Science books for thriller fans #1

Still shopping for the perfect gift?  Today I make a couple of recommendations of great nonfiction books that science thriller fans might enjoy.  These are NOT thrillers but are well-written, engaging narratives of science history.  All were written some years ago so they are no longer featured on the tables when you walk into Barnes & Noble, but they deserve to be read.

Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif (first published 1926).  de Kruif’s microbiology masterpiece is still in print, for good reason.  Nominally, this is a history of the early triumphs of microbiology told as biographies of the greats: Leeuwenhoek, Koch, Pasteur, Metchnikoff, Walter Reed, etc.  But it reads like a thriller.  Young adults in particular may find this one volume enough inspiration to become scientists themselves.  Nothing is dry or boring about science in Microbe Hunters.  High stakes, desperate risks, flashes of genius, noble bravery–all are on display.  This book makes real how different and uncertain life was in the 19th century, before widespread vaccination, antibiotics, and clean water supplies, and it dramatizes the heroic sacrifices made to develop our understanding of infectious disease.

The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology by Horace Freeland Judson (1979, 25th anniversary edition in 1996), and
The Double Helix by James Watson (1968, still in print).
Both of these books tell the story of the birth of modern molecular biology, but they are very different and it’s fascinating to read and compare both.

The Double Helix by Nobel prize-winning scientist James Watson (of “Watson and Crick” fame), offers all the advantages and faults of a first-person account. The tale is real and intimate and exciting, but the reliability of the author is always in question. In the decades since this book appeared, revisions to the “history” have been many. In particular, Watson’s portrayal of female scientist Rosalind Franklin has been much disputed, and it is generally agreed that he fails to give her credit for the crucial role her work played in “his” discovery.

On the other hand, The Eighth Day of Creation is a long, definitive history of the field written with authority and objectivity. Both books give an excellent picture of blind stumblings and brilliant insights, of big intellects coupled to bigger egos, of the human side of how science is really done. For me personally, my copy of this book was a significant inspiration in my decision to study molecular biology. Be warned, however: Judson’s book is more “semi-popular” science than pop sci. It’s best appreciated by readers with a very strong high school or even college-level education in biology.

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