One of the things I find a little bit disturbing is when fellow scholars of the humanities declare how little they know about math and science with gusto rather than with neutrality or regret. “Oh, I SUCK at math,” seemed to be the rallying cry among many of my non-engineering/pre-med college friends. When I questioned one student in my social science class about whether he wished he could fill the gaps in his knowledge, he looked at me curiously and stated, “I’m an English major and a writer; all I care about is improving my writing.” I’m pretty sure a hipster hair-toss followed suit.
Everyone has their own intellectual calling (or callings), and we can’t all dominate in multiple fields (unless you are someone baller-fantastic like Murray Gell-Mann) but I don’t think complete ignorance of a field should ever be cause for pride. It’s an attitude I’ve found in a small minority of people, to be sure, but it reminds me of the urgency with which we should be encouraging basic scientific literacy among the general population.
We can see where a lack of knowledge in the natural sciences is taking us in the ever-depressing world of politics: be it flat denials of global climate change, the dogged (often religiously-founded) inability or refusal to accept the reality that biological evolution is a fact, or the misconception that funding particle physics experiments at locations such as CERN produces mere idle scientific theorizing, rigorous scientific investigation is being strongly contested for all the wrong reasons. The only way to fight such axe-grinding ignorance is by educating oneself.
As a person who (yes, I actually mean it) does not have much aptitude for mathematical or even logic-based reasoning required to study fields like physics aptly (it’s OK, I have a good memory, strong language skills, and a wicked knack for imitating people), I am particularly grateful when I find science books that help me grasp basic concepts. The following is a list of books I’ve read that have stoked my interest in various phenomena in the natural sciences:
UNCERTAINTY: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science (David Lindley)
I’m currently rereading this book. It offers a wonderful, historically-based, clearly-written account of how Heisenberg’s establishment and defense of his Uncertainty Principle, a fundamental tenet of quantum mechanics, not only changed our understanding of the laws that govern our natural world, but also introduced doubt as to whether we can ever truly trust what we observe about said world; what seemed before to be immutable natural phenomena took on a vastly (and even frighteningly) mysterious quality. My favorite surprise from this book was discovering that in his mid-fifties, Einstein was actually quite the crusty reactionary. Theoretical physics, then and now, is no more free of fierce politicking than any other field of knowledge.
MICROBE HUNTERS: The Classic Book on the Major Discoveries of the Microscopic World (Paul de Kruif)
This book is incredibly fun. I can think of less than 10 books I’ve read in my life that I (literally) could not put down until I finished. I can think of even less books I managed to squeeze in between required reading during my freshman year of college. This book filled both criteria.
The book follows the antics of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek as he perfected the microscope, Louis Pasteur and how his multiple experimental successes supported the germ theory of disease, and (my personal favorite) Robert Koch as he meticulously slayed thousands of guinea pigs is his quest to isolate the Tuberculosis bacillus, among many others. Paul de Kruif is a master storyteller and quite deft in illustrating the determined and brilliant personalities that drove the work of these historical figures, and that were just as necessary as their mighty intellects in achieving these great microbiological feats. Trust me, learning about malaria will never be quite as entertaining as when you read this book.
EVOLUTION: The Triumph of an Idea (Carl Zimmer)
I spoke a bit about this book in one of my early posts, and again when I got to meet the author. Besides being a strong contender to win the hypothetical “Coolest Book Cover Ever” contest, I cannot stress enough how good this book is. It not only diligently portrays the basics of evolutionary theory with historical background, ties to related scientific fields such as geology and zoology, and multiple examples of evolution at work in the real world, it also demonstrates the profound implications the findings of evolution have for fields such as public health, gender/sexual issues, and psychology. I can’t recommend a better work for an introduction to (or review of) evolution.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME (Stephen Hawking)
To be honest, I’m due for a reread of this work. It was the first adult science book I ever read (picked it up at a store when I was 14), and I’m afraid not a lot of it got through my uneducated mind. However, its reputation speaks for itself, and astronomy is a scientific field that gets the short end of the stick somewhat in terms of news coverage nowadays (unless it’s some secondary source article about a planet’s demotion, or greatly dramatizing the impact of recent solar flares, or reminding us that yes, we may all get sucked into a black hole after all). Now’s your chance to find out what such a scenario would actually entail!
Other honorable mentions that I didn’t describe because they either aren’t good intro books or I actually haven’t read them include:
–The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene (great book, I just think I understood about 2/3rds of it, and that’s me being generous to myself)
–The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins (been sitting on my shelf, but I love books on evolution, so it’s on the waiting list)
–The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking (not going to touch it until I reread Brief History)
–The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics by Robin Marantz Henig (too specialized for this list and I haven’t read it, but Mendel was the only thing I actually enjoyed learning about in my 7th grade bio class; even my ancient mummy of a teacher couldn’t make him, or genetics for that matter, boring. I’m really looking forward to it)