Scientists on their "life-changing" books

I always enjoy hearing about the reading habits of people who are much smarter and more interesting than me. New Scientist has a feature package where seventeen big name scientists recommend books that they considered "life-changing." Here is the list of the scientists and the books they suggest, with each title linking to Amazon. Follow the link at the bottom of the post to the New Scientist article where you can read the scientists' thoughts on their picks. From New Scientist:
1. Farthest North - Steve Jones, geneticist

2. The Art of the Soluble - V. S. Ramachandran, neuroscientist

3. Animal Liberation - Jane Goodall, primatologist

4. The Foundation trilogy - Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist

5. Alice in Wonderland - Alison Gopnik, developmental psychologist

6. One, Two, Three... Infinity - Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist

7. The Idea of a Social Science - Harry Collins, sociologist of science

8. Handbook of Mathematical Functions - Peter Atkins, chemist

9. The Mind of a Mnemonist - Oliver Sacks, neurologist

10. A Mathematician’s Apology - Marcus du Sautoy, mathematician

11. The Leopard - Susan Greenfield, neurophysiologist

12. Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior - Frans de Waal, psychologist and ethologist

13. Catch-22 / The First Three Minutes - Lawrence Krauss, physicist

14. William James, Writings 1878-1910 - Daniel Everett, linguist

15. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep - Chris Frith, neuroscientist

16. The Naked Ape - Elaine Morgan, author of The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis

17. King Solomon's Ring - Marion Stamp Dawkins, Zoologist


  1. Are any of those books more interesting than the one you would have listed? Books on mathematics aside, it looks like a fairly average list.

  2. glad to see some pkd on there! i would say that ‘divine invasion’ changed my life in many ways.

  3. First off all, speaking of nothing, V.S. Ramachandran has the greatest voice in the history of radio. He appears with some regularity on Radio Lab (a fantastic, science/philosophy-show).

    Awesome list. I love to see A Mathematicians Apology by G.H. Hardy there. It’s a fantastic book on the reasons for studying pure mathematics.

    And if you’re going to grow up to become a developmental psychologist, obviously you love Alice in Wonderland :)

    About Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: I don’t really know why so many people love it so much. Yes, Blade Runner was (very loosely) based on it, and it’s a fine book, but it’s no where near the best book Philip K Dick wrote. It can’t hold a candle to Ubik, A Scanner Darkly, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, or even the VALIS trilogy (which you have to be clinically insane to get through). I mean, it’s not even close to any of those. Was it like the first PKD book they picked up, then they loved it to death, and then NEVER read another one? It’s strange. Still, nice to see some of Phil there.

  4. I’m rather surprised not to see any Richard Feynman books on the list.

    The only time in my life when I’ve really ever wished I was a scientist, was after finishing “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman”.

    I’d bet that making that compulsory reading for high school kids would increase the number of young college applicants, particularly in the science fields.

  5. I can understand all the physicists, mathematicians, chemists and biologists – but what the hell is a sociologist doing on the list? Or a psychologist?


  6. Hey Metlin, don’t knock psychologists. It’s a proper science, don’t worry about it.

    But I’m not sure what a sociologist of science is. I’m pretty sure science equally applies to everyone [except possibly cartoon coyotes] so I’m not sure there’s much to study there.

  7. A sociologist of science studies the social behaviour of scientists. Probably the most famous book in the sociology of science is “Laboratory Life”, which explains all scientific behaviour in terms of scientist’s desire to get their name on as many published papers as possible.

  8. Science isn’t phenomea, it’s a method. It’s not rocks, clouds, or chemistry, it’s a way of studying them. The social sciences keep trying to “science” up their areas of study, with greater or lesser degrees of success, and good for them. But science is when people employ the method. Science is really just the act of sciencing.

  9. Common’ boingers – let’s not let these scientists come up with a better list than us! I’d really be curious what the readers of boingboing would list here…
    I’ll start :)
    The Illuminatus Trilogy (and many other books by Robert Anton Wilson).

    (what is the proper name for us who read boingboing?)

  10. LOL, too true Antinous. I think if I had a blog I would have my CV on the front page, just on the off chance someone has an opening for a witty banterist.

    As for life changing book? Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger has been like a teddy bear to me for as long as I care to remember.

  11. Q: What is the proper name for us who read boingboing?

    A: Internet Waifs?
    (I like Antinous suggestion better though)

    As for being reader of boingboing, a book that I thought was “life changing”:

    Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

  12. It’s not just the seed, but the field in which it’s sown that makes a book life-changing. Think about reading LOTR at 10 versus reading it at 40. In the former case, it would be a moral education; in the latter, a lengthy novel.

  13. Boingers should be the principal authors/creators. Readership/commenters could be called: Boingerites
    (Boingerovians? Boingfavela Dwellers?…. contest is officially on) The Lesser Unwashed? Useless Buggers?

  14. I say we’re Boinks. Just ’cause I like the sound it makes. :-D

    And my book is Stranger in a Strange Land, because it was given to me as an impressionable teen girl living in the boonies and it opened up a whole new world of literature, future potentiality and ideas to me.

    Not to mention unleashing a previously unknown tendency toward sciffy/future spec geekocity that’s still sweeping my life along with it.

  15. Boink…Boink…BOINKBOINKBOINK! …You Boink, me Boink, us Boinks…the Boinks…I think I like it.
    Prolly ditto on the book too

  16. I like to think that all of us who hang out on Boing Boing — editors, readers, moderators, community members, lurkers, etc. — are all just “happy mutants.”

  17. A life-changing book? Probably happens around eighteen when we’re most vulnerable to radical/iconoclastic/idealistic/visionary oversimplified exhortations. Okay…reaching down the long corridor off memory…there it is…Got it…ah!

    Philip Wylie’s ‘Generation of Vipers.’

    Bad, I know, but it could have been Ayn Rand.

  18. I work for a mycologist who’s OBSESSED with the Compendium of Soil Fungi, and is super excited that a new edition is coming out this year after 20 years with no new editions.

  19. any time you need some collagen, count on me

    Thanks. If they could just figure out how to inject it at the sub-cellular level…

  20. I could do that for you but I’m afraid you won’t reconstitute after the enzymes do their work.

  21. Wait…there were queers in Dune?…The Baron? Thats one. Is Pauls wife, not the desert one, the other one, is she a lesbian? I would read it for the first time since I was a kid, but I suspect my other books would get jealous.

  22. enjoy 9-chloro-6-(2-chlorophenyl)-4-hydroxy-

  23. “The Mismeasure of Man” by Stephen Jay Gould. I read it in 11th grade (age ~17) and understood less than 2-3% of what was being said. After completing my undergrad degree I went back and re-read the book and was amazed at how much I understood (age ~22). This without me consciously _trying_ to learn the contents of the book, as opposed to some of my friends who consciously set out to learn enough physics to understand “The Feynman Lectures on Physics”.

  24. the link for mathemetician’s apology goes instead to ‘a passion for mathematics’, somehow related but probably not the intended book.

  25. there were queers in Dune?

    Well, the Baron should count for at least three. Plus, Piter was pretty gay.

  26. I think I’ve read this list before, but doesn’t hurt to read it again. I haven’t read any of the books on the list yet but look forward to reading some some of them. If anybody is interested I have a less scientific list of life changing books.

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