The best books about history and science

The Books I Picked & Why

Unnatural Nature of Science

By Lewis Wolpert

Unnatural Nature of Science

Why 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.


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Europe: A Natural History

By Tim Flannery

Europe: A Natural History

Why 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.


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

By Tom Standage

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

Why 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.


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

By Jan Zalasiewicz

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

Why 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?


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On the Shoulders of Giants: The Post-Italianate Edition

By Robert K. Merton

On the Shoulders of Giants: The Post-Italianate Edition

Why 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.


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