Five Science-y Books…

Books on science can normally be sorted into one of two categories. The bad tend to be very complicated, using all sorts of exclusionary language, poorly explained abstract concepts and weird graphs. The good, however, manage to draw the reader into a world which would normally take the better part of a decade’s worth of schooling to be a part of.

Below, in no particular order, are five examples of good, even great, science books — all of which are accessible and entertaining. These represent some of the best science literature I have found, and are all available at libraries on the University of Manitoba campus and Winnipeg Public Libraries. Regardless of your scientific credentials, I strongly encourage you to add at least one of these books to your summer reading list.

A Brief History of Time (1988)
By Stephen Hawking

A Brief History of Time is the definitive book in accessible, or popular science. In it Hawking takes readers into the world of theoretical physics, from black holes to the big bang, and although it explores some pretty abstract concepts, Hawking always manages to remain grounded, building on the reader’s knowledge in a way that is both progressive and entertaining. While the material can be challenging at times, the reward this book offers is well worth the effort as it will, at best, change your perception of the universe in which we live. At worst, it will make you seem a whole lot more intelligent at parties.

A Short History of Nearly Everything (2004)
By Bill Bryson

As the title suggests, A Short History of Nearly Everything explores almost every corner of science history, from paleontology and geography to genetics and chemistry. However, Bryson takes the unique approach of putting the discoveries on the back burner, choosing instead to focus on the lives of the men and women behind the science. The book is chock-full of hilarious and often shocking anecdotes about what must be some of history’s strangest people. From the taxonomist who believed in tasting each animal he described, to the story of Newton coming up with his theory of planetary motion on a bet, A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of those books you’ll stay up until three in the morning reading.

Freakonomics (2005)
By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

While not strictly a scientific discipline, the study of economics does deal with a lot of mathematics and statistics, and for that reason I’ll include Freakonomics in this list. Levitt and Dubner explore the world of statistics and how seemingly ordinary studies can be used to find the relationship between a whole host of apparently unrelated things. The authors cover controversial subjects such as if the legalization of abortion in the 1970s was responsible for the decline in crime in the 1990s, to the seemingly obvious question of whether a child’s intelligence is proportional to the number of books in their home. Some of the relationships Levitt and Dubner describe will shock you, others will make you laugh out loud, but all are fascinating and will change your opinion of statistics and economists forever.

Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History (2003)
By Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson

Don’t let the word ‘molecules’ in the subtitle scare you away from this book, Napoleon’s Buttons, like A Short History of Nearly Everything, takes you behind the scenes on a personal guided tour through the history of things we use every day, such as sugar, birth control pills and salt. While a prior knowledge of chemistry might help readers understand some of the more complex ideas in the book, such as chirality (electromagnetics), it is by no means a necessity. Indeed, this book oozes captivating stories both about the scientists behind the chemistry and history of the molecules being investigated.

The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring (2007)
By Richard Preston

Many of us climbed trees as children. Some of us even pushed the limits of safety by climbing 10s of feet into the unknown. Now imagine climbing into the canopy of a 100-metre-tall redwood and you will begin to understand what Preston went through in order to gather experiences for his book. In The Wild Trees Preston follows the paths of several scientists driven to find, and climb, the world’s tallest tree. The stories of the men and women featured in the book are told in the third person, forcing Preston to speculate on the thoughts of the individuals, and creating the interesting experience of reading a non-fiction book with the feeling of a novel. The amazing stories of swinging through canopies hundreds of metres in the air, and the unique style lends a human quality to the subject of forest ecology.