The things that motivate our life’s path are often only clear in retrospect. But on occasion there are those singular moments that light a fire. For me, an amazing number of those moments come with my nose buried in a book–in a coffee house, on a beach, in an airport. Something crystallizes.
I remember clearly my freshman winter at Nebraska, picking up John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez.The book is an account of an expedition to map the organisms that live in the bays and beaches of along the Baja peninsula. The characters are Steinbeck, his colleague the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, a crew of sardine fisherman, and the variety of critters they collect along the way.
I read Log over Xmas break while hunkered down in my basement room. I fell in love with Steinbeck, whose lucid prose revealed a person with deep regard for the human race. But I also fell in love with idea of field biology: the romance of exploration and the drudgery of wading through the muck. The solitude of peering into a tidepool–miles from any other human soul–and the comraderie of the team, plowing through burlap bags of specimens while drinking cheap beer. I didn’t just want to become a biologist, after reading Log. I desperately wanted to become a biologist.
That book, and the idea it planted, helped get me through that first year of college–the huge classes with the (mostly) bored professors. And as the years passed, and I got my shot, it was with considerable delight that I found Steinbeck had pretty much nailed it.
So, dear readers, dish. What book helped point you down the path you are on?
Beak of the Finch, pretty much.
I wish there was something as inspirational as that for me!
There really should be novels about how fun it is with logical mathematical thinking.
Thinking about Novel Math Research connections make me land on Forward the Foundation by Asimov. In it the protagonist develops a made up field of science to on large scale predict the future. The novel captured me and I finished it in two sittings.
Ofcourse it isn’t about the research primarily, but in something I can only describe as “the background” of the story you see the research project taking shape, suffer errors, do progress, and eventually get perfected. And the joy of developing a theory is most certainly captured.
S: Absolutely brilliant book, both in story and presentation. Weiner and David Quammer are two authors on the top of their game that also capture the essence of field biology.
Val. You kiddin’ me? Nowadays, math is the cool kid on the block. Ya got “Numbers” on CBS to impress the old folks; ya got “A Beautiful Mind” to impress, just about everybody else; ya got the guy who’s on NPR Saturday mornings to talk about math, there have been a couple of Broadway / Off Broadway plays on the subject.
Ahh, for the days that ants get the spotlight in the movies.
Oh yeah. 😉
Seriously, tho. Asimov has inspired generations of scientists.
No books inspired me to go on to do my course…. But a lot of headlines from nature and such really steared me for the path. I actually quite remember the day they announced in 2001 (I was quite young then but I never forgot the day) they announced that they sequenced the human genome… Knew what I wanted to do then for sure…
Keep up the great work 🙂
I’d have to say that it was a combination of Hawking’s Brief History of Time and Herbert’s Dune–both very different, but deeply inspirational to me to seek to understand the universe and solve the practical problems living in it entails.
“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”
The How and Why Wonderbooks!
There were plenty of picture books before it, but it really was “Dinosaur Heresies” by Robert Bakker. Read it in eighth grade, and it showed me what could be ‘thought about’ using fossils. My path took a turn toward the spineless in college, but I haven’t looked back since.
The Audubon and Peterson field guide series.
E.O Wilson – The Naturalist. But I was seduced by the lure of travel and faraway places. Is it too late at 46 to go back to class?
For me it wasn’t a book – it was a fifth-grade science lesson in an Israeli school. We studied Archimedes’ Principle – the first law of nature that had a derivation grounded by math and logic in very simple assumptions – and the whole idea that the way nature works could be understood by reason, and not just observed and measured (as I had previously thought) blew me away. My previous career plan had been to write poetry.
Explorabook and Earthsearch — two little hands-on science museums written in part by John Cassidy. It’s not too strong to say they changed my life when I was a kid. Also, the piles of dinosaur and archaeology books — lying somewhere in a closet, fossilizing — shaped my curiosity about nature from an early age. But as far as fiction goes, it was definitely Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne. I wanted to BE Professor Lindenbrock ( Or Hartwigg, depending on the translation)
Every (beautiful) geological map and cross section I ever laid my eyes upon made me want to make one myself. Then I went on a field trip, made my first map, and was sold. How could you resist: http://web.ges.gla.ac.uk/mappingmountains/maps.htm
Easy choice – The Amateur Naturalist, by Vinson Brown, bought in 1962 at Bell’s Books in Palo Alto, California. Led to a life in field botany and systematics.
No question, it was The Dinosaurs by William Stout, William Service, and Byron Preiss. That book made the past breathe for me. It was like a science fiction book, but about real aliens on a real other world, distant from us in time rather than space. Lots of other books showed me how to think and work like a scientist, but that’s the book that convinced me to become one. Only it didn’t, not really. Better to say that The Dinosaurs inspired me to become an explorer, a chrononaut. I only ended up as a scientist because that’s what we call people who go exploring in time.
[…] Mike Kaspari asks about books that inspire scientists. […]
“The Ants”, of course..
1) Walden, first and foremost.
2) Anything by Ivan Sanderson.
3) Microbe Hunters, by Paul De Kruif.
4) Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis.