Great Minds in Modern Science Writing Don’t All Think Alike

Geek Culture

(Image: Oxford University Press)(Image: Oxford University Press)

(Image: Oxford University Press)

I have often wanted to sink my teeth into real writing by real scientists, but I don’t feel qualified to dig through the endless of pages of writing to find snippets that get to the point. I don’t have time to read entire books or papers on subjects that are way over my head. So I was very glad to come across a book that had done all of the gathering for me. I can finally read what scientists themselves had to say about their chosen fields, and about life in general, all in one place.

The book is The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, and Oxford University Press was kind enough to send me a review copy. Richard Dawkins, famous biologist and Darwinian evolution supporter, put together this impressive anthology of writing by modern scientists. For the purposes of this book, “modern” is defined as being written in the past 100 years, more or less. Dawkins did much more than just assemble the writings, however. He organized and wrote introductions to each of them. The introductions give some background for the topic and, if needed, the scientist. It puts the writing in some context.

Throughout the book, all of the well-written entries teach you about who the scientists are or were, their passions, how they came to be scientists and anything else they felt moved to write. Personal experiences about their scientific careers are related. You get a view into the mind of the scientists, a glimpse into their thought processes and and an explanation of their work in their own words.

There are big names and some not so big names. The book includes plenty of scientists that I’ve heard of, such as Rachel Carson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Leakey, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks, Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Erwin Schrödinger, Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking. There are also quite a few names that I haven’t heard of. The book is divided into four sections: what scientists study, who scientists are, what scientists think and what scientists delight in. Some of the subjects covered include: astronomy, biology, genetics, evolution, math in science, flora and fauna, ecosystems, chemistry and relativity.

Some of the 83 selections are very short and some span several pages. Some will teach you something new, others will only pique your interest and make you want to read more. I find that reading books like this one leaves me with pages of notes on things I’ve learned, and many more pages of things I want to learn. This book will give you a taste of many branches of science, many fields of research and study.

Richard Dawkins explains it best as to why this book is a great read: “This is a collection of good writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers.”

I especially liked “Avoid Boring People” by James Watson. It contains good advice for life, not just for science. Another favorite of mine was, as always, the entertaining genius of theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. His writing is always enjoyable, and he has a way of explaining complicated concepts in a way that is easy to understand, and quite fun to read. His section entitled “The Character of Physical Law” is much more interesting than the title suggests.

Oxford sums up the book very well: “Each essay or excerpt has been selected and is personally introduced by Dawkins, producing a collection that is as wide-ranging and intellectually substantial as it is a pleasure to read.” I know this book will be picked up and read many times in our house.

Wired: This book is almost 400 pages of science-y goodness. There’s no fluff here, it’s all solid scientific thought, research and writing. For the length and content, it’s an incredibly good price.

Tired: The book only has a few diagrams and graphs, so if you’re a visually oriented person, you’ll need to work to create images in your mind.

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