These books are ones selected out of many more that I have read because they are a) Classics in Science/Nature writing (for various reasons), 2) were astonishingly entertaining and informative, and/or 3) were life-changingly fascinating (to me at least, marked with stars).
*Guns, Germs and Steel (1999) Jared Diamond
This book proposes a grand, sweeping hypothesis about human cultural evolution that explains why some places ended up wealthy and "developed" and others did not. Diamond combines ideas from ecology, economics, anthropology and history to systematically describe how the bidoversity, climate and connectivity with other cultural groups has determined the fate of human societies. If you like this book, follow up with Collapse, about the lessons we can learn from human societies that failed.
Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (2008) D. Koeppel
Seriously, you have to read this book! You would never guess the political and economic forces at work in the world that have collaborated to make bananas the number one fruit in the US and how our future enjoyment of them is threatened by a fungal disease.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2008) B. Kingsolver
This book is the story of a modern family who decided to grow all their own food for a year. It is an elegantly-written reflection on the place food in our modern American lives and the environmental consequences of the convenience of packaged foods. Kingsolver is well-known for her novels, which often have ecological themes, as well, such a Prodigal Summer and Flight Behavior. (She is one of my favorite fiction authors).
The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2007) M. Pollan
Well-written and thoughtful examination of where food comes from in America by a very popular author of non-fiction relating to food. I was especially surprised at the link between corn products and the petroleum industry. Poses more questions than he answers.
Sand County Almanac (1949) Aldo Leopold
Poetic description of the natural environment around his home by one of the founding thinkers in American conservation science. He was a game manager, but recognized the beauty and inherent "rightness" in intact ecosystems that was becoming threatened by human use of the environment. Considered a classic of American literature as well as of environmental writing.
Silent Spring (1962) R. Carson
Classic of environmental literature, beautifully written and foundational in our understanding of the effects of toxic chemicals in the environment. Reads now as very dated, however. Many of the problems she discusses have been somewhat effectively solved by banning DDT and the other regulations enacted in the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the Endangered Species Act. But this book had a major impact in shifting thinking in the US and globally so that these things could happen.
Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival? (1996) T. Colborn, D. Bumanoski, and J. P. Myers
Sort of a modern follow-up of Silent Spring and I would recommend it over Silent Spring for a modern audience (=you). It discusses the sub-lethal effects of the accumulation of toxic chemicals in the environment and in our bodies, and the potential effects such as damage to the brain during development. If you have heard the term “endocrine disruptors” and want to know more about them, this is the book for you!
*Song of the Dodo (1997) David Quamman
*The Beak of the Finch ()
Wonderful Life () Stephen Jay Gould
*Endless Forms Most Beautiful () Sean Carroll
*Your Inner Fish (2008) Neil Shubin
Fascinating story of the evolution of Tetrapods from our fishy ancestors through various transitional forms and onto land by one of the paleontologists who has discovered and described a couple of the most important fossils in the field. Entertaining style, well-written.
Deadly Outbreaks (2011) A. Levitt
A compelling series of thrilling stories of epidemiological detective work. This book highlights the use of data and detective work to track down the origins and pathology of human disease outbreaks. Very interesting stuff; if you have any interest in either pathology lab work or public heath policy this would give you a good idea of the types of jobs (and personalities) in the field.
The Lady Tasting Tea (2002) D. Salsburg
The Double Helix (1968) J. Watson
Yes, this is the Watson of Watson and Crick, who got the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA. It tells the story of the scientific work that went into the discovery, including the personalities of the cast of characters and their rivalries. Somewhat dated, but a classic in scientific literature.
A Feeling for the Organism (1974) E. Fox Keller
This is the story of an iconoclastic figure in science, Barbara McClintock who as a woman scientist in the early 20th century was largely ignored and sidelined while doggedly working on brilliant research that eventually won her a Nobel Prize. The work is in corn genetics, and she discovered transposable elements. This book provides a good explanation of the technical aspects that will stretch your understanding of genetics beyond the Bio 120 level.
The Selfish Gene (1976) R. Dawkins
One of the most popular and possibly best-written general-audience science books ever. The second edition, published in 1990 has additional material. His explanation of evolution by natural selection from the perspective of the gene (and as an atheist) represents the world in a (to many) mind-blowingly fascinating way. The science of the book is actually a bit dated at this point, and my response was a bit “meh” but I knew all the content already. He has gone on to write many other books that you may also like if you like this one.
The Monk in the Garden (2001) R. Marantz Henig
A biography of Gregor Mendel, focusing on his life work on pea plants that led to the discovery of the concept of genes and how they are inherited. It also tells the story of how the work was not recognized at the time (and why) and then was rediscovered later. For a short book, it gets a lot of story in and I enjoyed it very much.
*Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (1995) R. Sapolsky
Besides have a super-fun title and adorable Matisse-like dancing zebras on the cover, this mind-blowing book is awesome because it really explains what stress does to the body and why at the body organ and cellular level. It is also incredibly funny and brilliantly written. I wanted to start re-reading it the second I finished it, but didn’t because it was overdue at the library already. It does have a short guide to de-stressing at the end, if you are interested in that aspect of the research as well. You will be extra-motivated to take up meditation after you really understand all the negative consequences of prolonged stress.
The Island of the Colorblind (1996) O. Sacks
Dr. Sacks is a gifted writer and neurobiologist who is probably more famous for his other books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings (yes, the one the movie is based on). This one is my favorite because it blends neuroscience and cultural anthropology (trying to make sense of human populations on two islands with strange neurological disorders) as well as history and all the ecological factors of island-dwelling in addition to evolution. It was hard to decide what topic to put this book under, in fact, but ultimately it is about people. Most people who read one of Sacks books go on to devour all the others.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2007) M. Roach
If you have ever wondered what happens to the bodies that get “donated to science” this is the book for you. Roach describes the various uses human cadavers are put to and the information that we have learned from them, as well as describing the history of how human remains have been used in science through the ages. Strangely she manages to make the whole thing really fascinating and funny. Student interested in forensics may particularly enjoy this book. I haven’t read her other books (currently Gulp—about eating and digestion and Bonk—about sex) but I would be surprised if they weren’t also very entertaining.
Medical School/Being a Doctor (recommendations thanks to Michele Perchez)
Treatment Kind and Fair: Letters to a Young Doctor. (2007) P. Klass
Excellent read; great advice and insight on the process of becoming a doctor as told by a doctor mother to her med school-bound son.
Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon's First Years. (2006) M. J. Collins. Awesome chronicle of orthopedic surgery residency! I couldn't put it down.
Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation. (2009) S. Jauhar
This one is a little dark, but gives you good insight into the emotions (doubts) that can come up.