Tuesday, June 9, 2009

accessible science reading

someone asked in the comments a while back if i could recommend some popular science books that are good for enthusiasts of many ages and backgrounds! i will only recommend books from the collection i've read, but i welcome people to leave suggestions and short reviews in the comments!

A Brief History of Time
by Stephen Hawking

i read this book soon after i started studying physics, so i didnt have a lot of technical background at the time. i thoroughly enjoyed most of the book, but the last part gets a bit more complex. its ok if you dont understand the last few chapters of most of these books.... the point is to get basic introductions, learn the lingo, and see how much deeper your understanding goes than it ever has before. if you make it all the way to the end feeling like you really get everything - then congratulations!!!

Black Holes and Time Warps
by Kip S. Thorne

i've gushed about this book before, but still completely recommend it for the sci-fi-story introduction and clear description of time, space, spacetime, and relativity on attainable levels.

Surely you are Joking, Mr Feynman
by Richard Feynman

feynman was an entertaining genius who enjoyed starting serious shenanigans wherever he went! in this book he shares some very interesting and often hilarious adventures that occurred as his curiosities about the way things worked got him into physics, and into trouble (like when he kept figuring out how to break the high security locks at los alamos scientific laboratory, for example)! interesting, entertaining, thought-provoking, and informative on several topics.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

sagan and druyan remind us how important it is to investigate problems based on evidence and think critically about issues, as they dissect pseudoscientific fantasies that seem to persist in the public's mind (silly oprah); alien abduction, channeling past lives, communal hallucinations, faith healing, etc...

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
by Edwin Abbott Abbott (yes, thats abbott-squared)

this little gem of scientific (and mathematical) fiction was brilliantly written in 1884!!! it's short, easy to read, includes adorable illustrations by the author and describes "the journeys of A. Square, a resident of Flatland, and his adventures in Spaceland (three dimensions), Lineland (one dimension) and Pointland (no dimensions). A. Square also entertains thoughts of visiting a land of four dimensions; a revolutionary idea for which he is banished from Spaceland."

The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe
by Steven Weinberg

i took a graduate course in cosmology from steven weinberg at the university of texas. i'm happy for the experience, eventhough it was an awful class! he should stick to science and writing about science, because he's much much better at those things than he is at teaching! regardless, this book is a good read about the modern day view of the very very beginning of our universe... it might be completely wrong, but its a relatively successful working theory, and the short book is a good read!

(UPDATE: since i made this list i read and enjoyed...)

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
by Mike Brown

i really enjoyed this short, cute book. mike tells his first-hand story of how he realized pluto should lose its status as an official planet. through this scientific tale, he shares the excitement of how astronomy, and science in general, is actually done.

there are also several suggestions at cosmic variance for mathematics reading for high school students!

alan boyle at msnbc shares his recommendations for all ages.

and if youre entirely too impatient to go find a book to read, here's a great online general relativity course by stanford professor lenny susskind. you probably need several undergrad math and physics courses to fully keep up, but he's a quality lecturer and its worth a little watch i think!

enjoy and please share your recommendations!


Anonymous said...

Aha! Thank you very much, Amanda, that's exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. I've read A Brief History of Time and got all the way through it, and (mostly) understood it. Also read Flatland - it is lovely isn't it! And Martin Gardner's The Ambidextrous Universe, way back in the late sixties when it still had the power to blow my mind. I shall ceratinly follow up the other suggestions, especially the Black Holes and Time Warps.

Viewtiful_Justin said...

Flatland has been in my reading queue for years...and I keep putting more books on top of it. Maybe I should just sit down and read it.

MikeS said...

I would add Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Ferris and Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos.

James Pickering said...

I read "Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynman" when I was in high school. Great read. Another Carl Sagan book is "Cosmos." Basically, a written version of the TV series. My grandmother bought if for me when I was 12 and I wore the pages out. Thank you for a great list. Now to add them to my new e-reader that I bought!

Anonymous said...

Alan Guth's Inflationary Universe is brilliant. It's basically a personal account of his work in inflation, very accessible and almost a real page-turner.

It would be really cool to have an online book club for science books - has anyone tried that?

Rik Gern said...

Natalie Angier's "The Canon" is a good overview of the various branches of science, but her writing style is too cute by half. I think that's because she's used to writing a column in the New York Times, and a light joke or two per article makes for a brisk read, but it gets annoying over the length of a book. Despite the caveat, the book is very informative.

Another book that isn't that well written, but contains a lot of good information is "The Evolutionists: The Struggle For Darwin's Soul" by Richard Morris. This book doesn't concern itself with the battles between evolutionary biologists and creationists and/or "ID" proponents; instead it details some of the controversies within evolutionary thinking. I find that much more interesting than another tedious, but necessary refutation of Ben Stein and his ilk!

For a book that is well written, challenging, and interesting, check out Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate". This is as lucid an exposition of the controversial theory of evolutionary psychology as you are likely to find.

Unknown said...

i dont know of any online scientific book clubs, but they must be around... anyone know? anyone want to start one?

i'm currently reading "a short history of nearly everything" by bill bryson. i really enjoy some parts, and find others a bit boring.

Rik Gern said...

That's funny, right after I left a comment I realized that I forgot to mention "A Short History Of Nearly Everything"!

Also forgot to mention Richard Dawkins' "Unweaving The Rainbow". I like nearly everything I've read by Dawkins, but I mention this one because a lot of people think of him as this über rationalist buzzkill, but in "Unweaving" he makes a great case for how a sense of awe, wonder and beauty can be enhanced by looking at the world from a scientific, rational perspective. I'd like all of my friends in the arts to read that book!

silent note said...

Einstein special theory of relativity is difficult to understand than general theory of relativity..

Matt said...

I thought that Brief History of Time was a bit of an evil book - the jumps between chapters were nonlinear for me, and it (wrongly) gave the impression to interested non-astronomers that they were stupid when they hit the later chapters.

Surely You're Joking! was a great book to read when I was younger, but reading Feynman's biography made me realize how desperately contrived that image was. Bongos! Crazy! Wacky! Genius!

Big votes for Black Holes and Time Warps (not afraid to use equations, yay!) and for Guth's book on inflation.

The real challenge for all popular science books is deciding at what point you break away from the equations and go for simplified explanations, saying "look, just trust me on this bit, okay?"

Invader Xan said...

I really liked "Hyperspace" by Michio Kaku. Trying to visualise 4-dimensional objects is a mindbender!

Also, "Stardust" by John Gribbin is a really nice plain English discussion of stellar lifecycles. :)

Bjoern said...

For people who have trouble with "A Brief History of Time", I recommend "The Creation of Matter: The Universe from Beginning to End" ny Harald Fritzsch. It covers many similar topics, and it is *much* easier to read! (IMO)