History of Science: The Best Genre You’re Not Reading

I’ve been a dedicated non-fiction reader since I was an undergraduate (I have read exactly two fiction books in the past decade), but it was only a few years ago that I had discovered history of science as a genre. And I wish I had discovered it sooner. It has become my absolute favorite go to genre, combining the practical and informative knowledge that I crave while also providing a delightful and enthralling story.

Every scientist (at least, social scientists) are taught to “frame” their research and tell a “good story” with their data . But, let’s be honest, stories are not central in the day-to-day research writing. In my opinion, research publications and reports shouldn’t tell “stories” at all — they should share information and technical details. Stories, however, have their rightful place in science when we tell the story of scientific discovery; when we tell the story of how what we now know came to be. And everyone should be reading these science stories.

A recent article highlighted the utility of science history to inspire budding scientists. By telling stories of scientific discovery, we can humanize larger-than-life scientists, we can see how non-linear the path to discovery really is, and we can exploit the way our brain learns best by using a social context within which to situate hard science. Not to mention that social stories are easier and more entertaining to read.

If you want to take a dive into history of science, or if you’re just looking for some new recommendations to add to your reading pile, here are a few of my favorite history of science books.

The Second Kind of Impossible: The Extraordinary Quest for a New Form of Matter, by Paul Steinhardt

The physical sciences are ripe with exciting discoveries, mostly because the discoveries that come from these fields hold truly ground-breaking implications for how we understand the universe. The Second Kind of Impossible is probably my favorite book I’ve read over the past few years, and I’ve already featured it on another of my “best of” book lists — the book is that good! This book was an accidental discovery during a Saturday night book store run where I purchased it because it was on sale for 50% off. I had seen no promotion for it nor had heard about the discovery itself. I parked myself on my couch for a weekend and wished the book was longer so I could enjoy it more. This will surly be a top recommendation of mine for years to come.

What is Real: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, by Adam Becker

The mind-bending world of quantum physics has captivated public attention for the last century. The math is extraordinarily useful to modern life, yet physicists can’t agree on what it all means. In What is Real, Adam Becker takes you on a conflict-ridden history of the meaning of the quantum world that continues to this day. From journal commentary battles and conference scuffles, to intellectual battles between doctorate advisor and advisee, this book takes you into the lives of the most prominent physicists in the modern scientific era. Becker also does an exceptional job at explaining quantum concepts, with this being the most accessible quantum physics book I’ve read to date.

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, by David Quammen

David Quammen is one of my favorite authors and really sets the bar for the history of science genre. His writing captures individuals lives with unmatched engagement. In The Tangled Tree, Quammen tells the story of how the tree of life came to be, closely following the work of Carl Woese, the scientist who radically altered what we know about life. He famously discovered the third branch of life, Archaea, by painstaking analysis and laborious techniques. The story of how our tree of life turned into a messy bush is a fascinating one, and a story that none other than Quammen could tell.

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