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?