Tasting a spoonful from a much-diluted punch bowl might be sensible for distinguishing hops from quinine, if maybe not beer from gin. But stirring a vast heap of books into uniformity is not a sensible task; you cannot expect to find our small sample of a very few and very particular titles to obey any clear go-no-go rules, nor to have selected every Ms. Right after pondering the vast pile of alternatives that appeared in this century during 999 of its 1,000 parts. Certainly this list is closer to a rough-textured region sculpted out of the multitudinous heap by many earnest and diverse readers.
We sign it all, although we were more like the two mat makers of the Pequod's crew who could "strike the last featuring blow." Readers, reviewers and editorial staff at American Scientist had over time gathered a list of memorable and influential English-language books, and we could but play out the end game. We received their fine list as legacy, about 80 titles, from unnamed persons with varying goals, and took up the task of rounding it out. (We have not read every book listed, and we feel it unlikely that many readers have.)
But two powers of 10 seem the right count. Here the finger-based notation has added meaning, for the year count is matched, one book per year on average. We replaced a dozen or so titles as a reward, then topped off again to a few more books than 100, mainly to include topics we could not bring ourselves to omit.
These groups of books and their names are our own doing. They name categories that we slowly recognized within the motley selections. By no means sharp-edged, each denotes a center around which friends can gather, perhaps more like at a picnic than a rugby scrum. The terms we use are not normative but descriptive, for the list itself suggested the categories and not the other way around.
Books have distinct purposes, hence rather distinct readerships. The full list includes a few textbooks. Here is Einstein expounding the concepts of relativity to readers who begin with a good algebraic background, and Feynman freely sketching his original take on quantum electrodynamics (QED) for readers with no math at all: not easy!
Then there are many books, usually rich and deep but demanding prepared readers. In their day, some of the books opened an entire new discipline; some summarized magisterially. Perhaps it is a dialect of mathematics that readers need to know, perhaps a detailed technical analysis of lengthy and essential data like forms and counts of bones in paleontology that try general readers' patience. We call these monographs.
But in every discipline the list holds many more books of highest value, usually shorter and always less technical in detail than the fraction we mark as monographs. We have named these explorations, and some are clearly essays. Take them as both. Serious readers of such books are made welcome to come just as they are. Not treatises for the already well-prepared nor yet primers of the topic, they make no guarantee to be comprehensive. Usually they are selections from the full discipline, using limited data but taking a view conceptually wider than most texts or treatises. Typically they seek to engage with the context, illuminating their topic with a broad beam, not a spotlight.
Now for some real books and real reading.
This group separates out biographies. Or does it in fact? Is not many an abstract volume a good bit of a biography? The name of Charles Darwin adds importance, and the late date of the chosen edition brings the reader closer to the intentions of that seminal author, whose candid impieties were at first edited out by his devout and loving widow. Hardy's is a rarely subjective reflection, and young Watson's superb tale opens the inner life of one decisive investigator.
Rather than call these "field guides," we might have simply called them "nouns." They compile and compactly describe many nouns of modern science, the substance of which all tomes of meaning are compounded. We emphasize those with the widest readership (gardens, birds, words), for amateurs have long joined with professionals to sample them. Others include special landscapes or an elusive sample. We have included some that require extensive means typical of our own century, such as aircraft, satellites and great telescopes. Images are of central importance here. One great exception is the Oxford English Dictionary, all text.
The Physical Sciences
Here are physics, chemistry, predominantly laboratory-based, and the related field sciences that look at sky, sea and rock, the nonbiological sciences of the field. Most of the splendid titles here at general level are easily interpreted. The Ferris book is a comprehensive, up-to-date look at cosmology, the science of the whole shebang. Hawking's personal account, done years back, became the unrivalled science bestseller. Weinberg places theoretical physics in a personal, candid and literary context not found elsewhere. Weyl's masterpiece of simplicity uses a brief, beautiful set of images to outline a profound mathematical idea. The entire list is most rewarding.
The second, more technical list contains the Einstein volume with all the original papers of his magical year, 1905. The Russell-Whitehead volumes are a monument of their epoch too, hard going (and since Gödel, even inconclusive). Cyril Smith's essays on materials in technology and in art are unforgettable. The books here cluster during the past few decades, when these sciences flowered.
History of Science
Some books trace a single theme, like Pais's volume, about the journey of physicists toward finer and finer scales in the analysis of matter until in the mid-1980s the realm of quarks inside the nuclear particles was reached. The best account of nuclear bomb-making through World War II is the volume by Richard Rhodes.
A few splendid encyclopedic sets are truly important. The two mentioned here are magnificent histories of science and technology. The Singer volumes are copiously and beautifully illustrated with the highest care and credibility. Although they are aging, their visual impact doth not fade. The Needham books—now 16 or 18 volumes and counting—are not only unique in opening Chinese civilization at depth to a largely ignorant West but also are so helpfully comparative that they are no bad source for the history of science everywhere.
Science Itself Examined
These books record a kind of self-scrutiny: science examined as a subject of study. Two philosophers have here written very different accounts, both of lasting value. Medawar, a research biologist, has given a keen personal account of what science can and cannot do. Snow shows science as a major element of the culture of our century, and Bush explains what a democracy might do about that.
The diversity of living forms is mirrored by the books that recount them.
Jacob and Monod, long colleagues in Paris, offer two brief assessments of molecular biology. Before them came Schrödinger, life as the work of a protean crystal—realized by the double helix. Here too are the jeweled plankton and fish of the seas, the calls of birds, the ecology of countryside, ice and jungle, viral threats, dinosaur finds, all cells—many-sided life viewed many ways.
The Evolution of Life
The theoretical heart of biology is Darwinian evolution as it has unfolded. Three views are told in admirable prose, by biologist-authors whose expertise has not dimmed their literary talents. Three more are in technical mode, the theory extended. Gruber examines Charles Darwin's notebooks to tease out the roots of creativity.
The Nature and Rise of Our Own Species
We are manifestly part of life but surely a special part. That is evident in the list: Almost two dozen titles occupy this cluster of disciplines, from anthropology and archaeology, sociology of small bands and great nations, and on to perception, psychology and language. These are marvelous books and justly popular.
Most of the titles are easy to interpret. But note that Laetoli is the name of a place in Tanzania where two small ancestors of ours two million years ago walked hand in hand, leaving their footprints on the fast-falling volcanic ash. The monograph that spins out the fully supported story is about as technical and yet as thrilling as one book can get.
We could not close the book list of the most literate and populous of all centuries without attending to what the art of fiction brings, both of tears and laughter.
H. G. Wells wrote his book in the first decade of the century. The science was truly prescient, and his portrayals both of the advertisers' culture—still dominant—and of the life of a young scientist have hardly been bettered. Rainbow is an utterly brilliant novel of WWII framed around science, but its light is chillingly cold.