Still not quite the service memoir I'm looking for.
The Great Citizen Reader Survey of 2011

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Science

Okay, we're going to finish up our alternative take on the Time 100 Best Nonfiction list if it kills me. Today's a big category, but at least it's one I understand: Science.

Now when I say I understand, I mean I understand it as a category. I emphatically don't understand science (or math) as a concept; if I did I'd be a lot more successful.* What I find annoying about science is that someone can explain it to me all they want, even fairly graspable concepts like electricity, and a minute later I'll have forgotten EVERY SINGLE THING about the explanation. It's like the Men in Black came through with their mind-wipey thing. Mr. CR says this is what I do when I'm not interested in something--in goes in one ear and out the other without making any sort of impression. So whether it is a question of being intellectually deficient or just uninterested, you'd think this would be a category I wouldn't enjoy.

But I do. When I find a good, readable, understandable, and yes, the most overused word of all, compelling science book, I really really love it. So I'm excited to discuss this one. Now, here are the books Time listed:

A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking
Coming of Age in Samoa, by Margaret Mead
The Double Helix, by James Watson
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer**, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Lives of a Cell, by Alice Park
The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris
On Human Nature, by Edward O. Wilson
The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins
Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn

This is a poor list, in my opinion, and one that is skewed too heavily to the biological and "soft" sciences (particularly the Margaret Mead--I might argue about anthropology being a true "science"--and I say that as someone with a degree in library "science," so I know how broad labels can be). Of course the Hawking title is there, although it reminds me of something I read once that posited that that book was the most bought and least read book in the world, which seems to me about right. There's nothing really wrong with the titles themselves, particularly if you want to read books that have proved controversial--like the Morris and Dawkins books (I'm a bit suprised that Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb isn't listed here, as it was also hugely controversial), and some of them are quite good. But let's see what we can come up with:

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, by James Watson. This is an EXCELLENT choice. If you read only one science book in your life, make it this one. Not only is it a fantastic discussion of the discovery of the structure of DNA and the birth of the study of genetics as we know it, but Watson as an author is not only good at explaining the science, he's also like your favorite chatty cousin who always knows the best gossip on everyone and isn't afraid to share. Regardless of how you feel about his treatment of women scientists (did he and Crick rip off their colleague Rosalind Franklin's research?), it's a fascinating read.

Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering, by Henry Petroski. It would behoove everyone to know a little something about engineering as an applied science, and Petroski makes the topic exciting (yes, exciting!) in this consideration of engineers pushing the envelope.

The Last Sorcerers: The Path from Alchemy to the Periodic Table, by Richard Morris. Very readable history of science/chemistry.

An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, by Diane Ackerman. I'm not a Diane Ackerman fan myself but I've known lots of very smart mathy and sciencey people who enjoy her, so I thought she deserved a place on the list. This is one of her more well-known titles, about the brain (which is always a fascinating subject to read about, I think).

Fallout, by Jim Ottaviani, with Suspended in Language (about physicist Niels Bohr) being a close second. This is a graphic novel about the development of the atomic bomb, and it is quite possibly the best science book I've read. Ottaviani is a super talent.

Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures, by Carl Zimmer. Quite possibly the most memorable science (or any genre, for that matter) title I have ever read. Parasites are fascinating, although their ick factor is high. But they're most definitely here to stay and their lives are entwined with ours, so it's important to know about them, and Zimmer is a fantastic science author.

Prime Obsession Bernhard Riemann & the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics, by John Derbyshire. I think there should be at least one math book on this list, and frankly, this is the only one I've ever finished. I tried Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace, but it was beyond me. Like, it didn't even feel like it was in English, beyond me.

I was a little surprised there wasn't anything by Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Dava Sobel, Jonathan Weiner, or Michio Kaku on the Time list, frankly, they're big names in the field. And both of our lists are remiss in the fields of astrophysics/space exploration--do you have any titles in that area or others that you could suggest?

*I often worked the Friday night shift at the public library, and when proud parents would tell me how advanced their children were in reading, I always wanted to say, "You know where that gets you? That's right--working behind a public service desk at 8 p.m. on a Friday night. I'd encourage your child in math, if I were you."