It’s the gifting time o’ year! You’ve got science readers on your list, but you’re not sure what books to get them, right? For those of you who can’t just say heck with it and buy a gift card instead, I’ve got some ideas for ye. Our main focus will be the earth sciences, but I’ve got a variety of other disciplines on tap as well. Settle in with a nice mug or glass o’ something, click your desired category, and see what leaps out at you. If you still can’t decide, go with a gift card and a link to this post.
And feel free to bookmark this page for future reference when the time comes to spend your own gift card. Also feel free to recommend your own favorites for future incarnations of this list.
Table of Contents
In Search of Ancient Oregon: A Geological and Natural History by Ellen Morris Bishop.
I’m not going to quote from this book, because all of it is quotable. Dr. Ellen Morris Bishop, author and photographer, is a wonderful writer who brings Oregon’s geology to brilliant life. It’s rare to find a PhD scientist who’s also a talented writer who’s also a brilliant photographer, but Dr. Bishop is all three. You hear words like “expertly written” and “lavishly illustrated” tossed about for books that don’t strictly deserve it. This one most decidedly does.
If you’ve ever been even the slightest bit interested in geology, you owe it to yourself to get this book. If you like landscape photography but don’t give two shits about how the pretty rocks came to be there, you owe it to yourself to get this book. If you’re interested in the flora and fauna of long-vanished worlds, you owe it to yourself to get this book. If you want to know some awesome places to visit in Oregon, you owe it to yourself to get this book.
For the Rock Record edited by Jill S. Schneiderman and Warren D. Allmon.
I’m so excited about this book. Within, geologists take on – and take down – creationism and Intelligent Design. Biologists are already in the ring and have been for some time: with this collection of essays, geologists get in the cage and crack their knuckles before delivering a victory by knockout. Written by geologists and earth sciences educators, this book faces the fact that geology is just as much under attack by creationists as biology – after all, the rocks hold a lot of the evidence for evolution and an old, uncreated Earth. It covers geologic and paleontological claims made by creationists; their encroachment into earth sciences education, politics, and philosophy; and in a final section, covers the clash of geology and religion. It reflects on evolution with a focus on the earth sciences, and doesn’t forget that Darwin was, first and foremost, a geologist. Got a geologist/atheist on your list? This is their book. You just have to get it for them.
The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster That Claimed Thirty Thousand Lives by Ernest Zebrowski Jr.
There aren’t many books that have me lowering the temperature of my bathwater for fear of triggering flashbacks to severe burns I’ve never actually suffered. Actually, there’s only been one: this one.
For the most part, Dr. Zebrowski takes us through the geology from the point of view of the folks dealing with an alarming, nasty, and new example of it. After giving us the gist of what we know now, he goes back and shows us what no one knew then. We experience this terrifying eruptive sequence from the perspective of those trying to figure it out. We’re told – well, mostly shown, Dr. Zebrowski’s quite good at that – what they knew. Not much. They had no real idea what a volcano like Peleé can do.
Annals of the Former World by John McPhee
This is the one that always comes up in any conversation where geologists are discussing good geology books. It’s four books in one, and takes you from coast to coast through America with John and geologists, exploring geological history and wonders. This was a time when the plate tectonics revolution was brand-new, so you get a sense of the excitement (“We can finally make sense of this stuff!”) and the caution (“Slow down, hoss, you ain’t gathered all your evidence yet.”). So you get to watch a theory being born.
Being a book by John McPhee, this is beautifully written, and will stay with you for a lifetime. This is an excellent place for anyone to start.
Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth by Marcia Bjornerud
Do this: read the introduction to this book. Just that. By the end, you will have learned something of geology, gotten broadsided by a puckish sense of humor, and likely been hooked enough to buy the thing. This is the intro-to-geology book for those who want – oh, how did I put it when I first read her book? – “a fun, easy and accurate primer on geology…” I also said, “She’s not only an informative writer whose prose flows like water over Franklin Falls, she’s snarky. I am a sucker for snark.” I still am. I still love this book. And I still foist it upon people who are looking for a short, sharp intro to geology.
Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey
This is one of the first books I read when I was renewing my interest in earth science, lo these many years ago. I strongly believe it needs to be read by more people. I’ll see your John McPhee and raise you Richard Fortey – his prose is astoundingly beautiful. Also, he is British, and you know I’m an anglophile. Oh, language! Oh, earth! This is one of those books that immerses you, and by the time you emerge from it, you’ll understand so much more of this planet. You’ll absorb much more geology than you might believe you have done. This doesn’t seem like a science book as much as a love letter about the Earth – but it’s science, through and through. Hard science, strong science.
There are very few books that I immediately want to read again even before I’ve finished them. This is one.
What to say? That Ted Nield writes with the kind of clarity and style that, should he turn it into a narrative, would make even the phone book fascinating reading? That’s one thing. Add that to the fact that he’s writing about something inherently fascinating, and you have the recipe for a truly outstanding book.
Nield tells two histories: the history of supercontinents forming and rifting, and the history of our discovery and understanding of them. Many times, when an author tells two tales, one takes second place to the other. Nield manages to unfold them both in tandem, so that neither is slighted.
The Mountains of Saint Francis by Walter Alvarez
This is the best book on geology I’ve ever read. Ever. Oh, others have been wonderful, informative, and well-written, but there’s something about this one that just filled me to the brim. Maybe it’s the shock – I thought of Walter Alvarez in connection with dinosaurs and killer meteorites, not the mountains of Italy. Maybe it’s the fact he brings a totality of place and time to the subject, allowing you to experience more than just the rocks of Italy. Maybe it’s the fact he introduced me to some fascinating fathers of geology, people I’d never known: Nicolaus Steno, who began his career in the 1600s by dissecting bodies and ended it by discovering Earth’s anatomy; Ambrogio Soldani, an abbot who pioneered micropaleontology all the way back in the 1700s. Maybe it’s the rocks, who become characters in their own right, and with whom one can become very close friends indeed.
I don’t know. There’s just something about this book – it’s bloody poetic is what it is, gorgeously written, easy to understand while not being dumbed-down, full of passion and wonder and delight.
The Seven Hills of Rome: A Geological Tour of the Eternal City by Grant Heiken, Renato Funicello, and Donatella de Rita
If you haven’t got enough of Italian geology, here’s an excellent source. And it’s got walking tours! This book is perfect for both armchair and actual tourists who want to know how Rome was really built, and would like to discover some earth history among the ruins. This book is a must-have if you’re a geology buff bound for Rome – there’s a little something for everyone in your tour group, so you can keep the non-geology buffs distracted with wonderful old buildings and such like while you get on with enjoying the rocks. Art, architecture, history and science, all rolled into one easy-to-read volume!
Simply astounding. That’s what this book is. The Andes are fascinating mountains and Simon Lamb absolutely does them justice. You’ll find out how puzzling features like the Altiplano came to be, for instance. And it provides a fascinating look into field research: the difficulties of getting it done in politically unstable areas of the world, the extremes in weather, the hazards of altitude sickness, camping in the freezing cold, dealing with horribly limited resources…. Simon puts you there. This book is a must for anyone who wants to live the geologist’s life, or wants to know more about it, as well as learn how the Andes came to be.
Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology by David B. Williams
I have one quibble with this book: it should have included color photographs. That’s all it’s really missing, though. David B. Williams, who ended up interested in urban geology because he got stuck in Boston after living in the wild, wonderful geologic paradise of Utah. Buildings clad in stone became his friends, a link to the natural world. This book eventually resulted, and you’ll probably never look at a city the same way after reading it.
Each chapter is about a different stone: brownstone, limestone, gneiss, marble, travertine and more. Architecture connects to geology connects to oddball tidbits of history and human endeavor (and sometimes silliness) in one seamless whole.
Mountain Geomorphology by Phil Owens and Olav Slaymaker, eds.
This is not the type of book you buy for a casual perusal. It’s written by experts for experts. It doesn’t make concessions for laypeople. That said, if you’ve done some extensive reading of the popular literature and cut your teeth on science blogs, you’ll understand at least 40% of this book.
It’s got everything: from defining what a mountain is to how they evolve, functional and applied mountain geomorphology, and global environmental change. I learned things from this book that changed many of my perspectives on mountains, and the information in it comes trickling back at odd times to inform something else I’m reading. I’ll be reading this book again in a year or so, when I’ll understand more, and referring to it more than once in the future. If you want to know how mountains work, and aren’t afraid of actual science, this is an excellent resource.
This one was a good one to begin with. It’s a small book, but packed with delicious information and lots of educational photos. Biggest problem being, this is a reprint, and some genius at the publisher decided they didn’t need no stinkin’ color plates this time round. Grr. Even without those, this is an excellent guide to how glaciers do their thing, eminently readable.
It might leave you feeling a little cold however. A-ha-ha.
Frozen Earth: The Once and Future Story of Ice Ages by Doug Macdougall
I’ve been meaning to read this one for years. Anyone with even a passing interest in ice ages should pick this up. It tells the story of the past, present and future of ice ages, from how we figured out there had been some to what they were like, possible causes, effects, and what we’ve got to look forward to. You’ll find out how works of fine art can double as climate detectives, run in to our old friend Louis Agassiz, beat about the brush with Bretz, and engage in all sorts of other antics.
This book did a good job showing the investigative nature of science, and showing the sheer power of ice sheets.
Glacial Lake Missoula and Its Humongous Floods by David Alt
How can you not love a book with this title? David Alt’s also one of the driving forces behind the Roadside Geology series, so you know he knows how to show you where to find the good stuff. And this is good stuff – an astounding tale of catastrophic floods that repeatedly scoured Washington State. David follows those floods as they break the ice dam in Montana and cascade through my state, changing its features forever. He also gives us an introduction to J Harlen Bretz, who was the geologist who took a look at the scablands and said, “Sure looks like a humongous flood went through here.” Okay, not in so many words, but still.
This is an excellent introduction to some rather complicated geology, exploring the landforms that helped geologists piece together the story of repeated floods so huge they beggar the imagination. Clear pictures and easy-to-understand diagrams complete your education. And the tongue-in-cheek humor makes the whole thing go down smooth.
Poor James Hutton’s rather sadly neglected. He’s the one who wrote The Theory of the Earth, which everyone tends to deride as too obtuse to be a good read. In this book, we discover that the writing wasn’t as crisp and clear as it might have been because Dr. Hutton was dying in great pain at the time. And yet he still managed to write a foundational tome which, due to the efforts of his good friend John Playfair, remained influential enough for Charles Lyell to pick up the theory and run with it, and geology was well and truly born.
This biography does the great man justice, tracing his discovery of deep time in loving detail. But it’s not just about a man and his rocks, but a man and his time. You’ll be immersed in Hutton’s Scotland, which was an intellectually invigorating place to be. You’ll also take a side trip down Biblical Chronology Lane, which was quite a lot like poking about in a sideshow, complete with freaks. This is definitely one I’ll read again, just for the atmosphere.
The Seashell on the Mountaintop by Alan Cutler
Nicolaus Steno is one of those folks who did geology before geology was a thing. His life is given a thorough treatment. We learn that he’s not just the father of stratigraphy, but was one of the premier anatomists of his time, figuring out bits of the body that nobody had ever figured before. He lived in a fascinating time, too, when the patronage of the Medicis fed the arts and sciences, and Leonardo da Vinci very nearly figured fossils out before he got busy doing other things. You’ll meet an interesting cast of characters, some of whom will be familiar and some who damned well should’ve been. But have tissue handy – it’s a bittersweet ending.
Geology of the Sierra Nevada by Mary Hill
I’ve always been interested in how the Sierra Nevada formed, why Yosemite is the way it is, and all that. This book covers that, including very clear explanations about how granite weathers and how glaciers manage to carve all that hard rock.
It’s also got great guides to rocks of the area, discussions of mining techniques, and a lot of other fascinating stuff.
Beyond the Moon: A Conversational, Common Sense Guide to Understanding the Tides by James Greig McCully
This is an informative little book written by a (former) amateur for amateurs – James McCully isn’t a scientist, but he practically became one in writing this book. And he gets definite kudos for this paragraph:
When people say, “Ignorance is bliss,” they mean the ignorance that is oblivious to the problem. There is another kind of ignorance. Once you become aware that you are ignorant, it is anything but blissful.
This is a good introduction to how tides work, and you’ll be much smarter than Bill O’Reilly after having read it, which is a different kind of bliss.
Longitude by Dava Sobel
A fun, intriguing, and very brief book that makes one realize how fortunate we are to live in an age of clocks. We don’t often think of clocks in connection to map coordinates, do we? And we don’t think how bloody difficult it is to calculate a thing like longitude, which is nothing like latitude when you get right down to it. Dava describes the problems confronting sailors before the discovery of an efficient means to determine longitude in vivid detail. She weaves tales of suffering sailors, confounded captains, broke backers, and myriad others who would have been much better off knowing where exactly they were. And then she puts us in the middle of the wars between astronomers and clockmakers as they fought for a very rich prize, paints the travails of Britain’s stratified society, and brings to life some of the most remarkable time pieces ever made.
Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth by Andrew H. Knoll
Lockwood recommended this one, and I’m glad he did. I love reading books that give me physical pain when I realize I’m getting close to the end. I hated finishing this book: it’s so beautifully written, so fascinating, and so informative that I could have happily spent the rest of my life reading it.
From mere chemical traces to exquisitely preserved microfossils, from the first ambiguous hints of life to stromatolites, from extremophiles to extraterrestrials, from ancient atmospheres to oxygen revolutions, this book is a journey through life itself. Andrew Knoll’s sense of wonder is only matched by his scientific chops. There are few people who can write using the big technical words and yet never for an instant seem dry. He’s one of those rare talents. He also explains things well without stopping the narrative cold; tough concepts hold no terrors for the layperson in this slender book. At least, not if said layperson has read a few books on evolution and biology first – I’m not sure how a total neophyte would fare, but I suspect the sheer power of the prose would smooth over any difficulties.
Written in Stone by Brian Switek
This book constantly surprised me – not because it was good (it’s Brian Switek, so obviously it’s good!), but because of the number of times it made me say, “I didn’t know that!” It’s populated with bajillions of scientists I’ve read a lot about, people like Charles Darwin and Nicolaus Steno and Richard Owen, some of whom have been so extensively babbled about in the pop sci books that it seemed nothing new and interesting remained to reveal – but Brian almost always managed to find a little something awesome that hasn’t made it into the 42,000 other books about them. And lest you think this is merely a history of paleontology, keep in mind that Brian fleshes out that history with the newest of the new discoveries.
Something about our bodies is rather fishy. Neil Shubin does a wonderful job showing how our anatomy’s jerry-rigged from much different bodies. If you’ve ever had trouble understanding the incremental steps evolution took from microbe to mankind, this delightful little book will give you the crash course. You’ll start seeing just how similar we are to even wildly dissimilar organisms. And it’s set out in such a way that even someone who has as much trouble with visualization as I do can see it clearly.
This book is the perfect answer to those who try to claim that evolution’s a nice theory, but has no practical application. Now, most of us know that’s ridiculous – we have antibiotic-resistant bacteria to prove that knowing how evolution works is important in medicine – but Neil goes many steps further, showing how evolution explains everything from hiccups to hemorroids to hernias, and many other defects not beginning with the letter H.
The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution by Sean B. Carroll
I adore this book, not to put too fine a point on it. It’s one of the best books on evolution I’ve ever read: clear, concise and beautifully written. I know that other books make a strong case for evolution, but I found this one of the strongest. And it’s full of things I never knew about, like “the bloodless fish of Bouvet Island.”
That’s just the beginning. Sean B. Carroll goes on to explain “the everyday math of evolution,” which explained said math in such a way that even a complete math ignoramus such as myself could grasp it. He made it easy to understand how even the tiniest advantage can, over evolutionary time (which is sometimes remarkably short), add up to big changes. And he doesn’t stop there, of course – he shows us the immortal genes, which have been passengers in a great many species; how new genes can be created from the old; explores convergent evolution; sifts through fossil genes, and quite a bit more.
At the Water’s Edge by Carl Zimmer
Believe me when I say that macroevolution has never been so beautifully described. This whole book is a journey, there and back again.
You’ll learn the reason why we’re so poorly laid out as Carl takes you on our evolutionary journey from sea to land and back again. Along the way, you’ll learn a lot more about evolution than you thought possible from such a slim volume dedicated mostly to whales. And if, like me, you despised Moby Dick, you might discover a reason to at least read the chapters on cetaceans…
The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner
Hands-down, this is one of the best books on evolution I’ve ever read. It’s not just about Darwin’s finches. It’s about evolution in action. It follows Peter and Rosemary Grant as they study the Galapagos finches season after season, watching them evolve in real time. Throw in quite a lot of cutting-edge evolutionary research and some Charles Darwin history, and we’ve got a book that feels like it’s about 5,000 pages and isn’t long enough by half. Oh, and Jonathan Weiner’s a wonderful writer. Reading his prose is like drinking claret.
And because no science book is complete without hysterically funny anecdotes about the hazards of field work, I just want to refer you to page 48, where you’ll learn why researcher Ian Abbott “hated a barnacle as no man ever had before,” and is a cautionary tale about always wearing your undies.
Trees: Their Natural History by Peter Thomas
I’ve loved this book since the first sentence: “Everyone knows what a tree is: a large woody thing that provides shade.” The rest of the book didn’t disappoint. It’s a clear, concise, and comprehensive introduction to trees, from how they evolved to how they work in this modern world of climate change and pollution.
Peter Thomas wrote this book because he became frustrated with the fact that there wasn’t a single source for all our knowledge about trees. A lot of myths get dispelled, and most importantly, I learned things I never knew before – like how roots seek easy paths in order to grow, and how far they actually go. The strategies various trees have – deciduous vs. evergreen, conical vs. sprawling, tall vs. short – begin making sense once you know why natural selection molded them in certain ways. And there were things I’d never considered before, like how something so tall manages to stay upright for decades, hundreds or even thousands of years against the simplest antagonist of all: the wind.
Once I got done with this book, I felt I’d gotten into the mind of a tree.
Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine by Dr. Paul Offit.
Those of you who’ve been in the trenches of the vaccine wars probably know Paul as one of the despised enemies of anti-vaxxers. This book is an excellent example of why they hate him: it’s clear, concise, and full of citations to studies that make it very, very difficult to counter him. Also, he’s fair almost to a fault. Alt-med? He’s tried it himself. He’s given things like glucosamine a spin. He’s had less-than-satisfactory experiences with conventional medicine, so he gets why you might like something different. Sure. But then he says, let’s look at the studies – and there we have bad news. No better than placebo. Oh, dear. Better stick with the stodgy stuff, then, unless your condition is amenable to treatment by placebo, in which case, alt-med yourself out (on the safe stuff, anyway).
That’s the book in a nutshell.
Carl Zimmer wrote the most informative, delightful, and just plain enthralling book on how neuroscience came to be that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. He describes the birth of neuroscience in detail so vivid you can practically feel yourself sawing open a skull.
It’s amazing how far we’ve come since Thomas Willis and the other members of the Oxford Circle pried open a nobleman’s head and began looking at the brain as more than just several pounds of ugly fat. This book takes you on a journey that lasted thousands of years. If you like traveling the history of science, it’s definitely a trip you’ve got to take.
Emblems of Mind by Edward Rothstein
This is a delightful little book about music and mathematics, and the connections between the two, and I have to say that for a book filled with equations and rather technical discussion of music, it was very nearly painless to read. I say nearly. This book needs a second life as an enhanced ebook, where one can tap on an equation to watch it come to life, or on a musical phrase to hear it. If that happens, this book will be complete.
Edward Rothstein has a melodious writing style that isn’t ostentatious, and an obvious love of music, math and science that infuses every page. If you want to get a little music theory and history combined with science and math, topped off with some mind-challenging ideas, this is a good choice.
Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee
If you’re an Oliver Sacks fan, or if you’re just fascinated by brains, you really must pick up Phantoms in the Brain. Dr. Ramachandran doesn’t just tell interesting neurological stories, he takes you on a journey of discovery through your brain. And he’ll make you think of consciousness in ways you never considered before. The whole thing’s an adventure on the order of the Odyssey.
A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers by V.S. Ramachandran
Dr. Ramachandran gives us a good look at some fascinating facts of the way the mind works, and all of it is wonderful. My absolute favorite chapter, however, is “The Artful Brain,” which gave me an entirely new appreciation of art and left me wanting far, far more. Alas, the promised book mentioned in that chapter is not available, so I shall have to content myself with this only – for now. In this chapter, we learn why the Victorians freaked out when first exposed to Indian art, the principles that make art art to our brains, and ways in which the artless may become artistic – if they don’t mind somebody paralyzing bits of their brains, that is.
This is one of the few books I’ve read every one of the extensive Notes to. The Notes are practically another book, a gloss and a commentary that’s every bit as good as the rest, which is rare. Dr. Ramachandran is one of those rare folks who are not only great scientists, but truly gifted writers. He makes it all look easy.
This is one of the few books that’s ever made me feel good about math. Not that it’s full of equations, but Brian Greene talks a lot about how these weird things mathematicians came up with, things that seemed purely abstract and intellectual, ended up being very useful for physicists. That’s the main thing this book gave me: a new appreciation for people who sit around playing with numbers just because they think they’re beautiful.
I’m still not all that sure about string theory, and I surely don’t understand it well, but this is a great book for those who want to know more about it. Brian shows us how well it could reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics if it pans out. It also helped me understand those well-established branches of physics much better. This is cutting-edge stuff. We’ve a long way to go before it’s as fundamental as the older two physics theories, and it may not be what we’re looking for, but at the very least, it’s fascinating. And if you, like me, have a hard time understanding dimensions outside of the usual four, then you need Brian Greene: he illustrates tough-to-visualize concepts in a way that allows you to grasp them without having to learn all sorts of complicated mathematics. That’s always a plus.
Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson
I am thrilled to report that Neil deGrasse Tyson is just as snarky in print as he is in person. And I loves me some science with snark! I dog-eared a lot of pages, and it’s hard to choose just one quote from this delightful book of essays, but I’ll go with this one:
What are the lessons to be learned from this journey of the mind? That humans are emotionally fragile, perennially gullible, hopelessly ignorant masters of an insignificantly small speck in the cosmos.
This is one of the most entertaining, if sometimes terrifying, books I’ve ever read. Unlike most scientists who use the end of the world as a hook for science, Phil treats the subject with the proper mix of respect and hilarity, with heaping doses of “it’ll probably never happen, but it’s too fun not to speculate.” This book probably taught me more about physics and astronomy in one compact, enjoyable read than all the previous serious, heavy tomes I’ve read. And I’ll be referring back to it often to explain network outages and problems with cell phone service. Maybe it was a solar flare, or gamma ray bursts, or a black hole passing through.
Stardust: Supernovae and Life: The Cosmic Connection by John R. Gribbin and Mary Gribbin
This is a delightful introduction to the fact that we are, as Carl Sagan said, made of star stuff. It ties astronomy, chemistry, physics and biology together beautifully. You come away from it with a little bit of a strut, and quite a lot of awe. We are made of awesome stuff, people. This universe is an amazing place. And this is about the perfect book to give to someone who doesn’t realize how tied to the stars we all are, or who thinks astrology whenever our connection to the stars is mentioned. It’s so much more interesting than pseudoscience. The real stuff is much more dramatic. Nice to have an easy-to-read book that gets that across.
The Joy of Chemistry by Cathy Cobb
Want fun, need fun, need joy. I have a book with joy in the title. And hey, I could use some chemistry in my life. So I turn to this one.
I mean, seriously, wow. You have to understand, the last time chemistry and I had more than a brief flirtation was back in high school. I’m so not-versed in chemistry it’s pathetic. This book took me from abject ignorance to near-competence in just a few hours. And it’s a hell of a fun read. The authors intended to get across the joy of chemistry, and they did.
It’s even got experiments.