Reading the Great Books of Science

It’s been ages since I posted here, and I can’t let all the blog readers down, can I?!  I’ve been up to all sorts of fantastically nerdy things lately, which have kept me rather too busy for blogging, and which I will probably report on here in due time.  For now, let’s talk science and books, which as we all know, are two of my favorite things (the other top contenders for my favorite things being dogs, champagne, and Paris).

One of the many perks of working at a major research institution is that really awesome people come speak here.  Case in point: a few weeks back, I had the opportunity to attend a Q&A session with James Watson, as in Watson and Crick, as in discoverers of the double helix structure of DNA.  True story: the Q&A ended at the exact same time as I had to be across campus for the start of a class, so I knew I was going to have to leave early.  When I told this to one of my bosses, who was also attending, she said, “you’re going to get up and walk out while James Watson is talking?”  And indeed, that is exactly what I did. 🙂

However, before I left, one of the things Watson had to say that struck me was regarding what he referred to as “the great books.”  I forget exactly how he put it, but he said that he had appreciated his schooling for exposing him to these great books, which had helped shape his thinking.  This statement reminded me of a blog post I’d recently read about Carl Sagan’s reading list, written in his own hand and excerpted from his papers, now held by the Library of Congress.  As the blog post I’d read eloquently puts it, is it possible to “reverse engineer” a great mind by following in that thinker’s literary footsteps?

I’m sure it’s not so simple as that, but in any case, I decided that I would like to add to my already completely ridiculous collection of to-read books by creating my own “great books of science” library.  Based on my research into what one might currently consider the important books in science (at least for the non-scientist), I’ve started my library with the following titles:

  1. Charles Darwin – The Origin of Species
  2. Richard Dawkins – The Selfish Gene
  3. Stephen Hawking – A Brief History of Time
  4. Matt Ridley – Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters
  5. Carl Sagan – Cosmos

So far, I’m about 1/3 of the way into Genome, which I really enjoy (but I did also just start Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the reading of which has become a near-obsession that currently occupies almost all of my free time).  It’s a nice overview of evolution and genetics, though perhaps a little bit less technical than I would have liked, but certainly an enjoyable read.

So, dear blog readers, as you can see, my list is at present by no means comprehensive.  What would you add to a library of the “great books” of science?  Let me know in the comments so I can add to my Amazon wish list. 🙂

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