Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Best History of Science Books for 2009

Posted by Darin Hayton on 12/29 at 10:46 PM

As the year draws to a close, I thought it might be interesting to collect the year’s best science books. I surveyed the following newspaper and journal lists of the top books of 2009 and collated the science titles from those lists:

A total of seven (7) books on science or the history of science appeared in these lists, which represents a small fraction of the total number of books listed. Already the absence of science books has elicited comments about how it reveals some failing on the part of editors and, it seems to be implied, the book-buying public.1 It seems that the NY Times did a bit better this year than it did last year. Whereas last year only 3.8% of the titles were related to science, this year they included 5 in their list of 100 notable books.2 The books that did appear on these lists include (ordered by number of appearances, which is listed next to author):

  1. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Pantheon) by Richard Holmes — 4
  2. The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom (Basic Books) by Graham Farmelo — 2
  3. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope (Morrow) by William Kamkwama and Bryan Mealer — 2
  4. The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics was Reborn (Knopf) by Louisa Gilder — 1
  5. Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places (Little, Brown) by Bill Streever — 1
  6. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (Riverhead) by Steven Johnson — 1
  7. Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist (Houghton Harcourt) by Thomas Levenson — 1

Along with personal preferences of the editors—not everybody is going to find books about science notable, even when they recognize them as interesting—there are probably many reasons for the low number of science books, including stylistic and thematic issues. Some books on science and the history of science are poorly written. However important the science might be, a poorly written book is simply not notable. Sometimes the content is incredibly esoteric, and the author has made little effort to explain to the reader why the topic should be interesting. It’s hard to fault an editor for not selecting such a book as notable.3 Perhaps there would be more books about science if people who wrote such books didn’t assume, first, that the content is inherently interesting and therefore needs no justification and, second, that the importance of this inherently interesting content obviated any need to write engaging prose.

There are, no doubt, other books about science that merit some distinction. A quick glance at the list in the New Scientist or finalists for the Royal Society’s book prize (discussed in my Recent Non-fiction in the History of Science post) indicate that there are some good books on science. In a subsequent post I will compile a list of science titles from the New Scientist, Scientific American and related science-oriented journals and organizations.

1See Chad Orzel’s post Best Books, with Bonus Irony and the comments to that post. Last year he also took the NY Times and Publishers Weekly to task for not including more science titles. See his Science: 3.8% Notable and his Publishers Weekly Snubs Science, and the comments to those posts.
2I did not add up the total number of books in all the lists, so I cannot say what percentage of books this year were science related. I doubt it would be 3.8%, as many of the lists did not include any science books.
3Let me be clear, I am not endorsing the countless, celebrity memoirs, true-life stories of suffering and redemption, or other tales of loss that often crowd these lists. It might be worth asking, however, why such books are staples of these year-end, best-of lists. And the answer may have more to do with the how easily the audience can relate to such books than any real merit in them.

Tags: best books, bill streever, graham farmelo, history of science, literature, louisa gilder, richard holmes, science writing, steven johnson, thomas levenson