If you’ve always wanted to learn about science and our universe, or just read works by some of history’s greatest minds like Albert Einstein, Galileo or Isaac Newton perhaps, check out this list of The Greatest Science Books Of All Time compiled by Discover Magazine.
1. and 2. The Voyage of the Beagle (1845) and The Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin [tie]
One of the most delightful, witty, and beautifully written of all natural histories, The Voyage of the Beagle recounts the young Darwin’s 1831 to 1836 trip to South America, the Gal?pagos Islands, Australia, and back again to England, a journey that transformed his understanding of biology and fed the development of his ideas about evolution. Fossils spring to life on the page as Darwin describes his adventures, which include encounters with “savages” in Tierra del Fuego, an accidental meal of a rare bird in Patagonia (which was then named in Darwin’s honor), and wobbly attempts to ride Gal?pagos tortoises.
Yet Darwin’s masterwork is, undeniably, The Origin of Species, in which he introduced his theory of evolution by natural selection. Prior to its publication, the prevailing view was that each species had existed in its current form since the moment of divine creation and that humans were a privileged form of life, above and apart from nature. Darwin’s theory knocked us from that pedestal.
Wary of a religious backlash, he kept his ideas secret for almost two decades while bolstering them with additional observations and experiments. The result is an avalanche of detail?there seems to be no species he did not contemplate?thankfully delivered in accessible, conversational prose. A century and a half later, Darwin’s paean to evolution still begs to be heard:
“There is grandeur in this view of life,” he wrote, that “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
3. Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) by Isaac Newton (1687)
Dramatic is an unlikely word for a book that devotes half its pages to deconstructions of ellipses, parabolas, and tangents. Yet the cognitive power on display here can trigger chills.
“You don’t have to be a Newton junkie like me to really find it gripping. I mean how amazing is it that this guy was able to figure out that the same force that lets a bird poop on your head governs the motions of planets in the heavens? That is towering genius, no?” ?psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman, Cornell University
4. Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei (1632)
Courtesy of the University of Chicago
Pope Urban VIII sanctioned Galileo to write a neutral treatise on Copernicus’s new, sun-centered view of the solar system. Galileo responded with this cheeky conversation between three characters: a supporter of Copernicus, an educated layman, and an old-fashioned follower of Aristotle. This last one?a dull thinker named Simplicio?represented the church position, and Galileo was soon standing before the Inquisition.
“It’s not only one of the most influential books in the history of the world but a wonderful read. Clear, entertaining, moving, and often hilarious, it showed early on how science writing needn’t be stuffy.” ?cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, Harvard University
5. De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres) by Nicolaus Copernicus (1543)
Copernicus waited until he was on his deathbed to publish this volume, then prefaced it with a ring-kissing letter to Pope Paul III explaining why the work wasn’t really heresy. No furor actually ensued until long after Copernicus’s death, when Galileo’s run-in with the church landed De Revolutionibus on the Inquisition’s index of forbidden books (see #4, above). Copernicus, by arguing that Earth and the other planets move around the sun (rather than everything revolving around Earth), sparked a revolution in which scientific thought first dared to depart from religious dogma. While no longer forbidden, De Revolutionibus is hardly user-friendly. The book’s title page gives fair warning: “Let no one untrained in geometry enter here.”