The great physicist Steven Weinberg recently nominated his "best science books," inspiring me to revisit a list of my favorites, posted four years ago. I've dusted off those entries and chopped them down from 40 to 25, listed in authorial alphabetical order. Some are new, others more than a century old, but all are or should be classics. My list is personal, idiosyncratic, argumentative--and intended to provoke debate about what makes a science book great. Facts, ideas, rigor, substance? Or rhetoric, imagination, style? If ongoing research undermines a book's credibility, is it no longer "great"? Can it persist as literature? Feel free to challenge my picks or offer your own.
Zen and the Brain, James Austin, 1998. At 844 pages, this book by a neurologist and Zen practitioner contradicts its own dictum that wisdom lies in simplification. Zen and the Brain nonetheless evokes Varieties of Religious Experience (see below) in its effort to comprehend mystical experiences sympathetically and scientifically. (I still have doubts about Buddhism, though.)
Language and Problems of Knowledge, Noam Chomsky, 1987. Chomsky could not care less about being writerly, entertaining or eloquent in any conventional sense. This book nonetheless yields insights into one of the most original, uncompromising thinkers of our age. (See my column advising science journalists to “Think Like Chomsky.”)
The Astonishing Hypothesis, Francis Crick, 1994. The co-discoverer of the double helix outlines a plan for reducing consciousness, science's great bugaboo, to physical processes in the brain. Just as only the commie-basher Richard Nixon could reestablish relations with communist China, so only the arch rationalist Crick could make consciousness a respectable scientific subject (although perhaps prematurely).
Infinite in All Directions, Freeman Dyson, 1988. The iconoclastic physicist reflects on God, the origin of life, extraterrestrials, the long-term prospects for intelligence and other topics that most of us abandon after our sophomore year in college. The title is an apt description of Dyson's own mind.
Against Method, Paul Feyerabend, 1975. One of the most loathed and misunderstood modern philosophers introduces his anarchic anti-philosophy, which he sums up with the phrase "anything goes." As practiced by Feyerabend, philosophy becomes performance art.
The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud, 1913. This is the centerpiece of an oeuvre that, regardless of its scientific merits, has had an irrevocable impact on science, psychology, the arts and all of culture. Question for scientist/authors: Would you rather be influential than right?
The Interpretation of Cultures, Clifford Geertz, 1973. Geertz equates anthropologists with literary critics and cultures with "texts," and he displays his own intensely personal style of cultural interpretation, which he calls "I-witnessing" and (in another book) "faction."
Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter, 1980. This wildly inventive exploration of recursion, self-referentiality, human and machine minds and all manner of other meta-topics by Martin Gardner's successor as a columnist for Scientific American still exudes an aura of geek chic.
The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, Aldous Huxley, 1954. The British novelist, essayist and seeker ushered in the psychedelic and New Age eras with this account of his encounter with mescaline, which reveals "what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence." Kids in the 1960s thought, "Gimme summa that!"
The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James, 1902. As fresh now as when it was published a century ago, this extraordinary book—by a seeker desperate for answers and yet too skeptical to settle for any—remains the best attempt to explain spirituality from a rational, scientific yet open-minded perspective.
Fire in the Mind, George Johnson, 1995. A veteran science journalist (and friend) meditates on the differences and, more importantly, similarities of diverse religious and scientific quests for truth in his native New Mexico. Johnson's perspective is so subtle and sophisticated that some readers may not realize how radical it is.
Ulysses, by James Joyce, 1922. Yeah, it's a work of fiction, but as I argued a few years ago, Joyce was a more astute observer of the mind than anyone before or since. He exemplifies Noam Chomsky’s dictum that we will always learn more about ourselves from literature than from science.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn, 1962. This sneaky, subversive assault on conventional notions of scientific truth and progress triggered a revolution itself within the philosophy of science. Be sure to note where Kuhn compares scientists with drug addicts (and check out my profile of Kuhn).
The Center of the Cyclone, John Lilly, 1972. The inspiration for the films Altered States and Day of the Dolphin, Lilly pioneered research on sensory deprivation, bionic brain-control, dolphin intelligence, psychedelics and other exotic mind-related topics. His later books fell off the edge of intelligibility (perhaps because Lilly became addicted to the powerful anesthetic ketamine), but this autobiography provides a more or less clear account of his early forays into the hinterlands of consciousness.
Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm, 1982. Malcolm, a journalist, writes in an acutely self-conscious, postmodern style that is perfect for this critique of Freudian therapy. Her psychoanalysis of psychoanalysis and its practitioners is all the more devastating because she so clearly understands them so well. With friends like this, Freudians must think, who needs enemies?
Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead, 1928. Mead's book, published when she was still in her 20s and based on her field work among the Samoans, depicts them as peaceful, sensuous flower children uncorrupted by modern civilization. Critics accuse Mead of projecting her preconceptions onto her subjects, but that is even truer of the critics.
The Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky, 1985. The pioneer of artificial intelligence argues that minds are packed with many components that cooperate and clash as they try to solve problems. Mirroring its theme, this delightfully eccentric book consists not of a continuous, conventional narrative but of one-page essays with titles like "The Causal Now," "The Power of Negative Thinking" and "Self-Knowledge Is Dangerous."
Mortal Questions, Thomas Nagel, 1979. Most readers no doubt buy this collection of essays for "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?", Nagel's famous take on consciousness and the solipsism problem (no one can really know what's going on in anyone else's head). But all of Nagel's essays—on death, war, sexual perversion and ruthlessness—are insightful and lucid, especially for a philosopher.
Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, Dennis Overbye, 1991. I had just completed a big article on cosmology and was considering writing a cosmic book when I read Lonely Hearts and realized I couldn't match Overbye. He not only makes esoteric cosmic theories almost comprehensible; he also captures the mad passion of scientists trying to solve the riddle of the universe. If you read this book, you'll see how little cosmology has progressed over the past two decades.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks, 1987. In his first bestseller, the neurologist transforms medical case studies of brain-damaged patients into gripping forays into the mysteries of mind, knowledge and reality. (See my recent appreciations of Sacks here and here.)
The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp, 1973. Is political science actually a science? I vote yes, if only so I can list Sharp's vitally important work, which has inspired protest movements around the world. Arguing in practical rather than moral terms, Sharp asserts that nonviolence is more effective than violence at achieving positive social change; people have reformed unjust governments, toppled dictators and resisted invaders through nonviolent means. If only more people—whether they be Islamic terrorists or leaders of the world's most powerful states—would heed Sharp's message!
PIHKAL, Alexander and Ann Shulgin, 1991. An acronym for "phenethylamines I have known and loved," PIHKAL is a lightly fictionalized memoir by the chemist Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin and his wife Ann, a psychotherapist (whom I profile here). Phenethylamines are compounds that include the psychedelics LSD and mescaline. This startlingly original book tells how "Shura" and "Alice" fell in love and embarked on a career as "psychonauts" who tested hundreds of psychotropic compounds synthesized by Alexander.
Great and Desperate Cures, Elliott Valenstein, 1986. Lobotomies, insulin-injection, fever inoculation, shock treatments, barbiturates, sleep deprivation, tooth extraction—these are some of the "cures" that psychiatrists once inflicted on hapless mental patients, as the neuroscientist and historian Valenstein reveals in this gripping history. The Scientologists must love this book, but it's all true and—given psychiatry's persistent lack of progress—still relevant.
Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson, 1975. One of the great scientists and prose stylists of our age shows how evolutionary theory and genetics can account for the behavior of all social animals, from ants to humans. Although they shun the controversial term "sociobiology," modern evolutionary psychologists remain indebted to Wilson's seminal book.
Nonzero, Robert Wright, 2001. Denser, more difficult, less popular than Wright's 1995 bestseller The Moral Animal, Nonzero is also more original. Wright proves that a mere journalist can more than equal scientists in thinking through the implications of scientific fields—in this case evolutionary biology and game theory. Nonzero almost persuades me that when we examine the history of life through the lens of these disciplines, they yield a hopeful, even spiritual outlook on existence.