General Question

Snarp's avatar

What are some great books about key science topics for a general audience?

Asked by Snarp (11181 points ) December 26th, 2009

I’m not looking for a “for Dummies” book, and I have some science education, but I want some books that aren’t designed entirely as textbooks, that give sufficient quality and detail without getting bogged down in trying to replicate a college education all in one book. The books should cover the general state of current science in the field, and should include contradictory ideas only if they are noted as such, have some reasonable evidence from the published literature, or the basic evidence is lacking. That means don’t bother listing any anti-evolutions, intelligent design, or other religious/spiritual/new age books that only claim to be about science. pecifically I’m interested in books on some of the really big topics of science:
Multi-dimensionality.
The nature of time.
The multiverse.
String theory.
Quantum Mechanics.
Newtonian physics.
Relativity.
Evolution.
How astronomy informs and is informed by all of the above.

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19 Answers

dpworkin's avatar

Almost anything Richard Feynman wrote, although it is not entirely up-to-date.

uniquenewyork's avatar

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Dr_Dredd's avatar

Agree with @pdworkin. I particularly enjoyed “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” and it wasn’t even supposed to be a “teaching” book!

I think a lot of college classes are still using his “Feynman Lectures on Physics.”

nikipedia's avatar

Brian Greene’s books can fill in a lot of the holes left since Feynman’s books were written. And How to Teach Physics to Your Dog was just released recently.

marinelife's avatar

@uniquenewyork Well, you’re not totally unique—I was going to mention that book too!

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

@pdworkin @Dr_Dredd Agree heartily on Feynman. I met the man once, he was a student of my great uncle John. Also Asimov’s “guide” series is quite good but of the same vintage (Asimov had a PhD in biochemistry),

Rarebear's avatar

Agree with above. Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe is an excellent introduction to relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory.

If you’re interested in evolution, I reccomend Dawkins, “The Blind Watchmaker.”

shilolo's avatar

I like The Illustrated Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking.
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond is a nice cultural anthropology read.

Grisaille's avatar

Cosmos – Carl Sagan
Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaarder
A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
A Brief History Of Time – Stephen Hawking
In Search Of The Big Bang – John Gribbin
In Search Of Schrodinger’s Cat – John Gribbin
The Whole Shebang – Timothy Ferris
Coming Of Age In The Milky Way – Timothy Ferris
The Alchemy Of The Heavens – Ken Croswell
Big Bang – Simon Singh
The Demon Haunted World – Carl Sagan
Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors – Carl Sagan
Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman – Richard P. Feynman.
Dreams Of A Final Theory – Steven Weinberg
The Discovery Of Subatomic Particles – Steven Weinberg
The Last Three Minutes – Paul Davies
The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene
The Ascent Of Man – J. Bronowski

I have yet to read some (okay, half) of these, and almost all cover either a vast amount of topics or incorporate a fiction element to facilitate the easiness of learning certain tough principles. Still worth it, based on suggestions and reviews alone. I’m still working my way through the list.

hiphiphopflipflapflop's avatar

The best introduction to physics (atomic theory of matter, special and general relativity, quantum mechanics) for a lay audience that I have found is The Cosmic Code by Heinz Pagels. As a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, Pagels was outspoken in his opposition to those who took advantage of public misconceptions about quantum theory to promote a pastiche of Eastern mysticism and pseudoscience.

An outstanding history of theoretical and experimental physics from the discovery of radioactivity to the establishment of the Standard Model is Crease and Mann’s The Second Creation.

The best books on cosmology I’ve read so far are Hawking’s “Brief History” and The Inflationary Universe by the most famous proponent of cosmic inflation, Alan Guth.

One to follow up Brian Greene on the string theory front would be Leonard Susskind’s The Comsic Landscape.

Curve balls!
The Dreams of Reason
Complexity
Artificial Life
Ubiquity

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

That’s quite a list you have been given! Feynman’s books on Physics, and Hawkings, “A brief history of time” are my favourite such books. Isaac Asimov’s “guide to” books are very approachable. Sorry I can’t thing of anything that others have not already suggested.

Futomara's avatar

What? No one has recommended Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters?

fundevogel's avatar

I absolutely loved The Elements of Murder. Though you may not think so based on the title this was a fascinating chemistry book that delivers the history and science of chemistry as it specifically relates to the most deadly elements on the periodic table: lead, mercury, arsenic, antimony and a few others. Its on the fatty side so it takes a while to read but its combination of historical anecdotes and thorough explanation of chemical processes made it a page turner for me.

Upright provides a solid introducuction to evolutionary theory and as well as some more recent proposals regarding how humans in particular evolved. It’s easy to understand and doesn’t waste time overstating it’s argument.

jerv's avatar

There are parts of Anathem by Neal Stephenson that go into a few of those topics, and Neal being Neal, he goes into detail.

The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios is another good one.

ETpro's avatar

That’s a pretty comprehensive list. All I can add is Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid as a very interesting, informative book and Science amd its connection with art and thinking.

syz's avatar

My book list tends less towards physics and more toward natural history, so:

The Blink of an Eye by Andrew Parker discussing the evolutionary development of sight.
The Diversity of Life by E.O. Wilson (and many, many more).
Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich.
Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, _evolutionary design for survival in extreme
conditions_
Where the Wild Things Where by William Stolzenburg, man’s affect on the environment through the systematic eradication of natural predators.
Anything by Sue Hubbell, she’s a fantastic natural history writer.
Bill Bryson is also a favorite writer.

On a slight side note, does anyone else agree that Malcolm Gladwell is a charlatan and a hack?

LeopardGecko's avatar

The obvious would be A Brief History of Time. If you want to start out simpler you can get his newer book A Briefer History of Time, it’s more simplified and expands on some of the topics that are hard to understand. If you go to a bookstore and to the Science or Physics section you’re bound to see something that will work for you. As it is a Non-fiction book, it can’t really be “bad”.

nikipedia's avatar

@syz: I had Heinrich as a professor for intro biology in college :) i have some problems with Gladwell but am interested to hear why you don’t like him….

syz's avatar

@nikipedia I hope he was little easier to follow as a professor that as a writer – I have a hard time staying motivated in spite of the interesting subjects.

I think Gladwell is addicted to science “fads” (or perhaps to creating them). He seems (to me) to take a idea, present it as “scientific fact”, and then run with it. In my mind, just because he thinks it is so does not make it true.

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