One of the most profound works in all of physics history is the 1687 book Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica by British mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton. In this, Newton laid out the basic natural principles of his laws of motion and his law of gravity. It is hard to overstate the transformative influence of this book on the natural sciences. Physicist Steven Weinberg has said "all that has happened since 1687 is a gloss on the Principia." For years, the ancient Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe had been losing ground to a growing body of evidence in support of a heliocentric model, but it was not until Newton's work that a theoretical framework existed which could bring the evidence together in a coherent way.
Despite this, though, few scientists and thinkers in the modern era have ever actually read the Principia itself, instead learning the lessons from its pages through modern textbooks which - though far more accessible - often present the concepts as well-established truths about the universe, masking the depth of Newton's brilliant insights and rigorous process to establish and prove them.
In this new book, Magnificent Principia: Exploring Isaac Newton's Masterpiece, the reader is taken through this class work in terms that the modern thinker can understand, showing how it establishes significant portions of our modern approach to science. The sheer scope of Newton's explanatory achievement is laid bare within its pages. While this book is not for the faint of heart, for the true science enthusiast this book makes clear what would be inscrutable to even many accomplished physicists if they tried to read the original Principia text directly.
Another great book for the scientific history buff is Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. As the title suggests, this book collects together a series of scientific blunders by some of the greatest science in history. And these aren't just little mistakes or ones which have no impact, but rather Livio focuses on fundamental errors or misconceptions that helped drive scientists to a greater understanding of the universe.
For example, Linus Pauling could have been challenged for the view held in the latter portion of his life that using large quantities of Vitamin C could vastly increase the immune system and even eliminate diseases. This, however, was largely in contradiction to the evidence, and he continued to cling to it despite this lack of evidence. And, ultimately, Pauling's apparently mistaken belief in this concept did not help push science in general forward. On the other hand, Pauling's mistaken model of the structure of DNA (which contained a fundamental chemistry error that should have been obvious to Pauling or any other trained chemist) did help push Watson and Crick to get their model of the double-helix structure of DNA completed before Pauling's model could be corrected.
The five blunders all (as the subtitle suggests) push our understanding of life and the universe forward, focusing on basic concepts from evolution, the age of the planet Earth, the big bang theory, DNA structures, and the introduction of the cosmological constant by Albert Einstein. (It is indicative that even Einstein's blunder may turn out to be correct, thanks to dark energy!)
Livio's book is not for the scientifically illiterate, but since it spans concepts from both physics and biology, he goes to great care to explain the underlying scientific principles at work in detail, making no real assumptions about a level of expertise on the part of the reader. As such, it makes for an interesting read for anyone who wants to understand some of the major events in the development of our scientific understanding of the development of the universe and life within it.