The best books on scientific discovery and what makes scientists tick

The Books I Picked & Why

Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist

By Richard Dawkins

Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist

Why 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.


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Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie

By Barbara Goldsmith

Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie

Why 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.


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

By Andrea Wulf

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

Why 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.


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

By Dava Sobel

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

Why 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.  


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Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

By Stephen Jay Gould

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

Why 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.  


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