Books in the popular science genre have the unique ability to awe, thrill and inform at the same time. In today’s application driven world, Science books can give us the highly underrated pleasure of discovery along with a slice of history. In this article, we list down science books everyone should read. The books on the list have a timeless quality about them – they’re lucidly written and brilliantly researched making them not only good popular science books, but great reads in general.
A Short History to Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson
If you go through any list of popular science books, odds are that Bryson’s wonderfully written book will be at the top of the list. Bill Bryson is known for his travel writing in which he displays a brand of humour peppered with anecdotes. Because Bryson isn’t trained as a scientist, his approach is fresh making this book read less like a drab description of a scientific concept and more like the account of a curious kid amazed by the grandeur of science. The book touches upon areas of science ranging from microbiology to cosmology and never once loses grip of its motive – to generate genuine interest in science. Bryson gives us accounts of famous personalities in science and talks about their oddities. He attempts to show the range of sizes in science to scale by using comparisons. Garnering multiple awards and inspiring generations of kids (ourselves included) ‘A Short History to Nearly Everything’ deserves a place on every bookshelf.
by James Gleick
Chaos theory gained acceptance fairly late compared to other heavyweight theories such as Quantum Mechanics and Relativity, but grew rapidly in popularity. A term often used to describe the theory is ‘Butterfly Effect’, which underlines that a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane on the opposite side of the Earth. This theory was brought into limelight in 1987 when Gleick published ‘Chaos’. Gleick is a masterful science writer and historian, and this book is a brilliant example of his genius. He begins by giving us an account of time when chaos theory was one of those neglected theories, shunned by the bigwigs of science. The book is a story of the bravado and triumph of those unheralded scientists who dedicated their careers to unravelling the mysteries surrounding a theory that today is critical in predicting weather and understanding patterns in various physical systems. The book made ‘’Butterfly Effect” a household term and is largely responsible for introducing the concepts of chaos theory and fractal geometry to a broad audience. Chaos theory is now a staple in pop culture and even played a large role in Michael Crichton’s bestselling book, ‘Jurassic Park’.
The Perfect Theory
by Pedro Ferreira
Cosmologist Pedro Ferreira’s book is the definitive biography of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Considering that the subject matter is difficult to explain and has been written about plenty of times before, there’s a certain novelty to Ferreira’s approach. He talks about the events that led to the development of the theory and describes, sometimes in detail, the great personalities that pioneered its use. The book also dives into the implications of the theory, which are grand to say the least. Einstein’s field equations helped scientists discover the very fabric of the universe, the lives of stars and stellar objects and the mysteries of black holes and other singularities in spacetime. While this book might be a bit too heavy for the general reader, it’s practically gold dust for anyone who has ever wondered why the theory of general relativity is the most revered theory in the history of physics.
Fermat’s Last Theorem
by Simon Singh
Based on a theorem in number theory that was unproven for more than 350 years, ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’ is a story of one man’s obsession with proving it. Simon Singh excels at telling the story of Princeton mathematician Andrew Wiles, who struggled for close to six years to solve a long standing problem in mathematics. We’re sucked into Wiles’ tumultuous journey full of ups and downs as he finds a chink in his proof and then proceeds to finally correct it. The book is gripping and never loses pace, which is surprising since it’s based on a theorem in pure mathematics. While the title may dissuade most readers from picking up this book, we strongly recommend it. It’s a gripping story told with the right amount of detail and an almost infectious enthusiasm.
A Brief History of Time
by Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking is hands down one of the most popular physicists ever. Not only is he a brilliant genius, he’s also a fantastic writer and this book is an example of both. ‘A Brief History of Time’ paints a large canvas of the cosmos of which the earth is just the tiniest fragment. Discussing the possibilities of time travel and existence of wormholes, Hawking touches upon topics bordering on meta, such as the beginning of time itself. It’s a wonderful book, short, crisp and powerful in its own right. Hawking frequently uses pictorial representations to explain complicated concepts such as particle spin and almost no equations. He writes with flair and brings in his traditional British humour and excellent scientific insight, making it a satisfying read.
Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet
by Mark Lynas
The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change has claimed that Earth’s global temperature could rise by upto 6 degree Celsius at the end of the century. Lynas’ book deals with mankind’s hypothetical future on Earth. What’s terrifying though is that the future he describes may not be hypothetical after all. The landmark Copenhagen conference set the tolerable limit for the rise in global temperature to close to 2 degree Celsius. At that tipping point, some countries would flat out disappear. In an almost countdown-like fashion, Lynas breaks down the effects of global temperature rise degree by degree. He sieves through scientific evidence including research papers, investigative reports and computer simulations to present a clear and concise account of how global warming can literally change the face of Earth.
The Selfish Gene
by Richard Dawkins
‘The Selfish Gene’ has influenced many debates and shaped scientific pop culture by introducing revolutionary ideas − relevant even today, almost thirty years after first being published. Among other things, Dawkins, in the book, coined the term ‘meme’ to describe a unit of human cultural evolution that encompasses all of human culture, fashion and fads and quite analogously like a gene is selected and passed from one generation to another. Without concentrating on scientific
details of genes, Dawkins talks about the role played by genes in evolution. Using an approach frequently referred to as ‘reductionist’, Dawkins presents the idea that genes control the future by controlling information transfer and that organism exist simply as survival machines acting as a sort of carriers for these genes. Dawkins’s ideas are radical, to say the least, and led to much criticism but there’s no denying the fact that his book, The Selfish Gene is an important contribution to socio-biology. In a time when not much was known about genes and DNA specifics, Dawkins presented a model to explain evolution of animal intelligence and altruism.
The Particle at the End of the Universe
by Sean Caroll
This book by Sean Caroll talks about the elusive Higgs Boson, the fundamental particle that gives all matter mass. Caroll is an accomplished physicist and blogger and does an excellent job dealing with some complex subject matter, coming up with a thrilling account of a scientific pursuit rivalled by no other. Caroll writes not only about the ideas and theories that predicted the Higgs Boson − discovered at the Large Hadron Collider (LDC) in 2013 − but also the amount of lobbying and politics that were necessary in securing funding for the expensive experiments. He addresses why the search for the particle is an important one and how it adds another piece in the jigsaw of discovering matter. Caroll knows how to condense the subject to the right amount. He explains the basic physics in a way that’s never too heavy for the general reader.
by Jared Diamond
How did societies in the past collapse? What are the factors leading to the collapse of entire civilisations? Are we in danger of collapsing as a society? These are the questions Jared Diamond aims to answer in his brilliant book, ‘Collapse’. Almost written as multiple books combined into one entertaining read, the book delves into the collapse of preceding civilisations such as the Mayans and the developers of the Easter Island statues. Diamond then discusses the factors that lead to the collapse of a society in general and the ability of such a civilisation to self destruct. Diamond, an optimist, also remarks that our civilisation, unlike our ancestors, can learn from mistakes and a collapse can be prevented. Jared Diamond is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and Collapse is a brilliantly constructed piece of work. Jared Diamond presents his arguments along with examples and historical evidence. Rather than rely on the generality of the causes of collapse, he notes that all problems don’t fit into one framework. One of the longer and heavier books on the list, Collapse however has enough content to intrigue you while keeping you captivated and informed.
by David Quammen
‘Spillover’ is one of those books from the science genre that has the pace of a typical airport novel. In his thrilling book, Quammen talks about a class of diseases called “zoonotic diseases” that are animal infections and can be passed on to humans. SARS and HIV are two high profile examples of such diseases. Spillover is sprawling in scale and scope, but at its heart has a couple of important and ultimately terrifying questions. How do these zoonotic diseases emerge and spread,
and what’s next? Through the book, we travel across the globe meeting microbe hunters and scientists on the way. It’s an exciting and scary ride to say the least. While Quammen doesn’t write about dense biological details, he never oversimplifies concepts. The narrative is gripping, and we’re presented with anecdotes and stories about people working (very dangerously) in the field, dealing with deadly diseases as a part of their profession. Spillover has the look and feel of a science fiction book. Alas, zoonotic diseases are real and alive.
The Sixth Extinction
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Earth’s history has been marked by five mass extinctions that led to sudden depletion in the diversity of living species. ‘The Sixth Extinction’ refers to the ongoing current one, the one caused by humans, the unnatural one. This book examines the previous extinctions and looks at the current one through a bleak and grim microscope. The author visits sites where species have been wiped out and talks to experts in the field. It’s an important book that everyone must read to fully grasp the extent to which humans are degrading nature. As ecologist Paul Ehrlich quotes, “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches”. Kolbert writes in an almost poetic fashion, and the prose is entertaining and beautiful at the same time. The book unfolds in the fashion of a travelogue that carries a clear and concise message and an urgent warning. Although the content presents a highly pessimistic view of the current state of affairs, it’s a must read for anyone who’s had even a fledgling thought of helping conserve nature’s bounties.