By Sidney Williams
When pursuing a STEM degree there is a lot pulling on your attention. What classes should you take? How can you pass the classes you are taking? Are you learning and understanding anything being talked about? It is all extremely granular. This method of learning works well from a skills perspective, you get all the tools you need to start in a career in STEM but it really fails at providing a global perspective. For example, at the end of my undergraduate quantum mechanics gauntlet, I could tell you how to calculate the energy levels of hydrogen and how to roughly estimate the energy levels of helium. All well and good for understanding how to do math and work out physics problems, but the connection was not directly made and I was not given an overarching narrative, I didn’t realize where my math could fit in. Of course the energy levels of elements are extremely useful, they provided the motivation to develop quantum mechanics and were used to determine what the sun is made of. In short, a STEM degree is a whole lot of bottom up construction and almost no bottom down deconstruction. Fortunately, due to the lower need for technical know-how of the latter approach, it is very possible to pick up the knowledge and context on your own, we can do this through reading, and in this article I’m going to recommend to you The Best Books for STEM Students.
The Best books for STEM students are ones that can encourage and motivate you in your scientific pursuits, while giving you ideas on how to best traverse your education. Books that embody this are Physics of the Future, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Algorithms to Live By, Six Easy Pieces, Practical Electronics for Inventors, Renaissance Soul, The Professor is In, and Leaving Academia: a Practical Guide.
The first four books I’ve recommended are all focused on giving a global overview of what learning STEM is about. They give you an idea of where scientists are trying to go, how scientists live their lives and get excited by their work, how astrophysics can be constructed heuristically through an understanding of science, and how algorithms in computer science are related to day to day life. The final two books provide resources and ideas on how to actually use the information you’re getting out of your degree. How to invent things, and how to channel your interests into career paths.
Physics of the Future
Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist working at The City University of New York and is most well known for communicating science. He has published a bunch of books explaining the future of science and string theory to those without PhDs. Physics of the Future bases its predictions of the future on interviews of over 300 scientists who are currently working on the stepping stones towards these science fiction-like technologies. Personally, I think some of the predictions are a little far fetched. But Kaku connecting these idealistic goals to actual scientific pursuits of today is very inspiring, and does a good job of giving the global top down overview that most university classes lack.
Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman
My absolute favorite biography, and a book I recommend to absolutely everyone. I have already talked a bit about this book in one of my first articles about popular science books that motivated me to work on my degree. Surely You’re Joking is excellent at conveying Feynman’s excitement for his work and the subject. I often reread it just to find a little bit more energy to keep pushing. The book transcribes stories that Feynman told himself. Some of the stories have not aged very well and showcase that Feynman was not a perfect person, but all of them are interesting and fun to read. I think that the biggest strength of this book is showing how a life can fit in around science and still be exciting, entertaining, and interesting.
Astrophysics for people in a hurry
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s magnum opus. A pretty short book that is very easy to approach, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry develops the state of modern astrophysics by working through its history and the basic principles that make it up. Although primarily a book about physics, Tyson does a great job of connecting many areas of science and connecting everything under the astrophysics umbrella. This style of writing and exposition is vital to studying science, as it shows you how all the small facts that you learn in class connect together to form a cohesive picture. There are many popular science books that do this, but I think that Astrophysics for People in a Hurry does it the best.
Six Easy Pieces
Another Feynman classic. Six Easy Pieces is a set of lectures taken from the Feynman Lectures on Physics focusing on foundational and relatively easy to understand topics in physics: atoms, energy, physics in relation to other sciences, gravitation, and basic quantum mechanics. Although not every topic is important for every STEM major, almost all STEM majors need a basic understanding of physics and all STEM majors can benefit from seeing how Feynman thinks and interacts with science. I personally used some of these topics to prepare for testing out of some classes when I started university. Feynman’s style is slick and makes hard topics easy to think about. Six Easy Pieces makes getting excited about science Easy.
Algorithms to Live By
An interesting approach to presenting computer science. Algorithms to Live By presents about 11 common CS algorithms that are just as applicable to everyday things like apartment searches as data analysis for a big business. This book is interesting in that it develops algorithms in a heuristic way that still gives you a good idea of the logic behind why it works. The problems have their history explained, and how the algorithm being developed could be applied to the historical problem. This is invaluable when approaching algorithms in CS and it's really the only place I’ve seen it presented like this at such an approachable level.
Practical Electronics for Inventors
Once you get to the point of applying for jobs, internships, grad school, or trying to apply your knowledge outside of a classroom, having ideas and a little guidance on projects and goals is invaluable. Practical Electronics for Inventors explores the decidedly applied topic of circuits. Opening with a short theory section, this book guides you through how to approach electronics projects so that you can build gadgets yourself. Naturally, this is important for electrical engineering, but any STEM student could benefit from being able to prove that they can work with practical objectives in mind.
The Renaissance Soul
A particularly powerful mental image that I carry with me is that of the potential versus specialization graph. As you get older, and work through your career you get more and more specialized, this in turn lowers your potential as you’ve exhausted some in getting more specialized. This manifests as the very common problem in STEM is having too many interests, choosing one path can be scary if not impossible. However, in recent years, it’s become more and more common to job hop, either within a field or throughout multiple fields. With this in mind it becomes very possible to explore many of your interests while still building a career and being financially solvent. The Renaissance Soul guides you through navigating this alternative. Showing you how to best use college years and gaps in employment within “your” field to explore and take advantage of your other skills and interests. This is important because school often doesn’t do a very good job of showing you how to actually navigate a career, so reading books like Renaissance Soul is extremely helpful, especially as a STEM student.
College is an extremely transformative time in your life. It’s a soft transition between child and adulthood where you learn a bunch of new information and skills out of a firehose. It’s easy to get lost and not see the forest for the trees. That is why reading around is so important, thinking about what you want to do, how you want to approach life and how you want to use or not use your skills in the future. There are thousands of books that can help you along this path, but the ones recommended here are either books I used during my STEM student times, or books that I wish I knew existed. Approaching life knowing (at least vaguely) what you want makes everything a lot easier and calmer. Don’t get lost in the tree.
NATIONAL BESTSELLER • The renowned theoretical physicist and national bestselling author of The God Equation details the developments in computer technology, artificial intelligence, medicine, space travel, and more, that are poised to happen over the next century.
One of the most famous science books of our time, the phenomenal national bestseller that "buzzes with energy, anecdote and life. It almost makes you want to become a physicist" (Science Digest).
Over a year on the New York Times bestseller list and more than a million copies sold.
The essential universe, from our most celebrated and beloved astrophysicist.
Learn how to think like a physicist from a Nobel laureate and "one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century" (New York Review of Books) with these six classic and beloved lessons
It was Richard Feynman's outrageous and scintillating method of teaching that earned him legendary status among students and professors of physics.
An exploration of how computer algorithms can be applied to our everyday lives to solve common decision-making problems and illuminate the workings of the human mind.
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