Science: Philosophy, History, Memoir, and Fiction

five great books to read about scienceI went on a bit of a reading odyssey on the subject of science this summer. Like math, science often gets a bad rap as being not for everyone or overly difficult. That’s a shame, because it’s truly such a fascinating and beautiful topic.

science bauerThe whole thing started because of Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of Science, which attempts to get at the history of science through the writings of the greatest thinkers–the Great Books of science. I liked the approach, because instead of being lots of dates and formulas, Bauer wrote the history of science as a story of ideas. This will not surprise you if you’ve read her other histories. Bauer begins with the pre-Socratic philosophers, which was a fantastic reminder of how all subjects overlap and intertwine. As Bauer says, “The first questions were asked not by astronomers and physicists, but by theologians and philosophers.” Throughout the book, Bauer skillfully weaves in the ways in which thinkers influenced each other:

“Scientists who grapple with biological origins are still affected by Platonic idealism today; Charles Lyell’s nineteenth-century geological theories still influence our understanding of human evolution; quantum theory is still wrestling with Francis Bacon’s methods. To interpret science, we have to know something about its past.”

Each chapter covers the subject and time period of the pertinent idea, and then gives helpful–and helpfully short–lists for further reading if you want to dive deeper. The whole book is structured and written in such a remarkably excellent way. I highly recommend The Story of Science for adults and could easily see how this could make a science elective for high school students, or maybe a good book to augment general history reading.

About the same time that I remembered to pick up The Story of Science, my 9-year-old declared that he wants to be a physicist and asked if we could do physics for science this year. “Of course!” I said. “Oh no!” I thought. You see, in an effort to cram in extra AP classes and to be able to take AP Biology my senior year, I never took physics in high school. At all. I remember the conversation with my guidance counselor about whether or not I could take AP Physics if I had never taken regular physics, and if I could take AP Physics at the same time as BC Calculus. She said no. I wish I had pushed it. But anyway, here we are, and I don’t know anything about physics. So I began to dig.

sevenFirst, I found Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and really it’s a pretty marvelous introduction. The book is very short, and designed to pique your interest rather than load you with math. I really enjoyed it, and found all of the topics a source of great amazement. The author made even the most complicated subjects seem accessible and put the study of physics into context. For example, he writes,

“You would, of course, need to study and digest Riemann’s mathematics in order to master the technique to read and use this equation. It takes a little commitment and effort. But less than is necessary to come to appreciate the rarefied beauty of a late Beethoven string quartet. In both cases the reward is sheer beauty, and new eyes with which to see the world.”

I was surprised at the end when the author comes to a completely different metaphysical conclusion than mine–as if we both looked at the same narrative and yet chose opposite explanations for it. That was interesting to ponder, and would make for a great discussion topic.

poetsNext, I remembered that my freshman year roommate took a class nicknamed Physics for Poets in order to get one of her lab science requirements out of the way. When I found a book by that title, I dove in. In hindsight, I wish I had not. Physics for Poets is disappointingly not enough detail about physics and not enough beauty to satisfy even the most casual armchair poet. The author would attempt to simplify by giving a complex looking formula, but then not explaining it (frustrating!), or mention that a concept impacts technology but not explain how. It was simultaneously too much and not enough. The author ends with the following quote, “It is customary, in conventional physics courses, to equate understanding with the ability to calculate.” Sadly, the book failed to deliver either.

love physicsFortunately, my stack did not end there! For the Love of Physics got my attention with the cover picture of a wild-haired old man swinging on a pendulum in front of a blackboard, and Walter Lewin kept my interest throughout the book. A former MIT professor, Lewin’s enthusiasm and love for physics is contagious. The book is not only about physics, it’s also Lewin’s science memoir and his thoughts on teaching. His goal as a physics teacher was to inspire the student to see the world through new eyes. Lewin writes:

“I present physics as a way of seeing our world, revealing territories that would otherwise be hidden to us—from the tiniest subatomic particles to the vastness of our universe…To me that is teaching at the highest level. It’s so much more important to me for students to remember the beauty of what they have seen than whether they can reproduce what you’ve written on the blackboard.”

I enjoyed Lewin’s obvious delight at the beauty and intricacy of the universe and the way things work. This is the really, really fun part about science, just learning how amazing even the most mundane things are. Plus, you’ll learn a ton about rainbows and those little circles of light you sometimes see on walls. I may have startled my whole family when I recently pointed to some light dancing on a wall and shouted, “Oh my word, this is a camera obscura; y’all this is a PICTURE OF THE ACTUAL SUN!” Science!

when-you-reach-meAs you probably know, I am never reading only one book at a time. In fact I usually have at least half a dozen scattered around at any given moment. So I did not choose When You Reach Me because of science. In fact, I pulled it from my To Read shelf because I saw a mention of it on Hope is the Word and I thought I might pre-read it before giving it to Hannah since Amy mentioned that it has some fantasy/scifi elements at the end and I wondered what those were. But as I read the book I jumped (figuratively) because oh my goodness, it’s not fantasy, it’s PHYSICS! Well, it’s sort of fantasy, in that the physics is theoretical (my dad, who is an engineer, probably just snorted “all physics is theoretical!” Sorry, Dad.). But this reminded me of something I read in one of Madeleine L’Engle’s non-fiction books–she got the idea for the Wrinkle in Time books after reading a bunch of things about…wait for it…physics!

Don’t things run together in such interesting ways sometimes?

In my latest newsletter, I mentioned an idea I have for a Book Atlas–this is the sort of great tie-in that a Book Atlas delivers. I’m writing up a short PDF on how you can set up a Book Atlas of your own and I’ll send it out free to the newsletter list later this month. Plenty of time to sign up if you haven’t already! Thanks to those who wrote to talk about the idea.

What interesting rabbit trails has your reading taken you down this summer?
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9 thoughts on “Science: Philosophy, History, Memoir, and Fiction

  1. I’ve been delving into astrophysics recently with “Death By Black Hole & Other Cosmic Quandaries” by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It’s probably similar to the style of “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” (which I’m going to have to check out now), though it has a lot more than just seven lessons… and although Tyson has a clear evolutionary bias, he does a good job of separating true fact from speculation. You’d probably enjoy it!

  2. As we prepare for my eldest daughter to return to college for her sophomore year, you’ve provided me with a great reading list. My daughter is majoring in physics and philosophy, and I’m still shocked I educated her through high school. My background is flimsy since I didn’t even take a physics course in high school or college. With the hope of continuing substantive conversations with her in the future, my reading and learning will be following this path:) Also, my daughters have all read Stead’s book, so perhaps I’ll now prioritize it as well. Thanks!

      1. Will do! I’m curious to see the direction as well. At this point she’s thinking law school so she can pursue a policy direction regarding all the issues that arise with our advancements. We’ll see.

  3. My dad is a physicist (nuclear and now optical, aka lasers). His delight for how things works was sadly outshouted by the misery of public school math for me, but as an adult I love these sorts of books, so thank you for the recommendation! He’s also my walking one-man refutation of the science and religion are antithetical, and that if you believe in one you cannot believe in the other. I’ll have to look up the Susan Wise Bauer book at least for sure.

    1. That’s neat! I think we definitely bring our faith (either faith in God or faith in the absence of God) to everything we encounter. When I read about physics, or anything really, I find my faith confirmed, so it’s interesting to see the opposite occur as well, as in the Seven Brief Lessons book. Let me know what you think of Bauer’s book!

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