The best books for seeing science differently

Mark S. Blumberg Author Of Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution
By Mark S. Blumberg

Who am I?

Even though I am a scientist who has written over 130 scientific articles, I have a longstanding passion for scientific books that are written for non-scientists. I love books about science, no matter how distant they are from my area of expertise. To me, the best science books convey the excitement of science and scientific thinking in an accessible manner, but without pandering or dumbing things down. My favorite books tackle big ideas and respect the reader’s intelligence. My choices here reflect my core interests in biology, evolution, and behavior—and the aesthetics of science, too. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.


I wrote...

Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution

By Mark S. Blumberg,

Book cover of Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution

What is my book about?

In most respects, Abigail and Brittany Hensel are normal American twins. Born and raised in a small town, they enjoy a close relationship, though each has her own tastes and personality. But the Hensels also share a body. Their two heads sit side-by-side on a single torso, with two arms and two legs. Abigail and Brittany, and others like them, open an extraordinary window onto human—and animal—development and evolution. 

In Freaks of Nature, Blumberg turns a scientist's eye on the oddities of nature, showing how a subject once relegated to the sideshow can help explain some of the deepest complexities of biology. What we need to understand, Blumberg argues, is that anomalies are the natural products of development, and it is through developmental mechanisms that evolution works. 

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to Be as They Are.

By Henry Petroski,

Book cover of The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to Be as They Are.

Why this book?

If you are interested in understanding the roots of human invention, this is your book. Too often we attribute inventions—and the creative spark underlying them — to a mysterious force or a special gift. In this book, Henry Petroski, an engineer, shows us the process by which inventions come about. That process is an evolutionary one that often relies on trial and error. Petroski illustrates his ideas and develops his themes using the most mundane of objects, such forks, paper clips, and zippers. If even such seemingly simple objects evolved, what must that say about computers, rockets, and even humans?

The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to Be as They Are.

By Henry Petroski,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Evolution of Useful Things as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

   How did the table fork acquire a fourth tine?  What advantage does the Phillips-head screw have over its single-grooved predecessor? Why does the paper clip look the way it does? What makes Scotch tape Scotch?

   In this delightful book Henry, Petroski takes a microscopic look at artifacts that most of us count on but rarely contemplate, including such icons of the everyday as pins, Post-its, and fast-food "clamshell" containers.  At the same time, he offers a convincing new theory of technological innovation as a response to the perceived failures of existing products—suggesting that irritation, and not necessity, is the mother…


Scaling: Why Is Animal Size So Important?

By Knut Schmidt-Nielsen,

Book cover of Scaling: Why Is Animal Size So Important?

Why this book?

The diverse, complex world of animals can seem chaotic. But we can bring order to this chaos by looking for grand principles that simplify and explain. One such grand principle concerns the foundational role of body size in shaping animal biology: From our skeletons to our use of energy to our longevity, size matters! And no one was better able to explain the importance of size in simple, straightforward terms than the inimitable physiologist, Knut Schmidt-Nielsen. This is a must-have book for anyone with even a passing interest in the diversity of life on our planet.  

Scaling: Why Is Animal Size So Important?

By Knut Schmidt-Nielsen,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This book is about the importance of animal size. We tend to think of animal function in chemical terms and talk of water, salts, proteins, enzymes, oxygen, energy, and so on. We should not forget, however, that physical laws are equally important, for they determine rates of diffusion and heat transfer, transfer of force and momentum, the strength of structures, the dynamics of locomotion, and other aspects of the functioning of animal bodies. Physical laws provide possibilities and opportunities for an organism, yet they also impose constraints, setting limits to what is physically possible. This book aims to give an…

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte

By Edward R. Tufte,

Book cover of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte

Why this book?

It’s one thing to do science. It’s another thing entirely to communicate science. But scientific communication is much more than just about words. Science is also a visual pursuit, and this indispensable and elegantly constructed book tells you how to be an effective visual communicator of information. But also, the principles that Tufte explains and explores are valuable to anyone who must present information in visual form to others. This is a classic book that you will take down from your shelf and read—and admire—over and over again.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte

By Edward R. Tufte,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The classic book on statistical graphics, charts, tables. Theory and practice in the design of data graphics, 250 illustrations of the best (and a few of the worst) statistical graphics, with detailed analysis of how to display data for precise, effective, quick analysis. Design of the high-resolution displays, small multiples. Editing and improving graphics. The data-ink ratio. Time-series, relational graphics, data maps, multivariate designs. Detection of graphical deception: design variation vs. data variation. Sources of deception. Aesthetics and data graphical displays. This is the second edition of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. This edition provides excellent color reproductions of…

The Century of the Gene

By Evelyn Fox Keller,

Book cover of The Century of the Gene

Why this book?

Genes have variously been described as selfish and controlling—as providing a blueprint or a program for development—as even “the cell’s brain”. These descriptions of genes get in the way of our understanding of what genes actually do—and what they don’t (and cannot) do. Evelyn Fox Keller provides an antidote to the simplistic notions of genes that permeate our society and infect our scientific discourse. She carefully walks us through the history of the field and provides us with a much more realistic view of the intricacies of DNA. By the end of this marvelous book, you may not even think that genes are a thing at all.

The Century of the Gene

By Evelyn Fox Keller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Century of the Gene as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a book that promises to change the way we think and talk about genes and genetic determinism, Evelyn Fox Keller, one of our most gifted historians and philosophers of science, provides a powerful, profound analysis of the achievements of genetics and molecular biology in the twentieth century, the century of the gene. Not just a chronicle of biology's progress from gene to genome in one hundred years, The Century of the Gene also calls our attention to the surprising ways these advances challenge the familiar picture of the gene most of us still entertain. Keller shows us that the…

Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution

By Susan Oyama (editor), Paul E. Griffiths (editor), Russell D. Gray (editor)

Book cover of Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution

Why this book?

If you are interested in the interplay of development and evolution, this collection of essays will introduce you to all the key concepts by many of the key thinkers. This is a collection for serious readers who want to appreciate the complexity underlying such concepts as instinct and heredity. Many of these essays are the classics in the field. My favorite? Daniel Lehrman’s takedown of Konrad Lorenz from 1953. That one essay alone, brimming with the passion of a young iconoclast, is worth the price of admission.

Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution

By Susan Oyama (editor), Paul E. Griffiths (editor), Russell D. Gray (editor)

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The nature/nurture debate is not dead. Dichotomous views of development still underlie many fundamental debates in the biological and social sciences. Developmental systems theory (DST) offers a new conceptual framework with which to resolve such debates. DST views ontogeny as contingent cycles of interaction among a varied set of developmental resources, no one of which controls the process. These factors include DNA, cellular and organismic structure, and social and ecological interactions. DST has excited interest from a wide range of researchers, from molecular biologists to anthropologists, because of its ability to integrate evolutionary theory and other disciplines without falling into…

3 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in genetics, nature versus nurture, and science?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about genetics, nature versus nurture, and science.

Genetics Explore 28 books about genetics
Nature Versus Nurture Explore 14 books about nature versus nurture
Science Explore 141 books about science

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Fundraiser's Guide to Irresistible Communications, The Big Red Fez, and Designing Web Usability if you like this list.