The best books on how science actually works

Who am I?

I’m a Scientist in Residence at Lux Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in startups at the frontiers of science and technology. I have a PhD in computational biology and focused my academic research on the nature of complex systems, but I soon became fascinated by the ways in which science grows and changes over time (itself a type of complex system!): what it is that scientists do, where scientific knowledge comes from, and even how the facts in our textbooks become out-of-date. As a result of this fascination, I ended up writing two books about scientific and technological change.


I wrote...

The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date

By Samuel Arbesman,

Book cover of The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date

What is my book about?

Facts change all the time. Smoking has gone from doctor-recommended to deadly. We used to think the Earth was the center of the universe and that the brontosaurus was a real dinosaur. In short, what we know about the world is constantly changing.

I show how knowledge in most fields evolves systematically and predictably, and how this evolution unfolds in a fascinating way that can have a powerful impact on our lives. I explore a wide variety of fields, including those that change quickly, over the course of a few years, or over the span of centuries.

The books I picked & why

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Ignorance: How It Drives Science

By Stuart Firestein,

Book cover of Ignorance: How It Drives Science

Why this book?

This short and delightful book provides a window into how scientists actually work and think, and the degree to which not knowing something about the world is the true engine of scientific progress. Combining Firestein’s own research experiences with broader analysis and narratives from other scientists and the larger history of science, it is an essential guide to understanding the scientific mindset.


Little Science, Big Science

By Derek J. de Solla Price,

Book cover of Little Science, Big Science

Why this book?

As one of the first attempts to quantify how science grows and changes over time, this book is a gem and full of a wealth of provocative ideas. From charts on the growth of scientific journals to the power of particle accelerators, this book is even more impressive given the fact that it was first published in 1963, well before large datasets were able to be acquired and computationally analyzed.


Discovering: Inventing Solving Problems at the Frontiers of Scientific Knowledge

By Robert Root-Bernstein,

Book cover of Discovering: Inventing Solving Problems at the Frontiers of Scientific Knowledge

Why this book?

I remember reading this book probably about twenty years ago, and it has a great deal of insight into how to understand the scientific process, both in how it is carried out as well as how scientists can get better at discovery. Written primarily in the form of a dialogue between a set of archetypical characters and informed by a huge amount of work into the history and sociology of science, it takes the reader through how to understand creativity in science.


Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything

By Philip Ball,

Book cover of Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything

Why this book?

Primarily a historical work, this book explores how curiosity went from a kind of strange and disreputable act to something that became celebrated and tamed as part of the scientific process. With a focus on the early days of modern science, it is filled with a huge number of delightful examples of what passed for curiosity in previous centuries.


The Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World

By Neal Stephenson,

Book cover of The Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World

Why this book?

This is a trilogy of historical fiction about, among many other things, the invention of the modern monetary system and the Scientific Revolution. Yes, it’s a heavy lift, as it’s nearly three thousand pages long, but it’s an incredible read. And if you want to get a sense of the sheer weirdness of the early days of science—both the people involved in it, as well as the ideas that they were playing with—these books are absolutely fantastic.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in science, the scientific revolution, and philosophy?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about science, the scientific revolution, and philosophy.

Science Explore 134 books about science
The Scientific Revolution Explore 4 books about the scientific revolution
Philosophy Explore 323 books about philosophy

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Birth of Intelligence, The True Creator of Everything, and Catching Fire if you like this list.