An Astronomical Book List

With summer already here, you might be wondering what to do with all your new free time. Might we suggest grabbing a book and lounging by the pool? Here are a few of our favorite astronomy picks. Don’t worry, these books are far from “textbookish” and are definitely a must read! So choose one and add the rest to that astronomically growing book list of yours. Enjoy!

Schrödinger’s Ball
by Adam Felber

An apt description of this book: “If Einstein and John Cleese had written a novel together, this would be it.” — Joseph Weisberg

I discovered this clever work of fiction as an undergrad physics major and it immediately made (and has remained on) my list of favorite books ever. This novel is the perfect combination of humor and quantum physics, complete with a mind-bending, multi-layered plot and some fairly brilliant philosophical musings about what it means to be a scientist. Absolutely worth checking out. — Susanna Kohler

The Universe in a Single Atom
by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

This unexpected author shares the dialogue between science and spirituality in a truly refreshing way.   The Dalai Lama tells engaging stories about experimenting with his first telescope as a young boy, and grappling with the difficulties of special relativity. It’s clear that not only has he pursued meditative, philosophical, and spiritual studies, but scientific ones as well, constantly conversing with brilliant scientific minds. Drawing significant parallels between science and spirituality, he finds that they are complementary approaches with the same greater goal: seeking the truth. A dialogue between them will surely advance the wisdom contained in both disciplines and greatly benefit human kind. — Shannon Hall

Archives of the Universe
by Marcia Bartusiak

Marcia Bartusiak’s 2004 book “Archives of the Universe” is the ideal summer reading for any astronomer looking to put his or her work in the field into broader context. Archives is a collection of 75 truly foundational scientific papers in astronomy, from Ptolemy all the way to the discovery of cosmic acceleration in 1998. Bartusiak presents scientific ideas in the way they ought to be taught (and the way we’re trying to do things here at Astrobites) — she provides a brief introduction giving her analysis and perspective on the topic, and then shows you how the authors described the discovery in their own words and what data they used. — Nathan Sanders

The Philosophical Breakfast Club
by Laura J. Snyder

The year is 1809, and at Newton’s old college at Cambridge, Trinity, mathematics education has fallen far behind what is being offered in France. Not only that, but there is not even an option to study natural science — the closest is a three-year course in mathematics. In the early 1600’s, the famous natural philosopher Francis Bacon proposed that the scientist ought to be like the bee, gathering facts and using induction to transmute them into the honey of theory — but that is not how science is practiced in Cambridge, or in England more broadly.  Rather, as in Ricardo’s economics, natural philosophers begin from first principles and try to deduce from them practical consequences, never bothering to square theory with fact, predictions with observation.

Forty years later, the stars of the Southern hemisphere had been mapped for the first time, the world’s tides had been charted through a massive multi-national scientific collaboration, the first of its kind, photography had been invented, the first computer designed, and, not least of all, Charles Darwin had proposed his theory of evolution. What happened? Science in England was moribund in the early 1800’s, and the word “scientist” did not even exist to describe its practitioners, who had little funding from government and the public and less respect.

What happened, as Laura Snyder, a professor of philosophy at St. John’s in New York, persuasively argues in “The Philosophical Breakfast Club”, was in no small part due to four extraordinary men whose stories she traces from their days sharing breakfast and plans for the reform of science in the eponymous club during student days at Cambridge to their latter years as éminences grises of science at the acme of Victorian England.

Perhaps the best known to the modern reader will be Charles Babbage, the mercurial and intemperate inventor of the computer and writer of the first computer programs. But there’s a lot one did not know about him — he was fabulously wealthy in his own right, but still preferred to extract $2.5 million from the British government to fund a machine he never finished. He was the first to break the Vigenère cipher, a code invented in the 1550’s that had been considered unbreakable — and his solution may have been used by the British government to defeat the Russians during the Crimean War. He also corresponded avidly with Lord Byron’s mathematical-prodigy daughter, Ada Lovelace, who wrote a lengthy article explaining the workings of his computer. And Darwin was at his soirées and saw the demonstrations of his recursive computing machine, which may have helped seed his ideas on evolution.

One might have thought Victorian men of science would be impossibly staid and boring — a misconception that “The Philosophical Breakfast Club” will surely dislodge in short order.  I struggled to put the book down. — Zachary Slepian

The Demon Haunted World
by Carl Sagan

In this series of essays, Sagan separates science from pseudoscience and illuminates ways in which our own brains can deceive us. He takes on topics such as demons, aliens, alternative medicine, astrology, recovered memories, ESP, and much more with compassion and civility. In the end, you see all sorts of crosscutting connections between superstitions from different cultures and different times. While a lot of it will be preaching to the choir for most scientists, I still think Sagan’s book does an excellent job of popularizing science and it serves as a great example of science communication. It may help crystallize ideas you already have, or give you something new to think about. — Kevin Moore


Stories of Your Life and Others
by Ted Chiang

This collection of delightfully imaginative and detailed short stories brings together some of the early work of Ted Chiang, a critically acclaimed author of science fiction. Chiang specializes in the short story, a bit of a lost art since the golden age of sci-fi in the 50’s when major authors would regularly publish short form speculative fiction in magazines like Galaxy and Astounding Science Fiction. Chiang’s refreshing modern take on the format includes page turners like “Division by Zero,” a story about the psychological collapse of a brilliant mathematician after proving that inconsistency of arithmetic, “Tower of Babylon,” a realization of the tower of Babel myth – this story has been described as ‘Babylonian science fiction,’ and “Story of Your Life,” a story about a linguist involved in decoding the language of an alien civilization with a worldview that is fundamentally incompatible with human cognition. Some of Chiang’s stories are available for free from the Free Speculative Fiction Database. — Nathan Goldbaum


Further Reads

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams

The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism
by Fritjog Capra

The Fabric of the Cosmos
by Brian Greene

Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love
by Dava Sobel

Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13
by Jeffrey Kluger and James Lovell

A Brief History of Time
by Stephen Hawking

by Carl Sagan

A Sense of the Mysterious and The Discoveries
by Alan Lightman

How the Universe Got Its Spots
by Janna Levin

About Shannon Hall

While writing for astrobites I was a graduate student at the University of Wyoming working on exoplanet research. Previously, I graduated from Whitman College with two degrees: one in physics-astronomy and one in philosophy. I am now working toward my career goals in science journalism and education. Feel free to visit my website.

1 Comment

  1. Another good one for this list: “The Book Nobody Read”, by Owen Gingerich


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