Back in the mid-1970s, it was infrequent that a book about science captured the collective imagination of a general readership, much less earned a slot on the best-seller list. There were plenty of textbooks around, some histories of science written primarily for an academic audience, and even an occasional scientific blockbuster like James Watson's The Double Helix (New York: Atheneum, 1968). But for the most part, there just weren't that many books aimed at lay readers, who, by reading about science, might come to appreciate the joys and excitement of the scientific life. So thought nonscientist Arthur Singer, vice president of the New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

In 1975, at the suggestion of Singer and fellow Sloan officer Stephen White, the foundation initiated a science book series program by recruiting outstanding scientists to write about themselves and their work. Authors were given $5,000 to get started and were asked...

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