What are good introductory books on chemistry and biology that do not require any background knowledge? I'm ashamed to say it, but I don't really even have a high-school level knowledge of either subject, and what little I knew is now forgotten. My background in basic (classical) physics is much better, but I have forgotten some of that too.
comment by Vexokinase_duplicate0.9502640699652118
· score: 1 (1 votes) · LW
This is a long post, so I'm going to pre-emptively tell you what's in it: first, textbook recommendations, followed by popular science book recommendations
I'm surprised no one has given a good answer to this as yet. Unfortunately, I only feel comfortable offering recommendations in biology. I have decent knowledge of chemistry, but that comes from working in chemistry labs and doing a lot of physical chemistry stuff. I wouldn't begin to know what's good reading in the chemical sciences (unless you're interested in statistical mechanics, which I'm guessing you're not).
For a good textbook on biology, Campbell is the most common one. It has everything you need in terms of introductory information - but again, it's a textbook. If you can make yourself read it from one end to the other, you'll come out significantly more knowledgeable, but that's not easy with a textbook. The 7th edition upward should be sufficiently updated.
If you want specifically molecular and cellular biology, Alberts is generally the standard. "Molecular Biology of the Cell" by Alberts and others is what I used. 5th edition upward should be okay, but even the 5th edition will have out of date information. If you just want basic knowledge of biology, this book isn't necessary.
For ecology, there's a million and one textbooks and I don't know which one is best. Find one that's free and mathy. If it doesn't have graphs and equations in it, I wouldn't consider it worthwhile to read - but that's just my opinion.
If you want biology books that are more pop-sci and less textbook, I know of a few that are decent:
A lot of people recommend any of Dawkins' books. I've never read any of them and don't have any particular intention of doing so, but I figured I'd mention it.
I've heard A LOT of good things about Siddhartha Mukherjee and his book "The Gene: An Intimate History" - this is one book I DO intend to read, but have not done so yet. ( https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27276428-the-gene ). He also has a book on cancer called "The Emperor of All Maladies" which has gotten an insane amount of praise. If it's as good as people say it is, it's definitely worth it - for learning biology, cancer is like the standard "example" of what happens when things go wrong in basically every major area of cell biology.
Evelyn Fox Keller gave a lecture in the biology department at my university a couple years back. Her lecture was excellent. I have not read her book "The Century of the Gene", but based on her reputation and on the content of her lecture, I'd be willing to bet money on it being an excellent book.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is considered required reading by a lot of people for very good reason. It's probably the first, or one of the first, major popular works of non-fiction that made the broader public aware of what humans were doing to the environment.
I'm a big fan of mathematical biology. There's some older texts I've read that are pretty neat, but possibly not very educational without some basic knowledge. Erwin Schroedinger (of "Schroedinger's Cat" fame) wrote a book, "What Is Life?", based off of a series of lectures he gave wherein he gave a prediction of the structure of the genetic material that, while wrong, was very interesting. This book and his lecture series inspired Watson, Crick, and Rosalind, who eventually outlined the true structure of the genetic material. Alfred Lotka wrote a book that I consider important for any biologist: "Elements of Mathematical Biology". You can likely find PDFs of either of these books online.