Saturday, September 4, 2010

Top 10 Popular Science Books

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1. Annals of a Former World, by John McPhee

In patient, lyrical prose, McPhee takes the reader on a geologic journey through the United States. This volume was originally published as 4 books; each is centered on a road trip the author took with a geologist, observing the earth next to Eisenhower's great US highways for clues into its geologic past. Annals has this--no borders, idealistic, On the Road for geologists kind of feel (though a bit more grown-up.) I pick up Annals every once in a while when im in a relaxed mood, when im looking for a good example of literary science writing. Highly recommended as a companion for camping trips, if you can fit it into your pack.

2. Surely You're Joking, Mr, Feynman, by Richard Feynman

A string of excerpts from Feynman's life/career, Surely You're Joking is probably the popular science book I have read through the most times, not because it is short, but because it is at once compelling, understated, and full of indispensible scientific concepts. Richard Feynman has an uncanny ability to make physics easily digestible, his lectures are a testament to that and Surely You're Joking is no exception. Feynman's easy prose makes the reader feel like physics is understandable, as if he has laid out a diagram of the universe on his living room floor--no one is an outsider. It's delightful. Feynman's in my 'top 5 people I would give my right pinky finger to meet' category.

3. A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

The second heavy volume on the list, A Short History is packed with nearly everything. It takes a look at the science behind a lot of things--beauty, cells, evolution, the universe. Bryson rejects the traditional notion of a 'textbook' with this book, making science seem relevant in our daily lives AND putting this knowledge in the context of the universe--in space and time. Capturing the detailed nooks where science is often concentrated AND eliciting the wonder of the wider perspective is an accomplishment--savor it wherever you can find it. Great in audio book format.

4. The Richness of Life, collection of essays by Stephen Jay Gould

The idiosyncratic Gould has written articles in Natural History and many other science magazines for decades and is one of the most widely read modern science writers. In this collection of articles, Gould's highly intellectual, witty, and pin-accurate prose explains evolutionary theory, racism or baseball with a scientist's eye, but in a way that engages the layman. Gould's dedication to science shows in every piece. Delightful.

5. In the Shadow of Man, by Jane Goodall

A classic book--easy read, no jargon. Goodall's observations of chimpanzee's in the wild first brought to light one of man's most recent ancestors--the chimpanzee. This book chronicles some of Goodall's groundbreaking research through her own observations about chimp behavior. Once immersed in the book, I couldn't help but think--we are all just apes, evolved from or related to one another. Puts things in perspective.

6. The Canon, by Natalie Angier

Someone at the New York Times science desk once told me--"Natalie Angier is the queen of metaphor." I have to agree. The Canon is the best example of her witty prose winding the reader through simple scientific questions with difficult answers. In this book, Angier tackles what she has deemed the basic scientific concepts everyone should know: thinking scientifically, probabilities, calibration, physics, evolutionary biology, chemistry, molecular biology, astronomy and geology. Phew. I have to say--this could have been very text-book, but because of her writing style, is masterful. I actually have had many non-scientist friend recommend this to me, which is always a good sign.

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

Another collection of essays worth picking up, Thomas' book is a joy. Each essay packs a good amount of philosophy into it's literary package as Thomas meanders through simple topics and concepts in biology and makes larger connections (cells are like mini organisms, social animals work together like parts of a cell, etc.) Thomas often uses themes repetitively in his essays, so this collection is good for sporadic reading.

8. Universe in a Teacup, by K.C. Cole

Where can you find a book that successfully intertwines the discipline of mathematics, with the concepts of truth and beauty? Universe is just such a book; K.C.'s most popular and in some ways seminal volume. Metaphors she uses pack a punch. Her prose style is somewhat poetic, and in Universe, she proves adept at explain things like chaos or phase transitions are illuminating--not just because you finally understand some science concept that always seem so obscure, but because Cole has also given the you a new way to think about mathematics and the world alongside your new understanding. (Full disclosure--Cole was my academic mentor)

9. Enduring Love, by Ian McEwin

Ok, so not everyone would categorize this as a popular science book, but Ill include it anyway. Enduring Love is a fiction book, partially written from the perspective of a former scientist, but more importantly, it is a suspenseful story that lets the author's attitudes towards life bleed through each and every page. Ian McEwan is a well-know rationalist who believes that science is just as much a part of culture as anything else--a position with which I very much empathize. This is a literary tale, sure, but McEwin manages to mention scientific ideas all over the place, integrating science and its ways of thinking into the lives of his complex characters and slowly revealing situations. It's a page-turner.

10. Six Easy Pieces, Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, by Richard Feynman

I tried not to include any author twice, but I couldn't resist. Feynman is fantastic. Check out these books for fundamental lessons of physics.

*Suggested missing authors--Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins


  1. Nice blogging, My review is very good example.
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  2. Very interesting post and I hope you will provide an update of this list. I saw that someone had compiled an interesting list of popular science books on biology that came out in 2011 (, so that shows that good science books are coming out every week/month!