By Juliana Adelman
I decided to limit myself to Western science, mostly because I don’t know enough about other scientific or natural traditions to be able to pick a top 5. There is also a serious bias in favour of books written in English which means I have most likely NOT picked the best book about French or German or Dutch science. I’ve kind of mixed best with ‘most important’.
Thomas Kuhn, The structure of scientific revolutions (Chicago, 1962). This book is really philosophy of science, but it has had an enormous impact on how historians of science view scientific knowledge. Kuhn, a physicist, received much criticism from the scientific community because he presented science as a social process and scientific knowledge not as inevitable ‘truth’ but negotiated consensus. Not all the ideas in the book are still embraced by hisorians of science, but it is a good starting point.
Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago, 1996). Any book that begins by denying the existence of its subject (‘There was no Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it’) is always off to a flying start. Well written and clear, an excellent introduction to the most celebrated and inscribed events in the history of science.
Peter J. Bowler, Evolution: the history of an idea (Berkeley, 2009) . Evolution is probably the scientific idea that non-scientists would consider themselves most familiar with. This book looks at the history of the evolution concept before and after Charles Darwin. In this and his other books Bowler overturns the notion that the scientific world immediately accepted the conclusions of Darwin.
James Watson, The Double Helix (New York, 1968, rev. 1980). This is a personal account of probably the most significant discovery in 20th Century Western science, the ramifications of which include all of the many complex genetic technologies we are still trying to come to terms with. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published a paper describing the structure of DNA as a double helix. Watson is not an entirely reliable witness as a noted egotist, but he is a good writer and the story is fascinating on its own terms.
James Secord, Victorian Sensation: the extraordinary publication, reception and secret authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago, 2001). Now I’m really showing my bias towards 19th C Anglophone science. However, I think this book is all the best things about a history book. It is meticulously researched, wonderfully written and concisely argued. I wish I had written this book. Also, it is a good demonstration of how the history of science has veered increasingly towards an engagement with cultural history and away from ‘great men’ history.
Bullet: Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver. A novel, but probably a more fun introduction to the history of the Royal Society than will be found anywhere else. If nothing else, this book has changed the way that I imagine various historical actors: much grubbier.