10 is a magic number...apparently
The number of Science books I've treasured over the years - books which have genuinely changed my life - is pretty large. There's a part of me which wants to bang on about each one of them but I know everybody would fall asleep. Unfortunately, we humans have become acclimatised to "top 10" lists (thanks a lot Buzzfeed) so I decided it was necessary to play ball with human psychology and stick with 10 titles only. This means narrowing down many year's worth of reading material to a mere handful. This proved difficult.
Every time I settled on a list, I felt I was cheating the books which didn't make it. Besides, what happens if I bump into the author of one of the rejected books at a dinner party and they immediately grill me on why their book didn't make it (they follow my blog obviously). After the verbal attack, they throw a carefully prepared vial of sulfuric acid in my face before killing my houseplants and stealing my shoes. What do I do then?? In order to cover myself, I decided to impose some strict rules.
1. No text books.
Contrary to popular belief most Scientists don't sit around reading textbooks. We usually read the chapters we're interested in and treat the rest as a reference. Having said that, there are a few textbooks I have a fondness for (don't pretend you're shocked, I teach Science for a living, I'm a geek and proud).
Engineering Mathematics by K.A. Stroud is the best Maths textbook in the world. Biophysical Chemistry by Alan Cooper and An Introduction to Quantum Theory by P.A. Cox are also fantastic reads which you can get through in a week.
I also need to mention my very first Science book, loaned to me by my Chemistry teacher at the tender age of 14: Valency and Molecular Structure by Cartmell and Fowles (I'm pictured reading it in the above picture...obviously not at the tender age of 14).
2. No biographies
A good Scientist biography manages to teach some Science as it goes, but these aren't really Pop-Sci books. They’re just books about remarkable people. In this category I recommend Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman by Ralph Leighton. Genius by Paul Gleick and A Primate's Memoir by Robert Sapolsky.
3. No Tech-Pop Books
These books are a hybrid of academic textbook and layman's guide. Written for non-experts who are still mathematically and Scientifically confident, they are essentially "Popular Science with the equations left in". If you're up for the challenge I recommend The Theoretical Minimum Series by Leonard Susskind, Six Not-So Easy Pieces, Tips on Physics, The Lectures on Physics Volumes I,II & III (all by Richard Feynman) and, if you've got the time and will-power, The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose.
4. No books by the same author
Obviously the best Science authors write many books. I decided to aim for a broad spectrum of topics and styles, so I had to avoid including the same author twice unless absolutely necessary (as you will see, it did turn out to be necessary)
So, with my rules laid out, here are my top 10 picks for best popular Science books that will make you a better person.
10. What If? by Randall Munroe
In What If? the cartoonist and engineer Randall Munroe considers ludicrous questions and answers them with real Scientific principles, teaching the reader as he goes. It's one of the cleverest strategies I've ever seen. For example: how high should you drop a steak through the atmosphere in order to cook it from air-resistance? Rather than dismissing it, Munroe goes to great lengths explaining the physics of falling, the chemical composition of meat, how cooking works and so on, until you've found the Science more intriguing than the ludicrous starting point. Munroe's sardonic and hilarious approach makes mechanics seem cool and trendy, which is not always easy to do.
9. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Say what you like about Dawkins' fiery brand of atheism, as a Science writer he is unparalleled. The Selfish Gene is not, as the title suggests, a book about selfishness being genetic. It's about the nature of genes themselves and how unexpected behaviours arise as a result of Biological information. Why did humans evolve a capacity for kindness? Why do we take revenge? Why do some species choose aggression and some choose peace? In this powerhouse guide to evolution, Dawkins highlights what modern neo-Darwinism really says and why it's so powerful. Be warned though, it's not a casual Sunday-afternoon read. Dawkins is a fiercely intelligent man and he expects the reader to work hard. But the rewards are numerous.
8. Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
We live in a frightening age, where pseudoscience is often disguised as the real thing. Ben Goldacre swoops to the rescue in this antidote to media-manipulated Science stories and takes a look at the very nature of Popular Science itself. He examines homeopathy, spiritual healing, the MMR-vaccines hoax and nutriotinism, scrutinising everything with brilliant skepticism. But it's not a snarky book designed to attack people for believing dumb stuff. On the contrary, Goldacre considers "the person on the street" to be intelligent, sensible and capable of drawing informed conclusions (as do I). It's the Science-media charlatans who are the real villains here and Goldacre exposes them with aplomb and humour.
7. The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker
This one is a very controversial choice, and I've included it for the debates it raises if nothing else. One of the most important questions in Science and Philosophy is: how much of our behaviour is the result of upbringing and how much is the result of genetics? The infamous "nature vs nurture" question. Most people, after grappling with the issue, decide that this is a false dichotomy, or that it's a 50:50 mixture and let's be done with it. Pinker, on the other hand, fearlessly tackles the issue with neuroscience, providing honest, if sometimes shocking (even disturbing) answers. Be warned, not everything he claims necessarily holds up and a lot of his reasoning is easily debunked. I didn't agree with a lot of what he said, but if you want to see what a real debate about evidence looks like, start here.
6. The Tell-Tale Brain by V.S. Ramachandran
Ramachandran's book is about a similar issue to Pinker’s (why humans are like this) but while The Blank Slate is a sharp and imposing read, The Tell-Tale Brain is a feel-good romp of surrealism and wit. Ramachandran is a serious physician who makes significant contributions to neuroscience, but as a writer he is irreverent, mischevious and cheeky. The Tell-Tale Brain is a look at some of the weirder things the brain does and how these phenomena give us clues to the big questions about consciousness. This is one of those jaw-dropping books which has you constantly going "that can't be true!" as Ramachandran details the strangest fringe-cases of brain activity in modern history.
5. The Black Hole War by Leonard Susskind
Leonard Susskind is one of the most intelligent people on the planet (that's not hyperbole, I mean that literally and can back it up). Having worked as Richard Feynman's accomplice, it's rather fitting that he inherited Feynman's skill for teaching difficult Physics concepts without the need for complex mathematics. What Susskind does in The Black Hole War - a very recent read - is to explain the complete landscape of modern theoretical physics including Quantum Field Theory, General Relativity, Black Hole Cosmology, String Theory, The Information Paradox, Quantum Thermodynamics and all the other cool things you’ve heard about. Susskind is able to explain these fiendish concepts in such casual detail you feel he's telling you how to make a cheese sandwich. As someone who spends his life trying to teach people Science, The Black Hole War had me slapping my forehead endlessly and thinking "why didn't I just say it like that?!"
4. Words of Science by Isaac Asimov
Throughout his career, Asimov wrote and edited over 500 books. Picking the best of his numerous works is tricky, but I decided to go with this one, mostly because it's so strange. Asimov described it as the most unusual book he'd written and I struggle to think of anything even remotely like it. The idea is simple enough. He goes through hundreds of Scientific words and explains where they come from. Put like that, the book sounds plain, even boring. But don't be fooled. Asimov's unique clarity and passion for storytelling makes the book whizz by and when you get to the end you're hoping for a sequel (which he did write). For someone just beginning their Scientific journey, the lingo can be tricky to grasp, so Words of Science is a fantastic jargon-buster which explains what Scientists are actually talking about.
3. Cosmos by Carl Sagan
Written to accompany what is, in my estimation, the greatest non-fiction television show of all time, Carl Sagan takes us on a tour of the Universe and gives the reader a view of what Science is all about. It also happens to be the most poetic non-fiction book ever written. Sagan's writing is so relaxing, majestic and powerful, you begin to see the Universe through his eyes and it is beautiful. Guiding you through everything from relativity to DNA to the brain, Sagan achieves something remarkable: rather than telling you a bunch of facts, Cosmos makes the story of how we made each discovery central. While Asimov’s Words of Science is a fantastic introduction to the language of Science, Cosmos is a fantastic introduction to its achievements.
2. QED by Richard Feynman
Feynman's nickname at CalTech was "the great explainer". In 1979 he was given a rather tough challenge: deliver four lectures, pitched at complete non-experts, on the topic of quantum electrodynamics. Would it be possible to explain one of the most complicated and strange theories in theoretical physics to people who had never attended freshman physics courses? If anyone was up to the task it was Feynman.
Not only did he succeed, Q.E.D. has become one of the standard introductory books on quantum mechanical theory even by expert standards. It is a triumph of explanation because both the layman and the expert can read it and find themselves gaining new insight and understanding. Feynman never dumbs down, never simplifies and never distorts, he just explains perfectly. Whether you're a professional or a beginner, Q.E.D. will open your mind to the weirdness of the world.
1. The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
I can only state it simply: The Demon Haunted World is the best book about Science I've ever read.
I love science, let me tell you why.