It’s time for a scientific summer reading list to get the neurons firing. There are times when you want to read something that might profoundly change how you think about the world around you. These are eight recent reads, but not necessarily recently published books, on subjects ranging from material science and astronomy, to psychology and linguistic archaeology. These are eight books that will challenge or enhance your understanding on the subjects they cover or they might be just the thing to help make up your mind about what field you want to go into.
1) Why Things Break, by Mark E. Eberhart; Harmony Books (2003)
A self-described theoretical chemist, the author takes us on a journey through the history of material science and the scientific reasons why things break. Eberhart is a talented and personable writer, providing an excellent introduction to material science. He takes us through his career, in a fledgling science that at the time made other scientist have a hard time figuring out how to classify what he was doing. It’s the kind of book that can inspire you to choose material science as a career.
2) Stuff, by Ivan Amato; Basic Books (1997)
Stuff is another strongly written book on material science. It tackles a lot of the nuts and bolts issues, whether you’re a distant ancestor standing on the Serengeti Plains or a modern scientist manipulating molecular to create materials that have never existed before. Stuff puts you in the shoes of the earliest man, making sense of his surroundings as the earliest material scientist making the most of what is on hand and improvising from there. Amato shows us the motivations of material scientists as they do their best to keep up with the needs of industry, while at the same time drag us kicking and screaming into the future.
3) The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, by David W. Anthony; Princeton (2007)
The Horse, the Wheel, and Language won the 2010 book award from the Society for American Archaeology and it’s easy to see why. Anthony delves deep into the past of archaeological linguistics in search of the Proto-Indo-European language. He shows in great detail how languages shift over time and allows us to witness the migrations of our earliest linguistic ancestors through his writings. It’s also long hard look at the archaeology of the people who spoke these languages, who have often been overlooked in the West as our cultural ancestors. It’s an amazing read.
4) Britain AD, by Francis Pryor; Harper Perennial (2004)
Britain AD picks up where Britain BC leaves us, with the Celts and Romans staking their claims to England. It also deals with the coming of the Anglo-Saxons that created a whole new level of upheaval in the already fragmented British cultural landscape. Britain BC does its best to look at the often murky time when a historical Arthur would have laid the foundation for his timeless and confusing legacy. For anyone interested in archaeology and English history it’s a must read.
5) First Man, by James R. Hansen, Simon & Schuster (2005)
If you’ve ever felt inspired by the Apollo astronauts, then the only authorized biography of the late Neil Armstrong is what you should be reading right now. It chronicles the life of the most famous astronaut from childhood to retirement, with a lot of details about the fascinating work he did along the way, as an aerospace pioneer. When he was chosen by the Gemini program he wasn’t just a test pilot, he was a research pilot, who worked closely with the engineers to prepare jets for the test pilots. In the Apollo program he was the astronaut chosen to head up the team running the simulators. He published multiple engineering papers a year, with new technology being developed all around him, all while training hard for his chance to go into space with the Apollo program. There’s an amazing amount of detail about the man and the missions he took part in that make this book an essential part of the collection of anyone interested in space exploration.
6) Mirror Mirror, by Mark Pendergrast; Basic Books (2003)
At first you might wonder what a book about mirrors has to do with science, until you pause to think about the primary instruments used in microscopy and astronomy. A good portion of the work is dedicated to the early development of mirrors. The rest is all about the use of mirrors in science, including the development of microscopes. It also covers the aperture race, where optical technicians and engineers vied to build the biggest mirrors to examine the universe with. Mirror Mirror takes an in depth look into the advances of technology that made amateur astronomy something more than a hobby for the very rich, with the introduction of new materials and telescope designs. This is a great read for anyone interested in the history of engineering and science.
7) The Third Man, by John Geiger; Penguin (2009)
The Third Man examines the seldom discussed phenomenon of people under high stress visualizing an additional person in their company. From the darkest hours of the Shackleton expedition to desperate climbing parties on Mount Everest, there are many incidents of the “third man effect”, where a ‘shadow person‘ appears to join a lone traveler or small group under great duress and provide them with comfort. This book delves into the psychology and neurology of what is behind this phenomenon, with many references to Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jayness’s Bicameral Mind Theory, which is in and of itself a great read. It’s a very interesting book on a tough to tackle subject.
8) Rust, Jonathon Waldman; Simon & Schuster (2015)
Jonathon Waldman brings us a compelling book on what many would find hard to believe to be a compelling subject. As a civilization that’s built on metal, the long fight against rust is well documented but overlooked by most people in a modern consumer society. It’s a fascinating look at how rust attacks the infrastructure of our modern world, how we’ve gone horribly wrong fighting it, and where we’ve got it right. Waldman also gives us a view into our industrial world that many running that world would rather you not look too closely at: like the metal cans a lot of our food is stored in. Given the amount of metal all around us in our daily lives, Rust is an essential read to help make sense of how to understand and protect the basis of our industrial world. Given the sheer amount of metal out there, a career as an engineer specializing in corrosion has a lot of job security.