Best books … chosen by Oliver Sacks
Neurologist Oliver Sacks is the author of Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Musicophilia, a new book about music and the brain. Below, he names his favorite scientific biographies.
Madame Curie by Eve Curie (Da Capo, $19). When I was 10, my mother gave me Eve Curie’s biography of her mother, and Marie Curie’s story became for me the epitome of a life in science: its dedication, its delights, and its frustrations and travails. I still have my original copy— now autographed by the author.
Inward Bound by Abraham Pais (Oxford, $30). This 1988 book about the discoveries of 20th-century physics delights me so much that I keep several copies—a hardback for my library, a paperback for traveling, and an extra copy or two to press on friends. Pais, a physicist himself, was in a unique position to portray the whole landscape of modern physics in its most exciting century.
The Joy of Insight by Victor Weisskopf (out of print). I like all of Weisskopf’s books, but this autobiography above all—in particular the chapter called “Mozart and Quantum Mechanics,” in which he compares the beauties and joys of music with those of mathematics and science.
The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin (Penguin, $13). This is an all-time favorite for a Darwin lover. I can read it again and again and always find something new. Also, though the last 30 years have seen a veritable cataract of books about Darwin and Darwiniana, I keep returning to Janet Browne’s superb two-volume biography, Charles Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place.
Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent by Alexander von Humboldt (Penguin, $16). Humboldt is another hero of mine: exuberant, impulsive, world-embracing. He was a favorite of Darwin’s too—Darwin took this narrative with him on the Beagle, and as he read it, his feeling for Humboldt intensified: “Formerly I admired him,” he wrote. “Now I almost adore him.”
The Devil’s Doctor by Philip Ball (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27). I am just starting this magnificent new biography of Paracelsus. Ball, who is almost as much a polymath as his subject, brings out not only the extraordinary intellect and character of the man, but all the intellectual and social and political currents of the 16th century. Even before finishing it, I can tell that this book will take its place among my favorite half-dozen science biographies.