Pop Science and pop history

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Pop Science and pop history

Postby cmsellers » Thu Jun 12, 2014 7:16 am

What are your favorite pop science and/or pop history books? Since many of my favorite books are both, I figured I'd combine them. Other summaries of academic subjects for a lay audience are also OK. I'm just not not sure what they might be since science covers a broad range of disciplines.

Four authors make it onto my list more than once. They are:

Derek Bickerton
  • Bastard Tongues
  • Adam's Tongue
Jared Diamond
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel
  • The Third Chimpanzee
  • Collapse
  • Why is Sex Fun?
Charles Mann
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
  • 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
Richard Wrangham
  • Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence
  • Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
My other favorites are:
  • The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins
  • The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk
  • Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex by Olivia Judson
  • Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson.
  • Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler
  • The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

Runners up include Diamond's The World Until Yesterday, and several of Dawkins' explanations of natural selection. TWUY is simply too long and tedious to be good reading. And unfortunately Dawkins severely undermined the power of his science writing firstly by writing essentially the same book half a dozen times, and then by writing a certain other book guaranteeing that the people who could most use a cogent summary of natural selection won't touch any of them.

I also excluded several books I greatly enjoyed but which did not have sufficient scope to influence my thinking. These are Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way, Freakanomics, and James Lowen's Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America.

How about you all? What are some great books on academic topics, written for a lay audience, which were enjoyable to read and influenced your thinking?
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Re: Pop Science and pop history

Postby Blackfish » Fri Jun 13, 2014 1:37 am

'Scientific Blunders' by Robert Youngson was a gift from my aunt, and, reading it at the age of twelve or thirteen, it completely convinced me that the scientific method is a robust and useful one for understanding the world. It's more a series of unrelated vignettes of blunders from the Piltdown Man to the AC/DC kerfuffle. Very good for reading in short bursts.

I also vividly remember missing my train stop for the very first time while reading 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' by Bill Bryson (which, despite its title, is a science book). I don't have a head for chemistry or physics but it did tap into my childhood obsession with astronomy in the first part of the book detailing the birth of the universe. I do also remember that the latter part of the book (about human biology) felt a little underwhelming in comparison to the cosmic awesomeness of the first part.

I've been listening to (the audiobook of) 'Rubicon' by Tom Holland on the way to work recently. I like his novelistic style, which is great at putting you in the mindset of his subject matter. In Rubicon, for example, by the time you get to Caesar's famous crossing of the Rubicon, you have a very clear idea of the prehistory and cultural context in which he made that leap.

His other book, 'Persian Fire', about the Persian Empire leading up to Salamis is also very entertaining. Haven't read 'Millenium', his other book. He has a slight tendency to imply modern parallels where none or only a very tenuous one exists (one of my pet peeves in historical writing), but he doesn't beat you over the head with it so I didn't find it too obnoxious.

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  • Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

I don't remember, does Peeta bake a cake in this one?
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Re: Pop Science and pop history

Postby cmsellers » Thu Jun 15, 2017 6:30 am

I need to add a book which has substantially changed my thinking about health after reading it: Missing Microbes.

The author's writing style leaves a bit to be desired, but the arguments he laid forth stayed with me. Before I read it, I believed that the only problem with the overuse of antibiotics was antibiotic resistant infections. And that's part of it, but only a small part. The author encourages readers to think of the microbiome as essentially an ecosystem, where we're driving many species to extinction without understanding them.

The author describes how he discovered that the same bacteria which increases the risk of stomach ulcers and stomach cancer in old people also prevents acid reflux in young people. He then goes on to lay out the evidence that obesity, Type I diabetes, asthma, and food allergies are likely caused by the absence of microbes, microbes we've killed off in developed countries without knowing what they do. And the thing is, microbiology isn't really sexy. Which means we don't have nearly enough research into it.

Oh, and those antibiotic resistant drugs? We haven't developed a new class of antibiotics in decades, all of our new antibiotics are derived from resistant ones. Because it's not profitable to invest in that, and since it's a problem for the future the government doesn't really encourage it.

I read it three years ago, right after it came out, but I think it might be one of the most important non-fiction books for anyone to read.
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Re: Pop Science and pop history

Postby Arkyle » Thu Jun 15, 2017 6:47 am

Pretty much any of Bill Bryson's books. I love his style and even his travel books are actually history lessons.
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