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Take a Good Book Around

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Reading a wide selection of books of differing genres can ignite the imagination, promote new perspectives, and alter the way we view the world as a whole. As scientists, it is important to think literally, laterally and critically. An inspirational book can help you hone these skills.

We recently asked our social media followers to recommend “One book every scientist should read before they die”, with no restrictions or specifications, just a book they love, that would appeal to an inquisitive mind. The amazing response had us all reaching for our Kindles, purchasing books and downloads, so we’ve decided to share a selection of the books that showcase the diverse recommendations received.

Assuming that you have read the “greats” which include Hawking, Darwin and Dawkins (or like most of us, you intend to but never quite get around to it!), these are footnoted at the bottom. To give you something a little different, we produced a list of the most popular book suggestions* that we feel appeal to scientists from any field. To offer a balanced view, we have included the Goodreads (GR) and Amazon (AZ) ratings for your reference.

If this list encourages you to read one new book, one which you possibly hadn’t contemplated reading, we consider our job done! So let’s turn our phones off and take a good book around with us instead.

“When you read a book, you hold another’s mind in your hands” – James Burke

*Whilst we enjoyed the recommendations for 50 Shades of Gray and Where’s Waldo, they didn’t quite make the cut – sorry folks!

1984 – George Orwell (GR 4.17, AZ 4.5)

This modern classic, based around a dystopian future where The Party controls your every waking move and thought, is an all-engrossing read that will make you question the world around you! Did we mention this is also in the top 50 books sold of all time?

“A startling and haunting vision of the world, 1984 is so powerful that it is completely convincing from start to finish. No one can deny the influence of this novel, its hold on the imaginations of multiple generations of readers, or the resiliency of its admonitions – a legacy that seems only to grow with the passage of time.” – Amazon.com

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - and the World – Rachel Swaby (GR 3.98, AZ 4.6)

Women in science are finally starting to receive the recognition they deserve. Encouraging children to enjoy and pursue science from a young age is essential to ensure the number of previously unrepresented scientists continues to flourish. One way to ignite this science spark is tales of past success and scientific glory, both of which are strewn within these pages. This book is a must for any scientist, young or old, to help inspire the next generation.

“Headstrong delivers a powerful, global, and engaging response. Covering Nobel Prize winners and major innovators, as well as lesser-known but hugely significant scientists who influence our every day, Rachel Swaby’s vibrant profiles span centuries of courageous thinkers and illustrate how each one’s ideas developed, from their first moment of scientific engagement through the research and discovery for which they’re best known. This fascinating tour reveals 52 women at their best – while encouraging and inspiring a new generation of girls to put on their lab coats.” – Amazon.com

All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thought on Common Things Robert Fulguhm (GR 4.02, AZ 4.6)

A New York Times #1 bestseller, this book explores the concept that the most basic aspects of life bear its most important opportunities. The magic woven within these pages will take you back to a simpler time – if needed it will also hopefully restore your faith in humanity!

“Here Fulghum engages us with musings on life, death, love, pain, joy, sorrow, and the best chicken-fried steak in the continental United States. The little seed in the Styrofoam cup offers a reminder about our own mortality and the delicate nature of life... a spider who catches (and loses) a full-grown woman in its web one fine morning teaches us about surviving catastrophe... the love story of Jean-Francois Pilatre and his hot-air balloon reminds us to be brave and unafraid to “fly”...  life lessons hidden in the laundry pile  magical qualities found in a box of crayons... hide-and-seek vs. sardines – and how these games relate to the nature of God. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is brimming with the very stuff of life and the significance found in the smallest details.” – Amazon.com

A Short History of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson (GR 4.2, AZ 4.6)

Bill Bryson is a much-loved author who has enjoyed global success with many informative and humorous books. Known for his engaging and witty writing style and humor, Bryson has covered a variety of topics such as travel and language. This book is arguably one of his most popular and entertaining, covering (as the title suggests) pretty much, well, everything! You will feel pop-quiz-ready after this one.

“Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds.” – Amazon.com

Bad Science: Quack, Hacks, and Big Pharma FlacksBen Goldacre (GR 4.07, AZ 4.6)

Bad Science offers a no-holes barred look at the state of public perception with respect to medicine, and how this is molded and influenced by big pharma and media. One day red wine is good for you, the next day it’s bad, a pill is revered a ‘wonder-drug’ only to be pulled for its terrible side effects. Who decides if we should drink the wine, and how did that pill pass all the stringent pharma testing processes? We are bombarded daily with half-truths and pseudoscience. We need someone to bring us some truths. Dr Goldacre is that man. And it ain’t half funny!

“Ben Goldacre has made a point of exposing quack doctors and nutritionists, bogus credentialing programs, and biased scientific studies. He has also taken the media to task for its willingness to throw facts and proof out the window. But he's not here just to tell you what's wrong. Goldacre is here to teach you how to evaluate placebo effects, double-blind studies, and sample sizes, so that you can recognize bad science when you see it. You're about to feel a whole lot better.” – Amazon.com

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (GR 3.94, AZ 4.2)

In a futuristic world of genetically modified citizens, where class hierarchy is labor and intelligence-based, Brave New World will catapult you into a utopian world where populations are controlled and kept peaceful by the use of ‘soothing drugs’. But one outsider could change everything.

This book has met much critical acclaim and has been placed amongst some of the greatest novels of all time in lists such as the Modern Library’s list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

“Aldous Huxley is rightly considered a prophetic genius and one of the most important literary and philosophical voices of the 20th Century, and Brave New World is his masterpiece.” – Amazon.com

Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the WindCarl Sagan (GR 4.27, AZ 4.7)

Sagan is on a mission to debunk the myths of pseudoscience misinformation and bring some rational thought and evidence-based facts back to the forefront of science and society. This book will get you thinking and provide you with some excellent ammunition for your next Thanksgiving dinner ‘discussions’.

“Casting a wide net through history and culture, Sagan examines and authoritatively debunks such celebrated fallacies of the past as witchcraft, faith healing, demons, and UFOs. And yet, disturbingly, in today's so-called information age, pseudoscience is burgeoning with stories of alien abduction, channeling past lives, and communal hallucinations commanding growing attention and respect.” – Amazon.com

Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ Danial Goleman (GR 4.00, AZ 4.3)

As we all know, a high IQ is not a golden ticket to a long lifetime filled with happiness, success and wealth. So, what are the greatest influencers to living your best life? Emotional Intelligence considers the whole mind in two parts – the rational and the emotional – and offers a persuasive argument to the five crucial skills of emotional intelligence and how they set the bar for what ‘smart’ really is. And the best thing about all this? It isn’t set in stone from birth, and so giving yourself a rich understanding of the emotional spectrum may help you succeed in future endeavors. Get reading!

“Daniel Goleman's brilliant report from the frontiers of psychology and neuroscience offers startling new insight into our “two minds”—the rational and the emotional—and how they together shape our destiny. Through vivid examples, Goleman delineates the five crucial skills of emotional intelligence, and shows how they determine our success in relationships, work, and even our physical well-being.” – Amazon.com

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human SocietiesJared Diamond (GR 4.02, AZ 4.3)

This Pulitzer Prize winner chronicles the way the modern world came to be, exploring all the geographical and environmental factors involved. This is surprisingly readable considering the massive scope and depth of information, and will no doubt spark an interest in human history. Diamond starts out by looking into the first successful societies, and what made them successful, and moves seamlessly throughout human history up to modern day man, with all its highs and lows - from technology, to germs and weapons of mass destruction.

“In this "artful, informative, and delightful" (William H. McNeill, New York Review of Books) book, Jared Diamond convincingly argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world. Societies that had had a head start in food production advanced beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, and then developed religion – as well as nasty germs and potent weapons of war – and adventured on sea and land to conquer and decimate preliterate cultures.” – Amazon.com

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyDouglas Adams (GR 4.22, AZ 4.7)

Loved by readers of all ages, this wonderfully witty sci-fi adventure transcended the genres and made sci-fi accessible to everyone. Now a box office hit in movie form, this story introduces crazy, loveable characters you will never forget, and may provide you with an answer to that immortal question… what is the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything?!

“Extremely funny... inspired lunacy... [and] over much too soon.” – The Washington Post Book World

“A whimsical odyssey... Characters frolic through the galaxy with infectious joy.” – Publishers Weekly

Sapiens: A Brief History of MankindYuval Noah Hariri (GR 4.45, AZ 4.5)

This book has the highest Goodreads rating on this list. Sapians spans the whole of human history, starting 100,000 years ago when there were at least six human species, to the present time. Harari tackles many bold subjects such as religion and war, and the human psyche – why do we believe in human rights and gods, and why do we trust money, books and the law? An excellent and highly recommended read.

“From a renowned historian comes a groundbreaking narrative of humanity’s creation and evolution – a #1 international bestseller – that explores the ways in which biology and history have defined us and enhanced our understanding of what it means to be “human.” – Amazon.com

Science Set FreeRupert Sheldrake (GR 4.09, AZ 4.6)

Originally released in the UK as The Science Delusion, Dr Sheldrake delves into the sometimes-murky waters of modern day science, and offers the opinion that current scientific techniques and scientific thinking is constricted by assumptions that have turned into dogmas. Dr Sheldrake explores the possibility of science being a belief-system and turns the ten fundamental dogmas of materialism into exciting questions. This is a real thought-provoker.

“The bestselling author of Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home offers an intriguing new assessment of modern-day science that will radically change the way we view what is possible.” – Amazon.com

Surely You’re Joking, Mr FeynmanRichard Feynman (GR 4.28, AZ 4.6)

Richard Feynman was arguably one of the most colorful characters in science. Winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, Feynman was an inquisitive and highly intelligent man, who retells some of his most interesting and outrageous stories within these pages. From discussing atomic physics with Einstein, to cracking the uncrackable safes guarding nuclear secrets, Feynman was a man who lived his life to the full and can tell an anecdote with wit and charm. Very entertaining book.

One of the most famous science books of our time, the phenomenal national bestseller that "buzzes with energy, anecdote and life. It almost makes you want to become a physicist." – Science Digest

The AlchemistPaulo Coelho (GR 3.85, AZ 4.6)

This incredible piece of literature has sold over 65 million copies, placing it in the top 20 books sold of all time. The novel is based around a young shepherd boy who yearns to travel the world. A real emotional ride, teaching us how to follow our hearts. Inspirational.

“Combining magic, mysticism, wisdom and wonder into an inspiring tale of self-discovery, The Alchemist has become a modern classic, selling millions of copies around the world and transforming the lives of countless readers across generations.” – Amazon.com

The Brain That Changes Itself Norman Doidge (GR 4.21, AZ 4.7)

This psychoanalytical piece delves into the new science of neuroplasticity, and explains how this new way of viewing the brain has already had life-changing effects for many people. Dr Doidge travels around the country meeting scientists and patients; in one story, we meet a lady born with half a brain, which concurrently rewired itself to work as if whole! Incredible neuroscience, well worth a read.

“An astonishing new science called "neuroplasticity" is overthrowing the centuries-old notion that the human brain is immutable. In this revolutionary look at the brain, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge, M.D., provides an introduction to both the brilliant scientists championing neuroplasticity and the people whose lives they've transformed.” – Amazon.com

The Disappearing Spoon: And other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the ElementsSam Kean (GR 3.91, AZ 4.5)

Kean takes us on a rollercoaster ride through the discovery of the elements, and how each individual story affected the people who made the discovery – whether good or bad! The narrative makes The Disappearing Spoon accessible to scientists and non-scientists alike, whilst showing us the true importance of the elements.

“The Periodic Table is a crowning scientific achievement, but it's also a treasure trove of adventure, betrayal, and obsession.” – Amazon.com

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksRebecca Skloot (GR 4.05, AZ 4.6)

Scientists know this lady as HeLa. Her cells were taken without her permission and have been bought and sold by the millions, helping in major scientific breakthroughs such as vaccines and gene mapping. Yet her family cannot afford health insurance. This is an intimate and beautifully written investigation into the truth behind the Henrietta Lacks story.

“This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.” – Amazon.com

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat Oliver Sacks (GR 4.05, AZ 4.2)

Oliver Sacks was a brilliant practicing neurologist with a gift for telling tragic and incredible stories with humanity and humility. His experiences as a neurologist are fascinating and he explains the science of neurological disorders excellently, whilst never neglecting the real human being behind the science.

“If inconceivably strange, these brilliant tales remain, in Dr. Sacks’s splendid and sympathetic telling, deeply human. They are studies of life struggling against incredible adversity, and they enable us to enter the world of the neurologically impaired, to imagine with our hearts what it must be to live and feel as they do.” – Amazon.com

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions - Thomas S Kuhn (GR4.00, AZ 4.4)

A landmark book that will change the way you think and will enter your subconscious and nestle there for years to come. Kuhn takes apart the philosophy and history of science and lays bare what he considers to be the explanation of the process of discovery. Considered one of the most influential books of all time.

“With The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn challenged long-standing linear notions of scientific progress, arguing that transformative ideas don’t arise from the day-to-day, gradual process of experimentation and data accumulation but that the revolutions in science, those breakthrough moments that disrupt accepted thinking and offer unanticipated ideas, occur outside of “normal science,” as he called it.” – Amazon.com

Thinking, Fast and Slow Kahneman (GR 4.13, AZ 4.5)

Ever wondered how we think and make decisions? Well, this book is for you. Kahneman takes us on a journey through the brain, detailing the 2 ‘systems’ – or ways - in which we think: fast and slow. The former is considered emotional, the latter logical. A lively and engaging book that will most certainly have a lasting impact.

“The impact of overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning our next vacation – each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems shape our judgments and decisions.” – Amazon.com

Don’t forget to read:

  • A Brief History of Time: From Big Bang To Black Holes. Stephen Hawking 
  • The Selfish Gene. Richard Dawkins
  • On the Origin of Species. Charles Darwin
  • Critique of the Pure Reason. Immanuel Kant
  • What is Life? Erwin Schrodinger