Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reality Based Reads: Good Science Books for the Non-Scientist

Here is a booklist (that is currently, by no means, comprehensive) of books that are non-fiction (for the most part), with a particular focus on science related issues.

The goal of this list is to highlight some good "crossover" books to readers who generally don't already read science books, or to the layperson interested in learning something new.

I am trying to keep the list limited to books that have been published in the last decade, but preferabely published in the last 3-4 years.

If you would like to make a suggestion to add a book to the list, please leave a comment.

I also will be listing some crossover appeals/genres that might pique a non-science reader's interest.

(Ordered by most recent pub year.)

Leo Geo and His Miraculous Journey Through the Center of the Earth by Jon Chad (2012)

"Intrepid explorer Leo Geo is heading off on a mission into the unknown. With science as his sidekick, he intends to tunnel his way to the center of the earth. Of course, things never turn out quite the way you expect when you're burrowing your way through the earth's layers. Before long, Leo is forced to leave his tunneling machine behind, and he climbs, crawls, and falls to his destination while dodging giant centipedes, man-eating quadclops, and an evil army of subterranean malvisors bent on invading the surface. Kids will be drawn in by the unusual format of this inventive comic, following Leo as he climbs deeper and deeper into a very long and skinny book—and they may just learn a few things about geology as they go."

Appeals/Genres: Comic, Graphic Novel, Adventure, Youth

Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick (2011)

"Richard Feynman: physicist . . . Nobel winner . . . bestselling author . . . safe-cracker. In this substantial graphic novel biography, First Second presents the larger-than-life exploits of Nobel-winning quantum physicist, adventurer, musician, world-class raconteur, and one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century: Richard Feynman. Written by nonfiction comics mainstay Jim Ottaviani and brilliantly illustrated by First Second author Leland Myrick, Feynman tells the story of the great man’s life from his childhood in Long Island to his work on the Manhattan Project and the Challenger disaster. . . "

Appeals/Genres: Biography, Graphic Novel

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean (2010)

"The Periodic Table is one of man's crowning scientific achievements. But it's also a treasure trove of stories of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. The infectious tales and astounding details in THE DISAPPEARING SPOON follow carbon, neon, silicon, and gold as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, war, the arts, poison, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them. . . "

Appeals/Genres: Character Focused, Witty, Humor, Historical

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)

"Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave. . ."

Appeals/Genres: Biography, Thought Provoking, Character/People Focused, Historical

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (2010)

"Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner's Handbook Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime. . ."

Appeals/Genres: Mystery, Crime, Detective Story, Suspense, Forensics, Historical

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (2009)

"When young Joseph Banks stepped onto a Tahitian beach in 1769, he hoped to discover Paradise. Inspired by the scientific ferment sweeping through Britain, the botanist had sailed with Captain Cook on his first "Endeavour "voyage in search of new worlds. Other voyages of discovery--astronomical, chemical, poetical, philosophical--swiftly follow in Richard Holmes's original evocation of what truly emerges as an Age of Wonder.
Brilliantly conceived as a relay of scientific stories, "The Age of Wonder" investigates the earliest ideas of deep time and space, and the explorers of "dynamic science," of an infinite, mysterious Nature waiting to be discovered. . . "

Appeals/Genres: Romanticism, Historical, Character Focused

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach (2008)

"The study of sexual physiology - what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better - has been a paying career or a diverting sideline for scientists as far-ranging as Leonardo da Vinci and James Watson. The research has taken place behind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, MRI centers, pig farms, sex-toy R&D labs, and Alfred Kinsey's attic. . ."

Appeals/Genres: Romance/Sex, Humor, Witty

Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End... by Philip C. Plait (2008)

"According to astronomer Philip Plait, the universe is an apocalypse waiting to happen But how much do we really need to fear from things like black holes, gamma-ray bursts, and supernovae? And if we should be scared, is there anything we can do to save ourselves? With humor and wit, Plait details the myriad doomsday events that the cosmos could send our way to destroy our planet and life as we know it. This authoritative yet accessible study is the ultimate astronomy lesson."

Appeals/Genres: Dark Humor, Witty

Death By Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2007)

A vibrant collection of essays on the cosmos is delivered by the nation's best-known astrophysicist, who is popular for his monthly "Universe" essays in "Natural History" magazine."

Appeals/Genres: Accessible, Engaging

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2003)

"In Bryson's biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand -- and, if possible, answer -- the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. . ."

Appeals/Genres: Humor, Witty

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (2003)

"Oddly compelling and often hilarious, Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them."

Appeals/Genres: Dark Humor, Witty, Crime, Engaging, Historical


  1. Great list! I actually have own a few of those -- Stiff, A Short History of Nearly Everything, and Bonk!

  2. Thanks! I still need to read Bonk. It sounds great!


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