1. Annals of a Former World, by John McPhee
In patient, lyrical prose, McPhee takes the reader on a geologic journey through the United States. This volume was originally published as 4 books; each is centered on a road trip the author took with a geologist, observing the earth next to Eisenhower’s great US highways for clues into its geologic past. Annals has this–no borders, idealistic, On the Road for geologists kind of feel (though a bit more grown-up.) I pick up Annals every once in a while when im in a relaxed mood, when im looking for a good example of literary science writing. Highly recommended as a companion for camping trips, if you can fit it into your pack.
2. Surely You’re Joking, Mr, Feynman, by Richard Feynman
A string of excerpts from Feynman’s life/career, Surely You’re Joking is probably the popular science book I have read through the most times, not because it is short, but because it is at once compelling, understated, and full of indispensable scientific concepts. Richard Feynman has an uncanny ability to make physics easily digestible, his lectures are a testament to that and Surely You’re Joking is no exception. Feynman’s easy prose makes the reader feel like physics is understandable, as if he has laid out a diagram of the universe on his living room floor–no one is an outsider. It’s delightful. Feynman’s in my ‘top 5 people I would give my right pinky finger to meet’ category.
3. A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
The second heavy volume on the list, A Short History is packed with nearly everything. It takes a look at the science behind a lot of things–beauty, cells, evolution, the universe. Bryson rejects the traditional notion of a ‘textbook’ with this book, making science seem relevant in our daily lives AND putting this knowledge in the context of the universe–in space and time. Capturing the detailed nooks where science is often concentrated AND eliciting the wonder of the wider perspective is an accomplishment–savor it wherever you can find it. Great in audio book format.
4. The Richness of Life, collection of essays by Stephen Jay Gould
The idiosyncratic Gould has written articles in Natural History and many other science magazines for decades and is one of the most widely read modern science writers. In this collection of articles, Gould’s highly intellectual, witty, and pin-accurate prose explains evolutionary theory, racism or baseball with a scientist’s eye, but in a way that engages the layman. Gould’s dedication to science shows in every piece. Delightful.
5. The Canon, by Natalie Angier
Someone at the New York Times science desk once told me–“Natalie Angier is the queen of metaphor.” I have to agree. The Canon is the best example of her witty prose winding the reader through simple scientific questions with difficult answers. In this book, Angier tackles what she has deemed the basic scientific concepts everyone should know: thinking scientifically, probabilities, calibration, physics, evolutionary biology, chemistry, molecular biology, astronomy and geology. Phew. I have to say–this could have been very text-book, but because of her writing style, is masterful. I actually have had many non-scientist friend recommend this to me, which is always a good sign.
6. Universe in a Teacup, by K.C. Cole
Where can you find a book that successfully intertwines the discipline of mathematics, with the concepts of truth and beauty? Universe is just such a book; K.C.’s most popular and in some ways seminal volume. Metaphors she uses pack a punch. Her prose style is somewhat poetic, and in Universe, she proves adept at explain things like chaos or phase transitions are illuminating–not just because you finally understand some science concept that always seem so obscure, but because Cole has also given the you a new way to think about mathematics and the world alongside your new understanding. (Full disclosure–Cole was my academic mentor)
7. The Code Book, by Simon Singh
Packed with information about the history of codes, how to break them, and who figured it all out, this book has a kind-of James Bond appeal. Various scientists and politicians have acted as code-makers and code-breakers from antiquity until modern day, and codes are increasingly important in computer technology and national security. The stories behind the codes are so fascinating i hardly even realized that i was learning about the mathematics of code theory in the process.
8. Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan
Ok, so not everyone would categorize this as a popular science book, but Ill include it anyway. Enduring Love is a fiction book, partially written from the perspective of a former scientist, but more importantly, it is a suspenseful story that lets the author’s attitudes towards life bleed through each and every page. Ian McEwan is a well-know rationalist who believes that science is just as much a part of culture as anything else–a position with which I very much empathize. This is a literary tale, sure, but McEwan manages to mention scientific ideas all over the place, integrating science and its ways of thinking into the lives of his complex characters and slowly revealing situations. It’s a page-turner.
9. The Double Helix, by James Watson
Though scientist James Watson doesn’t have a Stephen Jay Gould command of language and metaphor, The Double Helix still stands as an absolutely riveting account of the series of events that lead up to the discovery of DNA’s structure. In the book, scientists Watson, Crick, Maurice Wilkens, and Rosalind Franklin become fascinating characters in a race to figure out what DNA looks like at a molecular level. Each has their own motivations. Each has their own complications. All but Franklin eventually received a Nobel Prize for this work (she died before the award could include her.) A quick, easy read.
10. In the Shadow of Man, by Jane Goodall
A classic book–easy read, no jargon. Goodall’s observations of chimpanzee’s in the wild first brought to light one of man’s most recent ancestors–the chimpanzee. This book chronicles some of Goodall’s groundbreaking research through her own observations about chimp behavior. Once immersed in the book, I couldn’t help but think–we are all just apes, evolved from or related to one another. Puts things in perspective.