Great science books for high school students: The hive-mind speaks

By Carl Zimmer | March 28, 2011 5:31 pm

Over the weekend, I was contacted by Melissa Townsend, an Arizona high school teacher, with this question:

Getting ready to assign spring reading to my students. What are your favorite non-fiction science books a HS kid can handle?

It’s an excellent question–there are some books that can open up the mind of a teenager, and leave an impression that lasts a lifetime. But when I got Townsend’s request, I was traveling to Washington to talk on a panel about blogging, so I was a bit scatter-brained. I therefore tossed the question out to the hive mind. When I read the responses, many of them made me think, “Yeah, what she said!”

Here is a selection of the answers. Add your own in the comment thread; I can update the list here accordingly.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. (This one was mentioned so often Townsend decided to go with it.)

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, by Stephen Jay Gould

The Diversity of Life, by Edward O. Wilson

Under a Lucky Star, by Roy Chapman Andrews

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, by James Watson

E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, by David Bodanis

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, by Robert Sapolsky

Microbe Hunters, by Paul deKruif

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, by Steven Johnson

The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story, by Richard Preston

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition, by Oliver Sacks

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, by Oliver Sacks

The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way>, by Joy Hakim (follow the link to the other two books in the series, too)

The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, Richard Feynman

Why Evolution Is True, by Jerry Coyne

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Book Preview, Link Love, Teaching

Comments (40)

  1. Now that I have my bookshelf behind me, I’ll add:

    Superbug, Maryn McKenna
    Good Germs, Bad Germs by Jessica Snyder Sachs
    Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond
    Asleep, Molly Caldwell Crosby
    Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan

    All are highly entertaining and written at a level that shouldn’t put off a high schooler who’s advanced enough to have an interest in these types of things. I’ll also throw in The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett, which is a bit intimidating just because of the length and a bit dated, but I read it in HS and it’s one of the books that really turned me on to infectious disease.

  2. I’d recommend your book Parasite Rex, plus Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas and For Love of Insects by Thomas Eisner.

    [CZ: Naturally, I left my books off the list. Naturally, I won’t delete your comment. ; ) ]

  3. zackoz

    Yes, I wondered why books by one C Zimmer weren’t there.

    What about Evolution – the Triumph of an Idea?

    On science overall, I liked John Gribbin’s all-encompassing History of Science, where he outlines major discoveries in accessible language but also gives diverting pen pictures of important figures in scientific history. If the main book is too long at 600 pages, there is a short version of only 220 or so.

  4. Heather

    Parasite Rex!!
    Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America, Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata
    I also second the suggestion of Guns, Germs and Steel.

  5. Kyle Hodnett

    I teach HS biology in Arizona and I just assigned the following books to my AP Biology students and honors biology students
    Beak of the Finch – Jonathan Weiner
    Collapse – Jared Diamond
    Greatest Show on Earth – Richard Dawkins
    Your Inner Fish – Neil Shubin

    Students handled them well and really seemed to like them.

  6. Life Ascending by Nick Lane, and early Dawkins.

  7. hsstudent

    “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” paints a very nice picture of the mind of a scientist, despite not being a scientific book. It gives you insight into the curiosity and thought processes a good scientist has, plus an introduction to one of the coolest guys to ever live.

    Six Easy Pieces, also by Feynman, is a great introductory physics book. It’s a bit outdated, but still very valuable.

    Two books by Bob Berman (of Astronomy Mag) are also great: “Secrets of the Night Sky” and ‘Strange Universe”. They are both funny and informative, and give you a great picture of how amazing the universe is.

    Two thoughts about youre list: Bill Bryson’s “Short History’ is a really great book, and I’m glad to see it on here. Also, in my opinion “The Meaning of It All” is probably the weakest Feynman book. it’s barey edited, and Feynman’s unconventional speaking style makes it hard to read.

  8. NTA

    We like Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata. Accessible and funny. Check out the chapter on the Bot Fly! @NTAeducation

  9. Abby

    Monster of God by David Quammen — what’s not to love about man-eating predators?

  10. NewEnglandBob

    I concur with many above and add:

    -Atom: An Odyssey From the Big Bang to Life on Earth … and Beyond By Lawrence M. Krauss
    -Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World By Nick Lane
    -Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace — One School at a Time By Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
    -Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body By Neil Shubin

  11. Alison

    @NewEnglandBob I didn’t think there was much (any?) science in “3 cups of tea”

  12. Patrick

    Might be showing my age, but Isaac Asimov put out many good books on science basics that were fun to read and easy to understand.

  13. BFH

    The Relativity of Wrong by Isaac Asimov

  14. May I throw in a few Atmosphere and space science books?

    Rough Guide to Climate Change and Rough Guide to Weather by Bob Henson of NCAR.
    Why E=MC square and why you should care by Brian Cox.

    Also Understanding the Forecast by David Archer (exc. book on climate change with some algebra only)

  15. While not strictly non-fiction, Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott is certainly mathematical. It is a short, but mind-expanding book about a creature in a two-dimensional world who meets a three-dimensional creature and how he tries to comprehend the higher dimensions. The discussion can be extended to four or more dimensions.

    Perhaps more mind bending are books from Douglas R. Hofstadter, like Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and The Mind’s I. Gödel, Escher, Bach touches on what it means to be conscious and how that might apply to artificial intelligence In addition, Hofstadter introduces concepts like computability, recursion, and number theory. The Mind’ I is a collection of essays that delves even more deeply into the mind and self.

    Mind Hacks: Tips & Tools for Using Your Brain by Matt Webb is a fun and practical collection of “tips” that are probably better described as tricks relating to the mind. Each tip is short and many have practical activities and experiments the reader can do to investigate further.

  16. Juan Nunez-Iglesias

    I can’t believe no one has yet mentioned:

    The Elegant Universe
    The Fabric of the Cosmos
    by Brian Greene

    and Simon Singh’s absolutely excellent “trilogy”:

  17. Bill

    A few of my favorites:

    A Feeling for the Organism — Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller

    The Statue Within — Francois Jacob’s autobiography. Discussing the book with a French colleague, he asked about the English translation. I called his writing poetic, and he replied that it must have been a good translation. Only about a 1/3 of the book is directly about biology, but the mind of a scientist shines throughout.

    The Red Queen and Crick’s biography by Matt Ridley.

    Einstein — His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

    Microcosm by you know who.

  18. Lynn

    What a great question! Here are my suggestions, by category (I’m more of a life sciences person than physics/astronomy).

    General Science:
    Bryson’s A Short History has been mentioned before, I concur
    Natalie Angier’s The Canon
    What about having them pick pieces from recent collections of The Best Science and Nature Writing?

    Evolutionary Biology
    Sean Carrol’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful
    David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo
    Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish

    Barbara Goldsmith’s Tortured Genius (Marie Curie)
    David Bodanis’s Passionate Minds (Emilie du Châtelet and Voltaire)
    David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

    Anne Gibbon’s The First Human
    Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire
    Pat Shipman and Alan Walker’s Wisdom of the Bones
    Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir or Monkeyluv

    Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers
    Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography (for people of all sex/genders)
    Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight
    Susan Barry’s Fixing My Gaze
    Sheril Kirschenbaum’s The Science of Kissing (it’s not too racy, and I think high schoolers would be really interested, plus it has good advice about how powerful hormones are!)

    Molly Caldwell’s Asleep and also her The American Plague
    Sanjay Gupta’s Cheating Death
    Philip Yam’s The Pathological Protein
    Sonia Shah’s The Fever

    Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder’s Heavenly Intrigue

    Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon

    Charles Seife’s Proofiness
    Jennifer Ouellette’s The Calculus Diaries

    Ecology/Climate change
    Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
    Wally Broecker’s Fixing Climate

    I should stop. Never have I wanted so much to take a month off and re-read all of these and everything mentioned by others before me!

  19. Some oldies but goodies (they worked for me in high school): King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz; To Know a Fly by Vincent Dethier; A Zoo in My Luggage by Gerald Durrell (and pretty much anything else he wrote), Rats Lice and History by Hans Zinsser; One, Two, Three, Infinity by George Gamow. There’s so much good stuff now, but these are still great.

  20. Mark

    I’ll add:

    Big Bang by Simon Singh
    The Canon: The Beautiful Basics of Science – Natalie Angier

  21. GrueBleen

    Folks, that’s a really terrible list of books, they’re all about “stuff”.

    Not a single recommendation for the three things that everybody, not only HS kids, needs to know, and which are the least taught (if taught at all):

    1. How to think – not just how to critique an argument, but how to construct and communicate valid (verbal) arguments;

    2. How to solve problems – eg try G. Polya’s ‘How to Solve It’ if you have trouble with mathematical (and other) problems;

    3. How to learn. Effective learning isn’t just naturally inbuilt, you know. Like all human skills it’s learned and polished over years.

    But if you insist on mere “stuff”, how about: ‘Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk’ by Peter L Bernstein.

  22. Eleanor

    Darwin’s Dreampond: Drama in Lake Victoria by Tijs Goldschmidt
    Part travel book, part evolutionary biology textbook, part book about the environment. Some of the conclusions are now out of date, but this was one of the first books that made me want to work in science.

  23. gaddeswarup

    There are some free downloadable science books including three by J.B.S. Haldane here:
    Many more at Arvind Gupta Toys site.

  24. It’s specifically about dinosaurs, and is a big hardcover book instead of being suited to being read in an armchair, but Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages by Dr. Thomas Holtz ( certainly counts as a science book, and one for all ages indeed!

  25. One vote for T-Rex and the Crater of Doom.

  26. jojodancingbear

    a must would be microcosm by you know who!!!!

  27. StrangerTides

    Yes, _Microcosm_ should be on the list! Also how about Dawkins’ _River Out of Eden_. And Pinker’s _The Blank Slate_ although maybe it’s too long to fit into a high schooler’s reading schedule.

  28. Creatures of Accident: the Rise of the Animal Kingdom, by Wallace Arthur, and all those mentioned before. A list to drool over.

  29. Vi

    I like Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox. It’s more a biography than a science book, but there’s a fair amount of science in there, too.

    I wouldn’t assign Gödel, Escher, Bach to highschoolers, as one commenter suggested, but I think I Am a Strange Loop, also by Douglas Hofstadter, would be great.

    Stiff by Mary Roach would also be both enlightening and entertaining. Actually, pretty much anything by Mary Roach would hold highschoolers’ interest, although depending on the maturity of your students you might want to skip Bonk. She’s also got a new book coming out this fall called Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, which looks like it should be pretty interesting.

  30. I’d recommend the 2010 book, Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging and Mating, by Leslie Brunetta and Catherine L. Craig. Spiders are interesting to kids because they’re tiny but scary, because we run into them inside our houses and everywhere outside, because they’re builders of complicated, beautiful, resilient webs, and because everyone wants to know if their spider myths are true. The story of spiders shows how natural selection works, which high school science students need to understand.

  31. donncha

    Diamond’s “Guns. Germs & Steel” is a must read, and would also recommend “Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee”.

    “Stardust” – John Gribbin really struck a chord with me when I read it. That we are literally made of the remnants of stars is a real awe-inspriring concept.

    “Eating The Sun” – Oliver Morton, about the wonders of chlorophyll/photosynthesis is another good one.

    (I can see my credit card is going to get a workout with all these recommendations I’ve yet to read!!)

  32. Chris F.

    Melissa, I teach 7th grade science and I love to use popular science in class. My kids have bought Genome by Matt Ridley after reading the chapter on Huntingtons (chromosome 4) with me. We all loved The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Mutants by Armand LeRoi, Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks, At the Waters Edge by Carl, The Making of the Fittest by Sean Carroll, Next(a novel) by Michael Creighton, any of the Best American Science Writing, there is a compilation of Best Science Blogging I just bought. A Short History of Nearly Everything is good and not too technical, by Bryson (a couple of kids read A Walk In the Woods after). Acquiring Genomes by Lynn Margulis, of course Cosmos by Sagan. Check out The Open Notebook for a behind the scenes look at science writing. A Primates Memoir by Robert Sapolsky, Why Don’t Zebra’s Get Ulcers by the same. Life by Richard Fortey. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen. Whew, I’ll stop there, but isn’t it awesome how much great science there is to read, and we aren’t even talking about all the great blogs or articles from mags like The New Yorker. Hope this helps.

  33. Ben Capoeman

    Jared Diamond’s _Third Chimpanzee_, and if you’re suggesting Gould’s _Wonderful Life_ then the students should also read Simon Conway Morris’s _Crucible of Creation_. On my personal nightstand right now are _Microcosm_, Greene’s _Elegant Universe_ and Steven Pinker’s _The Blank Slate._ Astronomy changes too rapidly for books right now, maybe direct students to Galaxy Zoo?

  34. amy

    I read a couple books about schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder that fascinated me in high school —

    Sybil (fiction based on a true story about a dissociative personality)
    The Many Faces of Eve (by Freud I think)
    No One Promised You a Rose Garden (technically fiction)

    I think the Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat by Oliver Sacks would also be great high school reading and is short vignette-based non-fiction. Musicophilia is also good, just longer and more specific.

    Proust and the Squid about the brain’s development of reading may be good for advanced readers who don’t mind wading through some technical terms for parts of the brain.

    I read Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers in college and I don’t think it’s appropriate for high schoolers. Even in college I felt it was too long and a bit difficult to wade through. The concept behind it is great and fascinating, but a bit wordy.

  35. I like Larry Gonick’s cartoon science series. It may be geared more towards younger students, but I think high schoolers can benefit from his books. My favorite is “The Cartoon Guide to Genetics”. The basic principles of biology are extremely well laid out, makes a great read even for a university student (that’s when I first read the book!)

  36. John Gribbin

    Stardust is now available on Kindle.

  37. No Neuromance by William Gibson or Stranger in A Strangeland by Robert Heinlein?

  38. Dana

    I see many great titles here. I am an English teacher who would like kids to read both non-fiction and fiction. Scientists/ science fans: Can you recommend novels (and esp. novels that are well regarded) that can help feed inquiry/thinking about scientific topics? Thank you!!


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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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