November 21, 2006

Best and worst science books

John Horgan is helping us all set up our reading lists for the coming holiday season by highlighting a couple of lists of best science books. First he has some critical comments on the recently published Discover Magazine list of 25 best science books. As an antidote to the flaws he sees in that list, he also turns us in the direction of the The Center for Science Writings of the Stevens Institute of Technology where there's a list-in-progress of the 100 Greatest Science Books. That list is up to number fifty and still accepting nominations.

Perhaps even more interesting, Horgan gives us a list of the Ten Worst Science Books.

  1. Capra, Frifjof, The Tao of Physics
  2. Drexler, Eric, Engines of Creation
  3. Edelman, Gerald, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire
  4. Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tipping Point
  5. Gould, Stephen Jay, Rocks of Ages
  6. Greene, Brian, The Elegant Universe
  7. Hamer, Dean, The God Gene
  8. Kramer, Peter, Listening to Prozac
  9. Kurzweil, Ray, The Age of Spiritual Machines
  10. Murray, Charles, and Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve
  11. Wilson, Edward, Consilience
Actually, I guess it's eleven.

Luckily, I haven't read any of those yet although I do own the Gould and Wilson and may get around to reading at least the Wilson. I'm afraid I don't do that much better on the list of good books but the main reason for that is that the science books I have tended to read over the years have been mostly on computing or engineering topics, neither of which are terribly well covered in the Stevens or Discover lists. (Yes, I did nominate some good computing books.)

In the interests of self-improvement, I'll list a bunch (11!) of the science books that are in the two lists that I'd like to get around to reading. If and when I do get around to reading them, I'll certainly review them on the other blog where I have been trying to review more science books during my sabbatical this year.

  1. Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene
  2. Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel
  3. Gleick, James, Chaos
  4. Hofstadter, Douglas, Godel, Escher, Bach
  5. Pais, Abraham, Subtle Is the Lord
  6. Penrose, Roger, The Emperor’s New Mind
  7. Rhodes, Richard, The Making of the Atomic Bomb
  8. Watson, James, The Double Helix
  9. Weinberg, Steven, The First Three Minutes
  10. Sagan, Carl, The Cosmic Connection
  11. Gould, Stephen Jay, The Mismeasure of Man
A few of these I already have lying around the house, so there's a pretty good chance they'll turn up sooner rather than later.

Update: Horgan follows up with another post, expanding on his reasons for putting The Bell Curve and Listening to Prozac on the worst book list.


Anonymous said...

When did Gould's Mismeasure of Man become a "science" book? It's really more about Gould's Marxist politics. At best Mismeasure can be described as a 'history' but even there it's misleading. Gould not only leaves out information that is inconvenient, bit goes as far as misrepresenting the positions of others.

tech said...

Since when did Brian Greene's superb book The Elegant Universe start ending up at the bottom of best of lists in science?

I found it an absorbing, eminently readable book.

Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel is one of the most overrated books ever.

James Gleick's Chaos is one of my favourites.

Hope you enjoyed reading these! :)

MK said...

***Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel is one of the most overrated books ever.***

Indeed, it omits that genetic change accompanied the changes with agriculture, and population expansion. More recent books like 'The 10,000 Year Explosion' or 'Before the Dawn' by NY Times Nick Wade are much better in this respect.

Anonymous said...

The only reason the Bell curve is on the Worst list is because it is controversial, and more so hated by left leaning/non-objective thinkers.The major thesis of the Book has not been refuted.At best there are some technical criticisms about data presentation.Gould's response to it is by far the worst writing of his career.By far. To those who have read both ,Bell Curve and Mismeasure of Man,and can honestly judge the books sans prejudice,they most probably would swap these titles between these lists.

It is also surprising that there is no mention of any of Feynman's work.Which ,as any well read physics enthusiast will attest to,is one of the best popularizations of Physics available.

Anonymous said...

Carl Sagan - Pale blue dot....nuff said :)