10 Books on The Art of Science

Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time revealed to me how fascinating and beautiful physics can be. Whether he was talking about black holes and explaining that if the universe had a beginning then it was likely to have an end, page after page Hawking was inspiring me to see the world in a new way and to follow him in asking big questions. How does time flow? How did our universe come together? What is matter? What is the spirit? I had by then received a thorough science oriented education, but I had no idea that science could be discussed in such a creative and beguiling manner.

Hawking (January 8, 1942-March 14, 2018) had many achievements in the fields of theoretical physics and cosmology. One was his famous Hawking radiation discovery. Black holes were long predicted to swallow everything that crossed the surface that surrounded them, event horizons, but Hawking showed that they emit radiation and even glow because of the energy they radiate. It was a revolutionary discovery, because in the process of explaining it Hawking connected two seemingly incompatible domains, that of quantum mechanics and relativity.

Even more important, however, was Hawking’s drive to make scientific subjects, even complex ones like theoretical physics, part of popular culture. He found it a loss that with the increasingly technical nature of science and the overspecialization of academia as a whole, few people, other than specialists could understand it. In his books like A Brief History of Time, The Grand Design or The Universe in a Nutshell he set out to show the general public why science can enchant with its ability to answer complex questions or ponder the mysteries of life.

Hawking also rejected the common idea that science and art were polar opposites, two domains that existed in different dimensions–the one rational and coolly detached, and the other intuitive and creative. It’s a nice, orderly image, but it’s entirely wrong. There is no artistic field, be it dance, painting, sculpture or perfumery, that doesn’t require an understanding of scientific processes, while all types of scientific endeavors rely on imagination and creative flair. Science too can be influenced by political considerations, societal biases and economic limitations.

Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis as a young man and contrary to all expectations he lived with this rare degenerative disease into his 70s, teaching, writing, pushing others to probe the meaning of the universe itself. As we say goodbye to this remarkable and courageous man, I’m going to share a selection of my favorite books on science.  If you haven’t yet read A Brief History of Time, please do. It’s a classic and a gem.

Selected Philosophical and Scientific Writings by Émilie Du Châtelet

Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise Du Châtelet (1706–49) was the French 18th century philosopher, mathematician, and authority on Leibniz and Newton. However, she’s more often remembered for her 15 year old love affair with Voltaire than for her own work. It’s a shame, because Du Châtelet’s writings are brilliant and full of novel ideas and sharp observations. Selected Philosophical and Scientific Writings by Émilie Du Châtelet brings together excerpts from Du Châtelet’s published and unpublished works, in addition to correspondence and a treatise on happiness.

If you’re interested in Du Châtelet’s biography, I highly recommend Judith Zinsser’s Emilie du Châtelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment. If you read French, please take a look at Elisabeth Badinter’s Emilie, Emilie ou l’Ambition Féminine au XVIIIe Siècle.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard P. Feynman

Richard Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, once said, “You see? That’s why scientists persist in their investigations, why we struggle so desperately for every bit of knowledge, stay up nights seeking the answer to a problem, climb the steepest obstacles to the next fragment of understanding, to finally reach that joyous moment of the kick in the discovery, which is part of the pleasure of finding things out.” This collection of short writings, lectures and interviews covers Feynman’s work and includes many entertaining stories. He had such a great sense of humor.

Another favorite book–and another classic by Feynman–is Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Madame Curie: A Biography by Ève Curie

Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867–1934) was one of the great scientists of the twentieth century and a winner of two two Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry. Eve Curie wrote this biography shortly after her mother’s death, and it’s a perfect tribute. It describes Curie’s childhood in Poland, scientific work in Paris and her efforts in the field of radioactivity.

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems is clear, accessible and elegantly written.  First published in 1632, it was Galileo’s demonstration–a proof–that the earth revolves around the sun. The book with its powerful arguments was the likely reason for Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition. It also contains many comments on various topics, from the nature of creativity to the understanding of the forces of nature.

“To apply oneself to great inventions, starting from the smallest beginnings, is no task for ordinary minds; to divine that wonderful arts lie hid behind trivial and childish things is a conception for superhuman talents.”

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene

Brian Greene, one of the leading string theorists, first gives the historical context to explain the evolution of physics and the big questions it tries to answer today. He then explains how string theory can unify Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity and quantum mechanics. String theory rests on the premise that the smallest subatomic particles, the building blocks of the universe, are generated by the vibrations of tiny loops of string. In other words, these vibrating, quivering loops of string are what make up the universe. Though the premise is simple, the theory itself is fiendishly complex, but Greene is the perfect person to explain it. The book is designed for a lay reader and has plenty of stories and clever analogies to make sense of the complicated topic. The Elegant Universe is also one of the most poetic and beautiful science books I’ve read.

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

One should read Sagan’s magnum opus if only for understanding how science matters in all spheres of human endeavors–and also for provocative arguments about the cosmic evolution and the future of science. Sagan’s erudition, clear prose and his ability to draw upon diverse fields like history, biology, chemistry and astronomy makes it easy to see the links between all things, an argument Sagan reinforces time and again in his book. A classic.

The Book of Trees by Manuel Lima

Did you ever consider why the files in your computer are arranged in a tree diagram-like format?  Data visualization expert Manuel Lima examines the history of the tree diagram, from ancient Assyrian carvings to modern data presentations. This book with more than 200 illustrations includes some beautiful examples from around the world. The second half of the book explains in technical terms why this means of visualization is so effective and persistent.

Science : Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal

The father of modern neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934), was an accomplished scientist, photographer, artist and a fine writer. I have already recommended Beautiful Brain, a book that includes his drawings of the brain, its cells and neural circuits, and I don’t hesitate to do it again, since it’s an intriguing and exquisite work. (By the way, his analysis of the olfactory system accompanied by detailed drawings made a major contribution to our understanding of the sense of smell.)

Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art

Vladimir Nabokov is known primarily as a novelist and translator. However, the author of Lolita was also an entomologist and a onetime lepidoptery curator at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Fine Lines includes 154 butterfly studies and scientific illustrations made by Nabokov. The drawings are beautiful, and they also contribute to the science of evolutionary biology through the methodical work Nabokov undertook to trace the markings on different species of butterflies. As Nabokov himself once said,  “I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.”

What books about science have you read and liked? What would you recommend?

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47 Comments

  • Asta: Thank you for the recommendations! I am definitely going to read Brian Greene’s book. I truly appreciate your blog. March 19, 2018 at 7:28am Reply

    • John B: Yeah, it’s one of my favorites too.
      Victoria, thanks for your list! March 19, 2018 at 12:52pm Reply

      • Victoria: You’re welcome, John. March 19, 2018 at 3:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you. It’s a very good book and he’s excellent at explaining the science and his theory. March 19, 2018 at 3:02pm Reply

  • Emilie: When I was little I found the idea of black holes or the universe ending so terrifying it almost caused a visceral reaction – like static electricity inside my brain! However I find Stephen Hawking explains these concepts in such a way that makes them seem mysterious, yes, but fascinating rather than terrifying!

    You are right Victoria, there is quite a poetry in the way the way he speaks about science and it is very inspiring. A unique soul.

    I’m afraid I do not have any scientific book recommendations because I’m primarily an escapist fiction devotee! March 19, 2018 at 8:22am Reply

    • Victoria: What are you favorite books at the moments? I certainly could use some escapist fiction recommendations. March 19, 2018 at 3:03pm Reply

      • Emilie: Eva Ibbotson’s Madensky Square swept me away to Vienna in the early 1900’s. Her descriptions of this city are so vivid and her style of writing is so witty that at times I even laugh aloud… embarrassing on the bus to work!

        Quite different in tone and another current favourite is the melancholy If I Told You Once by Judy Budnitz about four generations of women who travel from rural Europe to urban America. It’s written in that magical realism style similar to Like Water For Chocolate and I love it’s mix of family saga and fairytale. March 19, 2018 at 6:34pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you! I’m always curious to know what others are reading. Madensky Square with its setting in Vienna is especially tempting. March 20, 2018 at 5:48am Reply

          • Emilie: It’s a bit of a gem 🙂 March 20, 2018 at 7:13am Reply

  • John B: I just finished Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality. It’s a great read, but not an easy one. Greene’s earlier book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, is better for starters. March 19, 2018 at 12:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t read either, only browsed through them at the library. March 19, 2018 at 3:04pm Reply

  • Natalia: Wow! I had no idea Nabokov was such a good artist too. This book is for me, Fine Lines. March 19, 2018 at 1:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: He has some beautiful passages about the scent of butterflies in his books, including one in “Speak, Memory,” which describes a certain type of butterfly smelling like vanilla wafers. March 19, 2018 at 3:05pm Reply

  • Sandra: For someone who has a masters in development biology and worked in woman’s (reproductive) health for 14 years my tastes in science are a bit different.
    I recommend BONK! The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex By Mary Roach and I have heard her lecture as well.. March 19, 2018 at 1:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: Even better! I’m always happy to branch out in other other fields. March 19, 2018 at 3:06pm Reply

  • Joy: Victoria,

    Thank you for this wonderful reading list. I had read the biography of Madame Curie some time ago and found it fascinating and inspiring.
    I am currently reading LEONARDO, by Walter Isaacson. He was a person who is known for his art, but combined his knowledge of math, geometry into his art.
    I have been studying art and botanical drawing. It was quite amazing to me how much Fibonacci’s Numeric Sequence is used by botanical artists.
    The study of color by artists is another area of science in art. Artists also use geometry especially in landscape drawing/painting.
    I can’t leave off the use of science in cooking. One of my favorite magazines, COOK’S, uses Scientific Method to test and produce the most excellent recipes. I so enjoy reading about their process and then using their results to produce my own best results.
    I very much enjoyed this thought provoking article that has provided additional reading for me. March 19, 2018 at 3:14pm Reply

    • Victoria: Ah, this is a perfect addition! I would add Harold McGee’s books on the science of cooking to the list. Also, you reminded me of two more books on colors: Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay and Secret Language of Color by Joann Eckstut. I’ve never looked at colors in the same way since. March 19, 2018 at 3:45pm Reply

      • Joy: I studied color in my Design class last spring. We just scratched the surface on understanding color. More reading on the topic will be much appreciated. March 19, 2018 at 3:54pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’d love to do that more formally. It’s such a fascinating topic. March 19, 2018 at 4:46pm Reply

  • Alicia: Glad to see in this excellent list the name of Ramón y Cajal.

    I like to recommend :
    Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love.

    Ulrich Maché: The Stranger behind the Copernican Revolution. March 19, 2018 at 3:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for the great recommendations, as always. March 19, 2018 at 3:41pm Reply

  • Severine: Now these type of articles I really like. Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos is on my reading list. March 19, 2018 at 7:42pm Reply

    • Severine: Also: Birth of Physics by Michel Serres; and Gilbert Simondon March 19, 2018 at 7:45pm Reply

      • Severine: Also: Ernst Cassirer, Substance and Function. I was recently recommended to read Sapiens by Harari and found it very interesting. March 19, 2018 at 7:55pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’ve read only Homo Deus by Harari so far, but I’m on the fence about it. March 20, 2018 at 5:51am Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you! March 20, 2018 at 5:49am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m thinking of starting this one next. March 20, 2018 at 5:49am Reply

      • Severine: Longitude (2000) a made for tv film – I highly recommend watching. Keep writing such good articles. March 20, 2018 at 1:39pm Reply

  • Amber: This is a beautiful and well written article. Thank you for writing it. March 19, 2018 at 9:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, I’m glad you liked it. March 20, 2018 at 5:51am Reply

  • Nora Szekely: Hi Victoria and perfume lovers,
    Great recomendations. I’ve always been more interested in humanities than natural science but who is not fascinated with the questions regarding our origins and existence?
    I loved Feynman’s Six easy pieces and Sagan “The dragons of eden “. I shall seek out Brian Green ‘s books and the rest of Feynman’s works. March 19, 2018 at 10:59pm Reply

    • Victoria: Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman is such a fun book. He had a great sense of humor. March 20, 2018 at 5:52am Reply

  • Eudora: Thanks Victoria for the recommendations. I will read A brief History of Time.
    I watched a video with my daughter I want to recommend you all (it is compiled from excerpts taken from the documentary Hawking.)
    https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/c1a438df-322b-4f69-9747-5d84002cba6c/the-life-and-research-of-stephen-hawking/ March 20, 2018 at 9:34am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much. I’m going watch it tonight. March 20, 2018 at 10:13am Reply

  • Sarah: Victoria, This is a wonderful compilation covering such diverse topics! Thank you!
    ❤️👍🏻 March 20, 2018 at 12:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure to share! I’m glad that you liked it. March 21, 2018 at 4:48am Reply

  • Kate: Thank you Victoria, and thanks to everyone for their recommedations; some interesting reading here!

    Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and Reality is Not What it Seems do a skilled and elegant job at making quantum physics a (little) more understandable for those of us not trained in this specialism.

    And I can’t recommend enough Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atom Bomb: a work that combines history, science, and the gripping narrative of a thriller. It’s a very important book, as it explains how we got here, and the existential threat we face while these terrible weapons still exist in the world. March 20, 2018 at 4:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for your interesting recommendations. I’m adding them to my reading list. March 21, 2018 at 4:47am Reply

  • Notturno7: Thank you so much, Victoria and the other readers for your recommendations.
    I’m writing them down and I’ll forward this post to my book club friends!
    Happy reading 😊🌷 March 21, 2018 at 12:41am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you. Happy reading to you too! March 21, 2018 at 4:41am Reply

  • Mihwa Na: Thank you Victoria for the wonderful recommendations! Hawking’s idea that science is inseparable from the art resonates with me. March 22, 2018 at 2:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: It did with me too. I think many great scientists would agree. March 22, 2018 at 4:49pm Reply

  • Elisa: A Brief History of Time blew my mind when I first read it in high school. I was shocked to learn years later that it’s one of the most unfinished books — meaning according to ebook data people download it, start it and then abandon it with high frequency. (But it’s so short and so good!)

    The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene is also great. 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks.

    More math than science, but I LOVED How Not to be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg (a mathematician who also wrote a novel!) March 26, 2018 at 10:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you. How Not to be Wrong is on my list. March 27, 2018 at 7:01am Reply

  • Gregory Tozian: Victoria, What a marvelous blog. Thank you.
    I lived in France for years as a journalist and did a couple of stories on the perfume industry during that time. I fondly remember interviewing a well known “nose” near the Champs.(this was in the late 1980’s).
    I, too, love science books, having started writing science fiction stories and a novel in the past few years. I will recommend a couple below.
    I also love The Color of Pomegranates, and Parajanov in general. (Tarkovsky, whose memorial I attended at a Russian church off the Champs, in January, 1987, is my favorite. That chilly day in Paris, his wife and son were there, as well as Andrei in his wooden box) and about 150 others, including Mistislav Rostropovich, who played Bach on the cello on the steps of the church after. After waiting 20 minutes away minutes in the courtyard to compose myself, I went across the street to the bar, The City of Petrograd, to get a drink. I was stunned to see 25 others who had been at the memorial had the same idea. A bunch of Russian ex-pats invited me to drink too much vodka with them, which I did. But we toasted the great artist, of course. It was sad, but warming.
    Regarding science books: you simply must read the late American writer Loren Eiseley. His book “The Star Thrower”(all of this work, really) will electrify you. He was a deeply spiritual, poetic man. He was Ray Bradbury’s first influence to become a writer also, and he encouraged the lad, thankfully.
    Also, The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra’s 1975 classic marriage of physics and spirituality still resonates. I re-read it a couple of years ago while researching for my novel and found its observations, besides being “new” to people at the time it was written, still hold up well.
    Thanks again for you soulful, insightful blog. I signed up to receive your emails and look forward to future posts. Be at home in the world. Cheers, Greg Tozian April 13, 2018 at 8:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much for your kind words and such a fascinating story, Gregory! As for your book recommendations, I wrote them down and I will look for them. Thank you very much. April 17, 2018 at 10:50am Reply

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