Top 2016 History of Science Books

These are my top twenty history of science books published in 2016. THere were many, many great books this year, and this was definitely the hardest list to cull down to just twenty, and they ultimately mostly reflect my personal interests, e.g. the history of chemistry, the intersections of art and science, or biological debates through time, but there are plenty of biographies and disciplinary histories to be found here. YMMV, and they are not ranked in any way. Included is the text blurb; personal review available on request!

Want more book recommendations? Check out the other top 2016 book lists: Zoology; Invertebrates; Arthropods; Vertebrates; Humans and Primates; Phylogenetics; Evolution; Ecology; Geology; Historical Geology; Palaeontology; Botany; Environmental; Climate Change; Philosophy.


  • In the first book on this topic in English in over sixty years, Miri Shefer-Mossensohn contends that Ottoman society and culture created a fertile environment that fostered diverse scientific activity. She demonstrates that the Ottomans excelled in adapting the inventions of others to their own needs and improving them. For example, in 1877, the Ottoman Empire boasted the seventh-longest electric telegraph system in the world; indeed, the Ottomans were among the era s most advanced nations with regard to modern communication infrastructure. To substantiate her claims about science in the empire, Shefer-Mossensohn studies patterns of learning; state involvement in technological activities; and Turkish- and Arabic-speaking Ottomans who produced, consumed, and altered scientific practices. The results reveal Ottoman participation in science to have been a dynamic force that helped sustain the six-hundred-year empire.


  • Drawing on a deep understanding of both the science and the history, Michael Ruse surveys the naturalistic thinking about the origins of organisms, including the origins of humankind, as portrayed in novels and in poetry, taking the story from its beginnings in the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century right up to the present. He shows that, contrary to the opinion of many historians of the era, there was indeed a revolution in thought and that the English naturalist Charles Darwin was at the heart of it. However, contrary also to what many think, this revolution was not primarily scientific as such, but more religious or metaphysical, as people were taken from the secure world of the Christian faith into a darker, more hostile world of evolutionism.


  • Campenot s examination of the nervous system is presented in the context of ideas as they evolved in the past, as well as today s research and its future implications. The discussion ranges from the pre-Renaissance notion of animal spirits and Galvani s eighteenth-century discovery of animal electricity, to modern insights into how electrical activity produces learning and how electrical signals in the cortex can be used to connect the brains of paralyzed individuals to limbs or prosthetic devices. Campenot provides the necessary scientific background to make the book highly accessible for general readers while conveying much about the process of scientific discovery.


  • Fritz Müller (1821–1897), though not as well known as his colleague Charles Darwin, belongs in the cohort of great nineteenth-century naturalists. Recovering Müller’s legacy, David A. West describes the close intellectual kinship between Müller and Darwin and details a lively correspondence that spanned seventeen years. The two scientists, despite living on separate continents, often discussed new research topics and exchanged groundbreaking ideas that unequivocally moved the field of evolutionary biology forward.


  • Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950

    by Marwa Elshakry [University Of Chicago Press, Paperback]
    Price: $21.86 £14.79 EUR 19,60 EUR 21,28 EUR 19,85 EUR 21,59 CDN$ 27.79

  • Providing a close textual, political, and institutional analysis of the tremendous interest in Darwin’s ideas and other works on evolution, Elshakry shows how, in an age of massive regional and international political upheaval, these readings were suffused with the anxieties of empire and civilizational decline. The politics of evolution infiltrated Arabic discussions of pedagogy, progress, and the very sense of history. They also led to a literary and conceptual transformation of notions of science and religion themselves. Darwin thus became a vehicle for discussing scriptural exegesis, the conditions of belief, and cosmological views more broadly. The book also acquaints readers with Muslim and Christian intellectuals, bureaucrats, and theologians, and concludes by exploring Darwin’s waning influence on public and intellectual life in the Arab world after World War I.


  • This fascinating book tells the story of how one museum changed ideas about dinosaurs, dynasties, and even the story of life on earth. The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, now celebrating its 150th anniversary, has remade the way we see the world. Delving into the museum’s storied and colorful past, award-winning author Richard Conniff introduces a cast of bold explorers, roughneck bone hunters, and visionary scientists. Some became famous for wresting Brontosaurus, Triceratops, and other dinosaurs from the earth, others pioneered the introduction of science education in North America, and still others rediscovered the long-buried glory of Machu Picchu.


  • The mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century was a time of illustrious achievements in the world of botanical art. Artists who once sought to please the whims of wealthy patrons were turning to scientists for inspiration, and they now had access to countless new botanical specimens thanks to prolific explorers and plant hunters. One of the best botanical artists and most knowledgeable natural historians of this era was James Sowerby (1757–1822). Talented and prolific, his crowning achievement was Sowerby’s Botany, a thirty-six volume work on the botany of England that contained 2,592 hand-colored botanical engravings. Despite Sowerby’s place in the pantheon of botanical artists, no full biography of the artist exists. Paul Henderson remedies this with a thoroughly researched and wholly fascinating look at Sowerby’s life and legacy.


  • The Restless Clock examines the history of this principle, banning agency, in the life sciences. It also tells the story of dissenters embracing the opposite idea: that agency is essential to nature. The story begins with the automata of early modern Europe, as models for the new science of living things, and traces questions of science and agency through Descartes, Leibniz, Lamarck, and Darwin, among many others. Mechanist science, Jessica Riskin shows, had an associated theology: the argument from design, which found evidence for a designer in the mechanisms of nature. Rejecting such appeals to a supernatural God, the dissenters sought to naturalize agency rather than outsourcing it to a “divine engineer.” Their model cast living things not as passive but as active, self-making machines.


  • In this book, Esposito presents a historiography of organicist and holistic thought through an examination of the work of leading biologists from Britain and America. He shows how this work relates to earlier Romantic tradition and sets it within the wider context of the history and philosophy of the life sciences.


  • Earth has been witness to mammoths and dinosaurs, global ice ages, continents colliding or splitting apart, and comets and asteroids crashing catastrophically to the surface, as well as the birth of humans who are curious to understand it. But how was all this discovered? How was the evidence for it collected and interpreted? And what kinds of people have sought to reconstruct this past that no human witnessed or recorded? In this sweeping and accessible book, Martin J. S. Rudwick, the premier historian of the Earth sciences, tells the gripping human story of the gradual realization that the Earth’s history has not only been unimaginably long but also astonishingly eventful.


  • Nineteenth-century paleontologists boasted that, shown a single bone, they could identify or even reconstruct the extinct creature it came from with infallible certainty—“Show me the bone, and I will describe the animal!” Paleontologists such as Georges Cuvier and Richard Owen were heralded as scientific virtuosos, sometimes even veritable wizards, capable of resurrecting the denizens of an ancient past from a mere glance at a fragmentary bone. Such extraordinary feats of predictive reasoning relied on the law of correlation, which proposed that each element of an animal corresponds mutually with each of the others, so that a carnivorous tooth must be accompanied by a certain kind of jawbone, neck, stomach, limbs, and feet. Show Me the Bone tells the story of the rise and fall of this famous claim, tracing its fortunes from Europe to America and showing how it persisted in popular science and literature and shaped the practices of paleontologists long after the method on which it was based had been refuted. In so doing, Gowan Dawson reveals how decisively the practices of the scientific elite were—and still are—shaped by their interactions with the general public.


  • Matthew Stanley explores the overlap and shift between theistic and naturalistic science through a parallel study of two major scientific figures: James Clerk Maxwell, a devout Christian physicist, and Thomas Henry Huxley, the iconoclast biologist who coined the word agnostic. Both were deeply engaged in the methodological, institutional, and political issues that were crucial to the theistic-naturalistic transformation. What Stanley’s analysis of these figures reveals is that the scientific naturalists executed a number of strategies over a generation to gain control of the institutions of scientific education and to reimagine the history of their discipline. Rather than a sudden revolution, the similarity between theistic and naturalistic science allowed for a relatively smooth transition in practice from the old guard to the new.


  • Along with contemporary portraits of key personalities aboard the ship, scale models and plans of the ship itself, scientific instruments taken on the voyage, commemorative medals and sketches, the objects (over 140) featured in this book tell the story of the Endeavour voyage and its impact ahead of the 250th anniversary in 2018 of the launch of this seminal mission. Artwork made both during and after the voyage will be seen alongside actual specimens. By comparing the voyage originals with the often stylized engravings later produced in London for the official account, Endeavouring Banks investigates how knowledge gained on the mission was gathered, revised, and later received in Europe. Items that had been separated in some cases for more than two centuries are brought together to reveal their fascinating history not only during but since that mission. Original voyage specimens are featured together with illustrations and descriptions of them, showing a rich diversity of newly discovered species and how Banks organized this material, planning but ultimately failing to publish it. In fact, many of the objects in the book have never been published before.


  • Dyar’s scientific accomplishments are a mere component of this remarkable biography. Epstein offers an account of Dyar’s complicated personal life, from his feuds with fellow entomologists to the scandalous revelation that he was married to two wives at the same time. Epstein also chronicles Dyar’s exploration of the Baha’i faith, his extensive travels, his innumerable works of unpublished fiction, and the loss of his wealth from bad investments. Comprehensive and engaging, Moths, Myths, and Mosquitoes will delight entomologists and historians alike, as well as anyone interested in exploring the zany life of one of America’s virtually unknown scientific geniuses.


  • As scientists debated the nature of life in the nineteenth century, two theories predominated: vitalism, which suggested that living things contained a “vital spark,” and mechanism, the idea that animals and humans differed from nonliving things only in their degree of complexity. Erik Peterson tells the forgotten story of the pursuit of a “third way’ in biology, known by many names, including “the organic philosophy,” which gave rise to C. H. Waddington’s work in the subfield of epigenetics: an alternative to standard genetics and evolutionary biology that captured the attention of notable scientists from Francis Crick to Stephen Jay Gould. The Life Organic chronicles the influential biologists, mathematicians, philosophers, and biochemists from both sides of the Atlantic who formed Joseph Needham’s Theoretical Biology Club, defined and refined “third way” thinking through the 1930s, and laid the groundwork for some of the most cutting-edge achievements in biology today. By tracing the persistence of organicism into the twenty-first century, this book also raises significant questions about how we should model the development of the discipline of biology going forward.


  • What did it mean to be a scientist before the profession itself existed? Jan Golinski finds an answer in the remarkable career of Humphry Davy, the foremost chemist of his day and one of the most distinguished British men of science of the nineteenth century. Originally a country boy from a modest background, Davy was propelled by his scientific accomplishments to a knighthood and the presidency of the Royal Society. An enigmatic figure to his contemporaries, Davy has continued to elude the efforts of biographers to classify him: poet, friend to Coleridge and Wordsworth, author of travel narratives and a book on fishing, chemist and inventor of the miners’ safety lamp. What are we to make of such a man?


  • The Secret Art of Alchemy

    by Robert M. Black [Hamilton House Publishing Ltd, Paperback]
    Price: $39.94 £24.99 EUR 33,56 EUR 32,09 EUR 31,98 EUR 31,19 CDN$ 55.27

  • Dr. Black traces the evolution of Alchemy from its earliest history, through medieval times and up to the present day.