My Favorite Science Biographies (Some of Them)

This week Charlotte Mason Institute posted an article I wrote called “Living Science Through the Lives of Scientists“. I hope you will take a few minutes to go over there and read it.

That which has become the dominant idea of one person’s life, if it be launched suddenly at another, conveys no very great depth or weight of meaning to the second person — he wants to get at it by degrees, to see the steps by which the other has traveled.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p.97).

Biographies hold so much value when teaching science. I’ve seen it over and over again with my own kids. (They have been the guinea pigs for all of my science study.) It never failswe can use a rather hard biography, like Crucibles, and years later they will remember every scientific principle that was presented, while they can’t remember anything from the “list-of-facts book” two hours later. There are several reasons why I think this is the case, which I explain in my article.

In light of that article, I thought I would take a few minutes today to share some of my very favorite science biographies.Microbe Hunters by Paul deKruif. (1926, 372 pp., in print, MS to HS level) This book starts with a fabulous chapter on Anton van Leeuwenhoek. He was one of the first men to invent the microscope, and he discovered microorganisms. It’s pretty hard to read this one chapter without getting your hands on a microscope somehow, and looking at everything you can possibly find. It also includes chapters on several men of medicine from the 1600s to the early 1900s. It’s rather long, but each chapter is divided into parts, so we just take our time and read it a little at a time. A chapter per term is a great pace for this book.

Crucibles: The Story of Chemistry by Bernard Jaffe. (1957, 384 pp., in print, HS level) Another compilation of biographies, Crucibles covers the field of chemistry from the alchemist of ancient times to the advances in nuclear fission up to 1955. Sure, chemistry has advanced since then, but most of it has been in the field of Molecular biology (biochemistry), which we will cover over in biology as it relates to the cell cycle. Also, since the Manhattan project we have seen the synthesis of 21 atomic elements, which is newsworthy, but may be sufficiently covered through current events.

Robert Boyle: Founder of Modern Chemistry by Harry Sootin. (1962, 142 pp., in print, Upper Elementary to HS level) No other living science book has made me feel like I was there with the scientist, holding my breath as we waited for the results of the experiments, like this book. Boyle was one of the first to attempt experiments, something that only became widely practiced in the 17th century, and while we get enough of his background to make a connection with him, we also learn a lot about his important experiments with air and combustion.

Mendeleyev and His Periodic Table by Robin McKown. (1965, Messier Biography, 191 pp., MS to HS level) While this one is not as easy to find, I think it does such a great job of laying out how the periodic table was formed – a table that could be of little interest to those not fascinated by chemistry, becomes something very interesting.

For the Love of Physics by Walter Lewin. (2011, 322 pp., in print, HS level) This book is not a biography per se, but it is a perfect example of why a biography works. The author shares much about himself, both in an introductory chapter and then in bits and pieces throughout the rest of the book. We learn that he grew up in the Netherlands amid the upheaval of World War II. His family was Jewish, and many of his relatives were captured and sent to the gas chambers. We also learn that despite his amazing abilities in the area of physics, his true love is art, which we CM students can appreciate. What I found is that by connecting with Mr. Lewin through his story and his wit, I wanted to know what he had to say about physics. My son had the same reaction if his narrations are any indication.

Five Equations that Changed the World by Michael Guillen. (1995, 288 pp., in print, HS level) This book is divided into five chapters which cover five different people and the physics equations they developed, including Newton’s law of universal gravitation, Bernoulli’s law of hydrodynamic pressure, Faraday’s law of electromagnetic induction, Rudolf Clausius and the second law of thermodynamics, and Einstein on special relativity. Although each of these equations are based on higher level math, the author actually works hard explain them without us having to know that level of math. That’s always a problem in HS Physics – must they know the math to understand the principle? Each biography is well done, providing an emotional connection with each of these men of science.

The Bright Design: Electrical Energy and the Men Who Have Traced Its Patterns by Katherine Shippen (1949, 207 pp., Upper Elementary to MS level) This book is a compilation of biographies of the scientists who discovered and learned to harness electrical energy. It makes a great foundation for the future study of physics in upper grades.

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. (2014, 304 pp., in print, HS level)  This book is not so much a biography of people, but a biography of ideas. The author focuses on six technologies and explores them from the initial invention to how they affect our lives now. It is a quick read, (despite the number of pages,) and inspires one to think further about how a single invention today could lead to unimagined changes.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham. (1955, 251 pp., in print, Upper Elementary to HS level) You might think of this book as a math biography, not a science biography, but I think it fits well within the scope of technology. Much of today’s technology requires math, after all. But more than that, Nat’s persistence and determination is so inspiring that I don’t think any student should miss it.

If you can believe it, I deleted my very, very favorite biography from this list. I’m going to save that for next week because I have a surprise to go with it. Something I’ve been working on for quite a while now…

8 thoughts on “My Favorite Science Biographies (Some of Them)

  1. Kacie


    I so wish that I read some of these as I made my way through science as a young student. It would have made all the difference!

  2. Jenny

    I love your website! I love science, but I have never felt comfortable teaching it to my kiddos. Your blog is a treasure trove and so helpful! I’m a reader in Japan… and I have just a quick question on the topic of biographies. I think I remember you talking briefly about Sir Isaac Newton with the ladies on A Delectable Education a few weeks ago — do you have a biography you would recommend on his life for elementary students?

    1. Nicole Post author

      Thank you, Jenny! I would try Isaac Newton by Harry Sootin. I haven’t read that one in particular, but Harry Sootin is one of my favorite biographers. His others were good for upper elementary and up, and I suspect it would be the same for this one. I really liked the biography on Newton in Five Equations that Changed the World, but you would probably want to save that book for MS or HS.

      I hope that helps! Enjoy!

      1. Jenny

        Thank you so much! I’ll check it out! I’m looking forward to finding out what your all-time favorite bio is 🙂


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