The best books of narrative merit in mathematics and science

Who am I?

Meaningful communications with people through life, books, and films have always given me a certain kind of mental nirvana of being transported to a place of delight. I see fine writing as an informative and entertaining conversation with a stranger I just met on a plane who has interesting things to say about the world. Books of narrative merit in mathematics and science are my strangers eager to be met. For me, the best narratives are those that bring me to places I have never been, to tell me things I have not known, and to keep me reading with the feeling of being alive in a human experience.


I wrote...

The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time

By Joseph Mazur,

Book cover of The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time

What is my book about?

The Clock Mirage explores how the human understanding of time evolved into 21st-century conceptions of how our cells have a temporal awareness guided by environmental cues in sync with circadian rhythms and patterns of social interactions. It’s a narrative punctuated by personal stories of time’s effects on astronauts on the International Space Station, long-haul truck drivers, Olympic racers, and prisoners in solitary confinement. It’s a journey filled with insights into how our technologies, bodies, and attitudes can change our perceptions. Ultimately, time reveals itself as something that rides on the rhythms of our minds.

The book presents a perspective on rethinking our relationship with time and how to use it. I believe it is, as a Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review put it, “A thought-provoking voyage.”

The books I picked & why

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Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry

By Ian Stewart,

Book cover of Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry

Why this book?

This book is a brilliant interweaving of politics, history, and intrigue, with characters living ordinary lives, described in the spirit of a Russian novel. With one story threading into another, the book moves us forwards. We fly over the tall mountains, misty valleys, and green fields of current abstract maths and fundamental physics to witness the true beauties of truth. And in the end, Stewart confesses: “No one could have predicted that a pedantic question about equations could reveal the deep structure of the physical world, but that is exactly what's happened.”

As with many of Stewart’s books, Why Beauty is Truth is a joy to read. It brings us through current material with ease of understanding and out oversimplifying. I love the way Stewart uses tangible examples to describe the fundamental forces of nature as he escorts us with clarity through so many eloquent connections between mathematics and physics. It is a book about symmetry, but so much more. With stories threading through each other, we learn about the ordinary lives of mathematicians and scientists with a braided by politics, history, and intrigue, as well as the fascinating connections between mathematics and the scientific structures of the natural world. 

Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry

By Ian Stewart,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Why Beauty Is Truth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the heart of relativity theory, quantum mechanics, string theory, and much of modern cosmology lies one concept: symmetry. In Why Beauty Is Truth , world-famous mathematician Ian Stewart narrates the history of the emergence of this remarkable area of study. Stewart introduces us to such characters as the Renaissance Italian genius, rogue, scholar, and gambler Girolamo Cardano, who stole the modern method of solving cubic equations and published it in the first important book on algebra, and the young revolutionary Evariste Galois, who refashioned the whole of mathematics and founded the field of group theory only to die in…


Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science

By Robyn Arianrhod,

Book cover of Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science

Why this book?

For me, this book was an adventure. I felt as if I was on an expedition to Virginia with Harriot teaching me astronomy and navigation. There I was, infatuated with rainbows and imagining myself scrutinizing scientific wonders of elliptical planetary motion, atomic theory of matter, and how cannonballs could be stacked to fill space. I found myself with Harriot back in 1591 searching for a sphere-packing formula, an old problem questioning the most stable way to stack cannonballs on ships. Thomas Harriot is a fast-moving biography packed with the world- and mind-changing curiosities.

Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science

By Robyn Arianrhod,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Thomas Harriot (1560-1621) was a pioneer in both the figurative and literal sense. Navigational adviser and loyal friend to Sir Walter Ralegh, Harriot took part in the first expedition to colonize Virginia. Not only was he responsible for getting Ralegh's ships safely to harbor in the New World, once there he became the first European to acquire a working knowledge of an indigenous language (he also began a lifelong love of tobacco, which may have been his undoing).
Harriot's abilities were seemingly unlimited and nearly awe-inspiring. He was the first to use a telescope to map the moon's craters, and,…


Great Circles: The Transits of Mathematics and Poetry

By Emily Rolfe Grosholz,

Book cover of Great Circles: The Transits of Mathematics and Poetry

Why this book?

Great Circles is a unique tale of the life and works of mathematicians, scientists, philosophers, poets, and other literary figures. It is collections of circles of thoughts and implications that return on themselves as if they are gravitationally attached to some core red dwarf of universal meaning.  

I loved reading this book. One moment I was into the math, and in the next, I was immersed in a relevant poem or was personality attached to some math or a philosophical thought about a connection of a poem with the math. It was a ride more than a read. It is a calming cognitive exercise on tour through and between chapters – mind wandering not permitted-- with a smooth comfort of thought as if Grosholz is in the room (or perhaps in your brain) reading and guiding.  

The poetry is gripping and wonderfully placed between the appropriate background materials. 

Great Circles: The Transits of Mathematics and Poetry

By Emily Rolfe Grosholz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This volume explores the interaction of poetry and mathematics by looking at analogies that link them. The form that distinguishes poetry from prose has mathematical structure (lifting language above the flow of time), as do the thoughtful ways in which poets bring the infinite into relation with the finite. The history of mathematics exhibits a dramatic narrative inspired by a kind of troping, as metaphor opens, metonymy and synecdoche elaborate, and irony closes off or shifts the growth of mathematical knowledge.

The first part of the book is autobiographical, following the author through her discovery of these analogies, revealed by…


The Best of All Possible Worlds: Mathematics and Destiny

By Ivar Ekeland,

Book cover of The Best of All Possible Worlds: Mathematics and Destiny

Why this book?

Ekeland’s book is an entwinement of philosophical views of scientists with metaphysics dealing with nature’s directives. It’s an embroidery of lively anecdotes involving illustrious individuals and great historical moments of human decisions. We go through the Peloponnesian Wars, Venetian concessions to the Hapsburg emperor Maximilian, Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos, and other enriching accounts. His explanations are clear, elegant, fluid, exhilarating, and suspenseful, reminding me of the effortless style of Richard Feynman. While reading, I felt compelled by a force of nature and purpose to learn about the best of all possible worlds.   

The Best of All Possible Worlds: Mathematics and Destiny

By Ivar Ekeland,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Best of All Possible Worlds as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Optimists believe this is the best of all possible worlds. And pessimists fear that might really be the case. But what is the best of all possible worlds? How do we define it? This question has preoccupied philosophers and theologians for ages, but there was a time, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when scientists and mathematicians felt they could provide the answer. This book is their story. Ivar Ekeland here takes the reader on a journey through scientific attempts to envision the best of all possible worlds. He begins with the French physicist Maupertuis, whose least action principle, Ekeland…


Number: The Language of Science

By Tobias Dantzig,

Book cover of Number: The Language of Science

Why this book?

More than any other, this book influenced me most about wanting to study mathematics. Of course, I was young at the time and strongly partial to Einstein’s remark, “This is beyond doubt the most interesting book on the evolution of mathematics which has ever fallen into my hands.” Many years later, when I exhaustively tried to find the book in any bookstore I passed, it was out of print. So I suggested it to my publisher, who immediately acquired the rights and republished it under my editing guidelines. It is the quintessential lure into mathematics for readers of any age.   

Number: The Language of Science

By Tobias Dantzig,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Beyond doubt the most interesting book on the evolution of mathematics which has ever fallen into my hands."—Albert Einstein

Number is an eloquent, accessible tour de force that reveals how the concept of number evolved from prehistoric times through the twentieth century.  Renowned professor of mathematics Tobias Dantzig shows that the development of math—from the invention of counting to the discovery of infinity—is a profoundly human story that progressed by “trying and erring, by groping and stumbling.” He shows how commerce, war, and religion led to advances in math, and he recounts the stories of individuals whose breakthroughs expanded the…


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