I didn't really get into non-fiction until college. I was weaned on syfy, as it were (insert oft-repeated story of me thinking the "These are the Voyages..." speech from Star Trek was the Pledge of Allegance in pre-K), but non-fiction never really interested me until my second year of college. Now it's mostly all I read. Granted, there are some exceptions, but it's hard to find good syfy I haven't read at this point, so... yeah.
31. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins:
Richard Dawkins' brilliant reformulation of the theory of natural selection has the rare distinction of having provoked as much excitement and interest outside the scientific community as within it. His theories have helped change the whole nature of the study of social biology, and have forced thousands of readers to rethink their beliefs about life.
In his internationally bestselling, now classic volume, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins explains how the selfish gene can also be a subtle gene. The world of the selfish gene revolves around savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit, and yet, Dawkins argues, acts of apparent altruism do exist in nature. Bees, for example, will commit suicide when they sting to protect the hive, and birds will risk their lives to warn the flock of an approaching hawk.
Why you should read it: Because this is the book that created the idea of the meme itself, and you can't have a book meme without harkening back to the genesis, if you will. Because it is a wonderful book on Evolutionary Biology that explains things in such a way that they're comprehendable to anyone with an HS-level knowledge of biology (and, actually, a little well duh to those of us with more than that). Plus, I find reading Dawkins' books in places frequented by religious fanatics (or, at least, Southern Baptists) is a wonderful, passive-agressive way of sticking it to the man.
"Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.”
“Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life's hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don't; not if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions.”
32. Lonely Planets: A Natural Philosophy of Alien Life by David Grinspoon:
In Lonely Planets, astronomer David Grinspoon is buoyantly optimistic about the possibility that we are not alone in the universe. Grinspoon, who serves as principal scientist in the Department of Space Studies at the Southwest Research Institute, lays out a detailed but not boring case for life on other planets, dropping authoritative quotes and goofy footnotes in equal measure. The Grinspoon family hung out with Carl Sagan and other astronomical royalty, giving young David an early appreciation for SETI and the heady astrobiological theorizing of the 1970s. In the 21st century, scientists are still split on the question of extraterrestrial life. Grinspoon believes that a "natural philosophy" approach is the key to furthering our knowledge in this field, since there is precious little evidence with which to apply the scientific method. Instead of looking for the familiar and testable, he writes, we should expect the unexpected.
Expecting to find DNA elsewhere is like expecting a Star Trek universe with humanoid aliens who speak English and insist that we join them for dinner at eight.
Lonely Planets is a substantial book, covering the origins of life on Earth as well as the changes in religious and social thought that have affected astronomers' search for other planets and their theoretical inhabitants. Grinspoon's style is exuberant, even a little cocky, and the result is delightful readability. Lonely Planets lets readers share the dismay of finding out there are probably no Martians and the thrill of wondering if there might be Europans. "I think our galaxy is full of species," writes Grinspoon. "The wise ones are out there waiting for us to join them."
Why you should read it: Because this is one of the few books that actually discusses the possibility of alien life seriously without sounding like it was written by a crackpot. Part memoir, part history of the universe, this book is brilliantly funny and very accessible - kind of like the written equivolent of The Big Bang Theory, if they ever did an episode purely on alien life.
“Why should I care what other people believe, if what they are doing is harmless?”
33. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking:
A landmark volume in science writing by one of the great minds of our time, Stephen Hawking’s book explores such profound questions as: How did the universe begin—and what made its start possible? Does time always flow forward? Is the universe unending—or are there boundaries? Are there other dimensions in space? What will happen when it all ends?
Told in language we all can understand, A Brief History of Time plunges into the exotic realms of black holes and quarks, of antimatter and “arrows of time,” of the big bang and a bigger God—where the possibilities are wondrous and unexpected. With exciting images and profound imagination, Stephen Hawking brings us closer to the ultimate secrets at the very heart of creation.
Why you should read it: Because it is exactly what the title says. The history of the universe, with all the ideas and concepts of the first few chapters building to a culmination in the last - ie, building from readily understandable to, well, the not so much - in a very natural and logical progression of things that can't help but make you feel (in my case, at least) that my confusion is only because I'm just not smart enough. And that's saying something.
“Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from. Humanity's deepest desire for knowledge is justification enough for our continuing quest. And our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in.”
34. Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation and Time Travel by Michio Kaku
In this latest effort to popularize the sciences, City University of New York professor and media star Kaku (Hyperspace) ponders topics that many people regard as impossible, ranging from psychokinesis and telepathy to time travel and teleportation. His Class I impossibilities include force fields, telepathy and antiuniverses, which don't violate the known laws of science and may become realities in the next century. Those in Class II await realization farther in the future and include faster-than-light travel and discovery of parallel universes. Kaku discusses only perpetual motion machines and precognition in Class III, things that aren't possible according to our current understanding of science. He explains how what many consider to be flights of fancy are being made tangible by recent scientific discoveries ranging from rudimentary advances in teleportation to the creation of small quantities of antimatter and transmissions faster than the speed of light. Science and science fiction buffs can easily follow Kaku's explanations as he shows that in the wonderful worlds of science, impossible things are happening every day.
Why you should read it: Because, if you've ever nitpicked an episode of anything Syfy, this is for you. Written by a SyFy geek for SyFy geeks, this is an attempt to apply RL logic and science to many, many things. In addition to consulting on the science in the movie 2001 (apparently there was a row between him and Kubrick about one of the details, I forget what, but it was small and he was overruled), he built a supercollider in his garage over Xmas break one year. I almost want to say that he's like a less brash and sarcastic version of Rodney McKay, or maybe a less womanizing and personable version of Tony Stark... but those are both wrong. But he's probably been the stepping stone for some character in modern SyFy, even if no one's admited to it. And that's reason enough to read this.
“It is often stated that of all the theories proposed in this century, the silliest is quantum theory. In fact, some say that the only thing that quantum theory has going for it is that it is unquestionably correct.”
“By 2100, our destiny is to become like the gods we once worshipped and feared. But our tools will not be magic wands and potions but the science of computers, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and most of all, the quantum theory.”
[Neither of these are from this particular book, as I can't find any readily online, but they're of the same tone.]
35. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan:
A national bestseller that has changed the way readers view the ecology of eating, this revolutionary book by award winner Michael Pollan asks the seemingly simple question: What should we have for dinner? Tracing from source to table each of the food chains that sustain us--whether industrial or organic, alternative or processed--he develops a portrait of the American way of eating.
The result is a sweeping, surprising exploration of the hungers that have shaped our evolution, and of the profound implications our food choices have for the health of our species and the future of our planet.
“So that's us: processed corn, walking.”
“Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner; cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. And it's a short way from not knowing who's at the other end of your food chain to not caring–to the carelessness of both producers and consumers that characterizes our economy today."