Whether you feel like you’ve lost touch with your inner nerd or you want to make amends for causing chaos in double chemistry, here are five books that will fire up that Bunsen burner in your heart for science.
He’s the most famous man you’ve never heard of. Alexander von Humboldt could boast of friendships with Goethe, Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolivar and Napoleon Bonaparte had a personal vendetta against him. His fields of investigation were as diverse as his friends: physics; astronomy; biology; literature; history; climate change; politics and geology, just to name a few. Years before Darwin set sail in HMS Beagle, Humboldt personally financed a trip to South America where he summited Chimborazo. Reaching the top, Humboldt realised that everything in the world was connected. Yet history has forgotten Humboldt and all of the contributions he made to future generations of scientists. The Invention of Nature remedies that wrong and reveals Humboldt’s unique vision of the interconnected laws of nature and the importance of adventure and generosity in forging scientific breakthroughs.
Combining a personal journey into his own family’s genetic history with an extensive history of the discovery of the existence of DNA, Pulitzer prize winner Siddhartha Mukherjee weaves a fascinating tale of how science provides answers about our identity but can be abused if not fully understood. A comparison between the Nazi’s belief that identity was genetically determined and inflexible and the Soviet Union’s belief that humans were entirely pliable neatly demonstrates the danger of a little knowledge. Mukherjee takes us as far as modern science has in understanding the principles of genetics and stresses the importance of marrying science to an ethical framework that will avoid abusing what little knowledge we currently have about our genome.
One of this century’s best loved science writers, Oliver Sacks somehow found time to write in an accessible and humorous way about some the most inaccessible areas of neurology and science. Uncle Tungsten is a vivd and charming memoir of a childhood full of delight at scientific discovery and magic-like chemical experiments, set against a background of an eccentric, science-focussed family and the Blitz of London. If there’s a single book that will set you on a path to read more about science, it’s the one.
The sign of a brilliant writer is being able to explain complex ideas in as few words as possible. Carlo Rovelli gets through seven important concepts in physics in 78 pages. From Einstein’s general theory of relativity through to black holes, Rovelli turns physics into poetry. It’ll leave you either feeling you’d wished you paid closer attention in high school science classes or that you want to go back to them. A must read for anyone wanting to hold their own next time a friend begins to elaborate on the “real science” behind Interstellar.
Don’t let the subject matter terrify you: maths doesn’t have to be as dry as you remember it at school. The author wrote a book on mathematics and America’s favourite four-digited family, the Simpsons, so you can trust him to make the story about how one of the oldest mysteries in maths was solved isn’t drier than weetabix sans milk. Even if understanding the maths behind how Fermat’s last theorem was solved isn’t your cup of tea, the drama behind Andrew Wiles’ eight year struggle to solve the problem first proposed in 1637 is a exceptional story of endeavour and brainpower.
Written by Florence Walker