Posted by: Kash Farooq | January 29, 2013

Can you recommend a PopSci book?

Update: here is the list I compiled from all the suggestions: A List of Must Read PopSci Books. Thanks everyone!

This is a blog post inspired by a Tweet from @Stephen_Curry:

Basically, I’m stealing the idea. Thanks Stephen! Here is his Storify of the responses to his Tweet.

I’d like to compile a list of recommended Popular Science books. Books that you think everyone needs to read. Books that you would recommend to people that would not normally read a science book. Books that you would recommend to someone who is already knowledgeable about, say, physics, but knows very little about about, say, human evolution.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of Popular Science books out there – and some are a lot more accessible than others. I remember reading Brian Cox’s Why Does E=mc2?: (and Why Should We Care?), loving the first few chapters, but then struggling after that. I’d decided that I’d have to come back and re-read it after I’ve done some more of my physics degree! A friend at work read it as her first ever physics book and gave up. I responded with a Marcus Chown book she should read instead – and she loved it.

So, I’m after books for situations like this. Books you can recommend to people possibly as their first ever read in a particular area of science. Perhaps someone at work tells you that they loved the latest Wonders episode – you can respond with a book recommendation.


  • Like Stephen’s suggestion, not too many pages – but it can be longer than his requested 200-250 pages. Just remember that recommending a 500-600+ page to someone may just put them off!
  • Accessible to someone who hasn’t studied the subject before.
  • You can recommend as many books as you want, but I really want to see your favourite books. I want you to really think carefully about you book: “would I recommend this book to someone who knows nothing (or very little) about <insert subject area here>?”
  • Stephen also suggested that the book should be relatively cheap and readily available.

My recommendations

I’ll start off with:

Please add a comment below with your book recommendations.

And feel free to recommend a book that has already been recommended – I’ll leave this blog post running for a while and then compile the comments down into an ordered list of books into another blog post. I’ll also take the book recommendations from Stephen’s Storify page.

UPDATE: Book recommendations via Tweets and Google+

I’ve had a few recommendations sent to me via Tweets and on the Google+ post for this blog. I thought I’d keep track of them here:



  1. “Nonsense on Stilts” by Massimo Pigliucci (336 pages) is an excellent primer on philosophy of science. If you want to recommend a book explaining what makes science scientific, or the difference between “hard” and “soft” sciences, this is the one.

  2. My recommendation would be “Stiffs: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” by Mary Roach.
    Despite the ghoulish nature of the topic, this is a wonderful and hugely entertaining book. Ever wondered what happens when you leave your body to science?

  3. A bit old now, but still excellent – and I found it online too. The left hand of the electron by Isaac Asimov.

  4. Wonderful Life – Stephen Jay Gould. One of the books that got me so interested in science.

    • Good call! So many of his books are great, but Wonderful Life is probably my favourite, especially because it’s right up my street. One of the most important lessons that I took away from reading that book:

      • “I have fiercely maintained one personal rule in all my so-called “popular” writing. (The word is admirable in its literal sense, but has been debased to mean simplified or adulterated for easy listening without effort in return.) I believe – as Galileo did when he wrote his two greatest works as dialogues in Italian rather than didactic treatises in Latin, as Thomas Henry Huxley did when he composed his masterful prose free from jargon, as Darwin did when he published all his books for general audiences – that we can still have a genre of scientific books suitable for and accessible alike to professionals and interested laypeople. The concepts of science, in all their richness and ambiguity, can be presented without any compromise, without any simplification counting as distortion, in language accessible to all intelligent people. Words, of course, must be varied, if only to eliminate a jargon and phraseology that would mystify anyone outside the priesthood, but conceptual depth should not vary at all between professional publication and general exposition.”

        – Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life, 1990, p.16.

  5. “A very short introduction to the philosophy of science” By Samir Okasha. Because very few of use know much about why we conduct science the way we do.

  6. “Relativity: A very short introduction” (Russell Stannard)

    This short, pocket-sized book covers both Special & General Relativity. I’ve read many books on these two related topics and this is the only one that has answered all my questions. Of course, you may have other questions I hadn’t thought of, but I went away satisfied. (Contains some maths, but is simple.)

  7. Damn, I was going to suggest Your Inner Fish! Great title. Short, informative, and easily digestible by anyone genuinely interested in learning about us highly-modified fish. Just remember who introduced it to you 😉

    • 🙂 Yes Peter…you made me read it. It’s now my favourite PopSci book.

  8. I recommend Graham Farmelo’s book about Paul Dirac, ‘the Strangest Man’. It’s a very well written biography, and gives a great insight into the thinking and the interactions between pioneering minds at the beginnings of quantum mechanics.

  9. Feynman’s “QED (the strange theory of light and matter)” is excellent. I particularly like the way you come away from it actually able to *do* simple calculations in quantum electrodynamics.

  10. As it happens, I have just such a list (admittedly not my own) right here: though I don’t know how well any of them follow your guidelines (especially The Ancestor’s Tale, which is very long indeed)

    • Thanks Alex.

      “Guns, Germs & Steel” is excellent, and I highly recommend it. I read it years ago and things from the book still keep popping into my head now. But, it didn’t make the cut because it was too long for the requirements stated in the post above.

      I haven’t read “The Fabric of the Cosmos”, but have read “The Elegant Universe” – which I enjoyed. However, it is probably not a book I’d recommend to someone as their first ever physics book!

  11. The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik, accessible who has not had contact with babies and says more about how we understand the world than any philosopher.

    Mothers and Others by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, longer than asked for who doesn’t want to be told that marmosets are the closest primate example of human parenting.

  12. Wonderful Life has been recommended by several of us, and will likely be one that we read sometime as part of the book club. I’d like to point out something incorrect in the book which says less about Gould and more about the age of the book. Early in the book, Gould states quite matter of fact that sponges are not real animals like us, but an independent invention of multicellularity by evolution. Sponges are definitely animals. Indeed, we evolved from sponges. Some of the sponges are more closely related to all of us non-sponge animals than some other sponges groups!

    That’s the only disclaimer for a wonderful title (no pun intended). All lines of evidence suggest that sponges are animals like you and me.


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