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« Will War End? Students in Survey Say: Hell No! | Main | Stevens Greatest Science Books: The Next Ten »

My “Greatest Science Books” Are Greater!

It is with great sadness and regret that I whack Discover for its December feature “25 Greatest Science Books of All-Time.”

First, the list is introduced by biotech’s bad boy Kary Mullis, who after winning the Nobel Prize in 1993 for inventing the polymerase chain reaction bragged about the inspirational powers of LSD and slipped photos of naked girlfriends into his lectures. That’s cool; I’m down with sex and drugs too. But Mullis’s introduction touts one book that promotes ESP and another that valorizes Peter Duesberg, notorious for claiming that the AIDS virus doesn’t cause AIDS. Are my Discover colleagues suggesting that we should take psi-believers and AIDS-doubters seriously?

Then there is the list itself. It starts with Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and Origin of Species. Can’t argue with those. But the next five books are by Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Aristotle and Vesalius. Come on! Only a masochistic science-history freak can possibly get through Aristotle’s Physics or Newton’s Principia or that other hideously incomprehensible ancient crap! I bet none of Discover’s editors have read any of these books, unless they were forced to back in college.

After that, Discover’s list gets more credible, focusing for the most part on 20th century books that normal humans might actually read rather than admiring from afar. In fact, the Discover list includes books on the “Stevens Greatest Science Books” list that I and others at the Center for Science Writings started compiling last May. Check it out on our website. I honestly, modestly, sincerely believe that our list kicks the ass of Discover’s list. But you be the judge.


nigel cook

Feynman's "Character of Physical Law" (1965) and his "QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter" (1985) are the best two non-mathematical scientific books ever written, and should be required reading by all science students.

Woit's recent "Not Even Wrong" is very good at explaining chiral symmetry and loop quantum gravity, and the Standard Model, although it is just a bit too brief because it doesn't explain clearly enough how the quark theory was constructed based on the eightfold way SU(3) symmetry whereby you plot octets of baryons on a graph of strangeness (from 0 to -2) versus isotopic spin projection (from -1 to +1), giving a symmetry which can only be explained simply by baryons being composed of triads of quarks, and also the direct evidence for quarks in terms of the magnetic moment of neutrons, and the scattering of protons. Paul Davies' "The forces of nature" (2nd ed., 1986) is good for the latter, but misses out a clear explanation of chiral symmetry, for which you need Woit's book.

nigel cook

I've taken a quick look at your list of books, and strongly disagree with many of the titles.

I've strong reservations about many of the books on your list such as Hawking, Kuhn, Penrose, Popper, and several others. These people have some valid points, but in large part are expounding ideas which are speculative. I'll give one example.

Popper's "Logic of Scientific Discovery" has an excellent dismissal of Bohr's assault on causality (he shows that the uncertainty principle is a statistical scatter relationship caused by interactions of light and matter with the Dirac sea, see my site for more), but Popper also falsely claims that a scientific theory must be founded on the quicksand of speculative: it must be falsifiable.

According to Popper, any theory based on scientific facts is not a scientific theory, but such a theory won't be falsifiable. Take Archimedes' theory of buoyancy, which is entirely non-speculative in its assumptions (all facts). It is quite possible in physics to construct theories with entirely factual bedrock, which predict other things which are testable. The Popperian claim that a scientific theory must forever be falsifiable is just junk philosophy.


You mean you haven't read Copernicus? And you expect us to take you seriously as a science writer?


Seriously, for a moment, I haven't read Newton's Principia but Chandrasekhar wrote a book "Newton's Principia for the Common Reader" which I must get around to one of these days. Chandra claims (so I'm told) that the Principia is full of insights so visionary that their import was largely lost on Newton's contemporaries - for example that Newton had something very like a theory of integrability.



There's a readable translation of Principia from the biblical-type Latin which Newton wrote it in. I've read the translation.

Most people who haven't read it think Newton announces his law F = mMG/R^2 in it, and proves it by calculus.

Actually, when you read Principia, you see a much deeper physical understanding and appreciation of nature by Newton than that portrayed in physics textbooks.

Newton's universal gravitational law is not a formula, and he doesn't use calculus/fluxions to prove it. He proves everything using geometry, showing that it could have been done in the days of Euclid, 300 BC.

The universal gravitational constant G was introduced a century later by Laplace, while the calculus of gravitation was introduced by Lagrange, also about a century after Principia.

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