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Curl Up with a Good Science Book

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Today’s post is from science reference librarian Stephanie (Sam) Marcus who has written My Favorite Day for Inside Adams.

“Dig” by Sadie Wendell Mitchell (c1909).

On a chilly winter day or night it’s nice to curl up with a good book. So why not a good science book? If you want to be entertained, you could chuckle at the adventures of Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (1985). Or try Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003). If you’re in the mood for beautiful prose, select any book by physician Lewis Thomas, such as The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher [1974]. And for a good mystery, look to Alan Cutler’s The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood and the Humble Genius Who Discovered a New History of the Earth  (2003)*  or Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body  (c2008) – on my e-reader and a great read!

If you enjoy biographical works, Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind  (c2006) or E.O. Wilson’s Naturalist  (c1994), are your tickets, along with Jonathan Weiner’s Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior (1999).

For the perpetually curious, I would suggest The Genius Within: Discovering the Intelligence of Every Living Thing  (c2002) by neurosurgeon Frank T. Vertosick, Jr. (which poses the question, “are bacteria smarter than we are?”), or perhaps The Secret House: The Extraordinary Science of an Ordinary Day  (2003) by David Bodanis. If these don’t get your attention, how about this title penned by Donovan Hohn: Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,000 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them (2011).

When I was thinking recently about my favorite science books, I wondered if there were any awards, similar to the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner, specifically for science books. I discovered at least three. The oldest is The Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, which has been around since 1959. It is normally awarded each December, but when I called them then, I was told it had been delayed. I still haven’t seen an announcement. The winner in 2011 was Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century  (2010) by Burton Richter. It is fun to look at the long list of previous winners, which includes the already mentioned Your Inner Fish, (2008), as well as books by James Gleick, Stephen Jay Gould, Freeman Dyson, Barry Commoner, Linus Pauling, Rene Dubos, and E.O. Wilson. Here’s the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science  full list of winners.

The Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books dates back to1988. The prize has had various sponsors through the years until Winton Capital Management took over in 2011. You can see the list of winners and nominees back to the beginning on the Royal Society website. James Gleick’s book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (2011) won in 2012. A couple other nominees from 2012 that look interesting are Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything  (2011) by Joshua Foer and My Beautiful Genome: Exposing our Genetic Future, One Quirk at a Tme (2011) by Danish author and neurobiologist Lone Frank, who had her own genome analyzed.

Good books are life teachers

The Information also captured the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award in 2012. This was only the second year this prize, which celebrates writing that exemplifies literary excellence on the subject of physical and biological sciences, was offered. It was founded by scientist/author E.O. Wilson and actor/environmentalist Harrison Ford. The first award in 2011 went to The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer  (c2010) by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The Emperor also won a Pulizter Prize for nonfiction in 2011.

To show some of these wonderful books and get our visitors interested in them, I decided to create an exhibit in the Science Reading Room. The reading list that accompanies the exhibit is now up on our website, so please take a look and see if there is something that catches your eye:

Curl Up with a Good Science Book! Science Book Award Winners and Other Good Reads: Selected Reading List

I would welcome your suggestions or favorites for a good science read, as well as your comments on books from the list you may have read. Please use the comments section for your remarks. Who knows–you may see your choices on an upcoming list. One of the themes our Division will be tackling this year is science literacy, so we will be looking for books that can appeal to both scientists and nonscientists.

* Alan Cutler spoke at the Library in 2005 about his book The Seashell on the Mountaintop- you can view his talk here.


  1. The science book that turned me on to the ocean was Wilfrid S. Bronson’s CHILDREN OF THE SEA. With dozens of brilliantly drawn (and accurate) illustrations of sea life, Bronson excites the reader about the ocean.

    I became a professional diver after that, and wrote five books about the sea.

    Thumbs up for a book any scientist would be glad for his/her child to read.


    Don C. Reed

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