The best books about history and science

Why am I passionate about this?

A lot of the books I write are about science or history, and Mr Darwin just happened to be about both: it was a history of science, as science was in 1859. People say the world changed after Darwin published, The Origin of Species in 1859, but Origin was a symptom not a cause. My book is a history of science that looks at how the world was changing (and shrinking) in the year 1859, as new specimens, new materials, new technologies, and new ideas came into play.


I wrote...

Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World

By Peter Macinnis,

Book cover of Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World

What is my book about?

In 1859 Charles Darwin's revolutionary The Origin of Species was first published—but the book was just another example of the ferment and change happening in that year. In that year scientists peered through microscopes and discovered the workings of tiny organisms; technology made huge leaps and bounds as machines took on tasks with a speed and consistency never before seen; the concepts of time and distance were themselves challenged as telegraph cables, train lines, and steamships crisscrossed the globe; and everything was illuminated as powerful telescopes looked to the heavens and gas lamps lit the streets. Mr Darwin's incredible shrinking world takes readers back to this amazing and innovative year.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Unnatural Nature of Science

Peter Macinnis Why did I love this book?

I spend a lot of my time trying to clarify the bilge poured out by the merchants of fake science: the flat-earthers, creationists, and climate deniers mainly, but also medical quacks and other fruitloops who throw out alternative science, stuff which is like normal science, with one small exception. I was already fighting these fights when Wolpert came to Sydney, and I chaired a lecture he gave. He showed us where the problem lay in combatting idiocy: the idiots depend on naïve and naked intuition.

Invariably, these unhinged pseudo-realities rely on a simple misreading of scientific lore, and Lewis explained that this is because a great deal of science is counter-intuitive. We can’t see evolution happening, the world looks flat, the sun appears to go around us, and common sense says that kinetic energy must be proportional to velocity, not it's square. Enter the simpleton who slept through a key science lesson, and a new brand of fake science oozes out into the world.

By Lewis Wolpert,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Unnatural Nature of Science as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How is it that nobody--except maybe scientists--sees science for what it is? In this entertaining and provocative book, Lewis Wolpert draws on the entire history of science, from Thales of Miletus to Watson and Crick, from the study of eugenics to the discovery of the double helix. The result is a scientist's view of the culture of science, authoritative and informed and at the same time mercifully accessible to those who find cohabiting with this culture a puzzling experience. Science is arguably the defining feature of our age. For anyone who hopes to understand its nature, this lively and thoughtful…


Book cover of Europe: A Natural History

Peter Macinnis Why did I love this book?

I have to deal, from time to time, with nervous would-be experts who have an abject fear of hybrid species in the sanctuary where I am a volunteer. One of the main lessons you take away from this ecological history is that hybrids drive a great deal of evolution, and trying to wipe out the hybrids is, in fact, an attempt to interfere with nature.

Looking at Europe as an evolutionary melting pot, we see that time and again, species migrated into the continent and were transformed, whether the immigrants were humans, elephants, or plane trees. Like all of Flannery’s books, Europe is food for thought, something to savour.

By Tim Flannery,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Europe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Vivid, thrilling, a delight ... Tim Flannery is a palaeontologist and ecologist of global standing, and this is a compelling and authoritative narrative of the evolution of Europe's flora and fauna, from the formation of the continent to its near future ... an exciting book, full of wonder' James McConnachie, Sunday Times

A place of exceptional diversity, rapid change, and high energy, Europe has literally been at the crossroads of the world ever since the interaction of Asia, North America and Africa formed the tropical island archipelago that would become the continent of today.

In this unprecedented evolutionary history, Tim…


Book cover of The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers

Peter Macinnis Why did I love this book?

I have no idea where I found this book, but it quietly snuffed out any plans I may have had to write a dedicated history of telegraphy. How could I ever match Standage’s tales of telegraphers sending each other jokes in down-time that were “smutty or anatomically explicit”, or how the telegraph stopped eloping couples from getting married at Gretna Green?

The simple fact is that I am fairly expert on 19th-century technology, and especially in the travails and effects of early telegraphy, but I knew none of this. It’s an entertaining eye-opener.

By Tom Standage,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Victorian Internet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A new paperback edition of the book the Wall Street Journal dubbed “a Dot-Com cult classic,” by the bestselling author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses-the fascinating story of the telegraph, the world's first “Internet.”

The Victorian Internet tells the colorful story of the telegraph's creation and remarkable impact, and of the visionaries, oddballs, and eccentrics who pioneered it, from the eighteenth-century French scientist Jean-Antoine Nollet to Samuel F. B. Morse and Thomas Edison. The electric telegraph nullified distance and shrank the world quicker and further than ever before or since, and its story mirrors and predicts…


Book cover of The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey Into Earth's Deep History

Peter Macinnis Why did I love this book?

I only ever picked up one year of geology in my first degree, but it was enough to send me off around the world in search of unusual rocks. Zalasiewicz, working on the pretty conceit of taking a single Welsh pebble, weighing about 50 grams, which will contain around a million million million million atoms, and then to see what we can learn of it, and its story.

This is totally accessible for the general reader, and full of quirky detail. Why not take an extremely long view of history, a 4.5-billion-year view?

By Jan Zalasiewicz,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Planet in a Pebble as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the story of a single pebble. It is just a normal pebble, as you might pick up on holiday - on a beach in Wales, say. Its history, though, carries us into abyssal depths of time, and across the farthest reaches of space.

This is a narrative of the Earth's long and dramatic history, as gleaned from a single pebble. It begins as the pebble-particles form amid unimaginable violence in distal realms of the Universe, in the Big Bang and in supernova explosions and continues amid the construction of the Solar System. Jan Zalasiewicz shows the almost incredible…


Book cover of On the Shoulders of Giants: The Post-Italianate

Peter Macinnis Why did I love this book?

I have had my copy since about 1972, when I was a penurious post-grad, and it lacks an ISBN, but it is based on a famous phrase that may or may not have been written by Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”, and it is an uproarious and undisciplined history of that phrase. Merton calls it a Shandean postscript, because there are parallels with the style of Tristram Shandy.

I am afraid (or so two of my more literate editors have assured me), Merton infected my own style to an extent, but you can just tell that he enjoyed telling a story, almost as though it came from Falstaff himself. Any would-be understander of science needs to read it, but if you cite it, don’t make the mistake of Charlesworth et al., who, in Life Among the Scientists, named it as On the Shoulders of Grants, even if most penurious post-grads and post-docs would nod their heads and agree.

By Robert K. Merton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On the Shoulders of Giants as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With playfulness and a large dose of wit, Robert Merton traces the origin of Newton's aphorism, "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Using as a model the discursive and digressive style of Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Merton presents a whimsical yet scholarly work which deals with the questions of creativity, tradition, plagiarism, the transmission of knowledge, and the concept of progress. "This book is the delightful apotheosis of donmanship: Merton parodies scholarliness while being faultlessly scholarly; he scourges pedantry while brandishing his own abstruse learning on every page. The most recondite and obscure…


You might also like...

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in philosophy, the Universe, and technology?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about philosophy, the Universe, and technology.

Philosophy Explore 1,579 books about philosophy
The Universe Explore 62 books about the Universe
Technology Explore 119 books about technology