From Darwin and Einstein to Hawking and Sagan, here are twenty-five amazing books written by world-famous scientists. These are legendary texts, popular science explainers, personal memoirs, and controversial new theories, and they're all enduring monuments to the power of science.
1. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
Darwin is obviously recognized as the father of evolution and one of the towering figures of 19th century science, but it's often forgotten that he was also a talented communicator of ideas. The Origin of Species remains surprisingly readable more than 150 years after its initial publication, and this is one of the few times where it's actually fun to read a book that completely altered the course of human history.
2. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, translated by A.A. Brill
Freud's popular fame long ago eclipsed his scholarly reputation, and it's all too easy to dismiss some of his more fanciful ideas as having no place in modern psychology. But Freud remains a seminal figure in psychology, and his ideas are generally far more sophisticated and interesting than he's now given credit for. You can't really understand what psychology is today without understanding how it got there, and understanding Freud - even if you don't agree with a word of what he has to say - is a crucial first step.
3. Radioactive Substances by Marie Curie (1904)
This book can't really be considered a work of popular science - it's actually her doctoral dissertation translated into English - but it's hard to ignore the work of this two-time Nobel Prize winner. In these pages, Curie proves beyond a shadow of a doubt the existence of radioactive elements, describing the newly-discovered polonium and radium, not to mention the various properties of radioactivity.
4.The Double Helix by James Watson
The co-discoverer of DNA kept a running diary of the team's search for the secrets of life, and those first impressions became The Double Helix. It's an intensely personal account, and anyone familiar with some of Watson's more recent statements will be unsurprised to learn that he's candid to a fault here, openly talking about his conflicted feelings towards his research partner Francis Crick, not to mention the constant backstabbing and intriguing with his colleagues. It's a rollicking read that offers a warts-and-all look at the search for truth, even if the book itself is itself full of some crucial distortions and glaring omissions. Keep an open mind while reading this book, and then pick up a biography on their colleague Rosalind Franklin - and, if you have time, their often forgotten fourth team member Maurice Wilkins, who I admit I sympathize with for surname-related reasons.
5. The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium by Joseph L. Graves, Jr.
Speaking of James Watson, his often embarrassing public statements on race (among other many things) may give the false impression that even scientists can't have an intelligent discussion about race. Perhaps the best rebuttal to that is Joseph Graves's excellent 2003 book The Emperor's New Clothes, which explains why race has little or nothing to do with actual human genetic diversity, and he takes the scientific community to task for not doing enough to fight racist pseudoscience. Still, the book isn't didactic, instead offering lots of examples both positive and negative about how science and race have intersected, examining everything from colonialism to eugenics to the biases of intelligence tests.
6. The Realm of the Nebulae by Edwin Hubble (1935)
These days, Hubble is mostly know from the giant space telescope that's named after him, which is actually a little unfair. Edmund Hubble was the father of the Big Bang theory, worked extensively with redshift, and provided conclusive evidence that the universe was expanding. This book collects a series of lectures Hubble gave in 1935, just as his ideas about cosmic expansion and the origins of the universe were starting to snap into focus. As he reveals both his observations and his conclusions, we're able to observe the 20th century's greatest astronomer publicly working through the secrets of the cosmos.
7. The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson (1965)
Rachel Carson made her reputation with the seminal environmental book Silent Spring, which explained the destructive impact of DDT pesticides. But I'd actually recommend The Sense of Wonder instead, a book she finished shortly before her untimely death in which she makes a simple, profound argument for just why environmentalism is so important. With the help of some absolutely gorgeous photographs, Carson takes you on a tour around the world through her own personal experiences and adventures. The photos deserve looking at for hours, but then so too do Carson's words - it's a beautiful contemplation of just why our planet is so precious.
8. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan
You can't really go wrong when you pick up a book by Carl Sagan, but I'll single out Pale Blue Dot for a couple of reasons: one, it's got the most poetic title, which is nice, and two, it's maybe the best example of the infectious sense of wonder and discovery Sagan brought to all his writings. Optimistic to a fault, Carl Sagan doesn't just explains what lies beyond Earth, he argues why space is humanity's destiny. He starts with a history of astronomy and, before you know it, he's convinced you we need more space exploration and that our future is in terraforming other worlds. Strap yourselves in for this one - it's a wild, glorious ride.
9. Dazzle Gradually: Reflections on the Nature of Nature by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan
We've talked about one Sagan, so how about two more? Sagan's widow Lynn Margulis and son Dorion Sagan are frequent collaborators, and Margulis is a respected (if somewhat controversial) biologist in her own right. Dazzle Gradually is one of their best works, gathering together an eclectic mix of essays covering everything from microscopic life to transhumanism. Sagan and Margulis write some sections together, some separately, and some they enlist other collaborators, allowing for a free mix of perspectives and ideas that makes this vast, unique work feel even more expansive.
10. Survival of the Wisest by Jonas Salk (1973)
Jonas Salk cemented his place among the immortals of science when he created the polio vaccine in 1955. But he wrote surprisingly little about his work with vaccines, instead devoting most of his written output to discussing his ideas about biophilosophy, a field he more or less invented. Salk tackled philosophical ideas using biology and evolutionary theory as his main tools, attempting to form a more humane worldview where science could be a positive player in human development. He saw the role of a biophilosopher as "Someone who draws upon the scriptures of nature, recognizing that we are the product of the process of evolution, and understands that we have become the process itself, through the emergence and evolution of our consciousness, our awareness, our capacity to imagine and anticipate the future, and to choose from among alternatives." These ideas and more he explores in Survival of the Wisest.
11. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (1985) & Six Easy Pieces (1963) by Richard Feynman
I know I'm throwing around a lot of honorary titles in this post, but I have no reservations about calling Richard Feynman the most colorful physicist of the 20th century. He was one of the very first scientists to attempt to bring quantum mechanics into the popular sphere, and his Six Easy Pieces collects a series of introductory lectures from 1961 to 1963 in which he lays out the fundamentals of physics. His later work, Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, delves headlong into the deeper mysteries of the universe, again presented in wonderfully engaging, accessible language. Then, just for fun, there's Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, his collection of humorous musings and recollections that are equal parts eccentric, forcefully opinionated, and, above all, massively entertaining.
12. The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Renowned astrophysicist and Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson is quite possibly the most famous living American scientist. His frequent appearances on everything from Nova to The Colbert Report as a staunch defender and lively communicator of science have made him today's answer to Carl Sagan, and he's got an impressive bibliography to go along with his work in front of the cameras. I'll single out his 2000 memoir The Sky Is Not The Limit, in which Tyson puts his quest for knowledge in the context of his own personal story, recounting everything from charming tales of childhood astronomy to the subtle, pernicious prejudices that he and other African-American scientists still have to deal with, all the while remaining a tirelessly enthusiastic advocate for science education
13. Jane Goodall: 50 Years at Gombe by Jane Goodall
An update of her earlier 40 Years at Gombe, Goodall's 2010 retrospective offers a detailed overview of her decades of research into chimpanzee behavior. While her work at Tanzania's Gombe Stream National Park has won her global fame as the world's leading expert on primate behavior, her more recent work has been almost exclusively geared towards conservation and animal welfare, as well as outreach to communities near Gombe. This book offers some amazing photographs and Goodall's own insights into one of the most singular careers in the history of science.
14. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)
Much like his fellow Simpsons voice actor Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking is equal parts great scientist and great communicator of scientific discovery, which is particularly amazing when you consider just how fiendishly technical a lot of his research is. A Brief History of Time isn't the only book Hawking has written, but it's the first and the best known, remaining on the bestseller lists for an astonishing 237 straight weeks. For anyone who hasn't yet picked up his grand tour of the cosmos, this is one journey most definitely worth taking.
15. The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture by Evelyn Fox Keller
Evelyn Fox Keller began her career as a theoretical physicist, moved briefly into molecular biology, and then became primarily a philosopher and historian of science, in particularly focusing on the interplay of gender and science. In this particular book, Keller doesn't bother with answering whether nature or nurture is more important - instead, she examines why we even ask that question at all. She reveals why the "nature vs. nurture" debate is a very modern invention that grew out of very particular late 19th century Anglo-American values, and that there actually isn't really a sensible way to understand what "nature vs. nurture" even mean. This book can be a challenging read, but for anyone looking for a thorough, careful deconstruction of science and why it can never be separated from its human context, then look no further.
16. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
First published 35 years ago, The Selfish Gene helped make Richard Dawkins the most important evolutionary biologist since Charles Darwin. Introducing the idea that genes are the real drivers of evolution and we organisms are just along for the ride, Dawkins both turned evolutionary theory upside down and resolved many of the field's most stubborn mysteries. And, as an added bonus, Dawkins's book also introduced the term "meme" as a unit of human cultural evolution, making him responsible for a good 70% of what's currently wrong with the internet.
17. The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness by Joan Roughgarden
We've had The Selfish Gene, so how about we now look at the exact opposite? Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden has been a harsh critic of neo-Darwinian evolution, and this book (along with the earlier Evolution's Rainbow) builds up an alternative model based on what she calls social selection. She looks at over two dozen instances where, in her view, modern evolutionary theory is unable to explain the facts as we see them, and she uses these to help explain what her new model does better. It was only published last year, so it's still anyone's guess just which of these two takes on evolution will ultimately win out...
18. The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter (1977)
The sensational 1922 discovery of a perfectly preserved tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings turned an obscure boy-pharaoh into one of the ancient world's most famous rulers. The archaeologist behind the excavation was renowned Egyptologist Howard Carter, who painstakingly recorded all the details of his work as it happened. The resulting book, republished in 1977 long after Carter's death, offers a firsthand account of the most famous archaeological dig in history from the man who led it, making it invaluable reading for anyone with the slightest interest in how archaeologists dig up the past.
19. Letters from the Field, 1925-1975 by Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead can make a decent claim to being the most influential cultural anthropologist of all time - and there's a ton of debate as to whether that's actually a good thing or not. Her seminal work, 1928's Coming of Age in Samoa, shocked Western audiences with its unflinching look at the vastly different sexual mores of the indigenous Samoan people. Her works became a key scientific cornerstone for the feminist movement, and she herself was an advocate for greater sexual liberation in American life. Her findings and methods have since been called into question - fierce critic Derek Freeman famously called Coming of Age in Samoa an "anthropological myth" - but her work is still crucial to understanding the field of anthropology, and this collection of fifty years worth of her writings and communiques with her peers offers perhaps the best overview of her fascinating, controversial career.
20. The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1985)
This memoir by an Italian chemist was recently voted the best science book ever written, and it's not hard to see why. Levi combines autobiographical stories with flights of fancy in 21 short stories, including his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp. Each chapter is named after a particular element from the periodic table, and each element becomes an unlikely theme for the chapter, including the final chapter "Carbon", which tells the story of one such atom. Other references are rather more oblique, but it's perhaps the best ever fusion of chemistry and literature.
21. Disclosing the Past : An Autobiography by Mary Leakey
The Leakeys are pretty much the first family of paleoanthropology, for better or worse. Mary Leakey and her husband Louis spent decades searching for fossils of hominins, particularly in the huge Olduvai Gorge in Eastern Africa. Mary Leakey's accomplishments included the discovery of multiple key hominin specimens and the Laetoli footprints, the creation of a classification system for ancient stone tools, and the training of her son Richard Leakey, who has gone on to be a highly distinguished scientist in his own right. In this book, Mary Leakey recounts her long career, offering an expansive overview of not just her scientific work but also her often fascinating personal life. She candidly discusses the scandal in the mid-1930s when Louis Leakey left his first wife for her, as well as how Louis's larger-than-life stature and continued infidelity put serious strains on their marriage. She offers an intriguing appraisal of how a scientist's work and personal life are often intertwined, and why that isn't necessarily a good thing.
22. Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness by Roger Penrose (1994)
Now we're entering some controversial territory. Roger Penrose is one of the most acclaimed mathematicians and physicists of the last hundred years, but he's arguably more famous for his unorthodox views and commitment to alternative theories. (You may have heard about one of them not long ago.) Shadows of the Mind was his second book to consider the nature of human consciousness, attempting to argue human minds are fundamentally different from those of computers. He brings in everything from quantum mechanics to Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem in his wide-ranging discussion. His work didn't win over many in the scientific community, and he was sometimes criticized for venturing too far out of his field of expertise, but it's a fascinating book that tackles big problems from an unconventional arguments. Some books work better when you don't agree with all of it, and this is likely one of them.