15 of The Best Popular Science Books
Here are 15 of the best popular science books to add to your reading list. They've had remarkable success delivering science to the layman and many also have memorable narrative underpinnings.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
The ultimate eye-opening journey through time and space, A Short History of Nearly Everything is the biggest-selling popular science book of the 21st century, revealing the world in a way most of us have never seen it before.
Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilisation, Bryson seeks to understand how we came to exist from a singularity. He attaches himself to a host of archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps, to pester them with questions and apprenticed himself to their powerful minds.
A Short History is the record of this quest; a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge.
"Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly—in you." - Bill Bryson
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
From a renowned historian comes a ground-breaking narrative of humanity's creation and evolution. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a part-science, part-history book that explores how each domain has defined us as human beings.
One hundred thousand years ago, at least six different species of humans inhabited Earth. Yet today there is only one—Homo sapiens. What happened to the others? And what may happen to us?
Most books about the history of humanity pursue either a historical or a biological approach, but Harari breaks the mould by beginning 70,000 years ago with the appearance of modern cognition. From examining the role of humans in the global ecosystem, to charting the rise of empires, Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives and connect the past with contemporary concerns.
"Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history's biggest fraud." - Yuval Noah Harari
How to Build a Universe by Brian Cox and Robin Ince
Fans of The Infinite Monkey Cage radio show will revel in this irreverent collection of scientific marvels. How to Build a Universe: An Infinite Monkey Cage Adventure makes for a hectic leap through the grandest ideas of humanity, from dark matter to consciousness, via neutrinos and earthworms.
"I have found it impossible to get a chest of drawers in the back of a Ford Fiesta and a tent back in its bag, so fitting a universe into a melon boggles me and my mind." - Brian Cox
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
The Selfish Gene is a classic exposition of evolutionary thought, articulating a gene's-eye-view of evolution. What emerges is a stunning picture of how life is simply a vehicle for these immortal units of information to replicate.
This imaginative and stylistically brilliant work not only brought the insights of Neo-Darwinism to a wide audience, but galvanized the biology community, generating debate and stimulating new areas of research. Forty-five years later, its insights remain as relevant as on the day it was published.
"Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes are forever." - Richard Dawkins
A Primate's Memoir by Robert M Sapolsky
Here's an exhilarating account of Sapolsky's twenty-one-year study of a troop of rambunctious baboons in Kenya. A Primate's Memoir interweaves surprising scientific observations with wry commentary about the challenges and pleasures of living in the wilds of the Serengeti.
Over two decades, Sapolsky survives culinary atrocities, gunpoint encounters, and a kidnapping, while witnessing the encroachment of tourism on the farthest vestiges of unspoiled Africa.
As he conducts his research on wild primates, he becomes evermore enamoured of his subjects—who are unique and compelling characters in their own right—and returning to them summer after summer until tragedy strikes.
"I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla." - Robert M Sapolsky
The Mysterious World of the Human Genome by Frank Ryan
The Mysterious World of the Human Genome is the ultimate DNA memoir. With crafty visual analogy, Ryan explains the evolution of genomes, what we know about epigenetics, and the amazing history of how DNA was discovered.
The human genome is indeed a mysterious world, but its vital secrets are only now being uncovered. How does DNA—this minuscule chemical cluster in each of our 100 trillion cells—accomplish the feat of creating and maintaining our entire bodies? Ryan, a physician and an evolutionary biologist, takes us on a tour of DNA's operations to better understand the complex life of the human genome.
"In April 2015 the human embryo was deliberately engineered in a scientific experiment for the first time. I believe that this is as great a leap as the discovery of gravity by Newton and relativity by Einstein." - Frank Ryan
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and Other Clinical Tales features fascinating case histories of patients lost in the bizarre, inescapable world of neurological disorders.
Sacks tells the stories of individuals afflicted with fantastic perceptual and intellectual aberrations: patients who have lost their memories and with them the greater part of their pasts; who are no longer able to recognise people and common objects; who are stricken with violent tics and grimaces; whose limbs have become alien; who have been dismissed as retarded yet are gifted with uncanny artistic or mathematical talents.
While inconceivably strange, these tales remain deeply human. They're studies of life struggling against incredible adversity, enabling readers to enter the world of the neurologically impaired, to imagine with our hearts what it must be like to live and feel as they do.
"If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self—himself—he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it." - Oliver Sacks
Consciousness: A Very Brief Introduction by Susan Blackmore
Consciousness remains a hot topic in science. How does the brain create our experience of the world? What creates our identity? Could consciousness itself be an illusion? Consciousness: A Very Brief Introduction is a punchy, illustrated guide to the mechanistic quirks of perception, memory, and cognition that synthesise our subjective experiences.
Recent developments in brain science push the debate on the science of consciousness, with the field drawing an increasing number of biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers. Blackmore clarifies the potentially confusing arguments and the major theories, while outlining fascinating new discoveries in neuroscience.
Offering foundational knowledge into the construction of self, mechanisms of attention, the neural correlates of consciousness, and the physiology of altered states of consciousness, Consciousness is is a neat and memorable introduction to the workings of your brain.
"What is it like to be a bat? This curious question looms large in the history of consciousness studies. First asked in the 1950s, it was made famous by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel in 1974. He used the question to challenge materialism, to explore what we mean by consciousness, and to see why it makes the mind-body problem so intractable. What we mean, he said, is subjectivity. If there is something it is like to be the bat—something for the bat itself, then the bat is conscious. If there is nothing it is like to be the bat, then it is not." - Susan Blackmore
In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall
In the Shadow of Man is an account by the primatologist and conservationist, Jane Goodall, of her life among the wild chimpanzees of Gombe, making for an enthralling story of animal behaviour.
Goodall's adventure began when the famous anthropologist Louis Leakey suggested that a long-term study of chimpanzees in the wild might shed light on the behaviour of our closest living relatives. Accompanied by her mother and her African assistants, Goodall set up camp in the remote Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanzania.
For months the project seemed hopeless; out in the forest from dawn until dark, she had only fleeting glimpses of frightened animals. Gradually, she won their trust and was able to record previously unknown behaviours, such as the use—and even the making—of tools, a skill then thought to be reserved exclusively for humans.
"I became totally absorbed into this forest existence. It was an unparalleled period when aloneness was a way of life; a perfect opportunity, it might seem, for meditating on the meaning of existence and my role in it all. But I was far too busy learning about the chimpanzees' lives to worry about the meaning of my own. I had gone to Gombe to accomplish a specific goal, not to pursue my early preoccupation with philosophy and religion." - Jane Goodall
Behave by Robert M Sapolsky
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst is a synthesis of psychology and neurobiology that integrates human behaviour in Sapolsky's riveting and accessible style.
Sapolsky delivers a dazzling tour of the science of human behaviour, harvesting research across a range of disciplines to provide a subtle and nuanced perspective on why we do the things we do.
Building on this understanding, he wrestles with some of our deepest and thorniest questions relating to tribalism and xenophobia, hierarchy and competition, morality and free will, and war and peace.
"Eyes often have an implicit censorious power. Post a large picture of a pair of eyes at a bus stop (versus a picture of flowers), and people become more likely to clean up litter. Post a picture of eyes in a workplace coffee room, and the money paid on the honor system triples. Show a pair of eyes on a computer screen and people become more generous in online economic games." - Robert M Sapolsky
What If? by Randall Munroe
Fans of the comic science blog, xkcd, ask Munroe a lot of strange questions. How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and survive? If there was a robot apocalypse, how long would humanity last? What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions features all new questions and answers, along with some old favourites for sheer enlightenment and amusement.
In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are both clear and hilarious, complete with his signature comic illustrations, often predicting the complete annihilation of humankind—or at the very least a really big explosion.
"Take wrong turns. Talk to strangers. Open unmarked doors. And if you see a group of people in a field, go find out what they are doing. Do things without always knowing how they'll turn out. You're curious and smart and bored, and all you see is the choice between working hard and slacking off. There are so many adventures that you miss because you're waiting to think of a plan. To find them, look for tiny interesting choices. And remember that you are always making up the future as you go." - Randall Munroe
The Forever Fix by Ricki Lewis
The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and The Boy Who Saved It tells the story of the next frontier in medicine and genetics through the personal lens of the children affected by it. Discover how gene therapy works, how patients have been helped and harmed in clinical trials, and how scientists learned to generate cures that fix diseases at their genetic roots.
Eight-year-old Corey Haas was nearly blind from a hereditary disorder when his sight was restored through a delicate procedure that made medical history. His doctors introduced viruses carrying replacement genes into his eyes. A few days later, Corey could see, his sight restored by gene therapy. This is the story of Corey and many others whose lives have been dramatically altered by the emergence of gene therapy.
"Fledgling medical students learn right away the mantra: when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. It means suspect first the most common explanation for a patient's symptoms. Round up the usual suspects. In Corey's case the horses were night blindness and albinism, then retinitis pigmentosa. Medical geneticists, however, deal almost exclusively with zebras, most of which are caused by mutations in single genes." - Ricki Lewis
Free Will by Sam Harris
A belief in free will touches nearly everything we value. It's difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality—as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement—without first imagining that every person is the true source of their own thoughts and actions. Sam Harris is here to deconstruct that automatic notion with his short book of science and philosophy, Free Will.
Free will is a convincing illusion, harmonising near perfectly with our lived experience. This is why so many of us, including many scientists, accept the idea of free will at face value despite the total lack of evidence for its existence.
Harris takes a coolly scientific stance against free will, combining his expertise in neuroscience and psychology to explain human behaviour without the need to summon this non-parsimonious notion. On concluding his argument, he explains how this deterministic view needn't undermine our morality, or our social and political freedom, but it can and should change the way we think about the bigger questions in life.
"Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn't choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime—by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?" - Sam Harris
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
In this bestselling science book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist and Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, takes us on a tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think.
System One is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System Two is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The impact of overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning our next trip―each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems shape our judgments and decisions.
Kahneman reveals where we can and can't trust our intuitions―and how to tap into the benefits of slow thinking. He offers practical insights into how choices are made, and how different techniques guard against the mental glitches that so often get us into trouble.
"A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact." - Daniel Kahneman
The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
In the information age, pseudoscience is burgeoning. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark argues that scientific thinking is critical not only to the pursuit of truth but to the very wellbeing of our democracy.
Casting a wide net through history and culture, Sagan examines and debunks such celebrated fallacies as witchcraft, faith healing, demons, and UFOs. And yet, disturbingly, stories of alien abduction, channelling past lives, and communal hallucinations command growing attention and respect. As Sagan demonstrates, the siren song of unreason is not just a cultural wrong-turn, but a dangerous plunge into darkness that threatens our most basic freedoms.
"Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both." - Carl Sagan