Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Science and Nature Reading List

Now that school’s out, it’s time for summer reading! Here are a dozen of my favorite science and nature books, recommended to students, colleagues, and friends alike. None of them are especially recent, and in fact, many are books that I first read for fun during graduate school, when I should have been working on my thesis. They’re listed below in approximate order by difficulty, starting with the lightest reading and ending with books that require some effort. None, however, assume any specialized background. Of course there are hundreds of other good science and nature books out there, most of which I haven’t read. I can’t promise that you’ll like all of these as much as I do, but I can promise that each of them is of the very highest quality.
  • Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee. In this classic from the golden era of environmentalism, McPhee arranges for Sierra Club hero David Brower to spend some quality time with three of his natural enemies: a mining geologist, a resort developer, and a dam builder.
  • Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. Essays by a hard-nosed realist about the wonders of southern Utah: juniper trees, snakes, clouds, heat, quicksand, tourists, inhabitants, and the encroachment of industrial civilization.

  • The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll. My favorite mystery, and all true! A Berkeley hippie astronomer and computer geek discovers that a hacker is breaking into U.S. Government computers. Soon he’s teaching the FBI, CIA, and NSA all about internet security.
  • Voodoo Science by Bob Park. An entertaining survey of perpetual motion machines, cold fusion, human space flight, and other things that look like science but aren’t. Written in the same spirit as Martin Gardner’s classic, Fads and Fallacies.
  • Basin and Range by John McPhee. The best geology book ever written, which just happens to be about the place where I now live. Filled with clever juxtapositions of human and geologic time. The three sequels are also good: In Suspect Terrain, Rising From the Plains, and Assembling California.
  • First Light by Richard Preston. Before the author became famous for writing The Hot Zone, he spent some time hanging out at Palomar Observatory and wrote this delightful book about the astronomers working there.
  • 365 Starry Nights by Chet Raymo. Among the hundreds of guides to the night sky, this is by far my favorite. It offers a mini astronomy lesson for each night of the year, with lovingly hand-drawn illustrations. Its only deficiency is the lack of an index, so I created one years ago.
  • The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman. A set of seven informal lectures by the great theoretical physicist, just as relevant and insightful today as when they were first delivered in the 1960s. If you like this, you’ll also enjoy Feynman’s QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, which presents four more lectures on quantum physics.

  • Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. The big picture of human history and prehistory.
  • The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg. Still the best book on cosmology, written soon after our understanding of the hot early universe became firmly established.
  • The Copernican Revolution by Thomas Kuhn. This well-crafted classic on the history of astronomy reminds us that a moving earth was once just as much a threat to some peoples’ belief systems as evolution and global warming are today.
  • Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. A weighty masterpiece that interweaves art, music, logic, puzzles, puns, language, molecular biology, and artificial intelligence.


  1. Great list Dan, thanks.

    I have read three on your list and will look forward to trying out some of the others. Hopefully my little old pea brain is still up to this sort of challenge.

  2. Read most of the list, but don't know Stoll, Preston and Raymo. Will pick up. TY

    I'd add Neul Pharr Davis, "Lawrence and Oppenheimer" which is very well written, I thought. And Richard Rovere "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," which is largely a history of 20th century physics wrapped around a narrative of the making of the bomb. Another good read. And especially David Quammen's "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin," which is the best brief introduction to Darwin [the man, his work and the culture it came out of] I've ever read. One of the books I wished had been longer when I finished it.


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