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A Summer Science Reading List

I recognize that for many readers of this blog the concept of “summer vacation” no longer exists. Although graduate students are still technically “students,” there’s no summer break when you’re getting paid to be there. But for those able to spare the time, summer is ideal for catching up on reading. Since free time is a previous commodity for most folks, picking a book that’s worth the hours you’ll spend reading it is critical. Therefore—if I may be so bold—I’d like to propose a few selections to help make the most of your summer reading (and for other great book suggestions, check out this previous post from our editors). Although these are great reads for anyone and everyone, I think ECRs will find them especially worthwhile

1. The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis By Thomas Goetz

(Avery, 2014)

In The Remedy, the science journalist Thomas Goetz recounts the true and captivating history of the rivalry between two giants of science in the early days of germ theory: Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur. However, the most intriguing figure in the storyline is yet another character: Arthur Conan Doyle—famed author of the Sherlock Holmes detective series. At the time, Doyle was actually a physician, though of obscure reputation. He held a great deal of interest in the work of Koch, who in 1890 had announced he’d discovered a cure for consumption (tuberculosis). Goetz dedicates considerable time chronicling the history of this disease and thus, in a sense, his book is also a biography of tuberculosis—the greatest killer in human history. Doyle ultimately identifies Koch’s curative claims as fraudulent and eventually openly confronts Koch in the book’s most climactic scene, keeping the reader in eager anticipation. In this way, Goetz subtlety mimics Doyle’s style and keeps the reader enthralled in this gripping and suspenseful narrative.

2. A Short History of Nearly Everything By Bill Bryson

(Broadway Books, 2004)

Now fifteen years since its first publishing, Bryson’s Short History remains highly relevant and has established itself as classic science text that belongs on the shelf of every scientist. The phrase “Nearly Everything” in the title is curious (if not intimidating), given the book’s relatively slim volume (544 pages). In reality, it could more aptly be titled “a short history of the physical and natural sciences,” as Bryson rarely ventures outside of these subjects. Geology and physics dominate the opening of the book, and Byron’s ability to seamlessly merge these fields—which one might not often associate together—is impressive and intuitive. As the book progresses, chemistry and biology are brought into the fold, with a heavy emphasis on the history of evolutionary theory. While the life sciences make a smaller showing than their physical science counterparts, ECRs immersed in biomedical research will likely find Bryson’s emphasis on these topics to be a welcome reprieve from the oversaturation of biological science encountered in daily life.

3. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief By Francis S. Collins

(Free Press, 2007)

I expect the author of The Language of God is a familiar name to readers in science research fields. As the current director of the NIH, Collins is a leading public figure in the scientific community today; however, he is better known for his role in directing the Human Genome Project. In this New York Times bestseller, Collins outlines his personal worldview as a practicing scientist and person of faith. Portraying his philosophy of science through the lens of “theistic evolution”, he describes how he ultimately reached this position after embracing an atheistic worldview early on in his scientific training. While arguments for theism promulgated by persons lacking a scientific background are often felt to be inadequate among those with advanced science training, Collin’s unassailable credentials as a scientist will reassure otherwise cynical readers that the topic will be addressed in a lucid, professional manner. Whether discussing the origin of the universe or the nature of morality, Collins operates from a basis of skepticism by default, progressing through the arguments by rational deliberation. The book also benefits greatly by drawing on the work of a multitude of previous thinkers, both scientist (e.g., John Polkinghorne) and non-scientist (e.g., C.S. Lewis). And at only 280 pages, this quick read is well worth the time for any ECR. Whether you have a long-settled position on the subject or not, there is much to gain from hearing Collins speak to the matter.

4. The Gene: An Intimate History By Siddhartha Mukherjee

(Scribner, 2016)

Siddhartha Mukherjee will be more familiar to readers for his previous and exquisite Pulitzer-winning work, The Emperor of All Maladies. Though not quite critically acclaimed as Maladies, in The Gene, Mukherjee once again spins a spellbinding tale. For those familiar with Mukherjee’s writing, it comes as no surprise as he once again showcases his knack for identifying larger narratives and story arches, giving the reader a 10,000 foot view of unruly subjects. For instance, Mukherjee nicely breaks down the history of genetic research into the “gene anatomy” period (1920-1950s) and “gene physiology” period (1950s-1970s). While there is not a ton of novel insight or original content here, the book shines most brightly in how it transforms dry subjects (i.e., Thomas Hunt Morgan’s work on chromosomes or Beadle and Tatum’s discovery that genes encode proteins) into riveting reading. For many people today it often feels as if the scientific progress of the past was a simple inevitability; Mukherjee shows us how it was anything but. In short, The Gene is an inspired retelling of the history of molecular genetics, which, while being readily accessible to the non-scientist reader nonetheless remains enlightening for any scientist as well.


Featured image taken by the author

  1. I would not value Francis Collins with his attachment to the supernatural and you should be aware of the factual inaccuracies in “The Gene”.

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