Suggested summer reading for sixth-form and pre-university students

With the examinations finally behind you, reading science books was perhaps the last thing you were planning on doing over the summer holidays! However, whether you have completed your A2 examinations this summer or have just finished Year 12, there are very good reasons to take this opportunity to undertake some additional, wider reading – not least because the textbooks you use at school can, by comparison, be as dull as ditch water. School textbooks are not meant to be enjoyable to read: they are, necessarily, overly prescriptive and – with all their ‘learning objectives’ – terribly formulaic. The books I recommend below are anything but dull; they are hugely stimulating, engaging and enjoyable to read. Forget the ‘How Science Works’ mantra: these books are written by subject experts whose drive and passion will re-ignite your own enthusiasm for science.

If you are now making the transition between Years 12 and 13, then you will soon be applying to university. The admissions tutors are always keen to hear from candidates who can display a wider knowledge of their chosen subject, especially if they can demonstrate an informed interest in emerging, novel ideas in research - such as the exciting theories on the origins of life described in The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is? by Nick Lane, or the attempt to apply the principles of quantum mechanics to biology, described by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden in Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology. The admissions tutors will not expect you to be an expert in the material covered in any of the books recommended here; it is the very fact that you have read one or two of them that demonstrates you have the kind of enquiring mind that is the making of a good student.

Aside from the breadth provided by additional reading, you will acquire a much deeper and more accurate understanding of the some of the topics you will be covering next year in Year 13. These include, for the biologists, respiration, photosynthesis and – with the OCR examination board – phylogenetics. For the chemists, equilibria, free energy and chemical bonding are covered nowhere with greater eloquence than in Why Chemical Reactions Happen by James Keeler and Peter Wothers. I speak with less authority on physics, but, in addition to Life on the Edge, I cannot recommend too highly Four Laws That Drive the Universe by Peter Atkins, which should be essential reading for all A-Level chemists. Although rather dated now, From Quarks to the Cosmos, by Leon Lederman and David Schramm, gives a fascinating historical account of the origins of modern physics.

Finally, if you are looking forward to starting a science-based degree this autumn, the books I recommend may help to ease the transition between study at school and university level. In my experience, the universities are full of interesting characters and eccentrics who do not always teach to the script; they rarely use the same uninspiring, formulaic methods that are forced upon your poor school teachers. Reading books written by university academics will provide you with an insight of how science really works: you will learn how practising scientists think, how they frame arguments and what motivates them. The Vital Question is particularly good in this regard because some of the ideas it proposes are by no means accepted universally. By definition, there are disagreements and contradictions at the forefront of all research fields. The beauty of The Vital Question is that the subject material is relatively accessible, so the inexperienced reader can quickly acquire an appreciation of the key issues. Nick Lane shows how the principles of entropy and free energy can be applied to biological problems, so the book should be of particular interest to students studying both biology and chemistry. Those wishing to delve deeper are amply catered for by the extensive bibliography.

Although you will not see The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, on many science reading lists, life scientists have much to learn from its important message. Slowly but surely, Taleb attempts to expose the ‘Bell Curve’ as an intellectual fraud. He argues that scientists, economists and indeed many other users of statistical methods have placed far too much trust on predictive models based on the Normal distribution. This is an important book, but should not be read uncritically. Taleb makes a compelling case, but I for one was left with the impression that he takes matters too far, especially in his unnecessarily hostile criticism the achievements of others. Whether you agree with Taleb or not, he forces you to think hard about that which you may have accepted simply because it is the norm. Good scientists never stop questioning that which is 'settled'.

Finally, if you find these books heavy going, perhaps you would like to read about the role of dietary long-chain omega-3 fatty acids in cognitive development and functioning, the biological chemistry of which I describe in Healthy Eating Through Informed Choice.



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