Great Science Books

I love science! Biology, chemistry, physics, it's all great! This, of course, has led me to read copious numbers of science-related books. Below, you shall find some of my favorites.


Bonk, by Mary Roach

This was the book that got me interested in urology, although I didn't know it at the time. This book is filled with fascinating stories about the world of sex research and strange sexual practices, and it only skims the surface. I remember feeling lightheaded as I read about degloving a penis; little did I know that I would be helping to do so in just a few short years. Roach has an interesting writing style, with tangential discussions at every turn. I thought it took a little getting used to, but I think it makes the book that much more enjoyable. Above all, it's an unforgettable look at what can happen with those organs between your legs. I also recommend her books "Gulp" (about the GI tract) and "Stiff" (about cadavers).


Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre

I read this book the week before I started medical school, and it should have been my summer reading assignment. This book examines how science and its presentation to the public can be misused for corporate means. He discusses the lack of data for homeopathy and other "quack science" in a reasonable and well laid-out fashion, as well as the use of skewed statistical data by pharma companies to prevent removal of dangerous drugs from the market. I found this book to be very readable, I think I blew through it in a week. It's definitely good if you want a better understanding of how to understand statistics and data interpretation, and how to critically read scientific papers. I just purchased his newer book, "Bad Pharma," and plan on reading it sometime soon.


Reality Check, by Donald Prothero

There's a lot of science books that focus on the controversies of evolution or climate change. This book covers this and more, including the anti-vax movements, alternative medicine, and many others (that I can't recall right now). It was a nice change-up of topics that receive a lot of press and those that receive little, but all are topics affected by people spreading misinformation. He also ends the book with some input on science and the political climate. Overall, a good overview of some "controversial" topics.


Flim Flam!, by James Randi

James Randi is a famous magician and skeptic who shares many of his personal stories of debunking "supernatural" claims. He tells stories about psychics, faith healers, and clairvoyants, demonstrating how they faked their claims and even how to reproduce their tricks. He also talks about famous hoaxes, such as the Bermuda triangle and UFO sightings. Most importantly, he demonstrates how to think critically and to not take every claim on face value. Randi gives the impression of an arrogant know-it-all, but it's hard to disagree when he pretty much knows it all.


The Demon Haunted World, by Carl Sagan

This is one of the greatest books on skeptical and critical thinking. Sagan takes a look at how the scientific process works and how to apply it to prove or disprove claims. He includes his famous "Baloney Detection Kit," which can be used to determine when a claim is probably baloney. His full kit can be found HERE, along with a list of logical fallacies used to prove an incorrect argument true. Sagan's writings are straight-forward and enjoyable to read, and makes for an excellent reference guide. There are many other sections to the book which I can't recall, but each is interesting in its own right. This is my favorite Sagan book and one of my favorites overall. Understanding how to use science for good and for truth is of the utmost importance, and being able to see false claims for what they are is of the utmost value.


A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

This is hands down one of the most well-written books I have ever read. Bryson takes a semi-linear walk from the beginning of time to the present, describing the big bang, evolution of life on Earth, and many more science milestones. What is most interesting is that he describes these events through the lens of the men and women who performed the experiments and made the discoveries to bring us this knowledge. Most of these experiments would be simplistic to replicate today, I found it fascinating to read about how these experiments were performed hundreds of years ago. This book is inspirational, demonstrating that anyone can make a (positive) mark on the world of science.


The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean

You may have noticed there is a section on my website dedicated to the periodic table (yes, it's a work in progress). The periodic table is the ultimate form of organization, sorting the building blocks of our universe into neat rows and columns. This is by far one of my favorite books on the subject. Sam Kean does an amazing job of working his way through the elements, linking them to history, culture, and life itself. He covers every element in a different way, each more interesting than the previous one. You will learn about how the cold war was fought with elemental discoveries, the effects of poisonous elements, and so much more. Kean writes in an understandable way, so even those people who dislike chemistry can learn something new and exciting about the base materials of our existence.


Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth, by Trevor Norton

Science has long been filled with self-experimenters. Many men and women have been so dedicated to the cause of discovery that they have risked their own lives to find the truth. This book gets its name from the symptoms experienced by famed self-experimenter Jack Haldane, who exposed himself to poisonous gases while testing a prototype gas mask. Each chapter focuses on a different subject, whether it be anesthetics, the digestive system, or flight. Few of these individuals are considered famous for their exploits, but their findings have had major effects on our way of life. Each individual's tale is told in a fascinating manner that is sure to enthrall you as you read!


Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku

Invisibility, Intergalactic Space Flight, and Time Travel: ideas that only work in science fiction, right? Not according to Michio Kaku! This book details many concepts detailed in science fiction that are assumed to never exist in our reality. Dr. Kaku dismisses this notion, and informs the reader of current and ongoing research being done in these fields, and the possibility of these concepts occurring in real life! Invisibility may be a reality in a few hundred years, but teleportation may take a little longer. Although many of the chapters involve subjects with complex physics, they are explained in an enjoyable and understandable fashion. This book gives you hope that someday, mankind will "boldly go where no man has gone before."


The Physics of Superheroes, by James Kakalios

Why is Superman so much stronger on Earth than the average human? It's simple physics, of course! Professor Kakalios teaches a class relating physics to superheroes, and he sums up his teachings in this wonderful book. Just like an intro physics class, he begins with mechanics, and works his way through electricity and magnetism. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of physics, and relates it to a different superhero or villain. If you're a fan of comic books, physics, or both, this book is sure to keep you amused.

Note: the only annoying thing about the book is that he does his calculations in imperial units, instead of SI.


The Science of Superheroes, by Lois Gresch

This book is along the lines of the previous entry, but looks at superheroes with a more generalized scientific view. There is still plenty of physics, but it also looks at other comic book matters. One of my favorite sections is the explanation of how Green Lantern's ring functions. Obviously, the laws of science do not often apply in the comic book realm, but it does provide a fun view of different scientific concepts.


Elephants on Acid, by Alex Boese

This is one of my favorite books of all times. Everyone loves anecdotes, and everyone SUPER LOVES science anecdotes! But these stories are even better: they're about weird science, weird experiments, and weird people! Each section features a different subject of study in the magical realm of science. Have you ever wished that Frankenstein's monster was real? Read about the scientist who kept a severed dog's head alive, or the other people who transplanted one monkey's head onto another's body! Learn about different psych studies by the infamous Stanley Milgram, who showed that people aren't as kind-hearted as we'd like to think. And of course, read about the time scientists had an elephant take acid (LSD for you squares out there). This collection of well-written accounts will keep you enthralled, amused, and occasionally horrified for hours. I highly recommend this book!


Electrified Sheep, by Alex Boese

You can consider this book to be the sequel to the previous entry. I am not as big a fan of this one, only because it does not have as many anecdotes in it. However, the stories in this volume are much more in depth, and focus on five specific topics that have been studied in the past. The author focuses on fields that have seen numerous interesting experiments, such as primatology or electricity. Many of the stories come from eras before the realm of modern science, although some do pertain to the research done by the military industrial complex. One of my favorites is the account of the military exploding an atomic bomb into the upper atmosphere, leading to an Aurora Borealis viewable worldwide. Although I prefer Elephants on Acid, this book is also quite a good read.


Serendipity, by Royston M. Roberts

Many scientific discoveries seemed to have happened by chance, but as the saying goes, "chance favors the prepared mind." In this book, Roberts gives countless instances when "serendipity" led to a new breakthrough in science. There are the well-known stories, such as the discovery of Penecillin, along with many other lesser-known tales. Roberts, an organic chemist, shows his background by discussing the discoveries of new drugs, compounds, and polymers. If you enjoyed taking organic chemistry during college, then you will definitely enjoy learning about the applications of that class. However, if the idea of a carbon-carbon bond sends chills down your spine...avoid this book.


The Science of Aliens, by Clifford Pickover

Aliens are cool. I don't care if you're a staunch skeptic or a true believer, the idea of aliens existing is cool. Awesome, even. But if aliens existed, what would they look like, and why? There are loads of sci-fi movies out there that attempt to give a visual answer to this question, but the description of aliens often seems to be biased by the human experience. If aliens actually existed, chances are slim that they'd look like us. Clifford Pickover attempts to give a better answer in his book The Science of Aliens. He attempts to shed his human biases and give us hypothetical examples of alien anatomy, language, and lifestyles. He could be right, or he could be wrong, who knows? The book is entertaining, and pushes you to think about the possibilities of "what if?"


The Code Book, by Simon Singh

Codes may seem to be meant for the realms of espionage and spying, but did you know codes are what keep your credit card numbers secure in online transactions? In The Code Book, you get to take a trip through the history of codes, starting at "A=1, B=2..." and ending with quantum coding. You will get to see how coding has evolved, in a battle being those creating the codes, and those trying to break them. You will get to read about some of history's unbreakable codes, and how the British cracked the German's codes during World War II. The book does involve some math, but Singh does a wonderful job of making his writing easy to understand and highly enjoyable.


Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

This book centers around a seemingly simple question, "Why did the Europeans invade the Americas, and not the other way around?" You may scoff initially, but upon further throught, this is a very deep question. What gave certain civilizations the ability to conquer others? Diamond is not a perpetrator of eugenics, completely the opposite. He explains his reasoning by showing that it is not the intellect of the civilizations that affected their success, but the resources they had available to them, the "guns, germs, and steel" of the title. Diamond crafts and extremely well-thought out argument, and upon finishing this book, you will be sure to wonder, what if things had been different?


The Periodic Table

Have you ever wondered how the periodic table came to be? Eric Scerri takes the reader on a journey, starting at a time long before the periodic table existed, and shows how each step slowly occurred over time, until the table as we know it exists. This is an extremely detailed historical account as to how the most famous diagram in all of chemistry came to be. A caution to the reader: this is not light reading. The book is extremely dry, but for someone interested in the inner workings of the elements, this book will give you a much greater insight into its evolution. Although tough to get through, you will find it to be extremely rewarding to read!


John Emsley

This entry is not a book, but an author. Emsley is a science writer who specializes in chemistry. He has numerous books on the subject, which are all quite enjoyable! If you are interested in a reference guide to the elements, he has published multiple editions of one of the better guides to the periodic table (Nature's Building Blocks), although it lacked pictures in the edition I read. Molecules at an Exhibition describes many molecules, and how they feature into our everyday lives. Read about molecules in our food, our clothing, and the rest of the world around us. He has also written Vanity, Vitality and Virility, about chemicals used to change our lives for the better, and Elements of Murder, a book on poison throughout history! His writings are extremely informative, as well as enjoyable!


Nonsense on Stilts, by Massimo Pigliucci

I have saved the best entry for last. I recently finished this book, and I believe that it has changed my entire outlook on science. The purpose of this book is to examine the line between science and pseudoscience, and to understand how they differ. The author is both a philosopher and evolutionary biologist, and provides the reader with a well-written argument in each chapter. While I read the book, I felt as if he were conversing with me, offering examples to better understand his arguments, and occasionally injecting a bit of witty humor into the conversation. He provides a thorough examination at the different realms of pseudoscience, along with a history of the evolution of science, to better understand where it is coming from and to where it is going. At the end of the book, he wraps up with an answer to the question on everyone's mind, "how can the average individual tell the different between science and pseudoscience?" The moral of the book is that we must understand the purpose and goal of science, and to think critically when examining an argument, scientific or otherwise. After reading Nonsense on Stilts, I have a better understanding of science, and I think you will too.