The Crowd-Sourced Reading List

By Carl Zimmer | February 1, 2009 1:04 pm

kidread.jpgLast week I blegged for examples of great science writing from over the years, and you did not disappoint. Rania Masri, who teaches writing to scientists in Lebanon, asked if I could share the list. It’s the least I can do in exchange for everyone’s generosity, and this morning I’ve got some time as I listen to some interviews for good quotes. (I also have to say it’s very cool to be helping somebody out in Lebanon from my laptop.)

I’ve selected the readings that I think would work best for a class on the art of writing about science and nature. This is obvious a far from definitive list. For one thing, it underrepresents the great books about science. For another, it’s heavy on biology and light on physics, etc.–a reflection of the self-selected nature of the Loom’s readers, I suspect. And I’ve preferred pieces that can be read online. Imperfections notwithstanding, I hope this list brings people some unexpected pleasures from the past…

Frederick Crews: “Saving Us From Darwin” 

Jared Diamond: “The Curse of Qwerty”

Darcy Frey: “George Divoky’s Planet”

Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”

Atul Gawande:“The Itch”

Masha Gessen: “A Medical Quest”

Stephen Jay Gould: “A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse” (pdf)

“The Panda’s Thumb”

J.B.S. Haldane: “On Being the Right Size”

Robert Kunzig: “20,000 Microbes Under the Sea”

Oliver Morton: “Moonshine and Glue: A Thirteen-Unit Guide to the Extreme Edge of Astrophysics” (pdf)

Lawrence Osborne: “A Linguistic Big Bang”

David Quammen: “Is Evolution Wrong?”

Jeffrey Rosen: “The Brain on the Stand”

Oliver Sacks: “The Abyss”

Robert Sapolsky: “A Gene for Nothing”

“A Natural History of Peace”

Polly Shulman: “Infinity Plus One”

Neal Stephenson: “Mother Earth Mother Board”

Gary Taubes: “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?”

Kenneth Weiss and Usha Macfarling: “Altered Oceans”

Appendix A: A few books…

Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe

Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Matt Ridley, Genome

Robert Sapolsky, Monkeyluv

Lewis Thomas, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

Image: Luis Fabres/Creative Commons License [via Flickr]


Comments (22)

  1. I love the hive mind! Great list, thank you and all my fellow Loom-readers. Great list.

  2. Matt

    That’s a lot of meat to dig into. Thanks for sharing. And I hope it was only modesty that left your name off the syllabus here. Surely the class gets the pleasure of reading some of your work? For what it’s worth, the two articles of yours that have stuck with me the most are the one on toothed vs. baleen whales and the one on parasitic wasps. Both (and many others besides) were extraordinary.

  3. If you’re going to include books, you’ve got to include Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Obviously the book’s not exclusively about science, but Rhodes’ account of the development of nuclear physics in the late 19th & early 20th centuries is one of the best descriptions of scientific discovery I have ever read. I can’t praise it enough, and I wish Rhodes would turn his pen to science again some time.

  4. Whoops–forgot to put Rhodes on the list–commenters had already pointed to him. Fixed.

  5. Reed

    Feynman’s QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter is probably a better example of science writing than his (wonderful and hugely entertaining) autobiography.

    I believe video of the lectures that it was based is also available online.

  6. JHB

    This is wonderful and something that’s perfect for a blog – thank you!

  7. The Faber Book of Science is a nice anthology of science writing.

  8. Terry LeCroix

    The link to Gary Taubes: “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” did not work for me. Try:

    Great list and kudos for including Taubes.

    [Carl: Thanks. Link fixed.]

  9. denniscav

    Where is Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”?

  10. By the way, I recently read “Banana” by Dan Koeppel. It might not be an all-time classic, but it’s wonderfully written and it’ll make you a total prophet for bananas.

  11. Great list! What I’ve already read, I liked a great deal, so I expect I’ll enjoy the rest. A book not on the list which I liked very much is Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct”.

  12. Cindy Van Dover

    I saw this list when it was first posted and have come back to copy it to a file. Our undergraduate students come to the Duke Marine Lab for a semester at a time and we have been serving them only marine science until recently. I decided to offer a science and nature writing course next fall and will draw from these works and others. Thanks!

    I’m very keen to find an example or two of fine blogged or twittered science-based nature writing that is edgy and that tests the boundaries of socially distributed prose and of what we think of as fine science and nature writing. If anyone has favorite examples, please point me to them.

  13. When I listen to the great film music composers I hear the influence that composers like Mahler have. The music of Mahler paints images in my head.

  14. B

    The list has a lot of debunking of myths and pseudo science. A good addition to that list is Mark Twain’s “was the world made for man?”. Coming from Mark Twain it is also a good lesson to learn to write satire.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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