Recommend good science books

So, I was raised fundamentalist. The Bible explains all the science you need to know, you can’t trust what they’re teaching you in school, the world is 6000 years old and was created from nothing in seven days, and all the rest of it.

So I was never particularly interested in science. It didn’t seem relevant or important to me. I got C’s and D’s in science in school, mainly by memorizing things I didn’t really understand.

Now I’m an adult, with an MA in English. I’ve abandoned fundamentalism with a great deal of anxiety and bitterness, and also a great deal of relief. I’ve enjoyed exploring the wonders of a complex and beautiful world. I’ve watched R-rated movies, read pornographic books, drunk assorted alcholic beverages, learned about other religions, and generally had a wonderful time. Instead of chuckling at me, imagine how astounding it is to discover a whole world at once, when you’re old enough to understand and appreciate it.

But I have practically no understanding of science, of what the world is and how it works. I hear Dopers talking enthusiastically about it, though, and I’d like to know more.

What are your favorite science books for laypeople? I’m off to the library to give this area of study a try for the first time, and I’d love to have a little list to take with me.

Start here…

I have to confess I’ve never read it but I’ve heard good things about Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Also the late Stephen Jay Gould wrote several books on the science behind the theory of evolution. He was often demonized by fundamentalists, so I’m thinking he might be just what you are looking for.

Well, FisherQueen welcome to the wonderful world of inquiry - where you read and learn and decide for yourself. You will make huge errors in judgment, but they will be your errors. I wish you luck in deciding what you yourself choose to believe while at the same time finding room in your heart for a spiritual life and faith - just because some religions co-opt those things and use them for sometimes bad purposed, doesn’t mean they can’t be used for good.

Where was I? Oh yeah, books to read -

  1. The basics - by this I mean the source books - Galileo’s Dialogo, Newton’s Principia, Darwin’s Origin, the whole nine yards - educational, but a tough slog.

  2. The Cartoon History of the Universe - a brilliant, comic-book-based discussion of the, well, history of the universe. A wonderful, insightful and well written place to start.

  3. An Incomplete Education - find the book on Amazon - basically a Cliff’s Notes (in a good way) of all the stuff that smart people or people who when to private school and then Oxford or Harvard or something seem to know about. Frankly, if you were to get Cartoon History and then read this, you could be off to a great start.

  4. It seems like what you would want most is books dealing with the origin of man and branches of science that come from that. But by the same token, there is value in reading books that address those issues in accessible ways. There are so many, but some that come to mind include the Tao of Physics by Capra(shows how the Big Questions asked by Scientists as they learn more about quantum mechanics and the origin of the Universe are strangely similar to the questions asked in Eastern religions), the Dancing Wu Li Masters by Zukav (similar in purpose to the Tao of Physics), Galileo’s Daughter - by Sobel, describes how Galileo learned about science and wrote about it in a way that angered the Catholic Church - puts his findings in perspective.

Books like A Brief History of Time that describe what we know about our Universe I find more impenetrable than not. Start with the ones I listed above and have fun exploring. Then make your own decisions.

Two places to start:

The Mathematical Tourist, by Ivars Peterson. Takes a detailed look at some fields where mathematicians are using computers to investigate problems that were off limits before the digital age. Fascinating stuff, doesn’t require you to know advanced math, lots of pretty pictures.

The Big Bang, by Joseph Silk. A great introductin to astophysics for beginners. Has some complicated particle physics but should be manageable. I like it because it explains not only what we know about the origins of the universe, but how we know it.

Richard Dawkins’ “The Blind Watchmaker” and “The Selfish Gene” are kinda old, but absolutely fascinating and easily accesible. Dawkins is not only a good scientist, but also a great writer. He explains things SO well. One reviewer comments that he has the ability to make the reader feel like a genius… It’s true. “The Blind Watchmaker” is about evolution, basically, and “The Selfish Gene” is about genes. I assume that as an ex-fundamentalist, you weren’t too big on either subject back in school.

I’ve got a really strange book called, The Science Class You Wish You Had by David Brody and Arnold Brody (Allen and Unwin, 1997).

It outlines in wonderfully simple language topics such as gravity and the laws of physics to the Big Bang, evolution and the human genome. I found mine in an op-shop and I don’t know how mainstream it ever got, but if you can manage to score a copy you’ll be doing really well.

I wouldn’t recommend Hawking as introductory science material, because even though his books were ostensibly written for the layperson, I have yet to meet anyone (without a basic scientific background) who has actually managed to read (esp) A Brief History of Time through AND understand it.

I agree with the Dawkins and the Gould recommendations though.

You could also try Paul Davies for some scientific philosophy that is easy to read and explains quite a bit of stuff about controversial issues such as the origins of the universe etc etc.

Good luck in your travels. :cool:

You might like to hit the used book store for a used biology textbook on your chosen level (high school, college level- whatever). I think you’ll find them a nice refresher and a good reference book.

I found this extremely helpful and a good springboard to some of the other books suggested here (and others).

Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is a good place to start. He isn’t a scientist. He is a very funny travel writer (one of my fave authors too), but he also had a desire to learn about science…so he decided to go to the source and write about the universe from the beginning to today. He spent several years talking to scientists and learning. He doesn’t pretend to know everything, but he knows enough. I have read many science books, and so he brought nothing wholly new to the table for me, but as always he writes in an amusing, intelligent, well-researched and easy-to-assimilate style that will absorb you into the world of science.

So, that is a good place to start.

I also reccommend another Dawkins: Unweaving the Rainbow, in which he answers a poem by Yeats that accuses science of unlocking the beauty of the rainbow by “unweaving” it and therefore somehow depleting it of its magic. Dawkins answers that scientist get into science because they see the same beauty in the world that a poet does, but they also want to know how that beauty actually works, so they can appreciate it intrinsically on even deeper levels.

One more to try: Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, in which he de-bunks all manner of pseudo-scietnific pursuits. Sagan’s writing style as always, is for the layman, and his subject matter in this book really is necessary for any ex-fundamentalist to review.

Hope that helped.

I’d also recommend some Jared Diamond books: Guns, Germs, and Steel has a really good combination of history and science, and The Third Chimpanzee has a more evolutionary bent.

I also recommend not staying too serious (e.g. you might not want to invest in textbooks, even used ones, they’re often too dry and poorly written), so I highly recommend Science Made Stupid which is, unfortunately, out of print. :frowning:

I also second the recommendation of Cartoon History of the Universe, but note that it doesn’t deal so much with science as with history. Gonick has also written The Cartoon Guide to Genetics and The Cartoon Guide to the Environment, which may be good fun intros to their respective sciences, but I haven’t read them.

kambuckta, the Brody book is one that I thought of in response to the OP. It’s not bad, though I’m not sure it quite lives up to its title.

Isaac Asimov wrote lots of very readable stuff on just about every part of science.

Another quite book is Godel, Escher Bach. It’s about the relationship between math, music, philosophy and a bunch of other stuff. It’s long (700+ pages), challenging but really well written.

If you like sex, then check out Dr Tatiana’s sex advice to all creation. It’s a biology textbook thinly disguised as a newspaper advice column.

I cannot emphasis how strongly I feel that you should read Carl Sagan’s books. Carl was one of those rare people who had a profound understanding of science and was a profoundly spiritual person. If you can get his “Cosmos” series (it is now out on DVD) you will be spiritually uplifted as well as begin a down the road to a real appreciation of science as being not just a collection of stale facts but a profoundly complete and satisfying world view which absolutely can more than replace religeon in your life.

I also highly recommend that you read Richard Feynman’s books. Dick Feynman was another true renaissance man who won a Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics. But he was also an artist, safecracker, and a musicians who loved bongo drums and had other unusual interests. One of his books is entitled What do you care what other people think? .

Both of these people have done much to popularize science and scientific thinking amoung lay people.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan is pretty good for evolution/creation stuff, as are The Triumph of Evolution: And the Failure of Creationism by Niles Eldredge and Science and Creationism edited by Ashley Montague. I would recommend the third one, since it is a collection of essays that run the gamit from easy & chatty to rather technical.

A good book, IMO, that addresses the question of just what the hell is science? is The Flight From Science and Reason edited by Gross, Levitt, & Lewis.

Sorry to say, but the language of the universe is mathematics and I tend to believe that your understanding of it will always be constrained by how much math you know. But that’s okay. You will always be learning what Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen, & Terry Pratchett call “lies to children.” Speaking of which, perhaps the first book I’d recommend is The Science of Discworld by the aforementioned authors.

A couple good general math books, or math related books, are…hmm. Flatterland by Ian Stewart is a good overview of mathematical spaces. The Cartoon Guide to Statistics is pretty good. Mathematics:The Science of Patterns by Keith Devlin is very good. I haven’t read Martin Gardner’s Colossal Book of Mathematics, but I bet it’s good. I would also recommend Euclid’s Window by Leonard Mlodinow.

If you can find a readable history of mathematics, I have one but I can’t find it right now, I’d recommend reading it.

That’s already too much.

Whee! I went to the library today and got as many as I could carry with my unfortunately sprained wrist. The whole world must agree about the merits of the Bryson book, because every copy in Cincinnati is checked out, but I put it on reserve.

I’ve spent the afternoon reading ‘Cartoon History of the Universe,’ and especially enjoyed the first few chapters, which is, of course, everything no one ever told me about the beginnings of the world.

Fascinating, and cool, and I admit to being amazed by the description of how and why single cells could gradually evolve into plants and animals. And also amazed by the discussion of the development of sex, and why it was the way it allowed different sets of genes to combine in new ways was so vital to everything that came later. But it made me wonder who figured all this out, and how, and what the evidence was, and how the details were worked out, so I guess I need to keep reading.

The bit about the dinosaurs was cool, too, but I got the impression that there was a lot more to know, so I’ll keep reading about that, too. There’s a book by Stephen Gould called ‘Dinosaur in a Haystack’ in my pile of library books.

I learned in church that Noah took baby dinosaurs on the ark (since the big ones wouldn’t have fit), but they gradually died out, that there were a few still alive in the Middle Ages (inspiring pictures and stories of dragons), and that there might well be some alive today, hiding. Yes, hiding. I actually remember an illustration I was shown in a church creation science class, of a cute cartoon dinosaur standing behind a tree waving mischievously while puzzled scientists with shovels stared at the ground, not seeing it. Laugh with me, if you like. Or laugh at me, if you have to, but some churches can do an enormous amount to isolate you from outside influences. You’d be amazed. Anyway, it’s my understanding that the idea of dinosaurs co-existing with people is utterly ridiculous, but I want to read more to find out exactly why it’s so ridiculous. I do see why the concept of them hiding behind trees is ridiculous. That’s just silly.

Anyway, thanks for all the suggestions, and feel free to keep 'em coming if you like. I’ll be going to the library again when I finish these…

Seconded. Give it a read, it’s a brilliant book and fairly easy to comprehend.

If anyone here laughs at you, then they don’t deserve to be here. As for laughing with you, I’m crying with tears of joy for you. Welcome to the big wide world.

Taking a slightly different spin on things, I’d say familiarize yourself with a bit of chemistry (the basic chapters on what an atom is, and the periodic table from any textbook or website) and then read Uncle Tungsten: Tales of a chemical boyhood by Oliver Sacks.

It isn’t really intended as an educational or textbook type of book, but its an autbiography of sorts that deals with the absolute fascination of learning about these atoms, these THINGS, that make up everything around us. It made me want to be a chemist (almost literally - I read it at the time that I was coming to realise that I prefer organic chemistry to biochemistry, and how I wish I had taken a more “pure chemistry” program at university and had a better chemical background!) I think it would reflect how you are discovering the world right now.

And while they can be dry, there is a lot to be said for having a basic chemistry, math and biology textbook around, just so you can read up on concepts you might not know about that you might come across in your other readings. If you are near a university, check out signs in the first couple of weeks of the semester for sales of textbooks that are no longer the newest edition - you can get them pretty inexpensively off a student desperate for enough money to last until summer!

Also. don’t be afraid of math and chemistry, or any of the sciences. They can be tough and confusing, but when you take the time and finally understand it - it is SO worthwhile!

Imo, for somebody who is largely unfamiliar not only with the body of work that “science” encompasses, but even its most basic principles and history (which is how I read the OP), a number of these books are, well, a bit “advanced” in that they assume a good bit of prior knowledge on the sake of the reader.

A very good book about the history of science (well, Cosmology and astronomy) is Timothy Ferris’ Coming of Age in the Milky Way.

Basic Books’ Science Masters series contains a number of excellent general introductions to various topics in the sciences by leading figures in each field, intended for the interested layman. All of those I’ve read (something more than half the titles) have been eminently readable and useful as foundations for additional study. I can particularly recommend:[ul]
[li]The Origin of the Universe, John D. Barrow[/li][li]The Origin of Humankind, Richard Leakey[/li][li]River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, Richard Dawkins[/li][li]Nature’s Numbers: The Unreal Reality of Mathematics, Ian Stewart[/li][li]Kinds Of Minds: Toward An Understanding Of Consciousness, Daniel C. Dennett[/li][li]How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now, William H. Calvin[/li][li]Why Is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality, Jared Diamond [/li][/ul]

P.W. Atkins’ The Periodic Kingdom was for me the least successful of the volumes in the series that I’ve read, but it’s probably still worth the effort, since it’s the only book in the series that deals with basic chemistry.

Once you’ve made it through those, William Calvin maintains a Bookshelf section on his web site that has more recommendations on it than I could reasonably expect to make it through in a lifetime, and I’ve never been seriously disappointed by anything that I’ve picked up based on his recommendations.

You can hardly go wrong with anything you pick up by Matt Ridley, Jonathan Weiner, Steven Pinker, Ernst Mayr, Antonio Damasio, or Daniel Dennett (though Dennett is more a philosopher than scientist, albeit a rigorous one). Do read Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs, and Steel, but also read Jonathan Marks’ What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee, which stands as a useful corrective to the worst tendencies of evolutionary biology/psychology/anthropology, and is fun to read if a little overwrought at times.

I’d also recommend Steve Jones’ Darwin’s Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated, which attempts to preserve the organization and structure of Darwin’s classic work while using the best arguments and evidence that have been amassed in the century and a half since The Origin of Species was first published.