Monday, February 05, 2007

The Great Science Book Challenge

So I've recently become inspired by Mrs. Apaprent-dip-but-with-a-different-last name. She has also started blogging, she is a humanities person (humanitite? that sounds like a mineral, I like it), and has become involved with various online challenges, basically reading X number of books from category Y in time amount Z. Considering my recent posts putting forth my belief that geology needs good public outreach folks, she suggested I start a similar sort of challenge. The idea is that I will come up with 5 science books written for non-scientists that I will read and blog about in the space of a year. 5 books in a year, I know, big challenge, it may go more quickly, but I didn't want to make it impossible, and I want as many people to join me as can. 5 books in a year, that's a little under 1 book every two months, which means I can do this at my normal "non work related reading" clip, just that the selections will be more focused. This seems reasonable (even considering my recent pushes to finish up papers and prepare for a field season). What I would like advice on though are books to read. The ground rules:

  1. It must not be a text-book or overly technical treatment, it should be something intended for a more general audience, something you could find in a well stocked bookstore.
  2. At the same time, it can't be lame. I know that word can mean lots of things, but I want works that are "dense," not picture books or coffee table books.
  3. I'd prefer at least 2 of the 5 to be geology or earth science related, the other 3 could be any other branch of science.
  4. I'd like most of them to be relatively recent books, in other words, I don't want this to be a tour of the classic science texts of yesteryear.
  5. No biographies. As much as I like those, I want the main purpose of the book to be explaining or exposing some aspect of science.
  6. No wilderness manifestos. I love reading Ed Abbey, but it isn't what I am looking for right now.

So I have an idea of some books that fit this bill. I have already read them, but they may give you a good idea of what I mean.

  1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. This is one of the best books, let along science books, I have ever read. It is fat and intimidating, but impossible to put down.
  2. The Age of the Earth by Brent Dalrymple. This book grew out of material he had prepared for a court case, and therefore aimed at people with no background. Still, as a geochronologist, I found it complete and fascinating.
  3. A Beast the Color of Winter by Douglas Chadwick. This is a natural history of mountain goats. In college I was lucky enough to work on a field project in northern British Columbia. We spent a lot of time in remote camps, high in the coast ranges. I was, and still am amazed by Mountain Goats, and how stupid and timid they made me look trekking around in the mountains. This book was a surprising read for me, I originally bought it hoping for good goat pictures, but the way he describes the goats is just amazing. This book also begins with one of my favorite quotes :
"It is only a statement of physical fact to say: Mountains are as close as the surface of our planet reaches towards the heavens. The purest air, the purest water, and the purest light on earth are found among these great uplifted forms."

Excellent, let's see what kind of a list we can generate, pass this along to anyone you can think of, at the very least, even if no one else wants to join the challenge, it would be great for me to compile a list of books that we professional scientists consider to be among the best.

So here is where you come in. First, I solicit volunteers to join me, with a start date of March 1. Second, I need suggestions for books, I don't care what discipline, just let me know what you consider to be the best science writing around.


CJR said...

Richard Fortey's Earth: An Intimate History is my first thought - it's been on my to read list for a while, and it's apparently pretty good (he's also written a couple of other good books)

CJR said...

Other thoughts which popped into my head in the lab:

The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Collapse or Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Brian said...

I have an obsession with reading popular science books about complexity theory/complex systems, chaos, nonlinear dynamics, etc. etc.

I've been wanting to create a list of these and write something about them anyway...but i guess this is more about reading books we haven't read?

Thermochronic said...

Well, even if you have read them, I'd love the suggestions. I will compile them on my sidebar if I get enough.

Loose Baggy Monster said...

This is not geology related, but here's a book that I thought you should definitely read, given your love of music AND science. It's called "This is Your Brain on Music" by David Levitin. This might have to go on my non-fiction list. Even Kirkus Reviews liked it and they tend to not like anybody!!

"Ain't From Around Here" said...

A GREAT one is by Bill Bryson, called "A Short History of Nearly Everything". It references the original SHRIMP, so that gives some indication of how awesome it is. Seriously, it should be required reading for every human being on the planet. Just read it. It should be the first, because it starts with the atom, but gets through the Democritus crap quite quickly. Plus, there are some gems as far as stories for teacing science - my favorite is the guy that came up with adding lead to gasoline also invented CFC's.... great.

Make it number 1. It's perfect. There is an edition that is illustrated, in case you are a visual learner, and corrected by real scientists. It rocks and is a tribute to the physical sciences.

"Ain't From Around Here" said...

Another awesome book that is a narrative is "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn. It is a great example of teaching ecology/environmental science by a gorilla. In the spirit of Field of Dreams (honestly- who thought a movie about Golden Age baseball players coming out of a cornfield would be good), its an artful and brilliant incarnation of the wisdom of a gorilla and the socratic teaching method. I've been meaning to read it again since college. Truly brilliant work.

Brian said...

I'm nearly done with "Thin Ice" written by Mark Bowen, which is essentially about Lonnie Thompson, a paleoclimate researcher at Ohio State. He and colleagues were the first, and still most active, in drilling ice cores on alpine glaciers at low latitudies (as opposed to larger ice caps near poles).

There'a bunch of climate science in there but also a lot of stories of field work adventures and mishaps. Anyone who has done field work will be able to relate.

Brian said...

I've also recently finished "The Singularity is Near" by Ray Kurzweil, which is a mix of futurism, science/technology, and fate of the universe. It gets rather philosophical and is a great read. Essentially, he argues that the technological changes we are going through as a species/civilization in the last few thousand years is part of evolution...the ultimate fate is to have human intelligence saturate the universe. Yikes!

Yami McMoots said...

My endodontist's assistant just recommended Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded by Simon Winchester. There's also A Crack in the Edge of the World, which she said was not as good / more sciencey.

Ayisha said...
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