The best books on scientific discovery and what makes scientists tick

Who am I?

I’m a geoscientist and writer, and ever since my childhood explorations of the ponds, creeks, cliffs and forests of my native Ontario I’ve been fascinated with the natural world. During my PhD studies and subsequent academic career I’ve been fortunate to experience the thrill of experiment and discovery, and I’m passionate about communicating the wonders of science to others. I try to do that in my own books. Those I’ve recommended here, in my opinion, do it superbly. 


I wrote...

Endless Novelties of Extraordinary Interest: The Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger and the Birth of Modern Oceanography

By Doug Macdougall,

Book cover of Endless Novelties of Extraordinary Interest: The Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger and the Birth of Modern Oceanography

What is my book about?

My most recent book, Endless Novelties, is about adventure and scientific discovery during the three-and-a-half-year long Challenger expedition of the 1870s, which set out with the aim – no less – of determining the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of the world’s oceans, with particular attention to the deep sea (the title comes from a phrase the expedition’s scientific director used to describe what they might find).

I examine the factors that drove the small band of ceaselessly curious scientists on board Challenger (numbering only six, and embedded with more than 250 British Navy personnel who ran the ship) to leave their comfortable lives in Britain and embark on a long, difficult, and sometimes dangerous sea voyage. I explore their triumphs and hardships, their humor in the face of adversity, and most of all the discoveries they made by dredging up strange materials and creatures from the seafloor, and examining the biology of remote oceanic islands.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist

Doug Macdougall Why did I love this book?

This book is a collection of essays, letters, and lectures about the intrinsic value, importance, and beauty of science by one of its most talented and passionate communicators. Dawkins’s clear and often witty treatment of complex scientific issues is a breath of fresh air in this time of misinformation and ‘fake news.’ He writes primarily about biology, his own specialty, but ranges widely from ecology to evolution to genetics and even life beyond planet earth. Throughout, his incisive prose conveys the thrill and wonder of scientific discovery.

By Richard Dawkins,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Richard Dawkins - author of The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and The God Delusion - is one of science's greatest communicators. This anthology of more than forty pieces is a kaleidoscopic argument for the power and the glory of science.

Breathtaking, brilliant and passionate, these essays, journalism, lectures and letters make an unanswerable case for the wonder of scientific discovery and its power to stir the imagination; for the practical necessity of scientific endeavour to society; and for the importance of the scientific way of thinking - particularly in today's 'post-truth' world.

With an…


Book cover of Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie

Doug Macdougall Why did I love this book?

The ‘obsessive genius’ of the title is Marie Curie, the only woman to have won two Nobel Prizes. I love Goldsmith’s book because it humanizes Curie, starting with her childhood in Poland and progressing to her determination to someday become a scientist, the difficulties she faced as a woman seeking an education in Poland at the end of the nineteenth century, and finally the combination of serendipity, enduring curiosity and fierce determination that led to her groundbreaking discoveries about radioactivity, a word she is credited with coining.

By Barbara Goldsmith,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Through family interviews, diaries, letters, and workbooks that had been sealed for over sixty years, Barbara Goldsmith reveals the Marie Curie behind the myth-an all-too-human woman struggling to balance a spectacular scientific career, a demanding family, the prejudice of society, and her own passionate nature. Obsessive Genius is a dazzling portrait of Curie, her amazing scientific success, and the price she paid for fame.


Book cover of The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt's New World

Doug Macdougall Why did I love this book?

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a scientific superstar in his day, a prolific communicator of the wonders and workings of the natural world, a friend of Goethe and Thomas Jefferson, and an inspirer of Charles Darwin and John Muir. Wulf’s book about this fascinating scientist is an engaging and thoroughly readable account of his quest to understand nature, a quest that took him across Russia to Siberia, across the Atlantic from Europe to the Caribbean, and into South America and the Andes. Wulf’s prose brings to life Humboldt’s sense of awe before nature, and his intense curiosity and drive to draw connections between what were (especially in his time) thought of as disparate aspects of our planet, such as the link between climate and vegetation, or the harmful effects of agriculture on ecology and the environment.

By Andrea Wulf,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Invention of Nature as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE 2015 COSTA BIOGRAPHY AWARD

WINNER OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY SCIENCE BOOK PRIZE 2016

'A thrilling adventure story' Bill Bryson

'Dazzling' Literary Review

'Brilliant' Sunday Express

'Extraordinary and gripping' New Scientist

'A superb biography' The Economist

'An exhilarating armchair voyage' GILES MILTON, Mail on Sunday

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is the great lost scientist - more things are named after him than anyone else. There are towns, rivers, mountain ranges, the ocean current that runs along the South American coast, there's a penguin, a giant squid - even the Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.

His colourful adventures read…


Book cover of The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

Doug Macdougall Why did I love this book?

Beginning late in the 19C the Harvard Observatory employed a group of female assistants from a wide variety of backgrounds to work in the laboratory; they were sometimes referred to as ‘human computers.’ They were all fascinated by the stars and good at mathematics, and their task, initially, was to use images taken through telescopes to locate stars precisely and measure their brightness. Later, again using images recorded on glass photographic plates (hence the book’s title) they began to classify stars based on their spectra – essentially determining their chemical composition. Sobel’s wonderful book highlights the thrill of discovery and chronicles the amazing advances made by these women, one of whom eventually became the first female professor of astronomy at Harvard.  

By Dava Sobel,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Glass Universe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Dava Sobel, the "inspiring" (People), little-known true story of women's landmark contributions to astronomy

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book

Named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Economist, Smithsonian, Nature, and NPR's Science Friday

Nominated for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

"A joy to read." -The Wall Street Journal

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or "human computers," to interpret the observations their male counterparts made via telescope each night. At the outset this group included the…


Book cover of Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

Doug Macdougall Why did I love this book?

This book has special resonance for me as a geoscientist, because it relates to events from deep in geological history, more than half a billion years ago. It is also a quintessential story of scientific discovery. Gould, in his inimitable style, writes about a unique assemblage of fossils in a rock formation in British Columbia called the Burgess Shale, and how these fossils transformed ideas about the evolution of life on earth. The anatomically bizarre and truly wonderful fossils are part of what is known as the Cambrian explosion, the sudden appearance in the fossil record of wholly new and unexpected life forms. Gould’s sense of awe for both the organisms and the scientists who painstakingly extracted their secrets is evident.  

By Stephen Jay Gould,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Wonderful Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

High in the Canadian Rockies is a small limestone quarry formed 530 million years ago called the Burgess Shale. It hold the remains of an ancient sea where dozens of strange creatures lived-a forgotten corner of evolution preserved in awesome detail. In this book Stephen Jay Gould explores what the Burgess Shale tells us about evolution and the nature of history.


You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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