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March 25, 2013 at 12:56 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Excellence in Science Writing: Oh, How You've Inspired Me!

By Lydia from SLN More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Science Bits in a World of Bytes Blog Series

The large part of my interest in science came from reading lots of books about science. I tend toward chemistry and astronomy, but there are good books about psychology out there. They’ve inspired me to try science writing. Here are some I’ve read and recommend.


Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History – Penny M. Le Couteur, Jay Burreson

I have read this book three or four times. The authors take readers on a tour of different molecules and discuss how they influenced history. The first chapter is about the molecules in spices and how those molecules drove exploration and wars. Structures are shown, and the explanations are clear and good for those who might not have a lot of scientific knowledge. One of my favorite things in the book is the distinction made between artificial and synthetic. A synthetic substance is a duplicate of something that occurs naturally, like synthetic vitamin C. An artificial substance, on the other hand, has no counterpart in the natural world.

A Guide to the Elements - Albert Stwertka

I have read this book so many times. I give it credit for helping me with an extra-credit question in high school chemistry; I had to place elements correctly in a blank periodic table. I got thirty-something, the most of anyone. This book makes memorizing the elements a little easier. Mr. Stwertka gives basic information on each element and tells about how it is used. For example, I learned about super-strong alnico magnets; the name comes from combining the names of the constituent elements aluminum, nickel, and cobalt. Some elements, like calcium have a couple pages, while some, like francium, have under a page.  This is like a small encyclopedia of chemistry.

The love of a chemist's life

Giant Molecules - Herman Francis Mark

I first encountered this book in my high school’s library and later came across it in my college’s library. This is a Time-Life book from 1970, so the science is dated. However, the enthusiasm for polymers is strong. This book goes over the history of polymers and explains the synthesis of various modern polymers, such as rayon.  Two pictures stand out. One shows a skier going down an artificial slope of Teflon, while the other shows someone skating on a Teflon surface. And to think that my mom would have my hide if I would dare to use metal on her beloved Teflon pans! This book also gives a neat visual explanation of single, double, and triple bonds using pyramids. Pyramids joined at a point show a single bond, while those joined along an edge have two end points of contact and thus show a double bond. Pyramids joined at a face have three points of contact and represent a triple bond. This book ignited my interest in polymers.

The Disappearing Spoon - Sam Kean

My brother likes to go to different libraries, and sometimes he’ll pick up books he thinks someone in the family would like. That is how I first got this book, and I am grateful to him for that. This is, hands-down, the most hilarious piece of science writing ever. For example, when writing about pyrite (fool’s gold) fooling beginning prospectors, he writes about another gold mimic, calaverite: “You can imagine a raw, dirty eighteen-year-old hauling in calaverite nuggets to the local appraiser in Hannan’s Find, only to hear the appraiser dismiss them as a sackful of what mineralogists classify as bagoshite.” Another interesting tidbit came from a section on aluminum. There is an alternate spelling, aluminium. Yes, that is an alternate spelling; I had to read it several times to figure out how it was different. There are tales of intrigue, jealousy, and politics in science, all masterfully told within the framework of the periodic table.  If you’re not sure where to start with my recommendations, read this one first.


DK Space Encyclopedia - Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest

This book is aimed toward children, but it is still informative. It covers every part of the celestial scale, from Earth-Moon interactions to the formation of clusters of galaxies, as well as space travel and extraterrestrial life. Some of my favorite sections are the two-page spreads on major features found in the arms of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. For example, I learned about something called “The Mouse.” It’s a neutron star speeding through the galaxy, trailing debris behind it, much like a comet. I believe this book taught me the name of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way is Sagittarius A* (A-star). This book gives a thorough introduction to all facets of astronomy, explaining concepts and techniques in accessible language.

Black Holes: A Traveler’s Guide – Clifford Pickover

This is science fiction, but not in the usual sense. Mr. Pickover uses a story with a second-person point of view to instruct us about black holes. He assumes a male captain, but that was not a big deal for me. You are the captain of an interstellar zoo/spaceship with interesting creatures like the fractal spider, which has legs on it legs. You like to investigate black holes and enlist your companion, who is a diamond-covered creature called a scolex. The plot moves along the investigation and instruction, which is explained in easily-grasped terms. The ending is unexpected, but that’s all you’ll get from me. There is an extra section in the back that helps farther explain some parts of the book, including a game the characters play, and has a question-and-answer session about black holes with professors of physics and astronomy.

Space Traveler's Nightmare

Frozen Star - George Greenstein

“Frozen Star” is an alternate name for a black hole that never really caught on. This book covers not only black holes but their cousins, neutron stars and pulsars, which I think are more interesting. Something interesting is the discussion of starquakes in neutron stars, and those are exactly what you think. I don’t remember much else from it. The memorable part of the book is where Mr. Greenstein writes a story describing what would happen on Earth should the Sun collapse into a black hole (I’ll spoil it for you: everything dies). It was frightening. The Sun is too light for that to happen, so don’t worry.

Strange Universe: The Weird and Wild Science of Everyday Life – On Earth and Beyond - Bob Berman

The book charmingly covers astronomical weirdness in addition to the more Earth-bound oddities. Chapters cover different concepts, such as the forbidden radiation of the Crab Nebula and the Moon’s effect on us. There is a chapter dedicated to human gaffes in space exploration, including the famous misshaping of Hubble’s main mirror, which led to blurred images and an expensive repair mission. My favorite covered the seeming randomness of patterns that make up the constellations. The quote that stuck with me from that chapter is, “Next, everything below Orion’s bright blue “foot” star, Rigel, is is Lepus, the hare. A bunny? Sure. After two or three shots of tequila.” Similar chuckle-inducing phrases are sprinkled throughout the book, so that knowledge is more likely to stick.

Generic Starry Night

Deep-Sky Companions: The Messier Object - Stephen James O’Meara

Messier started his catalog of deep-sky objects because he was sick of confusing them for comets. Nowadays, however, the objects are considered interesting. Mr. O’Meara goes through each of the 110 entries in the catalog, explaining what each is and what is interesting about it. He includes in list of stats its magnitude (brightness), distance, location, and discoverer. He includes black-and-white photos taken from the ground as well as the negative of the photo to show more detail. Each item takes up two or three pages, so it’s not difficult to read. My favorite entry is for M73, a group of four starts that looks like an old-fasioned rocket.


Brain Rules - Dr. John Medina

I read this book during my senior seminar class in college and thought it was great. Dr. Medina gives a rule and explains why it’s a good thing to do. He gives many examples that show the rule works. For sensory integration, he told how students remembered more when they were in a room that had a fragrance sprayed on the walls. He closes each chapter with a four- or five-bullet point summary. My favorite part was his description of a nerve cell by analogy with a fried egg. The biggest part of the egg is the cell body. If you stomp on the egg, little streamers of yolk fly everywhere. These represent the axons and dendrites nerve cells use to communicate with each other.

The Woman Who Changed Her Brain - Barbara Arrowsmith-Young

I saw it on the “new” shelf at the library and was intrigued enough to check it out.This is the most heart-warming book of the ones on this list. Ms. Arrowsmith-Young tells about her difficulty in school and with certain motor activities. Reading proved difficult. She got her master’s degree basically through lots of rereading of materials. She read a paper from a doctor who worked on the battlefields of WWI. The doctor said that soldiers with some cognitive difficulty had lower activity in a part of the brain and responded to training to strengthen the weak area of the brain. She read that paper several times, and came up with exercises to help herself. They worked, and she developed them into a whole school designed to help others address their own underactive mental areas. For example, someone who has difficulty reasoning is assigned to read parables and fables and extract the moral. This book tells many success stories along with Arrowsmith-Young’s ups and downs that occurred while she established and brought to public attention the Arrowsmith School.

See What I’m Saying - Lawrence Rosenblum

I had to get this book because of the title. Mr. Rosenblum discusses the links between our senses and how cool our senses are. We are influenced by music metaphors: “the expansive octave opening of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ so effectively conveys the expansiveness of a rainbow.” I discovered that I used senses in ways and for things of which I was never aware. I found out that having two nostrils helps us determine the direction of scent, much as having ears aids us in pinpointing the direction of a sound. I’ve read this book only once, so I don’t remember too much more about it, other than that I enjoyed it a lot.


I was checking out at the library with my usual stack of 25 or so books. While I was using the self-checkout, a librarian commented on my books and said something that stunned me: “I should read more non-fiction.” I’ve read few classic novels because space, dinosaurs, and chemistry held my attention. I encourage you, if you tend toward fiction, to look for one of the above books at your library and read it. What could be cooler and more enriching than learning how our world works?

What did you think?


Next:The ABCs of Chemistry: Part 1Previously:Chemistry of YUM!

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