Top 2014 History of Science Books

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History of science books, with an obvious focus on biology. Because everyone has different preferences, be sure to check out the runners up for more diverse fare.

When it comes to scientific theories, Darwinian evolution is in a league of its own when it comes to social influence. No other scientific theory is commonly talked about in the public sphere, nor do many scientific theories have a considerable number of humanities researchers studying them and their impact. From sociologists to theologists to media studies, Darwin shows up everywhere. What’s more, this has always been the case, since the first day The Origin was published. The reasons for this is well-known: Darwin hit at the core of what it means to be human, and upset the religious, cultural, and societal order of the Western world. Gravity and light may be more fundamental to how the world works, but the theories explaining them don’t cause people to have existential crises and question their deepest beliefs that have been passed on to them by all their ancestors.

This multi-author book examines Darwin’s influence outside of scientific spheres, from his times to today. The chapters range greatly in topics, from Darwin’s own correspondence to 1920s films to modern science fiction books, but all provide very interesting analyses and commentaries. Highly-recommended.

Whatever your current stance on the role of randomness in evolution, this book is about how Darwin incorporated randomness in his thinking. Remember, this is history of science, not science itself. Darwin’s insistence on randomness was a revolution in itself, taking biology away from the strict teleology of Lamarckism and creationism and into a realm where chance plays a key role in the development of biodiversity- and this before we even knew about genetics and heredity. An interesting book for those of you who want to know about how chance featured in Darwin’s thinking, in a style suitable for anyone to read.

This is actually an RPG, but aimed at pedagogical use. It basically puts you and our students in the shoes of the members of the Royal Society in 1860, debating whether or not to give Darwin the Copley Medal, a prestigious award roughly equivalent to today’s Nobel Prize. It’s always said that the only way to do history of science is to forget everything you know and cast your mind back to whatever ancient period you’re studying, and this activity allows you to do just that. Highly recommended to a course in history of biology, evolutionary biology, or even high school if simplified.

No, this is not about a case of “forgotten attribution,” à la Rosalind Franklin. William Astbury was a British Physicist, whose main call to fame in biology was being one of the founders of molecular biology, and his x-ray diffraction studies on various biomolecules, especially fibers (physiologists remember him for his work on muscle fibers). Among the molecules he investigated was DNA. And yes, he obtained the same image used by Watson & Crick. This is a very engaging biography of a scientist who is not remembered as much as he should be by the wider community. Fully recommended to read.

“Scientific naturalism” is commonly taken as an antithesis to “spiritualism”, a term encompassing the values of science and the scientific method over supernatural thinking. This book deals with how the scientific naturalism developed and took off in the Victorian era, with a focus on the societal side of science and the connections between the various players. It’s a very interesting book for anyone interested in the history of modern scientific thought.

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