An interested reader could spend a lifetime reading nothing but popular science books, but we’re not all lucky enough to have the time. So for the time-pressed science fan, here are my favourites, roughly divided by category:
I have cheated slightly as my first pick is both of Stephen Hawking’s epic explorations of the universe.
He covers 13.7 billion years of history, from the Big Bang to the present day, in language accessible to anyone who could handle high school maths.
The Universe in a Nutshell may have a slight edge over its companion as the illustrations add a lot of clarity, especially for the non-astrophysicists!
Sagan takes the opposite track to Hawking and performs an inventory of the universe as it stands today – from the history of planet earth all the way to the formation of distant galaxies.
Originally an award-winning TV show, the book, and series were recently re-imagined with Neil Degrasse-Tyson as the lead.
It is hard to think of another branch of science which owes more to its women.
Much of the foundations of modern astronomy were laid by Annie Jump-Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt (the Harvard Computers).
Hidden Figures tells the story of three black women following in this tradition, who worked for NASA in the 1960s as human ‘computers’ solving the problems which allowed the US to win the space race.
A look at the space race through the eyes of its test pilots in the early days of manned spaceflight.
Wolfe painstakingly researched this book by tracking down and extensively interviewing all the ex-astronauts he could, trying to work out how these people could willingly accept the dangers of spaceflight.
Biology & Ecology
While his prose may seem a little biblical in 2019, there is no doubt that these works were crucial to popularizing science.
Darwin realized that his discovery had enormous importance beyond science itself and thus wrote, simply but precisely, what he had observed.
These books stand the test of time and are a must-read for anyone interested in nature and how our planet works.
Almost everybody today owes something to Henrietta Lacks, who died of cancer in 1951.
This book tells the tragic story of how cells from Ms. Lacks tumor were extracted and used without her consent, or with any recognition of their uniqueness.
These cells live on as the HeLa cell line, on which almost 70 years of biological and medical research has depended.
A vital read for any medical or biology aficionado, this is also a deeply personal story about racism, loss, and consent.
A riveting discussion of the human genome, its discovery, mapping, potential benefits, and pitfalls.
Matt Ridley expertly describes the work which went into revealing the genome and the human traits it controls. He goes into detail on the main issues for humanity: diseases, death, preventative treatments and political implications.
Dawkins’ first popular science book is a masterpiece which reinvigorated public interest in the study of evolution. Here evolution is recast in modern terms, by considering the point of view of genes, and their role in replication.
Dawkins calls this ‘the selfish gene’ and goes on to extend these ideas into human behavior, eventually predicting the meme!
In the history of planet Earth, there have been five major species extinction events. Kolbert argues we are in the midst of a sixth, driven by climate change and other human activities.
The author takes an objective view of this process by visiting different habitats and interviewing ecologists around the world to build a global picture of the survival of species on earth.
A frightening, stark read but one that rightfully belongs on the bookshelf of any science enthusiast.
Psychology & Economics
Sagan is the only author to appear on the list twice! He’s included here because of his masterful explanations of popular pseudoscientific concepts.
Sagan attempts to equip the reader with a “baloney detection kit”, and debunks psychic crystals, alien abductions, witches and faith healing.
Interesting, compelling and enjoyable from start to finish.
Following the theme of The Demon-Haunted World, we have arguably the first popular science book ever written.
Created in 1841, Mackay sought to understand how crowds of people could so willingly be drawn into scams and bubbles.
Starting with the financial crisis of the South-Seas and the Tulip madness, he then moves on to religious manias (such as the Crusades) and finishes with alchemy and fortune-telling.
This is a little dense but absolutely worth your time, as if nothing else it highlights the recurring theme of mankind’s foolishness (sometimes in very, very funny ways).
This is Freud’s original manifesto describing the state of psychoanalysis in 1917.
Though eventually revised with updated ideas, this initial work surveys the workings of the mind through slips, dreams, and neuroses.
While many of the concepts have since been refined, revisited or even dismissed, this was the first definitive work of psychoanalysis and has an important place in the evolution of our understanding of the human brain.
Twenty-four essays about the case histories of his most interesting patients by leading neurologist Oliver Sacks.
An amazing portrayal of how the brain works (and doesn’t work) seen through the eyes of real peoples’ experiences. This is both funny and chilling, and an easy read.
Did Napoleon’s army really fail because their tin buttons turned to dust in the Russian winter?
Le Couteur and Burreson think it unlikely, but there have been many other times in history where new molecules or new properties of old molecules have changed the world spectacularly.
From cures for scurvy to high explosives and the reorganization of global trade following contact with the East Indies, the authors explore the effects of chemistry on the world.
Chemistry can sometimes seem like a dry subject, but the perspectives the authors use here shines a light on its importance throughout all sciences and all time.
Just these few books will whet the appetite of the voracious popular science reader, and goodness knows there are plenty more excellent choices not on this list.
But this is a great place to start, and no science enthusiast’s bookshelf is complete without the above titles!