Five Books: Adam Hart-Davis’s choice of the best books on popular science

Adam Hart-Davis is an English writer, photographer, and broadcaster, known for being the presenter of several popular BBC series. In a Five Books piece (click on screenshot below), Hart-Davis lists and discusses what he sees as the five best popular-science books. According to the site,

Adam Hart-Davis says clear simple writing is the key to an accessible science book. Selects the five books he believes offer the best introduction to Popular Science. Includes works from Darwin, Watson and Hawking.”

I’ll show his choices and give a few of his words about the book (indented) and my own take (flush left):

Micrographia, by Robert Hooke.

In 1665 he produced this extraordinary book. I have a facsimile edition here, not an original. It is big, about a foot high and nine inches wide. It is beautifully printed – there is all this old-fashioned type with the long S and so on and it contains lovely pictures. He was, luckily for us, a very good draftsman. And some of the drawings are just the same as the pages and some of them pull out to make a picture about two foot square. The most famous of all is this picture of a flea. He was almost the first person to use a microscope as a scientific instrument and he looked at things like fleas and drew wonderful pictures of them – and showed people a new world.

JAC: Haven’t read it, though I’m sure Matthew Cobb did for his book The Egg and The Sperm Race. Readers who have read it should weigh in below. It does seem an odd choice, though

Stonehenge Decoded by Gerald S. Hawkins

Well, this book was really interesting for me because it was the first popular science book I had come across. It was published in 1965 originally. I was doing my PhD at the time and this book came to me because I had just joined one of those new-fangled books clubs! I was surprised that there were science books that were readable. I had heard about treatises on the electron or whatever it is but I had never come across a book like this.

. .  it was certainly quite important to me to see that science could be made popular in this way and I think it influenced me quite a lot. I think it showed a lot of people science could be written for the layman.

JAC: I’ve never heard of this book, and it’s quite dated now. Further, it was apparently chosen for sentimental reasons rather than its intrinsic merit. I’ll give this one a pass.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. 

Well, I actually did read it. I got stuck in Chapter Six and I then read it again recently and it is a lovely book. It is very hard because he is trying to describe very complicated things, but he has actually done a very good job. I have started on his latest book, The Grand Design, which I think is rather easier. But this book is important not just because he is stuck in a wheelchair and is a brilliant cosmologist but also because it is a really difficult subject aimed at the general reader. This sort of cosmology, looking at whether or not black holes emit radiation, is a very esoteric sort of question. It is not like Stonehenge where people ask things that we can all understand, like, if you look through this gap can you see Capella.

JAC: I really did try to read it, and, like Adam, got stuck. I never finished it, joining the ranks of those who give it the reputation of “The Least-Read Popular Science Book of All Time.” When I read a technical science book, I prepare for a long slog and make sure my brain is well oiled, but for popular science books I expect them to be easier reads, which may be a flaw in my reading style. But I found Hawking’s book tedious and not well written. I still claim that one can make cosmology intelligible without its being a slog.

The Double Helix by James D. Watson.

This is a really interesting story. The discovery of the double helix was fascinating because various people were working on it – Linus Pauling in California and Rosalind Franklin in King’s College London and she was very close. James Watson acquired her results without asking her, which I think was really bad news. And they went off and made this wild guess and they guessed right. And full marks – they were bright young men both of them – but they made a brilliant guess and the result was that they and Maurice Wilkins shared a Nobel Prize and Rosalind Franklin didn’t, which was very unfair.

JAC: Whatever you think of Watson, who has ruined his own reputation through bigoted remarks, this book belongs on the list. I think it’s the best account of a scientific discovery I’ve ever read.  It’s engaging, takes you right back to Cambridge when the discovery was made, and doesn’t spare the controversy and personal animosity involved in a race for a great discovery. As for Rosalind Franklin’s work, I share the view of Matthew Cobb, who wrote a piece about the Crick/Watson/Franklin/Wilkins controversy in the Guardian four years ago:

It is clear that, had Franklin lived, the Nobel prize committee ought to have awarded her a Nobel prize, too – her conceptual understanding of the structure of the DNA molecule and its significance was on a par with that of Watson and Crick, while her crystallographic data were as good as, if not better, than those of Wilkins. The simple expedient would have been to award Watson and Crick the prize for Physiology or Medicine, while Franklin and Wilkins received the prize for Chemistry.

Sadly, Franklin had died of ovarian cancer before the prize was awarded, so she never got her medal.

Watson has written several books since this one, including books on genetics and more personal volumes along the lines of The Double Helix, but none of the latter are nearly as good as The Double Helix. 

The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits by Charles Darwin.

It’s a wonderful Victorian title. Of course his most famous book is On The Origin of Species and that is actually rather hard work because he was desperately trying to persuade people of his thesis and he collected an absolute mountain of data and you had to wade through this stuff. But he was actually rather a good writer if he was able to let his hair down. His account of the Voyage of the Beagle is lovely. It is a sort of travel book full of derring-do and wonderful adventures. But I love this book about earthworms, which wasn’t published until 1896, because it just shows what a lovely naturalist he was.

JAC: Yes, this is an engaging and underappreciated book, larded with probably unintended humor and “citizen scientist” observations. It’s also short and, as Adam says, not as “hard work” as The Origin. But the place of The Origin in science, and indeed in human history, is overwhelming and secure, while Earthworms at best can be seen as instantiating Darwin’s evolutionary view that slow and tiny processes can create big changes over a long span of time. I would still say that The Origin is the one to read for the science. Remember, it was intended for the public, and was a bestseller in Darwin’s time. It’s not an easy read, to be sure, but there are parts that are wonderfully written and the “one long argument” is compelling and thrilling. If you want to read other Darwiniana, don’t forget The Voyage of the Beagle.

What else would be on my list? Well, I’ve already done a Five Books article on evolution books, which include not just The Origin but also The Blind Watchmaker, which I see as Dawkins’s best fusion of scientific exposition and lyrical writing. Those two would be on my “top five” list.

For other science books, I can’t leave out The Peregrine by J. A. Baker, which is a natural-history book—the best book on a single species ever written. The prose is ineffably moving. I quite like The Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, which had a huge influence on my becoming a scientist. But I haven’t read it in years and it may be dated or I might have outgrown it. I prefer to leave it unread in my dotage.

Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden must be considered, as well as The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. Stephen Jay Gould’s books are in the second rank, though I think his books of essays, especially the early ones, should be considered.

I haven’t been overly impressed by more recent science books, and can’t think of one written in the last 15 years that excited me enough to even consider it for the “top five.”

Readers, of course, are welcome and invited to suggest their favorite popular science books.

102 Comments

  1. Posted February 28, 2019 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    I can understand why “How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)” doesn’t make the science cut, or even popular science, but it’s accessible journalism *about* science and does get evolution deniers thinking.

  2. Øystein
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    My five picks:

    The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch
    The Fabric of the Cosmos, by Brian Greene
    The Vital Question, by Nick Lane
    The Extended Phenotype, by Richard Dawkins
    How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker

    Greene’s book discusses many of the same issues as A Brief History of Time and is generally much more vivid and readable, so I recommend it if you found the latter too dry.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      Read all of those and I second you on each. I was thinking about Brian Greene when I read the OP. In fairness Stephen Hawking was breaking new ground in science writing and the popular cosmology genre has evolved considerably since then.

      I’d recommend Leonard Susskind’s The Theoretical Minimum books because they are pretty much the only pop science books that not only delve into the maths but absolutely revels in it.

      • TJR
        Posted March 1, 2019 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        I second Susskind. Finally books for those of us in the middle ground, who have a mathematical background but who are not specialists in that particular area.

        I recently read Classical Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum and will shortly be moving on to Quantum Mechanics.

        Packs enormous amounts of good stuff into 200 pages. My pure maths background rebels against the looseness of some of the notation, and I think I’ve found a couple of errors in the examples, but otherwise excellent. It can be followed by anybody with A level maths or equivalent (its mostly calculus).

      • Posted March 1, 2019 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

        I recommended The Theoretical Minimum (videos) to PCC(E) once, when he mentioned he was trying to learn QM, but they require some knowledge of multivariable calculus. Not sure if it’d count as pop-sci.

        -Ryan

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      I should have added Pinker’s “The Blank Slate.”

  3. Joe Dickinson
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I love books that combine science, history, and personal travel memoir. By those criteria, “The Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen is perhaps my all time favorite popular science book. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I think Jacque Monod’s “Chance and Necessity” also deserves mention. He describes it as “An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology”. I also agree with all of the titles mentioned above, although I think the fox one is the weakest. Now I’ll watch to see if someone posts a book I haven’t yet read.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      Spillover is very good apart from the chapter on the origin of AIDS when Quammen starts channeling Steinbeck’s The Pearl by way of Joseph Conrad.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      Your first sentence: Yes! (See The Voyage of the Beagle.)

    • Pete
      Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      I also very much enjoyed that book. Another book I enjoyed that combines similar elements was Wade Davis, One River.

      • Joe Dickinson
        Posted March 1, 2019 at 11:14 am | Permalink

        I remembered another in that vein: “Into the Blue: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before” by Tony Horwitz.

  4. Simon Hayward
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    As I’ve mentioned here before that I think Ancestors Tale is the best of Dawkins popular evolution books although Selfish Gene and Blind Watchmaker are also good (Extended Phenotype is a bit more technical, less “popular science”)

    I enjoyed both WEIT and Shubin’s Your Inner Fish – both of which our host has a passing knowledge, but is reticent to mention. I thought that both were better than Dawkins “Greatest Show on Earth”, that came out around the same time.

    I also like some of the popular physics stuff, which makes me at least think I can nearly understand what’s happening. Max Tegmark (our Mathematical Universe and Life 3.0) is reasonably accessible to those of us whose physics sort of ran out in college.

    From a non-scientist, Bill Bryson’s Brief History of Almost Everything is also worth a look.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      I agree on The Ancestor’s Tale. I love that book. I’ve read it twice so far.

      Anything by Bill Bryson. I’ve read all of his books, I think. All of his memoir volumes are good.

      On subjects, my favorites of his are (in order):
      1. At Home
      2. Shakespeare
      3. Brief History of Everything

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      I also found WEIT better than The Greatest Show on Earth.

    • Simon Hayward
      Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      Also, slightly off topic:

      Evolution’s Captain – Nichols

      The story of Robert Fitzroy, who was the Captain of the Beagle, and brought Darwin along in order to have an educated man to talk to. Deeply religious and was horrified after the fact by the consequences of his actions. Certifiably mad (at least by the end of his life)…but I repeat myself.

      Interesting guy, purchasing experimental technology from his own pocket (such as lightning conductors for the ship) that the Admiralty would not pay for.

      • Christopher
        Posted February 28, 2019 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

        Darwin and the Barnacle by Rebecca Stott was a great pop-sci/history book.

        • Marilee Lovit
          Posted March 1, 2019 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

          I agree

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      The Ancestors Tale was the first Dawkins book I ever read, and I found it enchanting and illuminating in so many ways. I must get hold of the new edition…

      Agree that WEIT is better than Greatest Show, though the chapter on embryology is as good as anything Dawkins (or anyone else) has written.

      • Posted February 28, 2019 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

        The new edition is even better. And Yan Wong gets author credit.

      • Posted March 1, 2019 at 6:01 am | Permalink

        Yes, the embryology chapter in Greatest Show is almost worth the price of the book on its own.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

      Surprise! Bill Bryson’s Brief History of Almost Everything is the fitting title….because he doesn’t deal with biology! So that book still needs to be written by someone. Of course it is far more complex than physics, and more mysterious when you get down to it because it doesnt follow laws and involves lots of uncertainty.

    • Posted March 1, 2019 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      I agree on Your Inner Fish and WEIT.

      I also liked The Story of Earth by Robert Hazen.

  5. freiner
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I heartily concur with the Sagan volumes, which I keep returning to if for the sake of sanity alone. The books that otherwise first come to mind are ones that I recognize as having influenced me decades ago, such as George Gamow’s One, Two, Three … Infinity; Isaac Asimov’s The Universe, and Understanding Physics (not that I understand physics); and the collections of Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games articles from Scientific American (which took very broad interpretations on the meanings of both “mathematical” and “games”.)

    • freiner
      Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      I know this is stretching the “science” condition here, but I also want to toss in G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology.

  6. Posted February 28, 2019 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I would definitely include David Quammen’s early collections of essays The Flight of the Iguana and Natural Acts, both subtitled “A Sidelong View of Science and Nature.” His later, book-length, efforts, including The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, are disappointing by comparison. Quammen is essentially a hundred-yard-dash man, not a long distance runner.

    Also, though it may be more history than science, Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe remains something of an underappreciated masterpiece.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      I loved The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.

      I also like those older books.

      Quammne was a writer for Outside magazine in its heyday. It had superb writing in the day: Quammen (his regular column was “Natural Acts”), Krakauer, John Jerome, Sebastien Junger, Tim Cahill …

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      Agree about The Sleepwalkers. (Koestler’s autobiographical writings are also essential reading.)

      • Posted March 1, 2019 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        I would encourage a reading of more up-to-date work on Galileo, though. (The Cambridge companion and the Wooton biography, for example.)

  7. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I have not read it, but I would wager it is up there in importance at least.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      Certainly one of the most important but I’m sure it is really dated since so much has been discovered since she wrote it.

  8. Don
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Just finished The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Judson. I enjoyed it and thought it was well written and understandable by a layman if you pay attention. I learned a lot though I missed a lot also. It is not a new book but still interesting.

    • Joe Dickinson
      Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      Yes, an excellent book that covers the early history of molecular biology while doing a good job with the science. Indeed, I would argue that, because of the historical content, being an older book should not matter.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      I should have added that one, too. It’s a great book and belongs in the first rank. I forgot about it.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      I was heading down this thread seeing if I needed to mention it. Happy to see I don’t.

  9. Kyle
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Here are my top five, in no particular order:

    1. The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

    Eiseley’s books have some of the best prose that you will find in non-fiction writing. He was able to convey a sense of wonder and appreciation of nature that few books come close to today.

    2. The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, by Lewis Thomas

    This is another book that conveys a sense of wonder at the beauty of nature.

    3. The Planiverse, by A. K. Dewdney

    This is a more obscure title, but is well worth tracking down. This book was clearly inspired by Flatland and describes life in a two dimensional world. The author worked out how to solve many engineering problems in a 2D world.

    4. Quantum Reality, by Nick Herbert

    This book provides an overview of the different interpretations of quantum mechanics at a level accessible to the layperson.

    5. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character, by Richard Feynman

    No explanation needed here.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      I probably would have added a Feynman book like this one, but I don’t think they fall under the rubric “popular science” so much as “autobiography.”

      • Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        +1 Many of my favorites fall under: Memoir, autobiography, biography, history, travel, etc.

      • KD33
        Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        The Character of Physicsl Law is a classic by Feynman, and is also a YT lecture series. Six Easy Pieces is also a great popular treatment of select physics topics by Feynman.

  10. Paul Dymnicki
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    The Man Who Loved Only Numbers is a biography of the famous mathematician Paul Erdős written by Paul Hoffman.

    Easy read and great anecdotes.

  11. Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Sean Carroll’s ‘The Big Picture’ and all of Stephen Pinker’s masterful works, of course. Lawrence Krauss ‘A universe from Nothing’, Richard Dawkins body of work…the list is large.

    rz

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Pinker’s two volumes on language are my favourite popular science books. While not as ‘important’ as The Blank State or his latest epics on civilisation they are a total joy.

      • Øystein
        Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        The Sense of Style is also very good, I think. Very interesting and useful, and a fun read as well.

        • Les Faby
          Posted February 28, 2019 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

          His two chosen exemplars of style were Dawkins and “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson which are two favorites of mine.

  12. Mark
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    For popular physics, I like Brian Greene (especially The Elegant Universe) and Michio Kaku.

    What are some good non-outdated climate science books? I have The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History to read, but I’m looking for others.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted February 28, 2019 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

      I’ve read and enjoyed and learned from:

      Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity by James Hansen

      Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas

      What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate by Greg Craven

      There is also a fictional trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson which centers on climate change and politics, Forty Sighs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting. I just finished his immense Mars trilogy, so it will be a while before I get to these, but they do look interesting.

      • Mark
        Posted March 1, 2019 at 5:35 am | Permalink

        Thanks! I love KSR and that trilogy has been on my to-read list for a while. He also has New York 2140, about NYC beset by a 50-foot water rise. Also a to-read.

        I did read and enjoy Paolo Bacagalupi’s The Water Knife, although it was very pessimistic.

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted March 1, 2019 at 7:48 am | Permalink

          Yes, both New York 2140 and The Water Knife are on my to-read list (though not very high up).

          I finally remembered a fourth climate change book I read, also quite good: Hell and High Water: Global Warming–the Solution and the Politics–and What We Should Do by Joseph Romm. Curiously, I see there’s another book with the identical title, by Alastair McIntosh, but I don’t know anything about it.

  13. Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Hullo, it is the other ‘me’.
    I mainly read books on evolution, and semi-recent favorites would be…
    1. Lucy by Donald Johanson. Here he recounts the discovery of ‘Lucy’, the fossil of Australopithecus afarensis.
    2. Darwin’s Dreampond by Tijs Goldschmidt. This is the story about the amazing adaptations of the African cichlid fishes, and the scientists who study them, and the local Africans who depend on them for fishing. They are under severe pressure from overfishing and invasive fish (Tilapia), but the ending was very moving.

    What I especially value about both books is that they humanize the scientists and give a window in what is involved in organizing and surviving a science expedition into remote areas.

  14. KD33
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    The Stonehenge one does seem like an odd choice. I looked into its history a few yeasr back after a visit to the site. As far as i can tell, it can be summarized as i) we know where the stones came from and roughly when and ii) we know virtually nothing else for certain (purpose, etc.)

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 28, 2019 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

      The three self-explanatory titled books below are lovely. I’ve supplied Amazon.com links for people who want to know more.

      The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
      Sy explores the emotional & physical world of the octopus — a surprisingly complex, intelligent & spirited creature & the remarkable connections it makes with humans. How can such a creature know anything?
      AMAZON.COM

      The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart
      AMAZON.COM

      Grandmother Fish: A Child’s First Book of Evolution by Jonathan Tweet & Karen Lewis [illustrator]
      AMAZON.COM

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted February 28, 2019 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

        Meant to be a stand alone comment, not a reply!

  15. Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    I completely agree with you on Darwin: Read On the Origin … and The Voyage of the Beagle which is a classic of travel writing.

    I did not find On the Origin … hard at all. I found it lovely and entirely persuasive. The version I read was the Everyman’s Library edition (I won it); and I recommend that edition.

    It is the First Edition text with some bits of the later editions that don’t subtract from the original. It also has an author’s timeline and a nice introduction by Richard Dawkins. Highest recommendation.

    I also love:
    Michael Pollan’s most recent,
    How to Change Your Mind (Is this really science? Maybe not.)
    The Emperor of All Maladies Mukherjee
    At the Water’s Edge Carl Zimmer
    Parasite Rex Carl Zimmer
    Why We Get Sick Nesse, Williams
    The Third Chimpanzee Diamond
    Your Inner Fish Shubin
    Genome Ridley
    Silent Spring Carson
    The Varieties … by Sagan – excellent
    Unweaving the Rainbow by Dawkins (a mix of subjects)
    The Selfish Gene by Dawkins (mafde me understand the gene-centered view of evolution, something that can’t be un-learned.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code by Matthew Cobb.

    And let’s not forget WEIT which I have read three times now and keep getting more from and which I recommend widely. I’ve even sent copies to my governmental representatives!

    I love Mark Kulansky’s books, like Salt, Paper, and Cod; but they are history.

    OK, I’ll stop now.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      slight html fail there …

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      … and I own that copy of OTOOS, I did not win it. 😦

  16. Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Another vote for Neil Shubin’s book about our inner fish – really interesting and well written.
    Also enjoyed “Here be Dragons” – a fascinating book on biogeography by Dennis McCarthy.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      Yes, and I’m sorry I forgot “Your Inner Fish,” which is excellent–and by one of my Chicago colleagues. A memory slip.

  17. KD33
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Double Helix: I second that!

    McPhee: Basin and Range, and Assembling California (or the whole trilogy Annals of a Former World). The best non-fiction/science writer of them all, IMO. Read anything by him!

    Feynman: The Character if Physical Law (also a YT lecture series), Six Easy Pieces – and Six Not So Easy Pieces, if you’re up for the challenge.

    Dawkins: The Selfish Gene

    Greene: The Elegant Universe

    Kruif: The Microbe Hunters (old fashioned, but charming in how it captures old-timey science).

    • KD33
      Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      I almost forgot: Cosmos by Sagan, still one of the most powerful books on the wonder of cosmology and our place in it.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      Yes! McPhee on almost anything.

      Oranges is on of my favorite books. A master stroke of concise nf writing.

  18. Steve Pollard
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    I enthusiastically endorse many of the excellent choices above, especially all the Dawkinses, Sagans and Pinkers, plus of course WEIT, and Nick Lane’s books.

    In addition, a personal favourite is Peter Atkins’ ‘Galileo’s Finger’, a witty and concise account of ten key components of science, from arithmetic to evolution. Finally, a shout-out for D’Arcy Thompson’s ‘On Growth and Form’, not so much for its science, which has largely been superseded, but for its wonderful, elegant prose.

  19. Pete
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I thought Sean B. Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful was fascinating, eye-opening, and not difficult.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      As an aside, the title comes (of course) from Darwin:

      There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

      Is there any passage in the Bible or any holy book so beautifully written?

  20. Another Tom
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    There’s A Briefer History of Time: The Science Classic Made More Accessible which not only supposedly an easier read but also has updates over what has been learned since the original was published.

    I did fine with A Brief History of Time, and so haven’t read it. Although reading the description it has some updates from new data observed since the publishing of the original book, so I’m thinking about doing so now.

    • Christopher
      Posted February 28, 2019 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      I read and enjoyed ABHoT but I did have trouble understanding parts of it. But I have trouble with the kind of visualization required for physics, and chemistry too.

  21. Robert Bottemiller
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    My brief list:
    1. “why does E=mc^2?” by Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw.
    Gentle introduction to 20th century physics. Highly readable text, diagrams when needed and few equations.

    2. “The Joy of x – A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity” by Steven Strogatz.
    A great book for the math-curious and maybe the best gift you could ever give to a math-inclined student. I wish I’d had this book when I was in high school or, yes, even in college.

  22. Marilyn
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    I would like to recommend “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert
    It was published in 2014

  23. Posted February 28, 2019 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    My list, considered briefly:

    “The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in our Time”, Jonathan Weiner

    “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions”, Abbott

    “The Dinosauria”, Weishampel, et al

    “Alex & Me”, Pepperberg

    “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, Tufte

    “Literary Machines”, Nelson

    • freiner
      Posted February 28, 2019 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      Tufte’s stuff is especially delightful (and “Tufte’s stuff” is nearly an anagram to boot). Abbott’s characters, however, lack a certain depth.

  24. Debbie Coplan
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    I’m currently finding “The Second Creation”
    a wonderful book about physics. It’s written by Robert P. Crease and Charles C. Mann.
    It is an account and history of the story of physics and the scientists involved in the struggle to figure out energy and matter.
    I can’t say I’m understanding all of it, but I have learned so much even though a lot is over my head.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it is a wonderful book. It was over my head in parts too, and I took undergraduate physics. It is probably the best book on the historical development of the Standard Model, possibly the greatest achievement of twentieth century science. It is well worth reading, although it needs at least two readings, and neither reading is easy.

  25. Curtis
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Three books that would probably be in my second five have not been mentioned:

    Nature Via Nurture by Matt RidleyRight Hand, Left Hand by Chris McManus
    Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life by Nick Lane

    BTW, the Royal Society Prizes for Science Books is a great place to look for books.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Society_Prizes_for_Science_Books

  26. Christopher
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    I would add The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver Sacks, and probably his Uncle Tungsten as well. A year in the Maine Woods by Bernd Heinrich, although his Summer World and Winter World are just as good. Letters to a Young Scientist, by EO Wilson, which is very inspiring, even to a guy teetering at the precipice of middle age. And frankly there are loads more, I couldn’t really narrow it down to just five but those came to mind the quickest. I did love Darwin’s Earthworm book, and I’m re-reading Voyage. It really is a great work, although I must read it with iPhone at the ready to clarify what species he was discussing or where in South America he was. I have tried to read the inspiration for Voyage, the Narrative of Travels by A. von Humbolt but I’ve found it quite the long slog. After almost 18 months I’m still only 1/3 of the way through vol.1 and just lack the enthusiasm to push on.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      Yes, Oliver Sacks was great.

    • Posted March 1, 2019 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Full marks for Oliver Sacks. Virtually everything he put into books was wonderful.

      I wrote him an email regarding his book on vision and received back a hand-written letter from him. Which I will always cherish. 🙂

    • Posted March 1, 2019 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Agreed on Sacks. But for me his greatest book is Musicophilia. Fascinating stuff in there, especially about tonal languages.

  27. Posted February 28, 2019 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    For physics I recommend books by Jim Baggott. I found Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields and Origins: The Scientific Story of Creation particularly good. Baggott is a very fine writer, but his books are certainly not light reading.

    • Posted February 28, 2019 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

      Another recommendation—Breakfast with Einstein by Chad Orzel. An easy-to-read enjoyable book about (despite the title) everyday physics.

  28. Posted February 28, 2019 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – by Neil Degrasse Tyson. About the surprising things astrophysicists have discovered about ‘way distant galaxies, et al.

    Undeniable – by Bill Nye. Good for people with doubts about evolution, also some good criticisms of intelligent design.

  29. Roo
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read it since high school, and I also read it before I was particularly familiar with the idea of evolution as it relates to human beings (I think one’s first introduction to any topic always smacks of brilliance on the author’s part simply because it’s news to you at that point – later, you want a more refined, nuanced understanding, but initially the simple fact that someone thought of this stuff is enough to wow,) but I’d nominate The Naked Ape as one of the most influential popular science works of the past few decades. Best? Maybe not, I would have to leave that to scientists to decide (but hey, Stonehenge Decoded made the list…) but definitely remarkably accessible and compelling.

  30. ratabago
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Some popular science books I think everyone should have read by the end of high school:

    1/. Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Sean B Carroll. Explores the powerful effect the timing and interaction of body plan genes have on development. If people understood this there would be no interminable arguments about the latest instalment of Hoyle’s Fallacy (I’m looking at you, Michael Behe).

    2/. The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan. Inoculation against woo and misapplied postmodernism.

    3/. The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker. See 2 (above).

    4/. Something that outlines what we know about the history of the universe, and how we know it. Maybe The Universe: A Biography, John Gribbin.

    5/. Either Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin, or WEIT, or The Blind Watchmaker.
    —————–

    Some history of ideas stuff:
    – Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is surprisingly good.

    To Explain The World, Steven Weinberg.

    Abusing Science, The case Against Creationism, Philip Kitcher

    Life’s Greatest Secret, Matthew Cobb. I think this is much better than The Double Helix.

    Science As Seen Through The Development Of Scientific Instruments, Thomas Crump. Surprisingly good, particularly as I fond other works by him tedious.
    ———————

    Biography:
    Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks
    Genius, James Gleik. The life of Feynman.
    Francis Crick, Matt Ridley. Also better than The Double Helix. (I found Watson’s self-promotion annoying).
    The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin
    – Pamela Brown’s 2 volume biography of Darwin.
    ——————-

    Honourable mention for anything by Nick Lane.
    Honourable mention for anything by Sean M. Carroll.

    • AD
      Posted March 2, 2019 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of the best books I have ever read. In fact I’ve read it at least 3 times over the years and will no doubt read it again.

  31. Frank
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    1. The Origin Of Species – of course.
    2. The Ancestor’s Tale – Prof. Dawkins’ magnum opus. Cliche time…”magisterial”; “breathtaking in its scope”. Cliches, yes, but so true and written in his usual peerless style.
    3. The First Three Minutes – Steven Weinberg. Bit dated but a classic in the way he builds the case, step by step, of how and why physicists have a pretty good idea of what happened in the first three minutes.
    4. Simply Einstein – Richard Wolfson. Hands down the clearest and most accessible account of Special and General Relativity. Cliche time again – “makes you feel like a genius”.
    5. Black Holes And Time Warps – Kip Thorne. Once you’ve read Simply Einstein you can move onto this one which goes into much more detail but still accessible to anyone willing to put in some effort. And being a Grand Master of Relativity, you know you’re in safe hands.

  32. Posted February 28, 2019 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    I need to belatedly add that WEIT is also one of my favorite books and it is definitely the most worn-out of my books. Read several times & used as a classroom ‘text’ for several years. Marked up with notes, and now the back is held together with duct tape (!)
    But Jerry once signed it and drew a cat, so it is is also a highly prized possession.

  33. Mark Joseph
    Posted February 28, 2019 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Wow. I have to limit it to five??

    OK, #1 is easy: Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

    After that, there are so many good options. So, instead of the many excellent books of physics and biology that have already been mentioned, I’ll stick just to what science is, and how to think straight:

    Voodoo Science by Robert Park, which is similar to, and almost as good as, Sagan’s book.
    How We Know What Isn’t So so Thomas Gilovich, on logical, conceptual, and reasoning errors.
    Crimes Against Logic by Jamie Whyte, a nice complement to the Gilovich book.
    Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer.

  34. David Duffy
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    E.O. Wilson (1975) Sociobiology.

    People only ever remember the last chapter.

  35. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 1:19 am | Permalink

    I’d like to put in a vote for some books about ‘the little things that run the world’ to borrow E O Wilson’s phrase. Invertebrates are massively important in terms of their sheer diversity (the great majority of all animal species) and in terms of ecological function but they tend to be shaded out of popular literature and TV programmes by the vertebrates. Two books that persuasively share their authors’ enthusiasm for invertebrates are “A Sting in the Tail” by Dave Goulson and “the Book of the Spider” by Paul Hillyard.

    Goulson describes his work on bumble bees with great charm and part of this charm relates to his willingness to write about his failures and mistakes as well as the successes. His love of these charismatic insects is infectious and he does a great job of explaining both their ecological and economic importance and the seriousness of their predicament in our much-modified countryside.

    Hillyard, an arachnologist at London’s Natural History Museum, deals with a group of arthropods that often has a bit of a PR problem but his book makes a strong case for spiders as a fascinating group worthy of anyone’s attention. The book is wide ranging, covering spiders in human folklore and culture as well as spider biology with examples from around the world. A joy to read.

  36. Posted March 1, 2019 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    As a high-school student in the late 1970s, I read Paul Davies’ “The Forces of Nature”, which was a very well-written exposition of particle physics. More recently, Davies has drunk deeply from the Templeton trough, and tries to reconcile science and religion, but back in the 1970s, he was a pretty good popular science writer.

  37. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    I read Stonehenge Decoded long ago. A copy of the exact same paperback as illustrated is still on my bookshelves.

    I recall I was fascinated by the theory that the stones were aligned astronomically. (I’m aware that Hawkins’ theory has since come under attack. But see Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeoastronomy_and_Stonehenge )

    My reaction to the book was the same as Hart-Davis’s. Some agreeable surprise that a ‘science’ book could be so readable. (It was maybe another decade before I came across anything by Richard Dawkins, who I regard as the most readable scientific author. David Attenborough would rival him in that respect).

    A Brief History of Time – read it, and got right through it. But I can’t recall if I could follow all the narrative.

    The Double Helix. Read it, of course. A highly entertaining book. As I recall, it explained all the technical bits sufficiently well – e.g. Chargaff’s rule A=T, G=C – that I found myself mentally waiting for the penny to drop. (Of course this was with the benefit of hindsight).

    Other popular-science books that I found highly readable –
    The Intelligent Eye and Eye and Brain by R L Gregory. Dealing with optical illusions and perception. Might be a bit dated now.

    The New Science of Strong Materials and Structures by J E Gordon. (I’ve banged on about these before). Gordon manages to make the dry-as-dust subject of materials science fascinating, with asides into such things as biological structures, the history of warfare, why cathedrals fell down so (relatively) infrequently, and a thousand more. I re-read them every few years just to experience the pleasure of Gordon’s prose.

    Not really science, but Red For Danger by L T C Rolt, a history of British railway accidents and progressive safety measures over the years from 1825 to 1960, I found quite fascinating. Not least in the way that combinations of adverse circumstances could sometimes conspire to defeat the most careful safety measures.

    The main factor in my finding a book interesting is that the writer has an engaging style and a knack for telling a story. Not all writers have this – and that includes a number of big-name writers of blockbuster novels.

    cr

    • Posted March 1, 2019 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      Agree on Structures by Gordon!

      That one is a classic. (And I don’t think it’s just because I am a mechanical engineer!)

      In the same vein, Engineering in the Ancient World by Landels is excellent.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 3, 2019 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, I must take a look at Landels.

        cr

  38. Pierluigi Ballabeni
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    To people who read Darwin I would recommend reading also Alfred Russell Wallace’s Malay Archipelago. Wallace spent 8 years collecting animals and plants in the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, Java, Sumatra, the Moluccas, and New Guinea. His book contains not only plenty of observations on the fauna, flora, and people but also many reflections on the biogeography of the region. And it is easy reading.

  39. Posted March 1, 2019 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    While there are many great suggestions about narrowly focused topics, I’d like to add a couple of suggestions which encompass the general contribution of science and scientists:

    The Day the Universe Changed by James Burke

    and Seeing Further edited by Bill Bryson. An anthology of essays about the Royal Society.

  40. Bob Scott Placier
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Love many of the books already discussed here. And learned about a few that will now go on my already long list of books to read.

    I want to put in a word for a favorite of mine, both for what I learned from it as well as the quality of the writing.

    The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness.

  41. hflorman
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    I didn’t see anyone mention Richard Rhodes. “The making of the atomic bomb” treats the science clearly and accurately, while balancing the biography and history. Well worth the Pulitzer that it won.

    “Dr. Tatiana’s sex advice to all creation” by Olivia Judson (daughter of Horace of “The eighth day of creation” and doctoral student of Bill Hamilton) is a wonderful read and hysterical, although a little dated.

    Other than that, let me second all the comments about McPhee.

  42. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    I read “A Brief History of Time” a long time ago, and at the time I appreciated the details but found that it was slanted towards Hawking’s interests.

    And that experience has only deepened over time, Hawking wrote that 1988 and it did not even mention inflation that we now know solves his conundrums of where the universe came from and where it will go. Of course the details of future and evidence came in later, still physicists agree that the classic Big Bang model without inflation he described did not explain the early universe in full. AFAIK none of Hawking’s large interests except hos black hole physics have stood up over time. I would certainly not recommend it *now*.

    • Posted March 1, 2019 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      A book slanted to its author’s interests! Quelle surprise!

  43. Posted March 1, 2019 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav. My first popular science book. At the time I thought it was fabulous. Probably aided by the evil weed. Also liked the Mind at Night by Andrea Rock.

  44. Peter
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    I think The Vital Question, by Nick Lane is an absolute must for anyone.
    I like The Ancestor’s tale by Dawkins much better than any of his other books, as in that book Dawkins actually engages with data. The Greatest Show on Earth is however pulp fiction.

  45. Fré Hoogendoorn
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    I’m currently reading Carl Zimmer’s “She Has her Mother’s Laugh”, which is an excellent historical summary of the state of evolutionary science.

    Other favourites:
    A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, by Adam Rutherford;
    Neanderthal Man, by Svante Pääbo;
    Genome, by Matt Ridley;
    Life’s Greatest Secret, by Matthew Cobb (already mentioned).

    All the books by Nick Lane; these are very good indeed.

    Of Richard Dawkin’s works, I also think “The Blind Watchmaker” is the best, as it is so well and clearly written. The only wish I have when it comes to his works is that he would have made it more clear that he is describing evolution by natural selection, and that this is not all there is to evolution.

    I very much enjoyed Arthur Koestlers, “The Sleepwalkers”, but maybe that was because it was one of the first science books that I read, and it was a long time ago.

    I also thought that the non-fiction chapters of the three “Science of Discworld” books were also very good. These were written by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen.

    And I have a great fondness for the cartoon guides by Larry Gonick (and his co-authors). I especially like his history books.

  46. Kurt L Helf
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Some of my faves (many are also included in others’ posts above but I didn’t see these):

    The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World by Laura Snyder

    Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson

    The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner

    The Silent World by Jacques Yves Cousteau

    Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens

    Trawler by Redmond O’Hanlon

    The Dinosaur Heresies by Robert Bakker

  47. Posted March 1, 2019 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I would definitely add “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter” by Richard Feynman.
    It’s a thorough introduction to quantum electrodynamics (it was originally a series of lectures) for the layperson that is careful to convey the true ideas of the subject, in the words of one of the people who really put it all together, but just leaving out all the little “tricks” that make the calculations efficient.

    I am also a big fan of Brian Greene’s “The Fabric of the Cosmos,” which does a great job of summarizing the overall current picture of modern physics, and getting across difficult concepts with excellent use of analogies and imagery.

    I think “The Demon-Haunted World” ought to be required reading for every human.

    There’s also an excellent popular book out there about why evolution is true…I can’t recall the title, but it’s by this professor at the University of Chicago who worked a lot on speciation, and it’s an excellent popular treatment of the subject of evolution. Surely it belongs somewhere on that list.


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