Life Sciences

Life | Chemistry | Physics | Environmental | Earth | Technology

Letters-Young-ScientistLetters to a Young Scientist

Author: E.O. Wilson
Topic: Biology, Naturalist, Autobiography

Description (
Edward O. Wilson has distilled sixty years of teaching into a book for students, young and old. Reflecting on his coming-of-age in the South as a Boy Scout and a lover of ants and butterflies, Wilson threads these twenty-one letters, each richly illustrated, with autobiographical anecdotes that illuminate his career—both his successes and his failures—and his motivations for becoming a biologist. At a time in human history when our survival is more than ever linked to our understanding of science, Wilson insists that success in the sciences does not depend on mathematical skill, but rather a passion for finding a problem and solving it. From the collapse of stars to the exploration of rain forests and the oceans’ depths, Wilson instills a love of the innate creativity of science and a respect for the human being’s modest place in the planet’s ecosystem in his readers.

Beak-of-FinchThe Beak of the Finch
A Story of Evolution in Our Time

Author: Jonathan Weiner
Topic: Evolution

Description (
On a desert island in the heart of the Galapagos archipelago, where Darwin received his first inklings of the theory of evolution, two scientists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, have spent twenty years proving that Darwin did not know the strength of his own theory. For among the finches of Daphne Major, natural selection is neither rare nor slow; it is taking place by the hour, and we can watch. In this dramatic story of groundbreaking scientific research, Jonathon Weiner follows these scientists as they watch Darwin’s finches and come up with a new understanding of life itself. The Beak of the Finch is an elegantly written and compelling masterpiece of theory and explication in the tradition of Stephen Jay Gould.

  • Winner of a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction

Song-of-the-DodoThe Song of the Dodo
Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction

Author: David Quammen
Topic: Evolution

Description (
David Quammen’s book, The Song of the Dodo, is a brilliant, stirring work, breathtaking in its scope, far-reaching in its message – a crucial book in precarious times, which radically alters the way in which we understand the natural world and our place in that world. It’s also a book full of entertainment and wonders. In The Song of the Dodo, we follow Quammen’s keen intellect through the ideas, theories, and experiments of prominent naturalists of the last two centuries. We trail after him as he travels the world, tracking the subject of island biogeography, which encompasses nothing less than the study of the origin and extinction of all species. Why is this island idea so important? Because islands are where species most commonly go extinct – and because, as Quammen points out, we live in an age when all of Earth’s landscapes are being chopped into island-like fragments by human activity. Through his eyes, we glimpse the nature of evolution and extinction, and in so doing come to understand the monumental diversity of our planet, and the importance of preserving its wild landscapes, animals, and plants. We also meet some fascinating human characters. By the book’s end we are wiser, and more deeply concerned, but Quammen leaves us with a message of excitement and hope.

Ancestors-TaleThe Ancestor’s Tale
A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution

Author: Richard Dawkins
Topic: Evolution

Description (
With unparalleled wit, clarity, and intelligence, Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s most renowned evolutionary biologists, has introduced countless readers to the wonders of science in works such as The Selfish Gene. Now, in The Ancestor’s Tale, Dawkins offers a masterwork: an exhilarating reverse tour through evolution, from present-day humans back to the microbial beginnings of life four billion years ago. Throughout the journey Dawkins spins entertaining, insightful stories and sheds light on topics such as speciation, sexual selection, and extinction. The Ancestor’s Tale is at once an essential education in evolutionary theory and a riveting read.


Time, Love, Memory
A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior

Author: Jonathan Weiner
Topic: Genetics

Description (
Jonathan Weiner, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Beak of the Finch, brings his brilliant reporting skills to the story of Seymour Benzer, the Brooklyn-born maverick scientist whose study of genetics and experiments with fruit fly genes has helped revolutionize or knowledge of the connections between DNA and behavior both animal and human. How much of our fate is decided before we are born? Which of our characteristics is inscribed in our DNA? Weiner brings us into Benzer’s Fly Rooms at the California Institute of Technology, where Benzer and his associates are in the process of finding answers, often astonishing ones, to these questions. Part biography, part thrilling scientific detective story, Time, Love, Memory forcefully demonstrates how Benzer’s studies are changing our world view–and even our lives.

Monk-in-the-GardenThe Monk in the Garden
The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel

Author: Robin Marantz Henig
Topic: Genetics

Description (
In The Monk in the Garden, award-winning author Robin Marantz Henig vividly evokes a little-known chapter in science, taking us back to the birth of genetics, a field that continues to challenge the way we think about life itself. Shrouded in mystery, Gregor Mendel’s quiet life and discoveries make for fascinating reading. Among his pea plants Henig finds a tale filled with intrigue, jealousy, and a healthy dose of bad timing. She “has done a remarkable job of fleshing out the myth with what few facts there are” (Washington Post Book World) and has delivered Mendel’s story with grace and glittering prose. The Monk in the Garden is both a “classic tale of redemption” (New York Times Book Review) and a science book of the highest literary order.

Double-HelixThe Double Helix
A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA

Author: James Watson
Topic: Genetics

Description (
By identifying the structure of DNA, the molecule of life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionized biochemistry and won themselves a Nobel Prize. At the time, Watson was only twenty-four, a young scientist hungry to make his mark. His uncompromisingly honest account of the heady days of their thrilling sprint against other world-class researchers to solve one of science’s greatest mysteries gives a dazzlingly clear picture of a world of brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions, and bitter rivalries. With humility unspoiled by false modesty, Watson relates his and Crick’s desperate efforts to beat Linus Pauling to the Holy Grail of life sciences, the identification of the basic building block of life. Never has a scientist been so truthful in capturing in words the flavor of his work.

RosalindFranklin-and-DNARosalind Franklin and DNA

Author: Anne Sayer
Topic: Genetics

Description (
Rosalind Franklin’s research was central to the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of DNA’s double-helix structure. Known only as the bossy, unfeminine “Rosy” in James Watson’s The Double Helix, Franklin never received the credit she was due during her lifetime. In this classic work Anne Sayre, a journalist and close friend of Franklin, sets the record straight.

RosalindFranklin_DarkLadyRosalind Franklin
Dark Lady of DNA

Author: Brenda Maddox
Topic: Genetics

Description (
In 1962, Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick, and James Watson received the Nobel Prize, but it was Rosalind Franklin’s data and photographs of DNA that led to their discovery. Brenda Maddox tells a powerful story of a remarkably single-minded, forthright, and tempestuous young woman who, at the age of fifteen, decided she was going to be a scientist, but who was airbrushed out of the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century.

The Secret of Life

Author: James D. Watson
Topic: Genetics

Description (Book jacket)
Fifty years ago, James D. Watson, then just twenty-four, helped launch the greatest ongoing scientific quest of our time. Now, with unique authority and sweeping vision, he gives us the first full account of the genetic revolution—from Mendel’s garden to the double helix to the sequencing of the human genome and beyond. Watson’s lively, panoramic narrative begins with the fanciful speculations of the ancients as to why “like begets like” before skipping ahead to 1866, when an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel first deduced the basic laws of inheritance. But genetics as we recognize it today—with its capacity, both thrilling and sobering, to manipulate the very essence of living things—came into being only with the rise of molecular investigations culminating in the breakthrough discovery of the structure of DNA, for which Watson shared a Nobel prize in 1962. In the DNA molecule’s graceful curves was the key to a whole new science.

The-Big-IdeaCrick, Watson and DNA
The Big Idea

Author: Paul Strathern
Topic: Genetics

Description (
This 128-page installment in Strathern’s The Big Idea series details the work of two brazen wags who were central to the birth of molecular biology: Francis Crick and James Watson. Calling them a “pair of comedians,” Strathern describes the tandem research style of the loud and cocksure Crick and the unassuming, gangly Watson. Like an action-flick cop team, the likable pair almost bumbled their way to discovering DNA’s zippered helix pattern, with the brilliant, beer-swilling Crick getting called to task by his superiors as Watson quietly pursued hit-and-miss models to crack the code. One of the better books in “The Big Idea” series, Crick, Watson, and DNA even includes a decent primer on genetics. In just an hour or so, you’ll have a good grasp of the field and more than a few chuckles at the antics of two of its greats.

Microbe-HuntersMicrobe Hunters

Author: Paul de Kruif
Topic: Microbiology

Description (Book jacket)
From the top of the news, where reports of Ebola and HIV loom large, to the best-seller lists to the movies, our fascination with viruses, bacteria, and disease is evident all around us. It is hard to imagine what life was like before the discovery of the microscopic organisms that cause disease. Microbe Hunters is Paul de Kruif’s classic dramatization of that world and of the scientists, bacteriologists, doctors, and medical technicians who discovered the microbes and invented the vaccines. De Kruif writes of Leeuwenhoek, the first man to view a microbe; Spallanzani, who found that microbes multiply; Pasteur, whose vaccine for rabies convinced the world that disease was conquerable; and Ehrlich, whose discovery that arsenic could heal as well as kill spurred the scientific search for cures.


Author: Edward O. Wilson
Topic: Biology, Naturalist, Autobiography

Description (
Edward O. Wilson – University Professor at Harvard, winner of two Pulitzer prizes, eloquent champion of biodiversity – is arguably one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. His career represents both a blueprint and a challenge to those who seek to explore the frontiers of scientific understanding. Yet, until now, little has been told of his life and of the important events that have shaped his thought. In Naturalist, Wilson describes for the first time both his growth as a scientist and the evolution of the science he has helped define. He traces the trajectory of his life – from a childhood spent exploring the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida to life as a tenured professor at Harvard – detailing how his youthful fascination with nature blossomed into a lifelong calling. He recounts with drama and wit the adventures of his days as a student at the University of Alabama and his four decades at Harvard University, where he has achieved renown as both teacher and researcher. As the narrative of Wilson’s life unfolds, the reader is treated to an inside look at the origin and development of ideas that guide today’s biological research. Theories that are now widely accepted in the scientific world were once untested hypotheses emerging from one mans’s broad-gauged studies. Throughout Naturalist, we see Wilson’s mind and energies constantly striving to help establish many of the central principles of the field of evolutionary biology. The story of Wilson’s life provides fascinating insights into the making of a scientist, and a valuable look at some of the most thought-provoking ideas of our time.

Ants_at_WorkAnts at Work
How an Insect Society is Organized

Author: Deborah Gordon
Topic: Organismal Biology

Description (
Individual ants manage their incredibly complex colonies with no one in charge–how do they do it? Ants have long been regarded as the most interesting of the social insects. With their queens and celibate workers, these intriguing creatures have captured the imaginations of scientists and children alike for generations. Yet until now, no one had studied intensely the life cycle of the ant colony as a whole. An ant colony has a life cycle of about fifteen years–it is born, matures, and dies. But the individual ants that inhabit the colony live only one year. So how does this system of tunnels and caves in the dirt become so much more than the sum of its parts? Leading ant researcher Deborah Gordon takes the reader to the Arizona desert to explore this question. The answer involves the emerging insights of the new science of complexity, and contributes to understanding the evolution of life itself.

Fish-Caught-TimeA Fish Caught in Time
The Search for the Coelacanth

Author: Samantha Weinberg
Topic: Organismal Biology

Description (
The coelacanth (see-lo-canth) is no ordinary fish. Five feet long, with luminescent eyes and limb like fins, this bizarre creature, presumed to be extinct, was discovered in 1938 by an amateur icthyologist who recognized it from fossils dating back 400 million years. The discovery was immediately dubbed the “greatest scientific find of the century,” but the excitement that ensued was even more incredible. This is the entrancing story of that most rare and precious fish — our own great-uncle forty million times removed.

A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

Author: Mark Kurlansky
Topic: Organismal Biology, Environmental Studies

Description (Book jacket)
A delightful romp through history with all its economic forces laid bare, Cod is the biography of a single species of fish, but it may as well be a world history with this humble fish as its recurring main character. Cod, it turns out, is the reason Europeans set sail across the Atlantic, and it is the only reason they could. What did the Vikings eat in icy Greenland and on the five expeditions to America recorded in the Icelandic sagas? Cod–frozen and dried in the frosty air, then broken into pieces and eaten like hardtack. What was the staple of the medieval diet? Cod again, sold salted by the Basques, an enigmatic people with a mysterious, unlimited supply of cod. As we make our way through the centuries of cod history, we also find a delicious legacy of recipes, and the tragic story of environmental failure, of depleted fishing stocks where once their numbers were the fate of the universe. Here–for scientist and layperson alike, for philosopher, science-fiction reader, biologist, and computer expert–is a startlingly complete and rational synthesis of disciplines, and a new, optimistic message about existence.


Author: Oliver Sacks
Topic: Medicine

Description (Book jacket)
Awakenings–which inspired the major motion picture–is the remarkable story of a group of patients who contracted sleeping-sickness during the great epidemic just after World War I. Frozen for decades in a trance-like state, these men and women were given up as hopeless until 1969, when Dr. Oliver Sacks gave them the then-new drug L-DOPA, which had an astonishing, explosive, “awakening” effect. Dr. Sacks recounts the moving case histories of his patients, their lives, and the extraordinary transformations which went with their reintroduction to a changed world.

Island-of-the-ColorblindThe Island of the Colorblind

Author: Oliver Sacks
Topic: Medicine, Botany

Description (From the inside flap)
Oliver Sacks has always been fascinated by islands–their remoteness, their mystery, above all the unique forms of life they harbor. For him, islands conjure up equally the romance of Melville and Stevenson, the adventure of Magellan and Cook, and the scientific wonder of Darwin and Wallace. Drawn to the tiny Pacific atoll of Pingelap by intriguing reports of an isolated community of islanders born totally color-blind, Sacks finds himself setting up a clinic in a one-room island dispensary, where he listens to these achromatopic islanders describe their colorless world in rich terms of pattern and tone, luminance and shadow. And on Guam, where he goes to investigate the puzzling neurodegenerative paralysis endemic there for a century, he becomes, for a brief time, an island neurologist, making house calls with his colleague John Steele, amid crowing cockerels, cycad jungles, and the remains of a colonial culture. The islands reawaken Sacks’ lifelong passion for botany–in particular, for the primitive cycad trees, whose existence dates back to the Paleozoic–and the cycads are the starting point for an intensely personal reflection on the meaning of islands, the dissemination of species, the genesis of disease, and the nature of deep geologic time. Out of an unexpected journey, Sacks has woven an unforgettable narrative which immerses us in the romance of island life, and shares his own compelling vision of the complexities of being human.

A Brief History

Author: Roy Porter
Topic: Medicine, Psychology

Description (
Looking back on his confinement to Bethlem, Restoration playwright Nathaniel Lee declared: “”They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.”” As Roy Porter shows in Madness: A Brief History, thinking about who qualifies as insane, what causes mental illness, and how such illness should be treated has varied wildly throughout recorded history, sometimes veering dangerously close to the arbitrariness Lee describes and often encompassing cures considerably worse than the illness itself. Drawing upon eyewitness accounts of doctors, writers, artists, and the mad themselves, Roy Porter tells the story of our changing notions of insanity and of the treatments for mental illness that have been employed from antiquity to the present day.

Tapirs-Morning-BathThe Tapir’s Morning Bath
Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest

Author: Elizabeth Royte
Topic: Biology, Ecology, Nature of Science

Description (
An engaging portrait of a community of biologists, The Tapir’s Morning Bath is a behind-the-scenes account of life at a tropical research station that “conveys the uncertainties, frustrations, and joys of [scientific] field work” (Science). On Panama’s Barro Colorado Island, Elizabeth Royte works alongside the scientists–counting seeds, sorting insects, collecting monkey dung, radiotracking fruit bats–as they struggle to parse the intricate workings of the tropical rain forest. While showing the human side of the scientists at work, Royte explores the tensions between the slow pace of basic research and the reality of a world that may not have time to wait for answers.

Diversity-of-LifeThe Diversity of Life

Author: E. O. Wilson
Topic: Evolution, Ecology, Environmental Studies

Description (
In this book a master scientist tells the story of how life on earth evolved. Edward O. Wilson eloquently describes how the species of the world became diverse and why that diversity is threatened today as never before. A great spasm of extinction – the disappearance of whole species – is occurring now, caused this time entirely by humans. Unlike the deterioration of the physical environment, which can be halted, the loss of biodiversity is a far more complex problem – and it is irreversible. Defining a new environmental ethic, Wilson explains why we must rescue whole ecosystems, not only individual species. He calls for an end to conservation versus development arguments, and he outlines the massive shift in priorities needed to address this challenge. No writer, no scientist, is more qualified than Edward O. Wilson to describe, as he does here, the grandeur of evolution and what is at stake.

Life | Chemistry | Physics | Environmental | Earth | Technology

Do you have a favorite life science book?
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