This bibliography grew out of a course I taught at the Hayden Planetarium. It offers a selection of fairly non-academic and popular-level books that describe key events and figures in the history of science, with an emphasis on physics and astronomy (the topics with which I am most familiar).
Madison Smartt Bell, Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution, Atlas Books / W.W. Norton (2005)
Achieving a dexterous balance between scientific and social influences, Bell fleshes out Lavoisier’s life with an keen eye toward the manner in which his work and circumstances intersected. In particular, he zeroes in on the scientist’s accomplishment of creating the nomenclature that permeates modern chemistry to this day.
David H. Clark and Stephen P. H. Clark, Newton’s Tyranny: The Supressed Discoveries of Stephen Gray and John Flamsteed, W.H. Freeman and Company (2000)
In case you didn’t know it, Isaac Newton was a jerk. The Clarks (a father-and-son duo) tell the story of Newton’s mistreatment of the Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed, and they expand on the relatively well-known tale with extensive background on the obscure amateur researcher Stephen Gray. Altogether, the book presents a thorough story with (mostly) clear explanations, but the authors occasionally lapse into rather melodramatic invective.
Norman F. Cantor, Antiquity: The Civilization of the Ancient World, HarperCollins (2003)
A succinct and valuable introduction to ancient Mediterranean culture—from the Egyptians to the Greeks, on through the Romans and early Christians.
Edwin Danson, Weighing the World, Oxford University Press (2005)
We all know that Earth isn’t quite spherical, right? And that gravitational anomalies at the surface deflect a plumb ever so slightly from pointing directly to Earth’s center? But how did 18th-century scientists disentangle these two conflicting effects? The answers (arduous expeditions and careful measurements, among others) lie in this dry and musty tome, a paean to the history of surveyors and their art. The story deserves a more populist, less academic telling, but in the meantime…
Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, Canto Imprint (1983)
Eistenstein’s book deals with the effect of printing technology on Europeans, with a particular emphasis on the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution.
Kitty Ferguson, Tycho and Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership That Forever Changed Our Understanding of the Heavens, Walker (2002)
Wonderfully written and well-researched, this introduction to the two great astronomers provides remarkable personal, historical, and scientific insight into their accomplishments. And it has great color illustrations to boot! Highly recommended.
Simon Garfield, Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World, W. W. Norton (2001)
In 1856, William Perkin gave birth to industrial chemistry with the manufacture of the first artificial dye; Garfield tells the story capably but ineffectually.
Owen Gingerich, The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus, Walker and Company (2004)
Part travelogue and part history, the book traces Gingerich’s worldwide journey in examining virtually every extant copy of the first and second editions of Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of Heavenly Bodies. It helps to know the players before you start the book, so you might not want to start with this book.
John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science, Palgrave MacMillan (1996)
A brief and somewhat academic introduction to a contemporary view of the Scientific Revolution, with an emphasis on the epistemological influence of magic, craft, and religion on the development of early science. Recommended.
John Henry, Moving Heaven and Earth: Copernicus and the Solar System, Icon Books UK (2001)
Far and away the best, easiest-to-read introduction to the Copernican Revolution. Highly recommended.
John Henry, Knowledge Is Power: How Magic, the Government, and an Apocalyptic Vision Inspired Francis Bacon to Create Modern Science, Icon Books UK (2001)
Francis Bacon rarely shows up on lists of famous scientists, but his influence on the Scientific Revolution—particularly the Royal Society and the establishment of English science—deserves attention. No better place to start than with John Henry’s concise, erudite volume.
Joe Jackson, A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen, Viking Books (2005)
No, not written by the singer of “Look Sharp,” but a capable book nonetheless; in fact, it inspired a lengthy post to my “Trist’s Grist” blog. You’ll find technical details about the origins of the Chemical Revolution, but they take a backseat to the social and political environment in which Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier found themselves embroiled. Recommended.
George Johnson, Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe, Atlas Books / W.W. Norton (2005)
The fragments of Henrietta Leavitt’s life offer few details to knit together, but her astronomical work at the turn of the 20th Century established our understanding of the size of the Universe. Johnson’s biography provides a sobering glimpse into women’s entrance into modern science.
Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution, Harvard University Press (1957)
An in-depth look at what transpired during the Copernican Revolution from the perspective of a physicist-turned-historian who shaped modern views of scientific change. Academic and difficult at points, but a worthwhile introduction to Kuhn’s thinking. Recommended.
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press (1962)
A remarkably succinct statement of Kuhn’s ideas of paradigm shifts in science, effectively illustrated with numerous examples from the history of science. Recommended.
C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Cambridge University Press (1964)
A brilliant introduction to medieval cosmology, in the context of literature. Lewis explores ideas that shaped medieval society, and his survey of what we would divide between religion and science provides an illuminating backdrop to considerations of people’s mindset before (and during) the Copernican Revolution. Recommended.
Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Routledge (1982)
Arguably a bit of a stretch for a history of science bibliography, but a masterful look at the transitions in thinking that accompany the technological innovations of writing and print. Ong introduces concepts of how orally-based cultures approach the world, structure their mental processes, and communicate their thoughts. He then expands his scope to writing, print, and more recent (at the time) shifts toward word processing.
David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution, Atlas Books / W.W. Norton (2005)
A plethora of books try to tell Darwin’s story—a story that deserves close attention these days, no doubt—but Quammen distinguishes himself with his attempt. Ignoring the voyage of the Beagle in favor of a tale of Darwin’s development of the idea of natural selection, he paints a compelling portrait of both the science and the scientist. Recommended.
Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution, University of Chicago Press (1996)
“There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.” So begins Shapin’s introduction to the changes in Western thought that took place during the 17th Century. Ranging over various disciplines, the book delivers a sound historical background to the period and provides a basis for further reading.
Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love, Penguin Books (1999)
Galileo’s story has been told many times, but rarely with such insight, depth, and passion. Relating the core concepts with facility and grace, Sobel manages to illuminate the scientific story through Galileo’s relationship with his daughter Virginia, even managing a poignant plot twist at the end. Recommended.
Stephen Toumlin and June Goodfield, The Fabric of the Heavens: The Development of Astronomy and Dynamics, University of Chicago Press (1961)
An in-depth but straightforward survey of the history of astronomy.
William T. Vollmann, Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, Atlas Books / W.W. Norton (2006)
Vollmann lends nothing to his topic that other authors haven’t already illuminated with greater accuracy, readability, and scholarship. For a more concise history, one would do better to pick up John Henry’s succinct and instructive Moving Heaven and Earth. For a detailed look at the Copernican system, one should reference Owen Gingerich’s extensive work (e.g., many of the collected essays in The Eye of Heaven). And for a sense of the aesthetic impulse that underlies the Aristotelian system, one could look at C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image.
Julie Wakefield, Halley’s Quest: A Selfless Genius and His Troubled Paramore, Joseph Henry Press (2006)
Yes, he has a comet named after him, but Edmond Halley accomplished much more in his lifetime. He excelled in diverse realms, bringing remarkable mathematical, technical, and political prowess to bear on a variety of problems. Wakefield focuses on the middle of Halley’s career, when he captained voyages to measure the variance between true and magnetic north.
Michael White, Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer, Helix Books (1997)
White links Newton’s interest in alchemy and mystical topics to the great scientist’s accomplishments in physics, particularly the concept of “action at a distance.” The results are suggestive if not completely convincing.
Michael White, The Pope and the Heretic: The True Story of Giordano Bruno, the Man Who Dared to Defy the Roman Inquisition, William Morrow (2002)
Giordano Bruno’s name crops up with some frequency in the history of science, in part because of his influence on other thinkers and moreso because of his execution by the Roman Inquisition—motivated by his heretical views on the multiplicity of worlds and the Copernican Theory. But Bruno’s ignorance of experiment and reliance on the occult make him a dubious candidate for the scientific pantheon. White conveys the horrors of the Inquisition, and he offers a reasonable defense for Bruno as an influential scholar; unfortunately, White also botches his few paragraphs on Copernicus and comes across as sloppy in his own scholarship.
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