A fantastic science book can wow you, entertain you and change the way you think, all over the course of a few hundred pages. It can also act as a source of inspiration. We have asked 10 brilliant science writers and authors to pick their favourites, many of which were influenced earlier in their careers by their choices. Did your favourite make the list?
The best popular science books as picked by science writers
Jonathan Drori chooses Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
This is like being asked to choose the best vegetable or your favourite child! However, if pressed, I would nominate Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962 but still luminous and relevant. With her strong evidence and clear voice, Carson ignited global environmental efforts by detailing the effects of DDT and other pesticides on the environment. In addition to showing that life on Earth is composed of complex webs of interdependency, she revealed the dangers posed to humans and wildlife by artificial pesticides and exposed the cosy acceptance of industry propaganda by government officials.
The fierce opposition to Silent Spring mounted by chemical companies has a strong resonance today. Following pressure from lobby groups, the UK government recently allowed sugar-beet seed to be treated with thiamethoxam, a neonicotinoid pesticide that is acutely toxic to bees. Politicians of every stripe should read and thoughtfully digest Carson’s groundbreaking, impassioned, yet utterly scientific book.
Jonathan Drori’s book, Around the World in 80 Plants, is out now.
Pragya Agarwal chooses The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
A book that really stands out for me personally is The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This was one of the very first books I read that showed how science writing can be magical and fascinating, emotional and political, and intersect with social science, history and philosophy. It is something that I have tried to embody in my own writing, but no one does it better than Mukherjee in this work, where he makes the most complex biological processes and his own love of science so relatable and human.
The way that The Emperor of All Maladies introduces social and cultural context in interpreting the language and communication of a disease that had been shrouded in mystery is sublime. Even though the book is really about death, it is also very optimistic; it normalises talking about dying and grief, and how those are inextricable parts of life. I read it a long time ago and then dipped in and out over the years, and I have been utterly mesmerised and inspired by it ever since.
Pragya Agarwal’s book, (M)otherhood, will be published in June 2021.
Emily Shuckburgh chooses Chaos by James Gleick
I read Chaos by James Gleick as a teenager, and perhaps more than anything else, it inspired me to pursue mathematical studies. It provides such a vivid demonstration of the richness and beauty that can be found within, and as a consequence of, mathematics. I was particularly motivated by the idea that mathematics can be used to better understand – and, indeed, predict the behaviour of – the world around us. It set me on a research career using mathematics to interrogate climate change.
The book opens with a description of mathematician and meteorologist Ed Lorenz watching the early-morning fog creep along the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus – little did I know that years later I would gaze out at the Charles river from the same spot, or that to this day I would still be building on Lorenz’s work. For me, the book was the flap of a butterfly’s wing that spawned an entire career.
Cassandra Coburn chooses Junk Food Monkeys by Robert Sapolsky
My all-time favourite popular science book is Junk Food Monkeys by Stanford University neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky. This book occupies a very special place in my heart because it was the first popular science book I ever read. In a series of essays, Sapolsky explores a variety of bizarre and seemingly disconnected topics (chapter titles range from “Beelzebub’s SAT Scores” to “The Night You Ruined Your Pyjamas”), using evolutionary biology to deftly dissect and inform.
I must have been around 11 when I first picked this book up, so I couldn’t possibly have understood all that I was reading. But Sapolsky’s technique of providing careful, fact-based examinations, sprinkled with pithy humour, offered me a method of making sense of the world that I had never encountered before. It was my first introduction to the scientific technique as a tool, not just science as fact. Twenty-odd years later, I am still using science to try to understand and improve the world.
Cassandra Coburn’s book, Enough: How your food choices will save the planet, is out now.
Colin Tudge chooses On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin
Incomparably the greatest – there are no others in sight – is Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. It was, indeed, a “popular” book – written in a hurry after the exemplary Alfred Russel Wallace threatened to beat him to the draw, it was an immediate bestseller. Yet it has transformed biology and the mindset of the whole world.
Alas, though, like all great thinkers and prophets, Darwin has been most horribly misrepresented, not least by his would-be disciples. He is cited as a champion of atheism, although his clerical contemporary Frederic Farrar saw in him “a spirit profoundly reverent”. His emphasis on competition is invoked to justify neoliberalism, which he would surely have despised. He has been presented as a cold fish, the stereotypical scientist, though he was a loving family man and a warm friend. Truly the record needs rebalancing.
Colin Tudge’s book, The Great Re-Think, is out now.
Jojo Mehta chooses A Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber
I am, by nature, a curious generalist, so I have enjoyed many popular science books over the years, from Morris Kline’s Mathematics in Western Culture to Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct via Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman and The Tiger That Isn’t, to name a few. It may be a legacy of my postgraduate anthropological studies – or possibly the East-meets-West legacy of my Buddhist guru and Christian priest grandfathers – that means I am as fascinated by the underlying epistemological standpoint of the writer as I am by the subject matter itself.
As such, one of my favourites is in the area of consciousness studies and evolutionary theory. Really, it is a philosophy book: Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything. His elegant reconciliation of scientific, cultural, psychological and sociological perspectives into a coherent and intellectually rigorous framework is remarkable, and (in its left-brain way) it works, which makes it both useful and beautiful. As, in my world, all the best things are.
Jojo Mehta is a co-founder of the Stop Ecocide campaign.
Jim Down chooses Longitude by Dava Sobel
Dava Sobel’s book chronicles the struggle to solve the longitude problem. In 1714, with the world’s explorers literally lost at sea, the British parliament offered £20,000 for a “practicable and useful” solution. Astronomers looked to the stars for inspiration, while others relied on the howling of injured dogs. John Harrison, a self-taught clock-maker from Yorkshire, set out to build a precision timekeeper that could withstand an 18th-century ocean crossing – a task so fraught with difficulty that it was deemed unachievable by Isaac Newton himself.
Longitude is the gripping story of one man’s 40-year struggle against the establishment. It is a tale of perfectionism, determination, genius, politics, treachery and ultimately redemption. Sobel punctuates her book with gems such as the inadvertent discovery of the speed of light, and leaves the reader marvelling at the beauty of science. Three of the four clocks that Harrison built still keep time today.
Jim Down’s book, Life Support: Diary of an ICU Doctor on the Frontline of the Covid Crisis, is out now.
Camilla Pang chooses Critical Mass by Philip Ball
The one book that changed my life was Critical Mass by Philip Ball. It came out when I was a teenager and – being a chunky monkey at 656 pages long – it was the biggest book I had read in the shortest time! Throughout each page, it gave me confidence in my thoughts (which were previously branded as crazy and noisy) into crystallised sense. Linking sciences together is a thing.
Critical Mass explores how physics can be used in politics, and the sciences of human behaviour and organisation; these were ideas I was having at the time that I read it, and I learned from the book that others had been having them for centuries as well. This was a pivotal moment in my confidence as a scientist and in trusting my judgement.
Learning this historical context and understanding where my own ideas aligned – or otherwise – was exciting, and has informed my own area of study ever since. How do we understand the people around us? Does it matter that the ideas in my head only make sense to me? How can I make them real? There and then, I started to externalise my links by communicating and updating my scientific principles, so I could further examine these everyday interactions.
Camilla’s book, An Outsider’s Guide to Humans: What science taught me about what we do and who we are, is out now.
George Monbiot chooses The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts
Callum Roberts’s magnificent The Unnatural History of the Sea tells the story of what the ocean once was, and could be again. It draws on a vast pool of historical and ecological knowledge to show just how much we have lost: cod the length of a person, plaice like tabletops, shoals of herring several miles long being harried within sight of the English shore by packs of bluefin tuna, giant sharks, fin whales and sperm whales. Reading it is like stepping through a portal into a magical kingdom. He explains how we could restore this glory and ensure that our seas boil with life once more.
George Monbiot’s book, This Can’t Be Happening, will be published in August 2021.
Richard Walker chooses The Nature of Nature by Enric Sala
Sala’s landmark book offers an impassioned argument for the preservation of the nature around us, distilling complex ecological challenges into an account that feels both accessible and practical. Each chapter explores a series of questions – some still unanswerable – and explains why the environmental crisis is, indeed, the most significant issue facing humanity. The book also covers the real-life challenges we face in prioritising nature against a backdrop of global capitalism, providing lessons that are more relevant than ever as we look towards economic recovery from the covid-19 pandemic.
Seamlessly blending research and theory with personal anecdotes from Sala’s vast experience, The Nature of Nature is a must read for anyone with an interest in protecting our one home, a compelling and heartfelt call to action on the need to save the natural world.
Richard Walker’s book, The Green Grocer, is out now.
These authors are appearing at the Hay Festival, which takes place online from 26 May to 6 June 2021. hayfestival.org/wales
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