Steven Johnson is the best-selling author of The Ghost Map, Mind Wide Open, and, most recently, The Invention of Air. Here, he recommends six other books about scientific breakthroughs.
The History and Present State of Electricity by Joseph Priestley (out of print). The original work of popular science remains energizing more than two centuries later (though its descriptions of numerous experiments do slow things down). It’s fascinating to see the origin of the story about Franklin and his kite, as well as one of the first attempts to document the steady march of scientific progress.
A World on Fire by Joe Jackson (Penguin, $16). An engaging and poetic book about a scientific rivalry between two men and two nations: Priestley in England and Antoine Lavoisier in France. Both men had a hand in the discovery of oxygen, though the actual details of the breakthrough are—as in so many other stories about scientific epiphanies—fiendishly complex.
The Scientists by John Gribbin (Random House, $18). A sprawling, delightful history of science, from the Renaissance on, that emphasizes the people, not the paradigm shifts. Gribbin is most illuminating in the book’s first half, which explores the emergence of the scientific method itself.
Leviathan and the Air Pump by Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer (Princeton, $38). A look at the philosophical and scientific changes that rippled out from the invention of the air pump in the 1600s, including the crucial invention of the modern notion of an experiment. It’s an academic book, but the prose is largely jargon-free, and the ideas consistently ingenious.
Eating the Sun by Oliver Morton (HarperCollins, $29). Written by one of the very best science writers of our time, Eating the Sun starts with a story of the slow but world-changing process by which we came to understand photosynthesis, and then takes off into something even more grand: a full portrait of how photosynthesis has transformed Earth itself.
The First Word by Christine Kenneally (Penguin, $16). Kenneally’s 2007 book is the story of modern linguistics. Its account of Noam Chomsky’s breakthrough work on generative grammar—and the controversy it sparked—is riveting intellectual history, as is the explanation of Chomsky’s strange resistance to Darwinian explanations of our “language instinct.”