I’ve developed an interest in science ever since graduating college, but sometimes I feel like I’m missing crucial elements of my education, partly because I was homeschooled. This summer, I hope to do a lot of catching up by (re)educating myself on basic scientific principles. Here’s what I’ll be reading:
1. A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking’s worldwide bestseller A Brief History of Time remains a landmark volume in scientific writing. But for years readers have asked for a more accessible formulation of its key concepts—the nature of space and time, the role of God in creation, and the history and future of the universe. This is Professor Hawking’s response. Although “briefer,” this book is much more than a mere explanation of Hawking’s earlier work. A Briefer History of Time both clarifies and expands on the great subjects of the original, and records the latest developments in the field—from string theory to the search for a unified theory of all the forces of physics.
2. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
How can we make intelligent decisions about our increasingly technology-driven lives if we don’t understand the difference between the myths of pseudoscience and the testable hypotheses of science? Pulitzer Prize-winning author and distinguished astronomer Carl Sagan argues that scientific thinking is critical not only to the pursuit of truth but to the very well-being of our democratic institutions. As Sagan demonstrates with lucid eloquence, the siren song of unreason is not just a cultural wrong turn but a dangerous plunge into darkness that threatens our most basic freedoms.
3. Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature by Brian Switek
Spectacular fossil finds make today’s headlines; new technology unlocks secrets of skeletons unearthed a hundred years ago. Still, evolution is often poorly represented by the media and misunderstood by the public. A potent antidote to pseudoscience, Written in Stone is an engrossing history of evolutionary discovery for anyone who has marveled at the variety and richness of life.
4. Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin
Why do we look the way we do? Neil Shubin, the paleontologist and professor of anatomy who co-discovered Tiktaalik, the “fish with hands,” tells the story of our bodies as you’ve never heard it before. By examining fossils and DNA, he shows us that our hands actually resemble fish fins, our heads are organized like long-extinct jawless fish, and major parts of our genomes look and function like those of worms and bacteria. Your Inner Fish makes us look at ourselves and our world in an illuminating new light.
5. The First Three Minutes: A Modern View Of The Origin Of The Universe by Steven Weinberg
This classic of contemporary science writing by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist explains to general readers what happened when the universe began, and how we know.
6. Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth… and Beyond by Lawrence M. Krauss
The story of matter and the history of the cosmos–from the perspective of a single oxygen atom–is told with the insight and wit of one of the most dynamic physicists and writers working today. Sample reviews: “A reader of this book will travel with the atom, and learn a great deal of modern particle physics, astrophysics and molecular biology”; “Even the least scientifically inclined will be able to comprehend the events that shaped the universe and which conspired to create our own solar system.”
7. Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh
A half century ago, a shocking Washington Post headline claimed that the world began in five cataclysmic minutes rather than having existed for all time; a skeptical scientist dubbed the maverick theory the Big Bang. In this amazingly comprehensible history of the universe, Simon Singh decodes the mystery behind the Big Bang theory, lading us through the development of one of the most extraordinary, important, and awe-inspiring theories in science.
8. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene
Brian Greene, one of the world’s leading string theorists, peels away the layers of mystery surrounding string theory to reveal a universe that consists of eleven dimensions, where the fabric of space tears and repairs itself, and all matter from the smallest quarks to the most gargantuan supernovas is generated by the vibrations of microscopically tiny loops of energy. In this brilliantly articulated and refreshingly clear book, Greene relates the scientific story and the human struggle behind twentieth-century physics’ search for a theory of everything.
9. The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People by Neil Shubin
How are the events that formed our solar system billions of years ago embedded inside each of us? Starting once again with fossils, Shubin turns his gaze skyward, showing us how the entirety of the universe’s fourteen-billion-year history can be seen in our bodies. As he moves from our very molecular composition (a result of stellar events at the origin of our solar system) through the workings of our eyes, Shubin makes clear how the evolution of the cosmos has profoundly marked our own bodies.
10. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
This landmark work of scientific and philosophical thought sets forth Charles Darwin’s pioneering theory of evolution and the interdependence of species. On the Origin of Species had an immediate and profound impact on the literature and ideas of his contemporaries. Without setting out to be controversial, Darwin became quite possibly the most revolutionary writer of the Victorian age, overturning the widely held religious and scientific beliefs of his time.
Have you read any of these? Are there any good books on science–particularly evolution and cosmology–that I’m missing?
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