On the Origins of Species
By Charles Darwin
The absolute standard. I once heard someone call Darwin’s discovery the greatest most obvious idea anyone ever came up with. A biology book that sold out on its first day. Just imagine that today -- the equivalent of a textbook selling out because of how Earth-shattering the ideas inside were. What’s really amazing to me as well, considering the book was published in 1859, is how understandable it still is today. Darwin’s language is not for a literary elite, it is very approachable. It’s one of those books you can pick up and flip to any page and understand what the author is trying to convey without any context. Highly recommend the fully illustrated edition as the drawings are just beautiful. I like books with illustrations in them, I find them less pretentious. Definitely good for toilet reading.
The Mismeasure of Man
by Stephen Jay Gould
If you don’t know who Stephen Jay Gould was, please look him up. This book is actually a rebuff to the ideas put forward in The Bell Curve (the idea that intelligence is innate based upon genetics and biology). The Bell Curve was an incredibly popular book when it came out, much to the dismay of actual biologists like Gould. In The Mismeasure of Man he unequivocally tears down the idea of biological determinism and other pseudo-scientific ideas. This book will one day be taught in “How We Beat Racism 101 in Schools.”
by Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero
Spoiler alert: there is no such thing as the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. But the reasons behind the stories of famous non-existent mythical creatures is by far more interesting than the actual pseudo-science itself. Working as a tour guide for so many years through the beginning of the age of misinformation, it really blew my mind how much of the general public was being bombarded with nonsensical ‘scientific’ ideas. I, on no less than two occasions had people straight up ask me if I believed in dragons. What do you even say to that? Other than that, so many other people asked about giants, yetis, still living dinosaurs, ancient aliens, really weird creationism, where one guy claimed that global warming was going to force chickens to evolve into velociraptors, just why. But this book helped put into context why people believe these ideas and the history behind them.
The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America
by Timothy Egan
This is an awesome book and was made into a really awesome PBS documentary about the largest forest fire in the history of the US. Not only about the fire itself, but really about man’s quest to control nature and nature’s ignorance to our ambitions. Also, my brother-in-law’s grandfather is mentioned in this book as he was a very important forester in the area. The stories of survival intertwined with the history of the science of forestry is really interesting. I think I’ve read this book 3 times now. Plus, Teddy Roosevelt is my favorite president if you cancel out his beliefs on race and eugenics, that is.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams
This is in the top two funniest books I’ve ever read, like actually uncontrollably laughing out loud while reading (the other is Bossy Pants by the great Tina Fey). While this is a humor novel, it has some really cool ideas about the Universe (or Galaxy) and some other cool scientific and quasi-scientific rants. And, I thought the movie with Martin Freeman and Mos Def was awesome even though it was kind of ignored and is a little different than the book.
A Short History of Nearly Everything
By Bill Bryson
Really recommend anything by Bill Bryson. His writing style is just so conversational. It’s like hearing a lecture from your favorite teacher. With this book it really is all in the title. It’s incredibly ambitious. Bryson straight up delves into the history of everything and does so in an astonishingly short amount of time. There are so many great little stories that give context through the history of the Universe. And, again, I like the illustrated version.
Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway
by Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll
Kirk Johnson is a paleobotanist, like Laura Dern’s character in Jurassic Park and Ray Troll is an awesome artist that specializes in Paleo-art. The two of them take a road trip through the Western U.S. and track the natural history and fossil fields across the area while giving context to the history of life on this planet. Without giving away too much, at one point he gets to meet Ziggy Marley, Bob Marley’s son in an interesting twist of fate. I got to meet Kirk Johnson a couple times working in the Colorado natural sciences community, and he really is a nice guy.
by Charles Gallenkamp
This book tells the story of perhaps the closest thing we’ve ever had to a real life Indiana Jones (not including myself, obviously), Roy Chapman Andrews. It’s just an awesome story of adventure and discovery. Roy Chapman Andrews came from fairly humble beginnings and chased his passion of natural history to work at the American Museum of Natural History and eventually would discover the fossil fields of Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs where he would discover Velociraptor (which were actually only about the size of a turkey in real life, not in the Jurassic Park Universe).
by Steven Rinella
Now, I’ve been hunting pretty much as long as I can remember so I can’t put myself in the moccasins of someone with no experience with that lifestyle. But, if you like history and adventure, this is a fantastic book, part history of the evolution and near extinction of the American buffalo by humans (mostly European humans) and part Alaska hunting adventure. Steven Rinella is the antithesis of the stereotypical beer guzzling irresponsible hunter that has permeated our culture, he cares about the integrity, responsibility and spirituality of the hunt.
by Bob Bakker
This is actually a novel that tells the story of Raptor Red, a Utahraptor that lived during the Cretaceous Period. Velociraptors in Jurassic Park were actually modeled from the Utahraptor --it’s just that Utahraptor is not as intimidating a name as Velociraptor. I actually have met and hung out with Bob Bakker or Dr. Bob on many occasions working out in Colorado. He is a really great guy and responsible for a lot of modern theories in dinosaur paleontology. In Raptor Red he got to explain his ideas on dinosaurs that at the time were not so mainstream in science and it’s really just a good read.
The Signature of All Things
by Elizabeth Gilbert
Same author of Eat, Pray, Love. This is actually a fictional novel that follows the discoveries and life of a naturalist in the 19th century, where she is at the forefront of the quest to discover ‘the signature of all things’ while interacting with other great minds of her day. The meticulous detail put into 19th century living and the almost fanatical quest of learning of naturalists at the time is truly inspirational. It really made me envious of those who got to live in such an age of discovery, so much so I would fantasize about living and discovering along side the main character. That fantasy lasted until I realized they didn’t have vaccines for smallpox and polio.
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History
by Cynthia Barnett
This book really opened my eyes to the importance and impact of rain and water in our world. This was really surprising to me because I worked as a irrigation worker for a big chunk of my life, installing and maintaining sprinkler systems, so I know a bit about the importance of water to life. It’s amazing still to me how little I knew about our relationship with the harnessing of water, from praying for rain to demanding it through (pseudo) science.
by Michael Crichton
Yes, that Michael Crichton who wrote Jurassic Park. Dragon Teeth came out many years after Crichton’s passing and tells the fictional story of a young man trapped in the middle of the Bone Wars in the late 19th century. The Bone Wars was completely real, where these two paleontologists, Edward Drinker Cope (I didn’t know Drinker was a name, maybe more of a title?) and Othaniel Charles Marsh, who absolutely hated each other. Seriously, some of the stories to come out of Bone Wars are completely bonkers, these guys cared more about outdoing each other than anything else. They would sabotage each other, throw slanderous accusations at each other. Accusations included things like that Cope killed his father for his inheritance or that Marsh plagiarized his writings. Legend has it they once had a mud fight while digging fossils out west, yes, they threw mud at one another.
Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens
by Steve Olson
Truly an eye-opening book about the second and much more famous volcanic eruption in the continental U.S. of the 20th century (often overlooked eruption of Lassen Peak in California in 1914). This does not only tell the story of the eruption but the history of logging in the Pacific Northwest, the formation and duties of the forest service and the exploitation of the old growth forests over the past 150 years. Even delving into the politics that perhaps created a much worse death toll than was necessary, this book really taught me a lot and I’ve been to the Pacific Northwest many times and never heard any of these stories. Perhaps most fascinating for me is the story of what happened after the eruption on the ecological level and how scientists were able to study the regeneration of the forests after the catastrophic eruption.
The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science
by Armand Marie Leroi
This book, more than many others really just floored me in how it put me into the minds of ancient Greek natural philosophers. It is funny to read at times because of how ridiculous some of the beliefs of Aristotle were about the natural world, but at other times you are truly amazed how much information they had right considering they lived 2,500 years ago. Aristotle is one of my favorite individuals of all human history and I thought I knew a lot about his life and his contributions to science, but this book, like so many before, made me realize again how little I know. The old adage is so true, the more you know the less you know.