Science Writing

Some writers have a knack for explaining science to a popular audience. It’s a balancing act, where the writer treads a shifting line printed alongside the word “patronizing”, and it’s not an easy thing to do. Books that tread this line fed my fascination with science from an early age, and I strongly considered going into the sciences when I was young.

I originally found Isaac Asimov through his thoughtful, talky books that influenced the genre of science-fiction deeply. But fiction like I, Robot and The Gods Themselves made up a distinct minority of the good Doctor’s more than 500 books, and these included volumes on subjects ranging from literature to art, from math to philosophy. The Neutrino: Ghost Particle of the Atom is a particular favorite. Likely more than a little out of date by now, it’s paradoxically fun to read despite being a challenging book to finish. It introduces the reader to atomic theory a piece at a time, at a pace that’s slow but doesn’t underestimate the reader’s perspicacity.

No discussion of science books would be complete without mentioning Carl Sagan’s seminal work Cosmos. I read this book whole it was enjoying over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. This glossy, illustrated hardcover is the essence of readable science popularization. Meant as a companion to a public television miniseries, Cosmos rises above the role of companion volume and quickly became a classic all on its own. It covers the history of astronomy, mathematics, and evolution in Carl’s anecdotal style, comfortable as an old sweater.

Reporter turned travel writer Simon Winchester’s thirteenth published book was called The Professor and the Madman, unexpectedly about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary. Leaving travel books behind him, later books tended to be on history and science topics. Krakatoa: The Day the World Explodedcontains an impressively seamless blend of geology and environmental issues, glued together by sociology and nineteenth-century politics. The figures in his books are real people but, much like the prose of novelist Tracy Kidder, they become characters the reader cares about. Winchester’s obviously extensive research never bogs the story down, but informs it with always fascinating detail about seemingly minor figures in history.

Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman focuses more on Richard Feynman the man than on his work, but is a great read and is well worth your time. Assembled from conversations and, if memory serves, interviews, the essays in this book range from music to science to his time working on the Manhattan project. Dick Feynman was a fascinating figure, difficult to ignore, and this book brings him to life.

Some material from this post was taken from an answer I wrote in this Stack Exchange post, and is covered under a Creative Commons license.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He also plays acoustic guitar in the band Baroque & Hungry.


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