Earlier this week, one of you had asked me for recommendations on some good nonfiction books with biological or scientific themes, so I thought I’d put together a list of my favorites and post it here in the blogosphere.
For general science, I love Natalie Angier’s The Canon. I had you read the first chapter of it at the beginning of the year, as the first chapter beautifully describes the nature of science, which as science teachers, we never really spend time teaching you about directly. We just sort of assume you’ll pick it up along the way, which is one reason I had you read it. I didn’t want to assume you knew something you might not know. This book encapsulates every branch of science into nice neat packages that Average Joe can understand and walk away from this book with the basics for those sciences. Angier’s voice is conversational in tone, which makes this an easy and interesting read.
Jonathan Weiner has written a few books about evolutionary biology, but his book His Brother’s Keeper is the one I love best, as the story is quite compelling. His Brother’s Keeper is the story of two brothers–Stephen, who is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and Jamie Heywood, who is determined to find a cure for ALS even though he has no scientific training or background. When Jamie discovers that science moves at its own pace, he becomes frustrated and discouraged that he cannot help Stephen quickly enough. Meanwhile, Stephen does not let his disease slow down the pace of his life and continues to live as though nothing is wrong. I could not put this book down when I read it, and at some places felt very sad for the Heywoods, as ALS is a fatal disease with no cure. But Jamie’s valiant efforts to save his brother have opened doors into research on ALS that previously did not exist.
Another author whose books I enjoy reading is Matt Ridley. There are several books of his that I have read and enjoyed: The Red Queen, a book on evolutionary biology and the role of sexual reproduction in biodiversity and human nature; Genome, a book about the 23 chromosomes that comprise the human genome, which I will have you read excerpts of during our molecular genetics unit; and The Agile Gene, about the role of environment and genetics on the development of human behaviors. Ridley’s writing style is also conversational in nature, and you can tell he is interested in acting as a guide through the topics that he writes about.
Mary Roach’s book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is another one that I had a hard time putting down. Roach examines all the uses that cadavers have had throughout history. In case you’re not sure what a cadaver is, it’s a dead body. Reading this book might give you the creeps but it’s an enlightening look at what can happen when you “donate your body to science.” You might also be surprised to know that some of the consumer products you use were once tested on cadavers long before they went through testing with living, breathing humans. Roach also writes about ancient uses of cadavers, including some forays into cannibalism.
Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene is another good read that I would recommend for any budding evolutionary biologist. Dawkins discusses evolution from the gene’s point of view. According to Dawkins, your genes view you as nothing more than a conduit by which they are passed along and reshuffled. There are some excellent explanations of cooperative behaviors and their evolutionary advantages, as well as explanations of cellular processes important to evolution such as meiosis and sexual reproduction (I will have you read these sections during our Mendelian genetics unit). Our library actually has a copy of this one, so you might want to check it out!
Mean Genes is another one that I’ve read that I enjoyed. Written by two Harvard-trained guys– a biologist and an economist, this book basically talks about a bunch of aberrant human behaviors such as addiction, thrill-seeking and infidelity in terms of their organic, genetic basis. It’s actually a really good insight into why people might behave the way they do. For a few excerpts from the book, click here.
In high school, I knew I was a nerd when I checked out the first printing of The Field Guide to Germs and read it cover to cover for fun. I bought the updated copy a couple of years ago and keep it in my classroom. It’s essentially a catalog of all the creepy crawlies that can make us sick, from E. coli to Ebola. Wayne Biddle does an excellent job of keeping the book in layman’s terms so that anyone can read and enjoy it.
You can pick up any of these books at your local bookstore–Half Price Books is a good place to start. Also, you can find them on Amazon.com. I’m awaiting some new science non-fiction, which I’ll probably write about when I finish reading them! Hopefully the list I’ve generated above is a good starting place for you if this type of literature is your cup of tea. And if it’s not, try one, you might just like it.