Sunday, February 14, 2010

More on Important Books in the History of Science

Posted by Darin Hayton on 02/14 at 05:18 PM

Because no list can escape critique, The Curious Wavefunction has lambasted the BBC’s most recent list of 100 important books from the past two centuries (apparently this list is being circulated on Facebook. I don’t have a Facebook, so I can’t verify the contents of the BBC list. A quick google search seemed to suggest that the list that attracted The Curious Wavefunction’s attention is, perhaps, rather old and confined to works of fiction).1 In a post titled “An alternative BBC list for the “educated” mind” The Curious Wavefunction takes the BBC to task for omitting entirely books on science: “But what is startling by orders of magnitude is that this list of 100 books does not include a single scientific work.”

I’m less interested in criticizing the BBC’s list of books than I am interested in presenting The Curious Wavefunction’s list of important scientific books:

  1. The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
  2. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn
  3. The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Karl Popper
  4. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
  5. Science and the Common Understanding, J. Robert Oppenheimer
  6. Principia Mathematica, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead
  7. Physics and Philosophy, Werner Heisenberg
  8. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, Edwin Abbott
  9. On Growth and Form, D’Arcy Thompson
  10. What is Life?, Erwin Schrodinger
  11. Men of Mathematics, E T Bell
  12. Microbe Hunters, Paul De Kruif
  13. The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould
  14. The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
  15. Sociobiology, E O Wilson
  16. Mr. Tompkins, George Gamow
  17. The Double Helix, James Watson
  18. The Nature of the Chemical Bond, Linus Pauling
  19. Chaos, James Gleick
  20. Advice to a Young Scientist, Peter Medawar
  21. The Two Cultures, C P Snow

While the importance of some of these titles might seem, at first glance, abundantly clear, I would like to question that assumption. Can we justify these titles? And what books would you add to this list, and why? And to make it interesting, let’s not limit the list to books written in the last 200 years. Tentatively, I would add (roughly in chronological order):

  • Johannes Regiomontanus, Dialogus inter Viennensem et Craviensem … — to see how the foremost astronomer in 15th-century Europe criticized the standard astronomy textbook used in universities across the continent.
  • Sebastian Münster, Cosmographia — because of how it articulates a set of questions about geography, astronomy, and ethnography.
  • Johannes Kepler, Mysterium cosmographicum and Astronomia nova — to watch Kepler struggle with the problems of understanding the solar system within the framework of Copernicanism, filtered through a set of strong religious convictions.
  • Galileo Galilei, Dialog on the Two New Sciences — to see how Galileo presents his work, rhetorically, as unassailable.
  • William Harvey, De motu cordis — to see how Harvey was influenced by the mechanical philosophy and how that played itself out in his efforts to understand the human body.
  • Isaac Newton, Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica — to see him synthesize terrestrial and celestial physics without using calculus.

What would you add?

1This page and this one contain the claim that the BBC assumes people will have read only about 6 of the 100 books listed. The Curious Wavefunction repeats this same expression. While it is possible that the BBC has released another list and still assumes people will have read only six of the titles, it strikes me as unlikely.

Tags: best books, the canon