science (but this does mean they’re written entertainingly and accessibly) and there may be better out there, and some of the science might have been updated, but for a grounding in how evolution works, followed by what it does, I found them superb.

Why Is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Jared Diamond is a cool book

Hawking has a more recent account of the Universe in his Universe in a Nutshell . I really enjoyed it.

Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe and Fabric Of The Cosmos cover much of the same ground and more accessably than Hawking. I once heard A Brief History of Time described as “the most widely read book that no one has ever finished,” and while that claim may be a bit hyperbolic, it does appear that many people get about halfway in and give up. Shamefully, while I have Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages on my bookshelf I haven’t even cracked it yet (I’ve been spending more time of late reading about the Irish Potato Famine and technical stuff on thermodynamics), but it came highly recommended and it’s now out in paperback.

On the topic of evolution I could recommend a panoply of books, but you can’t go wrong with Stephen J. Gould, even if I do disagree with some of the specific theories he promoted (species and group selection, punctuated equilibrium). His collections of essays, mostly written for original publication in Natural History magazine, make for quick, easy reading while being very informative. I’d start with The Panda’s Thumb or Ever Since Darwin. If you want to balance that off with someone on the other side of selective theory (that is, the gene-centric rather than focusing on species- or group-level selection) then Richard Dawkins is your go-to man. Most people will point you at The Selfish Gene because its his first and it was groundbreaking as a popular science presentation of gene-centric theory (which Dawkins professionally advanced but was not by far the first person to establish), and it may be a good place to start, but I personally prefer The Blind Watchmaker. But then, I find his discussion of fig wasps (which was his professional area of study as a young zoologist) fascinating, and he’s not adverse to approaching the problems of evolution computationally or mathematically. This also comes before his current obsession with ranting on about religion (which, even when I agree with his statements I find his placement and demeanor off-putting). Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen is a good book on the role of sexual selection in evolution, and you can’t go wrong with Ernst Mayr–maybe this–though he does get kind of dry at some points, especially in What Evolution Is, so perhaps not the best starting point there.

And you can always throw in a bit of Feynman–or, at least one of his autobiographical books–for some light reading as a break. He’s always a good read.

Is that a start for you?


But his explanations are flawed in several significant ways. Diamond seems uneven–sometimes brilliantly informed and other times way over his head in the topics he addresses.


moving thread from IMHO to Cafe Society.

I’m currently reading David Christian’s Maps of Time. Fascinating read. It’s a hefty tome of eight hundred pages, including a couple hundred pages of notes and bibliography.

Christian maps it all out, one after the other: the history of the universe, the history of galaxies, the history of our solar system, the history of our planet, the history of life on our planet and the history of man on our planet.

I’m no bright light when it comes to this stuff, but I find Christian’s writing and scholarship both impressive and engaging.

Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” is really good at explaining the basics.

And Sir Martin Rees has two great books - “Our Cosmic Habitat” and “Just Six Numbers” - both of which are great.

Another great book by Richard Dawkings is [ul=“”]Climbing Mount Improbable[/ulr] which is about how complexity can arise from evolution.

I read it a long time ago so I’m not sure how relevant it is but The Dancing Wu Li Masters is good for a light intoduction to physics.


If there is any fact or idea that Bryson states correctly in this book it’s purely by accident. Despite the author’s claim that the book was vetted by experts in the field, every single chapter I’ve skimmed through has egregeous errors of fact and misleading notions of accepted theory. Do not use this as a reference for “explaining the basics” or anything other than the dubious entertainment value of Bryson’s prose.

While aside from trying to tie in Zen Buddhism into quantum mechanics and relativity at every turn the book doesn’t make any huge errors, it’s really not a very clear presentation of these topics, and Zukov–a former Esalen Institute booster and frequent Oprah Winfrey Show guest–is no expert on the topic of modern physics. It’s not where I’d start for good factual information.

In fact, if you want to get all hot and heavy into the conceptual complexities of quantum mechanics without mucking about with equations (which frankly, while permitting you to do real work, don’t give you any more insight into the “Why?” of QM) I’d recommend Jim Al-Khalili’s Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed, which looks like a children’s or coffee table book, complete with some really gorgeous illustrations, but is one of the best layman explanations of QM I’ve found, and it’s broken into relatively simple concepts that can be digested a bit at a time. It won’t turn you into a Niels Bohr or Murray Gell-Manm, but when clever people who talk loudly in restaurants start babbling on about double slit experiments and uncollapsed probability waveforms of simultaneously alive and dead cats, you’ll know what their on about and can respond with a witty anecdote about how you once ran into Wigner’s friend at the pub and caused him him to collapse into unconsciousness in a drinking contest, then went and let the poor cat out of the box and gave it some food.


I recently read Paul Davies’ Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life, which seems to be exactly what you are looking for.

I hate to repeat myself, but if anyone’s looking for a very intelligent history of nearly everything, David Christian’s Maps of Time is an excellent place to start. It’s painstakingly researched, scrupulously footnoted and includes a massive bibliography. Best of all, it’s very readable. I haven’t read Bryson’s book, but the fact that he gets all the publicity and Christian gets none is surely a regrettable situation.

The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner is a really excellent account of evolution taking place in our time. He examines the finches of the Galapagos (just as Darwin did) and clearly explains how natural selection works.

Bryson has the inside track at NPR, and by that virtue has a marketing machine and dedicated audience. I guess he’s a good writer, if you like the prose style he affects, but not much of a researcher or academically inclined, and certainly not even an amateur science expert, much less qualified to cover this material authoritatively.


I’m sorry to be late responding; we’ve been at the beach this afternoon. I do appreciate the suggestions and I will check them out as completely as possible. Marcie has talked about that Universe program almost non-stop; it gladdens me to see her so enthusiastic.

I will report back on what I buy and thanks once again.

I really enjoyed Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.