Science-y reading and open book thread

By Grant Jacobs 07/09/2010

Introducing a few recent book events and an invitation to talk about what you’re reading.

This post is an experiment I guess. I’ve previously written articles pointing to reading material, even occasionally reviewed a book! (I haven’t done that in quite a while!) Here I’d like to invite readers to share what you are currently reading . Before I do, let’s look at a couple of recent book events & news.


The Royal Society of England’s shortlist for the Prize for Science Writing 2010 is out. Bookies odds are near the bottom of the page! – they favour James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers: How the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science.

Thinking cynically, you’d have to wonder if the publisher is thinking that science books with the word ‘god’ in the title attract attention, and sales. (Ken made similar remarks recently, which is bringing this thought to mind.)

Some of you will have already seen their second-ranked book, We need to talk about Kelvin,* on the shelves in New Zealand.

Jennifer Rohn noted that every shortlisted book book this year has a male author, which has a number of writers twitting disappointment.

I note the remark at the end that they are seeking support for the award for coming years: you’d like to think this is a good cause for someone to be allied with and that someone will see the opportunity it represents. The same could be said of the New Zealand equivalent, the Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize. It is biennial with the next round next year.


If anyone was looking for a copy of Jennifer Ouellette’s Calculus Dairies that I mentioned in Looking for a book to read?, it’s now available on There are a lot of science writers tweeting that they are getting their copies of Brian Switek’s Written in Stone: that’s available now too.

There’s still time to contribute to the Science Book Challenge 2010. Their Book Notes are another place to search for new science-y reading material, with a long list of science-related books.

But the main purpose of this post was to invite people to share what they have read recently that they think other’s might like. Or just books they’ve spotted that sound great.

I have almost completed reading Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction by Lisa Tuttle. I know it isn’t ’science’, nor do I expect to become a sci-fi ‘great’ from it, but it has been interesting to explore the issues of presenting a sci-fi work. Others have objected that this book does not give much on writing in general, but like some others I think Tuttle has made an excellent choice to focus on what is different in writing sci-fi (and fantasy). There are countless general writing books available, after all, and it keeps her work the more compact and better for it.


God’s Philosophers sounds like something I’d read, and as you might guess is part of the inspiration for this post. Currently, I have a book on a related subject out of the library, The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, which looks at science through the late 1700s through to the mid 1800s. I’ve barely had time to get through the first few pages – it’s an enormous thing, 469 pages excluding end-matter – but it looks very promising.

There is also a copy of Alice Flahery’s The Midnight Disease that I have been wanting to read since seemingly ’forever’. Alice Flaherty is a neurologist and in the book she explores hypergraphia, the compulsive desire to write. This book seems appropriate for a blogger who often finds himself writing his posts in, literally, the wee hours of the morning, just as the title alludes to.

Share what you’ve read or are interested in lately in the comments!


* I’d provide a link, but the publisher really needs to do something about their server: the page won’t load andI’m not about to provide a ‘sucky’ link to my readers…!

Other articles on Code for life:

Looking for a book to read?

I remember because my DNA was methylated

Welcome PLoGs

Dictionaries, the OED, and what do you use?

Major newspaper opts for science blogging

0 Responses to “Science-y reading and open book thread”

  • Does reading journals and texts for a paper that’s due in a week count? 🙂

  • Let’s let it be everything? (Calling on the spirit of ”The more the merrier” here…) I could have included that too but decided not to as I wanted an informal post leaning towards to popular science. But don’t let that hold you back 🙂 Reading is reading…

    More serious stuff I’m reading? I’m (re)reading a bunch of science writing books and some epigenetics / chromatin structure / genome structure papers when I can cram it in. Hope to have a blitz on the science papers later in the month, along with some computational biology & statistics stuff. (Sorry this is vague: writing this just before rushing off to a meeting!)

  • Brian’s book is available?? Excellent (rubs hands) – I shall [virtually] trot – well, limp – off to Amazon’s page Right This Minute! (And when said book arrives, it will join the towering stack on my side of the bed…)
    But first I must finish Kathy Reich’s latest. Not ‘really’ science, I know, but you do pick up some fascinating snippets about forensic anthropology along with the whodunnit 🙂

  • I haven’t had much time for reading, with a new job, new house, new city to deal with — and most of my reading time has been targeted to my new field — but I just downloaded the Kindle edition of Age of Wonder; thanks for reminding me I meant to get to it.

    I’m looking for audiobooks, actually. My main downtime is my 20-minute commute to and from. I listen to podcasts (This Week in Virology, Carl Zimmer’s Meet the Scientist, and am just starting on the Royal Society’s back catalog) but there’s only so many of them.

    I’ve listened to a bunch of science and history of science books during my previous commute: Longitude, The Ghost Map, Measuring the World, The Invention of Air; also a number of others. I prefer non-fiction for the drive, it’s hard to appreciate fiction as much this way for me.

    Suggestions eagerly accepted.

  • Hi Alison,

    When I wrote about Switek’s book, I had a feeling you’d promptly tend to it! (Alison wrote about it an earlier book thread.)

    I confess I have read Kathy Reich too. (I wait until they hit the library shelves though, easier on the budget.) Maybe not a Kiwi guy kind of thing (?) to confess to, but I like her characters and as you say the forensic science snippets are good.

  • Hi Ian,

    I remember reading about your new job a while back. Hope it’s going well.

    I can’t really help you with the audio books myself, I hope others here can. (I seem to remember Ken listens to some – ?)

    Should add that I heard of The Age of Wonder from Stephen Curry writing about it on Nature Network.

  • Oh, I get Kathy Reichs from the library too – her latest just hit the ‘new arrival’ shelves last week 🙂

  • Grant, I’m not sure how “serious” my reading is by comparison to what you are doing but us ‘umble grad students must start somewhere…

    I’m reading a pile of books (and notes) on crop quality, some papers on the effects of various approaches to seed priming, background revision on general plant biology (which I either never knew or have almost completely forgotten), various hort journals – quality stuff again – and a bit for another paper which is more management and less science so I won’t bore you with those details.

    In short, nothing too exciting. 🙂 The Hannam book looks interesting, might have to get to it next year.

    Plus whatever comes into my RSS feed that catches my eye, when I have the time… like, of course, Raymond Huo’s post on Red Alert about the 33 recent BachelorÂ’s degree in Health Science (Acupuncture) graduates. (Sorry, now I’m just being naughty…)

  • Alison,

    You’re probably the same as me. I don’t buy that many books these days. (Mortgage to pay, etc.) The only books I buy at the “new” price these days are programming reference texts as they have to be current and the very odd book I simply can’t get in NZ that I want too much 🙂

    I feel for writers who are trying to make a living from it a bit, you’d think that the recession will have been hard on book sales, and the high prices these days are off-putting.

  • Alison, Just while I remember, have you looked at Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook? Might be more chemistry-oriented than forensic science-oriented, but your mentioning Kathy Reich reminded me of it.

    Rainman, I haven’t read Red Alert before. Are the New Zealand School of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine able to awards degrees, or are these “degrees”, if you get my meaning. I’m too busy to do anything, but this is the URL for anyone who cares to chase after a Red Herring (feeble joke): I recall that the “Nixon” case referred to has been thoroughly dismantled elsewhere on the ‘net. (Orac’s blog would be one obvious place to look.) Skimming the comments, I see that Matty has already stuck himself in over there. (The terrible puns continue, it’s a pointed enough subject for any number of prickly barbs.) And, err, this is getting a wee bit of the topic of books, so let’s get back to that…

  • Just went to your link & read that blog – now my head hurts! Good on Matty; he’s done a great job.

    Haven’t read ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’ but I remember looking at reviews & thinking, hmmm. Gonna skim through ‘Do bats drink blood’ for my bed-time reading 🙂 I say ‘skim’ because it’s a series of short pieces on all sorts of stuff to do with bats.

  • Well, I’m not really reading anything that relates too strongly to *modern* science at the moment, so I wandered over there instead. I wasn’t going to get embroiled in the thread, but the snarky “They used to think the earth was flat” remark pushed me over the edge a bit.

    I’d love to read Brian Swintek’s new book, I enjoy his blog.

    Interesting fact about one of the books I’m reading/writing about for school. Circa 1895 H G Wells first portrayed aerial dog fights in ‘The Sleeper Awakes’. Instead of predicting mounted guns on the aircraft, the fighting was conducted by ramming other planes (“aeropiles”) into the ground.

    Actually, also, Bernard Beckett’s ‘Genesis’ is great Kiwi YA sci-fi that I covered for my NZ Children’s Literature paper at Vic. I recommend that book for any reader, it’s a lot of fun.

  • Well, I’m not really reading anything that relates too strongly to *modern* science at the moment,

    Well, what are you reading? 😉 The book I’ve just started is on about not-so-modern science, the one I featured is about much older science, and I’ve a collection of ones that cover even older “science” for when I finally get around to them…

    Brian’s blogs are great, aren’t they?

    Funny you should mention that Well’s story. I have it in an anthology I picked up in a sale, and was looking at starting The Sleeper Awakes a while ago. Never got back to it as I’ve been too busy. But kamikaze-style bombing? Maybe if someone does a movie, it’ll be set in Imperialist Japan?

    Beckett’s name seemed familiar so I looked it up to see why I remembered it. He wrote Falling for Science and I recall hearing him speak once. Should look up Genesis next time I’m in the library to see what a local has been up to.

    I wasn’t going to get embroiled in the thread, but the snarky “They used to think the earth was flat” remark pushed me over the edge a bit.

    Hee hee 🙂 I know what you mean.

    Must check what you said to that later, but that’s a bit rich considering how long academics (of the day) have known it wasn’t.

  • Well, I’m writing about H G Wells influence on Maurice Gee, so I’ve been digging into Wells’ ‘Experiments in Autobiography’ a lot, alongside ‘The Sleeper Awakes’ and ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’. I have what is, in Literary Crit terms, a bad habit of reading “around” my topics, meaning that I’ve been looking into the debate about vivisection in the Victorian/Edwardian era. ‘Experiments’ gives an interesting account of an scientifically literate Victorian mind who “paddled on the edge of the illimitable ocean of physical speculation and possible knowledge”. And it’s always nice to get a literary-historic account of a man like Huxley, little accounts like this are very touching: “I was told that while Huxley lectured Charles Darwin had been wont at times to come those very curtains from the gallery behind and sit and listen until his friend and ally had done. In my time Darwin had been dead for only a year or so […]”

    But I’ve also been writing about C S Lewis and his conflicts with J B S Haldane, but those are primarily political. Haldane pointed out that Lewis’s science was usually wrong, but that’s a pretty easy criticism to make and he doesn’t seem to have gone into any great detail.

  • Oops. Lots of typos in that last post.

    “I was told that while Huxley lectured Charles Darwin had been wont at times to come through those very curtains from the gallery behind and sit and listen until his friend and ally had done. In my time Darwin had been dead for only a year or so […]”

  • Oops. Lots of typos in that last post.

    You’re in good company 🙂 I can’t stand the number of typos in my own articles, never mind my comments.

    Just to encourage you to further “waste” your time — 😉 — you might look at Victorian Popularisers of Science that I previewed almost a year ago now ( From memory it has a chapter on Huxley, along with the other writers of that time. It has more of the sort of anecdotes you’re talking about and examines the aims of their science writing, etc.

    I’ve also enjoyed Desmond’s biography of Huxley (simply called Huxley, which while a simple and clean title is curious when you consider that the “other” Huxleys are pretty famous in their own right). Reading that is probably taking it too far for you, thought. It’s a long book, but what a life!

  • Grant and Alison;

    Thanks for the kind words about my book. It’s available for pre-order right now, but won’t be officially out until November 1st, 2010. The copies other have been tweeting about are review copies I sent directly to them in preparation for a blog book tour.

  • If you’re looking for popular history of science reading, there is a list of the Revolutions in Science series at Whewell’s Ghost:

    (His article is also worth reading.)

    A wider list of suggested books can be found at Reading History of Science:

    (Like Rebekah Higgitt I wouldn’t have included some, but it’s a useful starting point nevertheless.)

  • I know, right. Like I had that much extra time to read stuff I want to be reading in the first place. It’s why I never get any sleep!:)

  • A head’s up regards James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers, unknown to me at the time I wrote this post, his work seems to have generated some controversy as to if the book is, or has elements of, christian apologetics or at least favouring one side than might be justified.

    As I’m not a historian of science, let alone of that particular period, so I couldn’t say either way even if I had read the book, but I have to admit some of the statements I’ve seen J.H. say elsewhere have given be pause for thought and left me wondering if he has made similar gaffes in the book. One can only hope not. (Please note I am not referring to that J.H. is a Catholic.)

    As just one example on twitter he implies that science has claimed it knows all the answers:

    Could science come to regret claiming to have all the answers? It can cost you when you get it wrong.

    (This is in reference to the fuss over suing Italian scientists over a fatal earthquake, which has been widely covered [and condemned].)

    I’ve never seen a scientist make this claim – it’d be an antithesis of what science is. (And surely the opposite of what geologists say about earthquakes.)

    I wouldn’t want to hang a book on the basis on a few casual remarks elsewhere, but for good or bad they do have me pausing and thinking twice as it were.

    Here are a few critiques of God’s Philosophers (I’ve chosen those he has replied to):

    Are we seeing the rise of Christian apologetics in history?

    JH’s reply – In defence of God’s Philosophers:

    Science owes much to both Christianity and the Middle Ages (by JH with comments below):

    I very much like the idea of a popular work that brings out accepted material of what science historians say about the period. A catch is that I’m not in a position to (easily) just how correct the history is, or if it has—to whatever degree—a slanted or selective presentation.