A view From the Bridge

Tracking the propulsive power of science books

station-839208_960_720What makes a science tome so audacious, original and right that it kickstarts a life’s journey, propelling someone to the bench or field? Science writer Ann Finkbeiner (of The Last Word on Nothing) has written about that for A View from the Bridge. And when Academic Book Week fired up on 23 January, I started musing anew about encounters with remarkable books.

Academic Book Week celebrates “the diversity, innovation and influence of academic books” as forces shaping modern Britain. The popular vote went to economist John Maynard Keynes‘s 1936 The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. But despite the inclusion of works by Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and James Watson in the ABW top 20, I saw a relative dearth of science in there. (No mention, for instance, of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species or D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form.) Books that reveal the complexities of a culture to itself are essential. Books that unpick the complexities of nature seem as key.

So we asked readers to vote for their top science read – broadening the discussion by including any in the English language. Science writer David Quammen, for instance, cites David Hull’s 1988 Science as a Process and Horace Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation (1979). Dawkins and Hawking are a noted presence, while Carl Sagan looms largest. Here’s a sampling:


A straw poll among colleagues yielded more rich pickings. US news editor Lauren Morello recalls reading The New York Times Guide to the Return of Halley’s Comet (1985) cover to cover at age seven, while James Gleick’s 1992 Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman proved a beacon in high school. Podcast editor Kerri Smith extols Oliver Sacks‘s 1985 The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, “which made science feel like storytelling and was so much more pleasurable to read than the classic but quite dense pop science I had read before”. She notes further: “Maybe not a causal relationship, but I did a MSc in neuroscience a couple of years later.”

Nature reporters reported no less galvanising reads. Heidi Ledford recalls encountering Cosmos early on – and “how excited I felt whenever I picked it up”. As a teenager, Lizzie Gibney found that Hawking’s A Brief History of Time “really made me think science. The Time and Space of Uncle Albert had a huge influence too.” Ewen Callaway names thrilleresque 1995 The Hot Zone – Richard Preston’s non-fiction tome on viral haemorrhagic fever – as key. And Amy Maxmen opts for E.O. Wilson’s 1994 Naturalist, which she writes “made me get serious about bug collecting in high school, which resulted in a 10-year detour in science”.

What science classic pried open the door to your life in science? We’d love to know: answers either to the comments on A View from the Bridge, or to @naturenews with the hashtag #AcBookWeek.


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.


  1. Rainald Koch

    Rainald Koch said:

    Earliest science book I remember, read years ahead of curriculum: R. BRENNEKE / G. SCHUSTER: Physik – Felder Wellen Atome Quanten.
    Latest science book that affected my thinking: E.T. Jaynes Probability Theory: The Logic of Science.

  2. Geoffrey Watson

    Geoffrey Watson said:

    Valence, by C.A. Coulson revealed the real beauty of the science behind A-level chemistry.

  3. Matthew von der Ahe

    Matthew von der Ahe said:

    Lives of A Cell, Lewis Thomas. Captivated my young mind.

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