Click to viewYou can't have great science fiction writing without great books about science. Ever since the nineteenth century, when Charles Darwin's classics On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man took the reading public by storm, popular science writing has been inspiring fictional thought experiments, as well as possibly less-inspiring political debates. What are the science books you should be reading now if you want your brain turned inside-out by weird new ideas that might just change the world for real? We've got 20 brilliant, and brilliantly-written, science books that have already influenced science fiction — or are about to.
Some of these books are well-known, and you will no doubt have heard of them. Others made it onto the list for exploring scientific discoveries that are less well-known but are nevertheless inspiring and mind-blowing.
I've listed them in chronological order, not in order of importance.
On the Origin of Species (1859), by Charles Darwin.
This is the book where Darwin first explained to the general public the theory of natural selection, in which species compete with each other for survival in specific environments. It remains an incredibly influential scientific treatise to this day.
Male and Female (1949), by Margaret Mead.
Mead was a celebrated anthropologist whose book Coming of Age in Samoa, based on years of research into tribal society, took the world by storm. While many of the observations she made in that book have been questioned in years since, her book Male and Female has endured the test of time. In it, she turned her anthropologist's eye to mating rituals and family networks in the United States, revealing to readers how strange their practices actually were. In particular, she made a gentle but persistent argument that perhaps we ought to question our gender roles and be less rigid about sexual relationships. Funny and well-written, the book was one of the first to use the tools of anthropology on the anthropologist's own society.
Animal Liberation (1975), by Peter Singer.
Singer is one of the most famous science ethicists in the world, and he made his first mark with this book. In it, he took the first of many radical positions about humans' place on Earth, and whether we are truly worth more than animals. He argued that an ethical society must treat animals compassionately, since they have the ability to suffer.
Godel, Escher, Bach (1979), by Douglas Hofstadter.
A book about math, meaning, complex symbols, and music, this tour-de-force is a beautifully-written classic of the science writing genre. Its intertwined tales of three influential thinkers - logician Godel, artist Escher, and composer Bach - is reminiscient of the scifi novels of Neal Stephenson.
Cosmos (1985), by Carl Sagan. The classic introduction to astrophysics, by one of the most accessible writers on the topic. Sagan was an astrophysicist himself, who worked tirelessly to secure funding for space exploration and inspire humans to search for their counterparts elsewhere in the universe.
The Selfish Gene (1990), by Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins is now primarily known as an atheist advocate, but his first big public splash came with this book, which argued that the basis for reproduction was the selfish urge to pass one's genes on. His analysis also included the urge to spread memes, or units of meaning, making the book a rather all-encompassing indictment of humans as selfish from the tiniest biological level to the broadest social one.
The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (1995), by Laurie Garrett.
This controversial look at the spread of diseases and pandemics in a world riddled with poverty and health care deficits is both fascinating and required reading for anybody interested in zombies or plague.
Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by its Most Brilliant Teacher (1995), by Richard P. Feynman.
The "easiest" (i.e., most accessible to people without degrees in the physical sciences) lectures from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. These are six lectures excerpted from his famous book Lectures on Physics, originally published in 1963. Learn about everything from atoms to quantum force.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1999), by Jared Diamond.
As influential as Dawkins' Selfish Gene, Diamond's book of evolutionary anthropology looks at why some civilizations succeeded in conquering vast parts of the globe while others died out or where conquered. Compassionate and interesting, Diamond's writing is persuasive and will change the way you look at civilization forever.
The Elegant Universe (2000), by Brian Greene.
All the freakiest new physics shit, explained clearly and with good humor, in one simple book.
The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography (2000), by Simon Singh.
A fascinating story of how different civilizations through time used math, science, and later computers to communicate across great distances, even through enemy territory, without letting their secrets out. Packed with cool information about code-cracking, ciphers, and even quantum cryptography, this is a must-read for anybody who wants to write about futuristic spies.
The Well: A Story of Love, Death, and Real Life in the Seminal Online Community (2001), by Katie Hafner.
There are dozens of good histories of the early internet out there, but none captures the human stories behind it as well as New York Times reporter Hafner's account of one of the first online community, The Well. In many ways, The Well was doing what Facebook and MySpace later did, only in the 1980s. Technically interesting and full of gripping human drama, Hafner's book is a forgotten classic.
The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People (2002), by David Barash and Judith Lipton.
Written by a psychologist and a zoologist, this is one of the most revolutionary science books to deal with mating behaviors. The authors lay out a careful, evidence-packed argument that monogamy is incredibly rare in the animal kingdom and that the human desire to cling to it as a norm may not have any basis in biological realities. Plus there are a ton of great stories about birds cheating on each other.
A User's Guide to the Brain (2002), by John Ratey.
Harvard neuroscientist Ratey uses lots of intriguing examples from everyday life to explain the complicated neurological mechanisms that allow you to do things like pay attention and access memories.
How the Universe Got Its Spots (2002), by Janna Levin.
Levin is a physicist who studies the origins of the universe, and is also a writer whose language is both clear and poetic. Something about cosmology invites poetic meditations, and Levin manages to combine somewhat melancholy explorations of her own place in the universe with complicated physics formulas to create one of the most interesting books you'll ever read.
Why Things Break (2003), by Mark Eberhart.
This isn't about how things break, but WHY things break. What is it about certain physical materials that causes them to crack, crumble, or collapse? Written by materials scientist Eberhart in an accessible, geekish-love-of-chemistry tone, this is perhaps the best introduction you'll ever get to the science that can answer the question of why bridges collapse and gaskets blow.
Evolution's Rainbow: Why Darwin Was Wrong About Sexual Selection (2004), by Joan Roughgarden.
Written as a sharp, highly-articulate rejoinder to people like Dawkins who believe that creatures reproduce for selfish reasons, Stanford evolutionary biologist Roughgarden proves that animals and people often collaborate in the process of reproduction for altruistic reasons. In the process, she answers the question of why so many animals regularly evolve homosexuality, a non-reproductive form of mating. She argues persuasively that non-reproducing animals are necessary to evolution.
How to Survive a Robot Uprising (2005), by Daniel H. Wilson.
Funny and bizarre, Wilson's book is a perfect blend of science writing and science fiction speculation — it's as if he's written a robotics guide for science fiction fans who want to know what could really, plausibly happen if robots were to revolt. Plus, there are a lot of tips for avoiding being killed by robots, which is always helpful.
Illegal Beings: Human Clones and the Law (2005), by Kerry MacIntosh.
MacIntosh is a law professor who has become profoundly interested in how current human rights law will affect human clones when they are born. She's done meticulous research on the topic, and demonstrated that in fact human clones will have no legal rights because they are "illegal beings." Given that so many researchers outside the U.S. are openly developing human reproductive cloning, this legal issue is likely to become serious over the next couple of decades. MacIntosh is the only person to have written about this from a purely legal point of view, and her findings are riveting.
The Science of Orgasm (2006), by Barry Komisauruk, Carlos Beyer-Flores, and Beverly Whipple.
One of the most coveted and talked-about forms of human pleasure, the orgasm has nevertheless suffered from a paucity of scientific study. At last, Rutgers researchers have tackled this elusive experience and written a terrific book about what actually happens to you — neurologically and chemically — when you have an orgasm. And there are even suggestions for how "orgasm chemicals" might be used in future painkillers. Nobody interested in the science of human experience should miss this book.