The Greatest Popular Science Book!

By cjohnson | August 24, 2005 4:14 pm

During the valuable discussions we had (and are still having) over on The Greatest Physics Paper! thread, a number of people mentioned books which work better in another category (at least in my humble opinion). So I think it is of value to start such a new discussion.

Announcing Cosmic Variance’s search for …<drum roll>…

The Greatest Popular Science Book!

Furthermore, since a lot of the discussion on the other thread did get a bit technical, it might have frozen out several of the non-practicing physicists, or the people not trained in physics who nevertheless have an interest in science. In my view, a large part of the point of this blog is to interest you, and so major reader-participation driven posts should have something for you.

So: Do talk about some of the non-textbook science books (e.g. popular expositions, biographies of a life and work, etc. and not neccessarily just physics, but any area of science) that you thought really did a good job. Nominate some of them as your candidate for the Greatest Popular Science Book! Such a book would have done one or more of the following: excited you, interested you, blew your mind, intrigued you, drove you into science, blew your skirt up, made you appreciate something more, turned you on to learning more about science, made you change fields, caused you to see the world differently, clarified things that you did not understand the first time around, etc, etc…

Who should post comments on this? Everyone! Not just scientists. Everyone. We can then all use this discussion as a resource for looking for suggestions for bedtime reading.

Again: Passionate argument and discussion is expected…but let’s be polite too.

By the way, here are some relatively recent books I’ve read in recent years that fit into this genre, which I think are excellent:

Galileo’s Daughter - Dava Sobel
Leonardo : The First Scientist - Michael White
Rosalind Franklin : The Dark Lady of DNA – Brenda Maddox
Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World – Simon Garfield
Big Bang: The Origin Of The Universe – Simon Singh

But if I have to start naming (modern) out-and-out great ones, then here’ a couple to start out with:

Inward Bound: Of Matter and Forces in the Physical World – Abraham Pais
Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein - Abraham Pais

I think these two are some of the best accounts of the high-energy physics-type area of physics activity in the 20th Century. Either should be in a top five physics category in my opinion. Any young person thinking of working in those fields should read these–and then again, from time to time. (For the category of cosmology, Singh’s book is a contender to be a great one actually. I’d be happy to hear people’s thoughts on this.) I can talk about several others, but I’ll leave that for the comments.

Let’s not forget other areas of science too…


P.S. Coming soon: The Greatest Physics Textbook! Stay tuned.

  • Wolfgang

    “Consciousness Explained”, Daniel Dennett

  • Clifford

    Tell us about it Wolfgang. Why did it excite you? Why is it good? What topics does it cover? Make a case for it!



  • Wolfgang


    let me try.
    I am usually not a great fan of popoluar science books, but “Consciousness Explained” is definitely an exception.
    Most people (including many scientists) seem to think that our consciousness is the last mystery, which science may never solve. Dennett, however, makes a strong case that consciousness can be explained, that there is no mind-matter “problem” and that we can understand what and who we are. In short, he makes a good argument that science can explain all of reality, including our own mind.
    He achieves this with an easy to read popular science book.
    A much better review is available at and wikipedia has an entry about it as well.

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  • LeegleechN

    Einstein and Infeld’s “The Evolution of Physics” is what got me interested in physics. I picked it up at a library book sale for 10 cents when I was about 10 years old, and, you may guess, it was well worth it :)

  • andrew

    The Road to Reality – Roger Penrose.

    In terms of “high-energy physics activity in the 20th century” this book attempts to (and succeeds at?) cover it all. what topics does it cover? number theory, differential geometry, group theory, the relativities, quantum mechanics, string theory, twistor theory…it’s more a question of what it doesn’t cover – and if there are some things you physicists think it’s missing let us know so we can follow them up…

    i don’t see how this book can be beaten.

    The other sciences? How good do the following 2 books look when you compare them to recent developments (ID):
    The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins or
    How the Mind Works – Steven Pinker

    as an outsider try:
    How to Build a Mind – Igor Aleksander, a book that anyone can read, yet achieves what Dennett attempts to do.

  • Peter Woit

    The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth Century Physics, by Robert Crease and Charles Mann.

    Far and away the best historical, popular account of the particle physics in the twentieth century and the making of the standard model. Wonderful stories about personalities and crucial events, lots of information about how things really happened based on interviews with the people involved. Can be read with profit by non-scientists, scientists in other fields, and even particle physicists themselves. Man, I wish I could write a book this good….

  • Clifford

    Peter: Really? As good as Inward Bound? Hard to Believe. I will track it down at some point and come back to haunt you if I don’t agree! :-D



  • spyder

    How does one form a succinct GOAT popular science book nominee?? Greatest based on what considerable set of non-specified standards? Popular to whom for whom in what time period with what long term beneficial(another value laden word) consequences?

    Does COSMOS count in that it inspired young minds to pursue astronomy and other sciences? Would SILENT SPRING represent a great consequential moment for birthing new streams of science disciplines? There are so many.

    If i were to limit it to the ones that evidenced greatness for me and my peers in consciousness studies(the synchronicity is killing me), then the counter-Dennet books are just as important. Shulgin’s TIHKAL and PIHKAL are monumental works in the field of the bio-chemical relationships of neurotransmitters to “states” of consciousness. The rigid application of method and purity of chemical processing of powerful molecules afford any reader the freedom to discover how their own consciousness functions through different orders of reality. Schultes and Hoffman’s PLANTS OF THE GODS links the broad history of ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology with the modern bio-chemical analysis of plants that throughout human history have provided the opportunities for experiencing significantly altered states of consciousness. I would also nominate David Chalmers’ THE CONSCIOUS MIND as a work that achieves greatness and is slowly developing the popularity required for this honor. Chalmers is a philosopher by training who became a consciousness scientist, deeply immersing every fiber and cell of his being into the study.

    There are dozens more in that field, and hundreds more in the history of greatest literature that propelled science. My father always talked about Willy Ley’s “R is for Rocket” He also “forced” my brother and i to read Darwin and Huxley, Linus Pauling, Einstein and so much more. Are these some of the greatest popular readings? Is the inclusion of Archimedes in the greatest books count towards our shared understanding of the world? non lo so….

  • Peter Woit

    Clifford, I’ll have to take another look at Inward Bound, I think I read it when it came out, but haven’t looked at it since then. I suspect it may be best on the story pre-1960, with The Second Creation better on later developments.

  • Steve

    Nigel Calder’s “The Key to the Universe:a Report on the New Physics” (BBC books, 1978). Also a long-forgotton BBC tv series from the same year.

    I came across this in my library when I was about 13 or 14 so and was spellbound by it. The writer has a very lucid style and does create a real sense of wonder without it ever becoming gee-whiz pop science. It covers developments in physics up to 1978 and the evolution of the Standard Model. I found that I could understand the book back then. I recently acquired a second-hand copy. Sure it is dated a bit now, a lot has happened since 1978, but it is still a very clear and lucid book. It has boyish photos of a very young Steve Weinberg, Sheldon Glashow, Kenneth Wilson, S. Hawking and G. ‘t Hooft. He draws everything out in Feynman-like diagrams (no equations at all) and when he gets to discussing quarks everything explodes into colour on the page–reds, greens and blues everywhere, as well as their “anti-colours”, mauve, turqoise and yellow. Very easy to read, fun, often poetic.
    1 Lifemaker
    5 Starcrusher
    I still find the book inspiring.

  • Astronomy Grad Student

    Oh wow, I read *so many* physics popularizations when I was younger, that I can’t even start naming them! Let’s see if I remember some (I’m away from home for a while, so I don’t have my trusty bookcase next to me right now)…

    Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” comes to mind. I read it too long ago, though, and I just remember it being written very nicely and at a level that I could understand it (I was ~12 or 13 years old when I read it).

    Brian Greene’s “The Elegant Universe” was one of my first encounters with string theory, and it blew me away. It was one of the assigned readings in a philosophy of science class I took, and it just sparked so much discussion in class. It was simple, thought-provoking, well-written, excellent. I’m currently reading the follow-up, “The fabric of the cosmos”, and from the few chapters I’ve read, it promises to be a good book too.

    Then there’s a bunch of Feynman’s books. “Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman”, “What do you care what other people think”, and “The pleasure of finding things out” come to mind. I read them all one after the other. I remember being fascinated by the life and work of this great physicist: his sense of humor, his pranks, and most of all his contributions to modern physics.

    A few years ago I read Janna Levin’s “How the universe got its spots”. It was a very peculiar book, because it wasn’t just a popular-level explanation of cosmology and the topology of the universe, but it was also somewhat of a personal account of the author. Being an undergrad when I read the book, and thinking about what life would be like in grad school and beyond for a woman entering a field historically dominated by men, I somewhat identified with the author, even if the circumstances were different. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first physics popularization written by a woman that I had read, and I loved her writing style. I was intrigued by the thought of the unierse having weird shapes and topologies, and I also felt totally involved with her personal account of how her career was interfering with her relationship with her boyfriend. It brought to mind many scenarios that I had never imagined, scenarios that could very well happen to me some years in the future.

    Well, those are the ones that I can think of off the top of my head. If I had my books here, I would be able to nominate a bunch more :-)

  • Steve

    I should also mention:

    [1] Cosmos, Carl Sagan;

    [2] The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski.

    Both convey the very human nature of scientific inquiry. Both books, and their associated 13-part tv series also have something magical about them that no other popular book/series has ever managed to capture. Both series are now available on dvd, digitally remastered and I watched them both recently. Highly recommended. Especially Bronowski’s. I may be wrong but I am sure these are also the best-selling popular science books ever.

  • Adam

    ‘Blind Watchers of the Sky’ is the most interesting I’ve read. Lawrence Krauss’s ‘Fear of Physics’ (and, indeed, his old ‘Quintessence’, which I don’t think is published anymore) are both good.

    The best popular science book of all, though (and must surely be one of the earliest) is, I think, J.E. Gordon’s ‘The New Science of Strong Materials (or why we don’t fall through the floor)’. Exceptional explanations of what are pretty complex issues, and interesting despite being about materials science.

  • Adam

    ‘Blind Watchers of the Sky’ is, I should have mentioned, by Rocky Kolb. Hilarious in parts, as one might expect.

  • Clifford

    Adam: I think my “old buddy” (see my babblings on The Greatest Physics Paper) Galileo might have the edge on J.E. Gordon for popular science books. Several of his most famous (and groundbreaking) works were books published for layperson and peer alike.


  • Adam

    Indeed, Kolb (in ‘Blind Watchers of the Sky’) recounts a pretty amusing report by Galileo of why you can’t cook eggs by swinging them around your head, which is entirely accessible (it’s all to do with being a Babylonian).

  • Adam

    The comment in question was part of Galileo’s ongoing war with Grassi (who has the pseudonomy ‘Sarsi’), and it amuses me:

    “I cannot refrain from marveling that Sarsi [a pseudonym for the Jesuit Grassi] will persist in proving to me, by authorities, that which at any moment I can bring to the test of experiment. . . If Sarsi insists that I must believe, on Suidas’s credit, that the Babylonians cooked eggs by swiftly whirling them in a sling, I will believe it; but I must say, that the cause of such an effect is very remote from that to which it is attributed, and to find the true cause I shall reason thus. If an effect does not follow with us which followed with others at another time, it is because, in our experiment, something is wanting which was the cause of the former success; and if only one thing is wanting to us, that one thing is the true cause. Now we have eggs, and slings, and strong men to whirl them, and yet they will not become cooked; no, if they were hot at first they more quickly become cold. And since nothing is wanting to us but to be Babylonians, it follows that being Babylonians is the true cause why the eggs became cooked, and not the friction of the air, which is what I wish to prove.’

    Quoted from It’s old, of course, so I trust that Al Gore’s crack internerd Spetsnatz copyright commandos won’t be breaking my door down.

  • Levi

    A few that come to mind (I couldn’t possibly choose just one).

    1/ Carl Sagan, “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”.

    The best defense of science that I have ever read. More relevant now than ever.

    2/ John Derbyshire, “Prime Obsession”.

    The best truly *popular* book on the Riemann Hypothesis, a tour de force.

    3/ Abraham Pais, “Niels Bohr’s Times”.

    My favorite physics biography.

    4/ Richard Dawkins, “The Blind Watchmaker”.

    A lot of people in the general public seem to be confused about the basic facts of biological evolution. This is a wonderful antidote.

  • TM

    Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. I’d say this book changed the intellectual culture more than any other science book I can think of. It was a cutting-edge synthesis of the gene-centered approach by a at-the-time active zoologist, who both synthesized the recent work of Hamilton, Williams, Trivers etc. and advanced it, as well as made it persuasive with extraordinarily rigorous and lively prose, plus he introduced the whole theory of memes as a kind of afterthought.

    I also like most anything by George Gamow.

  • Tomas

    My candidates include Heinz Pagels’ The Cosmic Code and Kip Thorne’s Black Holes & Time Warps.

    The first one is a smooth immersion course in the nuances of quantum physics. It includes a wonderful explanation of the difference between Schroedinger’s probability wave and Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics. It’s hard to do pop science on this level, but Pagels pulls it off.
    The other gives an extremely readable account of our quest to find out what happens to stars when they get old. It explains all the physics as well as introduces the all the brilliant characters who pushed our understanding along, from Einstein and Schwarzchild, to Chandra and Eddington, Zwicky and Landau, Oppenheimer and Wheeler. Truly a singular read!

  • Andreas

    1. E. Schroedinger “What is life?”

    Surely, a prophetic work within and without science. Crick and Watson’s discovery was strongly influenced by it. Information, information flow, coding in terms of molecular and physical interactions all were foreseen by Schroedinger. It also prepares the transition from exo-science to endo-science, i.e. from an synthetic to an analytic approach to reality.

    2. C. Sagan “Cosmos”

    Together with the TV series it was surely a strong personal reason for me to love science. The book has it all: history, status quo, and future vision. Carl Sagan was a great man.

  • jer

    Can we count Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson? It’s not quite a science book, but, it’s entertaining, and covers at least a little bit of pretty much every science.

  • Gary

    “The Third Chimpanzee,” Jared Diamond, all the ideas of all his subsequent books may be found in embryonic form here – and it’s beautifully written to boot..

    “The trouble with Testosterone” by Robert Sapolsky – simply the best collection of popular science essays ever.

    Einstein-Infield “Evolution of Physics” – still a masterpiece (written by Infield though I think)
    Dawkins-”The Blind Watchmaker” is his best book
    Alfred North Whitehead-”An Introduction to Mathematics, the most beautifully written popular intro to Math ever.

  • Frank

    A little book called “The Universe on a T-Shirt” by Dan Falk is one of the best popular physics books out there, I think. It traces the history of the quest of a “Theory of Everything” from Thales to string theory. It’s just a really well-written and engaging book.

    “Coming of Age in the Milky Way” is probably the best popular astronomy book I’ve ever read. It’s account of astronomy’s history is entertaining and enlightening.

    “The Scientists” by John Gribbin is an amazing book. It focuses on the personalities of the great scientists, but it also explains the science very well. It’s a pleasure to read.

    “A Short History of Nearly Everything” is also an amazing book, for it’s sheer scope and good humor. I learned so many things about so many areas of science. I couldn’t put it down.

  • Plato

    Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace , by Leonard Mlodinow

    I am fascinated by the geometry behind the physics, although still in my layman’s view, it brought historical perspectve for me, to lineage and developement.

  • Ijon Tichy

    I consider Edward Harrison’s “Cosmology: The Science of the Universe” to be the best popular science book ever written. I suppose it could qualify as a textbook, and I know that many physics/astronomy departments treat it as such, but it is beautifully written, treats subjects as diverse as philosophy, mythology, & physics, and is at a level suitable for the educated layperson, so I don’t think it’s wrong to consider it a popular science book. Its explanations of cosmic expansion, redshift and cosmological horizons are superb. The perfect tool to dispel the myths and misconceptions that many people have about big bang cosmology.

    As an alternative, “The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins is difficult to beat with its crystal-clear prose. And I must mention Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”, a very playful and imaginative book.

  • Plato

    Einstein’s Unfinished Symphony:Listening to the Sounds of Space-Time , by Marcia Bartusiak

    The “sound” implication drawn on page cover draws perspective and wonder to how something could “manifest through everything”, and still remain illusive?

    Something so tangible as a webber bar, and LIGO view, and yet?

    It’s still all worth it:)

  • Plato

    Three Roads To Quantum Gravity, by Lee Smolin

    A wonderful synopsis and view that leads one through how Quantum Gravity is being pursued?

  • vk

    There is a book on the formation of stars and black holes and other interesting astrophysical phenomena by Fred Hoyle (I think it was called “The Disturbing Universe”). It was by far the best non technical description I have read of star formation and collapse. I consider it among the best popular science books written.

    Also, there are the many popular science books written by George Gamov. They are all pretty good.

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  • jay

    What about “Consilience” by Edward O. Wilson? It was an eye-opening book for me though one of my friends hated the reductionism so strongly proposed in this book.

  • Matt McIrvin

    I second Pagels’ “The Cosmic Code” and would add Nigel Calder’s “Einstein’s Universe”, the companion to the TV series.

    “Godel, Escher, Bach” had a huge influence on my youthful intellectual development. So did the illustrated book of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”.

    Several books in the Scientific American Library series are worth mentioning, particularly Philip Morrison’s “Powers of Ten” and P. W. Atkins’ “The Second Law”. That last is the only really good popular exposition of the concept of entropy that I know of. I also liked J. R. Pierce’s “The Science of Musical Sound”, but the Amazon reviews from people who know more than me seem to imply that it has serious problems.

  • Adam

    ‘Einstein’s Universe’ was the first popular science book I ever read, and helped set me on the physics path. Haven’t read it for years, so I can’t really comment on how well it compares to other pop science.

    I used Atkin’s ‘The Second Law’ to help teach the thermodynamics part of the Nuffield A Level physics syllabus (which at that stage was subsumed into the Research and Analysis part of the course). Lovely book.

  • David Guarrera

    Simon Singh’s books are fantastic, and don’t fall into the formulaic structure of most popular science book. For the best one, I nominate “Fermat’s Enigma,” but a close second is “Codebreakers”. The story of the first one is infused with such ready made drama that I guess it’s hard to write a bad book about it. It’s like how I always get choked up during the similar Nova special when Taniyama is talking about the suicide of Shimura (or is it Shimura talking about the suicide of Taniyama?).

  • Peter Woit

    Hi David,

    Shimura is still around, Taniyama was the one who tragically took his own life at a young age.

  • Adam

    And while I’m spamming the blog again, two great books (although maths more than science) are Tobias Dantzig’s ‘Number, the Language of Science’ and John Barrow’s ‘Pi in the Sky’.

  • Matt Hellige

    I always have to jump at any chance to reommend Richard Lewontin’s “The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment.” I’m not sure if I’d really nominate it for “best ever,” but it’s damn good and I wish it was required reading for high school science students. Actually, I really highly recommend everything by Lewontin, but there’s no better place to start than “The Triple Helix”…

  • Tim

    Sync by Steven Strogatz: extremely diverse subject matter – fireflies, sleep cycle, lasers, social networks – all cogently related. Additionally, it’s a very personable and human account of Stogatz’s work – him blindly writing a letter to Art Winfree asking to join his lab and showing up to see that Art didn’t have anyone working with him.

  • Sean

    Too many good books in this category to pick just one (in contrast to “greatest paper,” where the choice is obvious, or “greatest textbook,” where the pickings are slim). So I can’t resist mentioning several books, just so people know about them.

    1. George Gamow, One, Two, Three… Infinity. As in so many ways, Gamow was ahead of his time, writing numerous charming popular-level books about cutting-edge science. This was one of the formative books for me growing up.
    2. Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes. An true classic of the genre. A master of the material explains the emerging science of the early universe.
    3. Dennis Overbye, Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos. An amazingly in-depth and accurate look at both the physics and the sociology of modern cosmology. Anyone who wants to know what scientists are actually talking about at coffee breaks during their conferences, here’s the place to find out.
    4. Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams. A one-of-a-kind work of imagination; part exposition, part novel. By no means historically accurate, yet gives the reader a peak into the kind of thinking that might go on in the mind of a great scientist.
    5. Huw Price, Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point. About entropy and the arrow of time, this is a physics book written by a philosopher that is not only readable and fascinating, but corrects numerous mistakes in the technical physics literature.
    6. Alan Guth, The Inflationary Universe. Along with Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe and Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps (which were already nominated), part of a fantastic trilogy of popular science books from the 1990′s that are written by experts yet extremely rewarding to any lay reader that makes a good-faith effort to read them. Guth’s book does for cosmology what Greene’s does for string theory and Thorne’s does for general relativity.

    Forced to vote, I’ll split my ballot between Gamow and Lightman — two imaginative classics.

  • Ben Lillie

    This list seems to be physics/cosmology heavy, so let me nominate:

    The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

    (I’d actually like to nominate the entiretly of Gould’s popular writings, maybe another category?) This book stand out for me because it is not simply a presentations of known science. It’s a partly historical account of the attempt to measure “intelligence”. He presents, in great detail, how prominent, well respected, and indeed very good scientists were so blinded by their biases that they produced junk science (the occurence of the word “Man” in the title is an ironic statement about one of those biases). This is different from most popular science book in that it presents how science can (and continues to) fail.

  • Ben Lillie

    While I’m suggesting biology books, does The Origin of Species count?

    It was written to be accessible to a general audience, and is in fact quite readable and engaging. The final paragraph also gives us one of the most powerful, and most often repeated quotations from the literature of science. If it counts here, it is certainly the popular book that has made the greatest impact.

  • Clifford

    Yeah, we do have a ton of physicists and physics-leaning choices it seems. I had not realized. I wonder why that is? Others – please don’t be shy.

    I’d like to mention Maddox’s, “Rosalind Franklin: Dark Lady of DNA”, again. It seems to me to give a very good look into academic life, a point of view on the career trajectory of woman in science (for a refreshing change) -and written by a woman- and again a great look at the process of doing science – and great science as well.

    I started offering this as non-physics, but it is secretly physics too. Physical Chemistry perhaps. All just great though!


  • Clifford

    Good Lord, man yes! Of course Darwin’s “Origin of Species” counts….. good choice.


  • Zelah

    For me this category is fairly straightforward.

    Here is my list:


    The Origin of Species
    On Growth and Form (Thompson D’arcy)
    The Selfish Gene


    The Chemisty of Life (Steve Rose)


    The only good ones that I know of are the Dialogues of Galileo. The rest talk down to the reader!


    A Mathematician’s Apology (Hardy)
    The Mathematical Experience (Hersh and Davies)

    These books are classics of expositions which I would recomend to any member of the public who are literate and are prepared to work a little!

    Finally I have a issue with “Consciousness Explained”. Unfortunately, it does not Explain Consciousness! Instead there is an argument for his prefered version of consciousness, and therefore should disqualified in my opinion.

  • Sean

    True, I had somehow thought we were talking about physics books exclusively, my mistake. I will now split my vote four ways, including SJ Gould (although I’d probably vote for his various collections of essays from Natural History, such as The Panda’s Thumb) and Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach.

  • Dave Bacon

    For me, by far and away, Hofstadter’s “Godel, Escher, Bach.” I read it when I was first learning about computers and it strongly influenced my desire to become a scientist. Does anyone know of any other popular science books which have won the Pulitzer?

  • Ben Lillie

    On the physics side, I’ll second Lightman’s Einstien’s Dreams. It’s a stunning book. Additionally, I remember in high school this book appealed to some humanities minded friends of mine who otherwise wouldn’t have much to do with science, and got them interested in some physics ideas.

  • Sean

    Dave, there have been several science books to win Pulitzers — by Carl Sagan, E.O. Wilson, and others. How could we forget Guns, Germs, and Steel?

  • Zelah

    First a correction.

    therefore should disqualified in my opinion. be changed to:

    therefore should be disqualified in my opinion.

    Also, from Social Science:

    The Language Instinct: How the mind creates Language.

    An instant classic.

  • Cameron

    I’m getting in late in the game.

    Ancestors’s Tail by Richard Dawkins.
    I thought this was quite good and up to date. Perhaps not his best but definitely his most ambitious.

    Annals of the Former World by John McPhee.
    For the geological story of our country, this is hard to beat.

    The Diversity of Life by E.O. Wilson.
    Another excellent book about life as we know it.

    The Whole Shebang by Timothy Ferris
    For a non-physicist/astronomer (me) I thought this was a great comprehensive look at cosmology and astronomy.

  • Tim D

    I’ll second the vote for The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker. It’s quite eye-opening and gives some nice lay-level descriptions of actual linguistics studies. Although I have heard that its a tad controversial among working linguistics researchers. For a brief period in college I contemplated switching majors from Physics to Linguistics/Cognitive Science, and this book (along with Dennett) was a big part of the reason why.

    I’ll split my vote between Pinker and two mentioned earlier:

    – Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter: Not merely a raft of fascinating ideas but an extremely creative and fun presentation as well.

    – Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

  • Yatima

    I’ve read and loved many of the above, and have only two to add – A Primate’s Memoir, by Robert Sapolsky, and Mother Nature, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.

  • Eugene

    Did somebody already mention QED by Feynman? I thought that was pretty wild.

    But, Guns Germs + Steel by Jared Diamond wins for me!

  • janet

    For some reason, the first book that comes to my mind is Evelyn Fox Keller’s biography of Barbara McClintock, “A Feeling for the Organism.” It’s been a long time (15 years or more) since I read it, but about a year ago it came up when a geneticist friend was trying to explain her work to me. She was explaining a particular concept, and I said “oh, is that related to Barbara McClintock’s work?” It was — my friend was quite surprised and pleased, and I felt very smart.

    Anybody who likes “Guns, Germs, and Steel” should read “Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe,” by Alfred Crosby. It’s a book with a similar topic, but to my mind both more rigorous and more compelling. (I know a lot of people who were wowed by Diamond, but I found GG&S to be mainly a rehash of ideas I’d seen before, and couldn’t make myself finish it. I’m told “Collapse” is better.)

  • Rich

    My vote for best popular science book is “Coming of Age in the Milky Way” by Timothy Ferris. This is the only history of astronomy book I’ve ever read that makes you feel like you are living at the time of the greeks or Newton or Hubble. You see the Big Science Questions of the day as if you didn’t already know the answer. What are the planets? How do they move? What are the “spiral nebula”? I think this would be a super way to teach an intro to astronomy course along with some time in a planetarium or, better yet, under the stars. The chapter on Newton is particularly good!

  • spyder

    It is really interesting that so many people posting here have read and collected so many of the same books. This is empowering for Clifford in the sense that making such a claim for what is the Greatest Popular Science book can be validated by the commonality of science reading lists spread among all of us posters. It seems that the books thus far nominated do represent a set that is very high in quality, readability, accuracy, and inspiration. As an exercise in collecting of interesting data it is vastly more intriguing than i(a humanities guy) thought it would be. Thank you all so very much.

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    I nominate James Watsons’s The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. Epochal science, warts and all – including his nasty behavior toward Rosalyn Franklin.

    All the other books nominated that I know are also great – i appreciate being reminded of them and want to check out a lot that I don’t know.

    While I agree that The Selfish Gene is a great
    book, the first edition had a wonderful little fly in
    the amber in the form of an argument in which Dawkins
    accuses Fred Hoyle of making an astronomical mistake – and gets it comically wrong.

  • Adam

    Hmmm, my reading of it is surprise at how many popular science books there are and how relatively diverse the reading of popular science amongst this self-selected sample is.

  • Chris

    I have very mixed feelings about pop sci books, but I realize, from my own experience, that it’s often the only avenue people have into areas of science about which they want to know more, but for which they do not have the necessary background knowledge. There is a lot of good science writing about bad science out there (cough: Pinker, though if you’re going to list a book by him, it should probably be The Language Instict, which has wonderful examples, and not his more general books, which are full of Pinker talking about things about which he knows almost as little as you do), so anytime I want to find a good pop sci book, I ask people in the field to recommend some (a fact to which at least one of the authors of this blog can attest). I guess I think pop sci books are a necessary evil.

    So here are some that I liked, but which may not be the best:

    The God Particle by Leon Lederman.

    I’ve asked several physicists in several different areas of physics to recommend books, and as of yet, none has recommended this one, so I can’t speak to its accuracy, but it’s very well written, and very easy to read for someone like me who’s a bit of a math-phobe. Also, he uses great analogies, and I love analogies (since I study them for a living).

    What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr

    This is a great introduction to the basics of evolutionary biology, written by a legend in the field. It’s written clearly and answers many of the questions and objections that anti-scientific people raise against evolution. I wish we could send copies of this book to our president and federal, state, and local representatives, and force them all to read it.

    Full House : The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin by Stephen J Gould

    I’m sorry, but I like any scientific book about batting .400. Runner up by Gould would be The Mismeasure of Man, which is a wonderful reply to the works like The Bell Curve.

    A History of Pi by Petr Beckman

    Numbers like Pi and Phi are very weird, showing up all over the place in nature as they do, but the history of mathematics is even weirder, and this book does a great job of describing that history. Another good candidate on the subject would be Pi – Unleashed by Jorg Arndt and Christoph Haenel

    And finally, one from my own field

    The Big Book of Concepts by Greg Murphy

    Everything you ever wanted to know about concepts and more. If nothing else, you get a sense for just how confusing the research on concepts really is, even for those of us who are conducting it. Runner up would be The Illusion of Conscious Will by Dan Wegner, because of the cool experiments, even if his conclusions may be a bit iffy.

  • Sean

    Chris, what do you think about The Language Instinct? I read it and loved it, both for style and content, but I am not nearly expert enough on the material to know how reliable it is. My impression of Pinker’s subsequent books is not nearly as good, for the reason you mention — in the later books he’s well outside his area of expertise.

    By the way, while A History of Pi is a good book, Petr Beckman was a notorious crackpot who spent much of his time arguing against special relativity. He went so far as to found a journal, Galilean Electrodynamics, devoted to relativity-bashing.

  • Moshe Rozali

    “Linked- The New Science of Netweorks” by Barabasi. The fascinating subject matter helps to write an interesting book, devoid of any great metaphors and analogies, with low ratio of adjectives to nouns…just good plain fun.

  • HI

    “The Double Helix” by James Watson
    I don’t know if I would like Watson as a colleague, but I have to admit this is a fun book to read.

    “Fermat’s Enigma” by Simon Singh
    I liked both “Fermat’s Enigma” and “The Code Book.” Simon Singh is good. Like David Guarrera wrote above, I was really moved by the story of Taniyama and Shimura.

    “Natural Obsessions” by Natalie Angier
    It must have been very exciting for her to be inside Bob Weinberg’s lab as a journalist when many of the great discoveries about cancer were made. Very gossipy and that’s part of the fun. Many of the students and postdocs described in this book are big shots now.

    “Phantoms in the Brain” by V. S. Ramachandran
    Obviously influenced by “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” (and the foreword is by Oliver Sacks), but this is much more fun to read. I liked this book because it wasn’t simply descriptions of various neurological disorders like “The Man…” The really interesting part is how he approaches the mystery and by doing so sheds some light on how our brains work.

    “SYNC” by Steven Strogatz
    I also read “Six Degrees” and “Linked” which are in some way ‘linked’ to this book, but I liked this best.

  • Chris

    Sean, The Language Instinct is probably the best book in the universal grammar tradition that is not too dense for non-linguists to read. Even the books directed at least partially at non-linguists, like Jackendoff’s Foundations of Language, are pretty heavy in the formal linguistics. God knows it’s better than any of the less technical books Chomsky himself has written. If any book shows off Pinker’s ability as a science writer, then, it’s that book, because I don’t think anyone else has really been able to make the topics of formal linguistics readable. I’ve actually used a couple chapters in classes, because he uses such excellent examples from work that he knows a lot about, like in his discussion of verbs. There’s much in the book that I disagree with, but even in psychology, I’m in the empiricist minority, so my big-picture disagreements aren’t widely shared. I certainly wouldn’t object to it being on a list of the best pop science books. I’d object to any of his other books, but this one is so well written, and he explains things so well, that it’s impossible not to like it even if you disagree with him.

  • Aaron F.

    My two cents:

    1. The Demon-Haunted World (Carl Sagan)
    2. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Self-explanatory)
    3. Billions & Billions (Carl Sagan)

    Okay, I guess that was three cents…

  • astromcnaught

    The Story of the Heavens (Robert Stalwell Ball).

    This enormously popular book first published in 1885 was read by huge swathes of the English reading world. It was re-issued for at least 40 years. Even now, it is the most common substantial old astronomy to be discovered in antiquarian bookshops.

    It was also highly influential on my current interest in the history of astronomy.

  • PPCook

    This is tough, but the discussion has given me a great shopping list. My favourite popular science book is
    In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat by John Grbbin
    It’s a mix of history, science and excitement that attempts to present all the curious quirks of quantum mechanics. I read this as a teenager and it made me want to study physics, I don’t think I would enjoy it so much now, but I can’t ignore its impact on me.

    Recently I’ve really enjoyed The Making of the Atom Bomb by Richard Rhodes, which starts at the end of the 1890′s and follows the development of nuclear physics and all of the characters involved, up to the Manhattan Project. It also won the Pulitzer prize, in response to Dave Bacon’s earlier question.

    Now I’m off to the bookshop… :)

  • Steve

    If you liked “The Making of the Atom Bomb” by Rhodes you will like the followup by the same author,”Dark Sun” about the development of the H-bomb. I’m reading it right now. Fascinating and scary stuff. Recommended.

  • Nardhelain

    I’m going to add to the endorsements for “Cosmos,” by Carl Sagan. I’m a chemist, so that particular book had very little to do with my professional vocation, but it did turn me into an armchair astronomer and really opened up my way of thinking about the universe. I read it when I was in middle school, and I still return to it every now and then.

  • Shantanu

    here are some of my favorite which no one has mentioned in this thread
    what do people think of these?

    1) “dark energy ,exploding stars and accelrating universes” by Kirshner.

    2) “Distrurbing the universe” by Freeman Dyson

    3) “Lighter side of gravity” by Jayant Narlikar

    4)”Einstein’s unfinished symphony: Listering to teh sounds of space-time”
    by Marcia Bartusiak

    5) “Was Einstein right” by Clifford Will

    6)”masters of time” cosmology at the end of innocence by John boslough.
    describes the state of cosmology just before the COBE results and has
    good discussion people and stuff in obersvational cosmology as well
    as very ealry universe cosmology.

  • Eugene

    Hmm, would scientific biographies count? I see a sprinkling of those here (maybe we can have a new Greatest poll for Scientific Biographies?)

    “Genius” by J. Gleick is pretty good, but I think it pales in comparison to the couple by A.Desmond on Darwin and his bulldog :

    “Darwin” A.Desmond + J. Moore

    “Huxley” A.Desmond

    Both well researched and written.

  • Boaz N.

    Two books that had a strong effect on me in high school were
    by Gleick, and
    **)”The Selfish Gene”
    by Dawkins, which I found to be thought provoking and depressing.
    ***)”Brighter than a thousand suns”
    by Robert Jungk was an eye-opening view of how the the bomb making physicists viewed their activity.

    In the realm of sociology of science (anthropology of scientists?), there is
    ****)Beamtimes and Lifetimes
    by Sharon Traweek, comparing high energy particle culture at SLAC to KEK.
    Getting a little more technical and more in the philosophy direction is
    *****)Theory construction and selection in modern physics : the S matrix
    by James Cushing. I’m curious if anyone’s read this latter book and has an opinion on it? I read it awhile ago. He argues that S Matrix theory and QCD covered different regions of parameter space as far as high energy experiment, and it was the (somewhat arbitrary) choice to pursue the realm that QCD was best in that led to the dominance of QCD. Something like that. I’m not an expert in this and don’t want to make a fool of myself, but I found this topic very interesting. (Hope this isn’t too off-topic)

  • Alejandro

    I feel something from Isaac Asimov should be included. Though less deep and thought-provoking than many of the other books suggested, he made an unparalleled job in explaining science in simple terms. Of course the massive amount of his production makes it difficult to make a choice, but my vote goes to “The Secret of the Universe”, a collection of the best 30 of his classic essays for “Fantasy & Science Fiction”.

    Other books that deserve a mention:

    Carl Sagan; Cosmos
    Richard Feynman; The Character of Physical Law
    Douglas Hofstadter; Godel, Escher, Bach

  • David Guarrera

    That’s funny, PP, “In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat,” had the same effect on me after I read it in high school. May I blame John Gribbin for my life as a grad student?

    I too agree that I don’t think I’ld like the book any more. After all, this was the first popular physics book I read before I realized that most were exactly like it.

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  • Johan Richter

    Of the popular science authors I have read the one who writes best has to be Dawkins. His books are a joy to read and he manages to present the different theories in an amazingly clear way. After reading the “Ancestor’s Tale” you will find any other discussion of human origins extremely confusing by comparison. None of Wilson, Gould, Pinker etc is half as fun to read.

    Choosing one of his books it has to be the “Selfish Gene”. I have seen it recommended by several biologists as an excellent introduction to evolutionary theory and it is a pleasure to read.
    Comparing Dawkins to popular writers in other fields, eg Weinberg, Singh etc is a little unfair since mathematical ideas are harder to explain the more informal ones in biology. Still I do not find the other authors I have read nearly as good.

  • Johan Richter

    Also, “The Road to Reality” by Penrose is not a popular science textbook in the ordinary sense of the word. No book using tensor calculus and Lie groups can qualify as that. When he tries to explain rational numbers in a simple way he defines as equvilance classes on the set of ordered integer pairs!
    This is not to say that it is not a good book but a popular science book should be readable by people who have not studied math on a university level.

  • Elliot

    How about “Investigations” by Stuart Kaufmann? He makes a very interesting case that life may be much more abundant in the cosmos than we have been led to believe. This is a VERY hard book by a VERY smart man. I think it certainly pushes the boundaries of a popular science book but worth consideration.

    Another one to consider would be Barrow and Tiplers “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle”. Not trying to start a debate here on AP but this book (at the time) was a comprehensive review of the development of this line of thought.


  • anonymous

    I would like to mention a couple of books unjustly left of of the discussion:

    1) The Prisoner’s Dilemma, by William Poundstone — a deep, intellectually exciting exposition.

    2) The Origin of Virtue, by Matt Ridely — another intellectually stimulating one, left a great impression on me back when.

    And as for the overall best, I would also have to nominate The Selfish Gene, which has possibly rewired more brains than any other recent book. And entirely independantly of that, it is a paragon of high- level writing.

  • Undergrad Math Major

    I’m something of a popular science book whore, I think. My interests tend to be math books, biographies and histories in particular.

    The book the put me over the edge to mathmajordom was Fermat’s Enigma by Simon Singh (mentioned above). Singh is a wonderful author who successfully captures the excitement and importance of such an event such as proving Fermat’s last theorem, while keeping the technical details at a level that is reachable and still pushes the reader’s curiousity about math. Also, that’s just one of the great stories in mathematics…

    Next is The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, a biography of Paul Erdos, by Paul Hoffman. Erdos was such an interesting person, the story of his life was a page turner.

    Finally, a more technical book, Does God Play Dice by Ian Stewart about chaos theory. I read it when during my first year and a lot of the concepts were over my head, but Stewart has that great dry British humor that I just love. I recently picked up a nice used copy, which now sits on my bedside, awaiting my consumption.

  • Supernova

    Great discussion — I’ll have to compile a reading list from all the comments. I also enjoyed Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, and Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World.

    Though I’m an astronomer, I’d like to cast a vote for Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, which was recommended to me recently by another physicist and which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve seen Sapolsky popping up in many other places since (he had a nice essay in the most recent Harper’s magazine, for example) and I think he’s an excellent ambassador for his field and for science in general: witty, eloquent, approachable, and great fun to read. Check it out!

  • lambda T

    I definitely enjoy “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”, but I think that my absolute favorite Feynman book of all time is “Tannu Tuva or Bust!” As a child, Feynman was fascinated by the colorful stamps from Tannu Tuva, an insanely small country in the former USSR, and so he, along with Ralph Leighton, decided to try to visit Tannu Tuva. I won’t go into the details here, but I highly recommend the book; it gives even more insight into the man behind the particle physics.

    Another book that I also recommend is “Quantum Mechanics and Experience” by David Z. Albert. It takes a philosophical approach to quantum mechanics with regards to nonlocality, superposition, the measurement problem, the collapse of the wavefunction and Bohm’s Theory, to name a few. I actually used this book as the basis for an independent study with a philosophy professor who was a physics/math undergrad and then went on to grad school and specialized in the phiosophy of science. It’s not heavily math-based, but a reader should probably have some exposure to quantum mechanics before reading it.

    I also enjoy novels by Jeffery Deaver, such as “The Stone Monkey”, “The Devil’s Teardrop”, “A Maiden’s Grave”, “The Bone Collector” (the book on which the Denzel Washington/Angelina Jolie movie was based), etc. Deaver studied criminal justic in school and his novels incorporate fictional characters that use real forensic science techniques to solve cases, but they’re not too technical-based.

    I wish I had more free time so that I could check out all these books that have been recommended here!!! :-)

  • Cynthia

    Clifford, thanks for pulling this post from your archives. Like “undergrad math major,” I am also somewhat of a whore to popular science. Simply too many great works to mention. Therefore, I will confine my candidates to the mathematical realm of science. At this end of the “popular science” spectrum, I oddly favor William Dunham’s “Euler: The Master of Us All” and Marcus Du Sautoy’s “Music of The Primes.” William Dunham aptly captures Euler’s near “super-human” strength on the “math plain.” Doubtlessly, the embodiment of Euler never ceases to amaze me. Granted, John Derbyshire’s “Prime Obsession” is more rigorously crafted than Du Sautoy’s work on the Riemann Hypothesis. However, Marcus Du Sautoy – with his unusual style of writing – masterfully plays upon the musical insights into the Riemann’s zeta function. Furthermore, many historians would probably rank Ramanujan as the most mysterious mathematician in history. However, I find Riemann to be equally mysterious. In comparison to famous physicists, famous mathematicians – as a group – appear to undergo substantial degrees of suffering in their lives. To name a few great mathematicians who succumbed to insurmountable tragedy: Niels Abel, Evariste Galois, Georg Cantor, Alan Turing and Kurt Godel. It greatly saddens me to contemplate about the personal lives of these precious contributors to the realm of math/science.


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