Essential science books

I have apparently contracted a case of The Dreaded Lurgi.  The only way to get rid of it is to pass it on.  The particulars of the malady are that my blog has been tagged by Epiphenom in a blog meme called ‘Science Books for Undergrads’.

“Imagine: YOU are asked to assign a half-dozen-or-so books as required reading for ALL science majors at a college as part of their 4-year degree; NOT technical or text books, but other works, old or new, touching upon the nature of science, philosophy, thought, or methodology in a way that a practicing scientist might gain from.”

I”ve chosen five books.

Regular readers of this blog will not be particularly surprised by my first choice, On the Origin of Species.  Remarkably, Charles Darwin’s classic remains as accessible and readable now as it was on the day it was published, because Darwin was an exceptionally clear writer and thinker and he wrote it for the educated and the curious, not just for specialists.  The book has never been out of print since its first run in 1859.

Darwin died in 1882, and we’ve learned a lot about biology since then.  One of the founders of the field of evolutionary biology as a science was the German ornithologist, Ernst Mayr, whose long life and career occupied most of the period between Darwin’s death and the present day.  His 2001 work, What evolution is, provides a very readable and concise update on what we have learned in the past 150 years.

My third choice is by another exceptionally clear writer, but it’s also about what it means to be human, and about the interface between scientific research and humanity and the different ways that people find to be human.  An Anthropologist on Mars is a collection of essays by the neurologist, Oliver Sacks, about people whom he has met and interviewed or closely studied, whose way of being themselves gives some insight into the way the brain works.

One of the great essayists of modern times, as well as a distinguished paleontologist, the late Harvard biologist, Stephen Jay Gould wrote a regular column, This View of Life, for many years in Natural History, a magazine published by the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  His columns were gathered together into several volumes, published under titles such as Ever Since Darwin and Bully for Brontosaurus.  Of these, I might choose The Panda’s Thumb to go on the reading list. but they’re all worth reading.

Computer Science is a very new field, still widely misunderstood, but already there are classics that teach us as much about how we think as about how we are to persuade computers made out of silicon to do some of the thinking for us.  The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, by Harold Abelson and Gerald Jay Sussman with Julie Sussman, is a classic of the field, introducing key concepts in a clear way that revolutionizes the way the reader thinks about how computer software works.  Everyone working in the sciences will need to use and occasionally write computer software, and reading this book will give anyone a clear idea of the essentials of the task, no matter what languages, tools and systems the task may involve.

My turn to tag some blogs.  Let’s see if we can get some of the Big Boys to join in this game:

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