Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Required readings

by PhilipJ on 9 March 2008

Doing science isn’t just about running experiments and analyzing data, even though it can feel that way sometimes. Fortunately (in some cases), we also have to give talks at other universities and conferences, write papers for journals, apply for grants, etc. These tasks require entirely different skills than theory or labwork do, though we get little formal education on these matters. To get these skills, it is a necessity to read books outside of our normal expertise, and it’s often not clear, given how little extra time graduate students usually find they have, which books to invest said time in.

I’ve got my own favourites that have proven valuable, but it’d be great to hear what everyone else has read and found useful too.

First and foremost, effectively displaying data is a must. The most wonderful experimental result in the world can be made incomprehensible by a poorly thought out graph, either because of quantitative issues or overuse of chartjunk. Edward Tufte’s four books have been extremely useful in thinking about how to visualise complex information in an efficient way. You will think twice about how to present your results after reading his books (the first of the four, The Visual Displaying of Quantitative Information being the most immediately relevant), and they help with scientific figures as well. There are also pointers on more effective use of PowerPoint and similar programs.

Stylistic guidelines for writing abound, but the short and sweet (and inexpensive!) Strunk & White is as good as they get, and I’ve never felt the need to read any others. It’s short enough that rereading it periodically isn’t difficult, and considering how poor we are at writing, everyone should get a copy.

Finally, outside of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I’ve read precious little philosophy of science. I’m of two minds as to the importance of the philosophy of science to the actual day to day work we do, but I’m sure there are interesting ideas I’ve missed out all the same.

Now over to you: what are your must-reads outside of science?



  1. bill    3301 days ago    #

    My take on “what’s philosophy of science good for?” is that it probably won’t make much difference to what you do day-to-day, but it can change the way you think about broader concepts like long-term directions, experimental design, and so on.

    It’s tough going, but Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty made me think hard about a number of ideas that I’d absorbed without paying attention to where they’d come from.

    I really hope someone can recommend a good reference for giving talks…


  2. Alex    3301 days ago    #

    Lately I’ve read some of the popular science history books on sale at Barnes and Noble. The quality is hit and miss, but I like reading science as a layman, because it keeps me focused on science while giving my brain a break from heavy lifting. The only recent read that comes to my mind as really good, however, is Beckmann’s “History of Pi.”

    Oh, “The Scientists” by Gribbin is a pretty good history of science. Not being an expert on the topic I can’t vouch for the accuracy, but it was an interesting read.

    “At the Fringes of Science” by Friedlander was a good discussion of standards in science. “The Demon Haunted World” by Sagan was also good, but aimed at a different point.

    Ehrlich’s “Nine Crazy Ideas in Science” is a fun read, as is “The Barmaid’s Brain” (can’t recall the author).

    I want to read Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” at some point to get deeper into the nature of logic and knowledge (key issues for a theoretical physicist) but that’s heavy lifting.


  3. Alex    3301 days ago    #

    OK, I guess those were still science works, but they’re non-technical. I use different mental muscles when reading non-technical works.

    If you’re thinking of an academic career, you’ll have to teach. Ken Bain’s “What the best college teachers do” is good. So is Rebekah Nathan’s “My Freshman Year.” I could also say that you should read up on Physics Education Research but (1) I have a ton of complaints about that field (which would take us far afield) and (2) even if you don’t have any issues with them, it’s, like, research and stuff. It’s not a light read. Ken Bain’s book is subway reading. Physics Education Research has charts and graphs and p values and stuff.


  4. MadGenius    3301 days ago    #

    Off-topic, but anyway – being a molecular biologist/biochemist I always re-read HF Judson’s ‘The Eight day of creation’ for some inspiration.


  5. Matt Gordon    3299 days ago    #

    I am a bit biased, but I would highly recommend Steve Block’s Do’s and Don’ts of Poster Presentaton: http://www.biophysics.org/education/block.pdf
    Very useful stuff.


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