Earlier today I asked my Twitter followers for recommendations for “really good” biographies about scientists. I gave Genius (James Gleick’s bio of Richard Feynman) and Cleopatra, A Life (not about a scientist but was super interesting and well-written) as examples of what I was looking for. You can see the responses here and I’ve pulled out a few of the most interesting ones below:
- Isaac Newton by James Gleick. Gleick wrote the aforementioned Genius and Chaos, another favorite of mine. I tried to read The Information last year after many glowing recommendations from friends but couldn’t get into it. Someone suggested Never at Rest is a superior Newton bio.
- The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman. I’ve read this biography of mathematician Paul Erdos; highly recommended.
- Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel. I’ve never read anything by Sobel; I’ll have to rectify that.
- Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.
- Everything and More by David Foster Wallace. I’ve heard Wallace was bit handwavy with the math in this one, but I still enjoyed it.
- Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson. Newton was a detective?
- The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura Snyder. Four-way bio of a group of school friends (Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones) who changed the world.
- The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen. How Charles Darwin devised his theory of evolution and then sat on it for years is one of science’s most fascinating stories.
- T. rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter Alvarez. Not a biography of a person but of a theory: that a meteor impact 65 million years ago caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
- The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel. Bio of brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.
- Edge of Objectivity by Charles Gillispie. A biography of modern science published in 1966, all but out of print at this point unfortunately.
- Galileo at Work by Stillman Drake.
- The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.
And many more here. Thanks to everyone who suggested books.
Update: Because this came up on Twitter, some biographies specifically about women in science: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Hedy’s Folly, On a Farther Shore, Marie Curie: A Life, A Feeling for the Organism, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man, and Radioactive.