Besides fiction, I also enjoy picking up non-fiction reads from time to time, though I don’t do it as often as I’d like. History is one genre I like to read, but I also like at times to read popular science books (nothing too technical, though), and of course since I like both these, I also enjoy a combination of the two. Today, I’m sharing a few favourite reads that are both history and science, talking about people who contributed to science as well as the contributions they made. (One in my list is fiction, though).
To start off with, one of my absolute favourites (although this list isn’t in any order/ranking, as such), The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (2008). This book focuses on the lives of a few scientists/explorers, specifically Joseph Banks who made a voyage to Tahiti, William and Caroline Herschel with their discoveries in the skies, Humphry Davy and his work with the miner’s lamp, and again in the laboratory, Mungo Park’s adventures in Africa, and balloonists in England. But it is not only these people that he focuses on but life and discoveries in the time period that they lived in, their interactions with and influences on poets and writers of the time including Mary Shelley, John Keats, and Samuel Coleridge. Of course, these ‘scientists’ were themselves also not focused on science alone–they wrote poetry like Davy (even if not very good), or played music like William Herschel, and were truly part of the ‘Romantic’ Generation. I had come across this book in a newspaper review and felt I would like it, and when I read it finally I really enjoyed it very much–the writing, the stories themselves, also the range of references, which also extend to poetry, art, and fiction, and of course the pictures. This is a really wonderful read.
The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World by Laura J. Snyder (2011) was recommended to me by a friend, and pretty much picks up where Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder left off. It focuses on Charles Babbage (Homes too touches on his story), John Herschel (son of William Herschel), Richard Jones, and William Whewell, four friends with a shared love of science, who met at Cambridge, and formed a sort of breakfast club where they met every week to discuss science and share a good meal. Like the romantic scientists in Holmes’ books, these too were interested in poetry, architecture, and music besides science, and went on in their lives to contribute to a range of fields–architecture, economics, photography, astronomy, chemistry, biology, computers, and cryptography. Their contributions also professionalised the sciences.
Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh (1997), traces the journey of several mathematicians to solve a proposition in number theory given by lawyer and mathematician Pierre de Fermat in 1637 in a marginal note in his copy of Arithmetica, also mentioning that he had proof that wouldn’t fit in the margins. Essentially the book follows the quest of an English Mathematician, Andrew Wiles, who first came across the problem at the age of ten, and later after seven years of dedicated focus managed to crack the puzzle. But the book isn’t restricted to just Wiles, but also traces various others’ attempts at solving it over the ages, as well as developments and contributions to the field of mathematics alongside.
This one I’ve written quite often about on this page, and is one I discovered only after seeing it’s TV adaptation. Longitude: The True Story of a lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel (1995) tells the tale of John Harisson, a watchmaker who spent much of his life perfecting the marine chronometer, the first one that helped sailors fairly accurately calculate longitudes when at sea, saving precious lives and time. Of course, as with the other stories I’ve talked about above, it also goes into efforts in other quarters and by other people towards solving the same problem, and the contributions these made. Incidentally, the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne, fifth Astronomer Royal, who is pretty much the ‘villain’ of sorts of this piece (despite his contributions) comes across in much better light in Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2003) is not very short but a very interesting read, taking us into the Universe from when it began to how it is today, through contributions of scholars and scientists, amateurs and professionals. The book highlights human intelligence, but also obstinacy at not wanting to accept new things, as well as the mindless destruction that human beings are constantly bringing about. It also brings to attention how much of our home, our planet earth, still remains a mystery (including what lies in its waters) leaving one with feelings of wonder and awe, curiosity, but also anger at our actions.
Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann (2006), translated by Carol Brown Janeway is different from the others in my list since this is a novel and not non-fiction, but I am still including it in my list since it involves history and science, and is largely based on fact. This book, in a humorous way, tells the story of geographer, naturalist, explorer Alexander von Humboldt and mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss–two very different personalities who made great contributions to the world of science. While von Humboldt is out and about exploring (and measuring) the world, actually travelling, Gauss does so with his extraordinary mind and mathematical skills; they eventually meet in 1828. This was also recommended by a friend, and I enjoyed it very much.
These were a few of my favourite history of science reads. Do you like reading books with science themes? Which are some of your favourites? Have you read any of the ones in my list? What did you think of them? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!
Image source: Pexels; All book cover images: Goodreads