Recommendations of popular science books that scientists would enjoy? (UPDATEDx2)

I like to read about science and scientists. I like books that get me thinking about science and how to do it. But I find it difficult to identify popular science and history of science books that I will enjoy. The problem is that I’m a scientist. Many popular science books are too basic/slow-moving for me, too familiar, or else too wildly speculative.*

That’s where you come in. In the comments, please share your recommendations for your favorite popular science and history of science books. Specifically, ones that you think that scientists would especially enjoy.

To kick things off, here are some of my favorite popular science books, books that I think readers of this blog would really like as well. I also threw in a book you’d probably think I would’ve liked, but I didn’t.

(UPDATE #2: You have GOT to read the comments as well. Our commenters came through big time, as they always do. I love our commenters!)

Popular science/history of science books I really liked

Fortune’s Formula. Possibly my favorite book on this list. Author William Poundstone is always good value for money. And without stretching, this book ropes in everything and everyone from Claude Shannon to the Vegas mafia to Long-Term Capital Management.

Fermat’s Last Theorem. Simon Singh’s very readable account of Andrew Wiles’ successful pursuit of a proof of this famous theorem.

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. The other candidate for my favorite book on this list. Bio of famously prolific and eccentric mathematician Paul Erdös. Character-driven, packed with humorous anecdotes. The trouble with having read this and Fermat’s Last Theorem is that I now already know a fair bit about the math and mathematicians who feature in something like The Man Who Knew Infinity. So it’s getting harder for me to find other popular math/history of math books that I’d like.

The Bet. About the Ehrlich-Simon wager. My review is here.

How the Hippies Saved Physics. Entertaining defense of the somewhat-overstated claim that an eccentric group of fringey physicists saved the discipline from stagnation in the 1970s. My review is here.

Modeling Nature. The standard (and very readable and engaging) history of population ecology.

Charles Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: the Power of Place. Janet Browne’s two-volume Darwin biography. Having read these, I now feel like any other Darwin bios would have too much overlap with what I already know.

Darwin Deleted. Counterfactual history: what if Darwin had died on the Beagle voyage? How would history have been different? Tremendously fun way to learn about the comparative reception of Darwin’s ideas in different countries and among different fields of science. My review is here.

The Trouble With Physics. Critique of string theory. Some of it was over my head. But I’m always interested to read well-founded arguments that an entire field of science has gone off the rails.

The Signal and the Noise. Interesting comparative case studies of prediction, and the factors that make it easier or harder (trouble is, factors that help in one context can be hindrances in other contexts). My review is here.

The Philosophical Breakfast Club. The story of the leaders of the generation of British scientists before Darwin, who pioneered science as a profession in Britain.

A Reason For Everything. Potted biographies of leading 20th century British evolutionary biologists–Fisher, Haldane, Ford et al.

UPDATE: Can’t believe I forgot Everything Is Obvious, Duncan Watts’ great book on being misled by hindsight bias and “common sense” more generally. Part of why I like it is that it could easily have been bad, I think. Could’ve fallen into the trap of making overly-sweeping claims or trying too hard to be contrarian and counterintuitive (a trap the Freakonomics books fall into, from what I hear).

A popular science book you’d think I would’ve liked

Spillover. Author David Quammen’s a top science writer, this book won awards, and it’s about a dramatic topic in which I have a pre-existing interest. Meg loved it. I was sure I’d love it too. But I got a couple of hundred pages in without ever really getting into it and eventually just gave up. I found it way too sprawling and slow moving. Too much detail about too many different incidents and minor characters, and too much repetition of the same few scientific points. I feel like it could’ve been great for me at half the length.

Popular science/history of science books I’m thinking of reading–tell me what you think of them!

I would really like to follow up Modeling Nature with a history book picking up more or less where Modeling Nature leaves off, with MacArthur, Wilson, Levins et al. up until the early 90s (when my own personal experience takes over). The Silwood Circle covers some of this, but only some. Which is why Earth Days is on my reading list.

Wild Life. Robert Trivers’ autobiography. An unconventional memoir from a very unconventional man. In addition to being a genius evolutionary theoretician, Trivers has spent time in prison, battled serious mental health issues, and driven a getaway car for Huey Newton, and that’s not even the half of it. Very interested to read this, because Trivers resists easy categorization. Feynman is the obvious comparison, but he’s actually a very different character than Trivers, I think. Trivers is a challenging case for anyone  interested in the relationship, or lack thereof, between scientists’ professional achievements and personal lives. There’s a tendency when evaluating famous scientists with significant personal flaws to use their scientific achievements to downplay or excuse their personal flaws, and an opposing tendency to use their personal flaws to downplay or attack their science. I dislike both tendencies. So I’m looking forward to reading a memoir that, judging from the reviews I’ve read, seems to confound both tendencies.

The Song of the Dodo. I know lots of ecologists love this, I’m looking forward to reading it, but I’m worried the science will be too familiar to me. And having found Spillover a slog, I’m worried that I’ll find this other effort of David Quammen’s a slog too.

The Serengeti Rules. Pitched as the story of how negative feedbacks regulate the world. About ecology but by a science writer (Sean B. Carroll) with a molecular biology background, so I’m curious to see how the ecology is handled. But also worried this book will be too basic or familiar for me.

The Theory That Would Not Die. A popular history of Bayes’ Theorem. Based on the reviews I’ve seen, I’m worried that it’ll be too superficial for me. Thoughts?

Microcosm. Carl Zimmer’s book on the world’s most popular model organism, E. coli. Rich Lenski features.

I’d really like to read more on the history of 17th and 18th century British science and the Enlightenment more broadly. It would connect up to the 19th and 20th century history of evolutionary biology, about which I’ve already read a fair bit. Any recommendations?

*That last is why I wouldn’t want to read the more gee-whiz style of physics book, books about the neuroscience of consciousness, or books based on unreplicable, noise-chasing psychology experiments.

140 thoughts on “Recommendations of popular science books that scientists would enjoy? (UPDATEDx2)

  1. Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle – Stephen J. Gould’s excellent book on deep time.

    Speaking of geology, John McPhee is always a good bet. Annals of the Former World is fantastic.

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a really riveting look at a case study in racism and sexism in biomedical research that’s had far-ranging implications.

    I Contain Multitudes is a new book by Ed Yong on our micro-organisms.

    • Coincidentally, I was just thinking yesterday I need to put some John McPhee on my list.

      I’ve been thinking of reading Ed Y0ng’s new book. On the one hand, slightly concerned it’ll be too gee-whiz and hype-y for my taste (the microbiome is a big bandwagon at the moment). But on the other hand, Ed Yong doesn’t often fall for hype in his other writings, so perhaps I shouldn’t worry. Have you read it?

      What are your feelings on that Gould book vs. other things he’s written? I read a bunch of Gould back when I was in high school and college. Mismeasure of Man, plus most of his collections of essays. I feel like I grew out of him as I learned more evolutionary biology and started to question whether he was a trustworthy guide to the field. (aside: I feel like this is a fairly common response to Gould…) But I still think he’s a wonderful writer.

      • Haven’t read “I Contain Multitudes” yet but based on a talk by Yong, including his tempered and concerned answer to my question about the tendency to overhype most things microbiome, I’m hopeful he won’t fall into the hype-y camp.

      • I’ve read I Contain Multitudes and it was not OTT or hype-driven at all. In fact, it was all the stuff you don’t get in the popular media coverage of microbiome stuff, i.e., much less about people and more about microbiota in a larger context.

      • In terms of I Contain Multitudes (which I have read and loved), I’d say that there’s more wonder there than hype. Ed is a really wonderful writer, which made the book a joy, and he’s also one of the science writers I trust the most to get a story right — there’s a wow factor, but it’s more of the Attenborough type (i.e., deserving of the wow) rather than the Shark Week type.

        Another good John McPhee is Control of Nature, which I liked a lot.

        I’d say that’s a pretty accurate summary of Gould — I loved him in undergrad and I think I also “grew out” of him to an extent, but Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle is just an all around fantastic book about deep time. I think it’s a hidden gem in the Gouldian catalogue (maybe because it’s more geological?).

  2. Not really a strictly popular science book – but I read The Final Forest (Dietrich, 1992) and really enjoyed it. Great story about ecology, the people behind the ecology, how ecology is used in policy and then how people react when ecology threatens their livelihood. All set in the very cool Doug firs of Pacific Northwest.

      • I personally found it pretty underwhelming with just an undergrad biology major’s stats background, but well-written and humorous. I’ve forgotten all the anecdotes I enjoyed, but at least I remember liking them. I do think it would be a fantastic book for someone who doesn’t work with stats much though.

  3. Here are just a few I’ve loved, as an ecologist:

    Ancestor’s Tale (Richard Dawkins)
    Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson)
    The Map That Changed the World (Simon Winchester)
    Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms (Richard Fortey)
    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)
    Moloka’i (Alan Brennert)
    The Two-Mile Time Machine (Richard Alley)
    Last Chance to See (Douglas Adams)

  4. I know it’s slightly off topic, but I enjoy lightly fictionalized treatments of historical figures in science. In particular, I really liked Tracy Chevalier’s “Remarkable Creatures”, which tells the story of Mary Anning.

    • Not off topic at all, at least not in my mind. I’ve enjoyed David Lodge’s fictionalized biographies of Henry James and (especially) H. G. Wells. So I could totally see myself being into Remarkable Creatures.

      • In a similar vein there’s “This Thing of Darkness”, by Harry Thompson – lightly fictionalized bio of Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle. There’s a supporting character who may be familiar to some of your readers 🙂

      • Is This Thing of Darkness really depressing for long stretches? FitzRoy likely had mental health issues and ended up killing himself. Not that a tragic ending is a deal breaker for me. I read and liked (not loved) The Price of Altruism, about George Price, and he also had mental health issues and committed suicide. But Price’s mental breakdown came late in life and so the book wasn’t tragic throughout.

      • FitzRoy’s mental health issues were certainly a major theme of the book. For me, they didn’t overwhelm the other aspects of the story. There’s a lot to absorb about the way ships and seafaring were at the time, about the interplay between science and religion for both FitzRoy and Darwin, and the places as well. But there is no escaping that one of the reasons FitzRoy is interesting is his struggle with bipolar disorder at a time when it wasn’t recognized or treated. One review of the book is here:

      • Re: fictionalized bios of supporting scientific characters, long ago I tried and failed to get into Mr. Darwin’s Shooter, a fictionalized account of a boy (young man?) traveling with Darwin in South America, shooting specimens for him. The writing was very self-consciously “literary” and I just couldn’t get into it. Plus, I now assume that the scenario described is highly fictionalized, because since trying to read that book I’ve learned that Darwin was one of the best shots on the Beagle. Not only didn’t he need a shooter, he and the first mate were often tasked with shooting provisions for the crew. (Though I suppose he might’ve hired a shooter at some point just to have two guns and shoot more specimens?)

      • I read “Remarkable Creatures” on Steve’s recommendation and can cast a second vote for that. I also enjoyed “The Signature of All Things” which is completely fictional but puts a woman character in the middle of the evolution story.

  5. I’ve enjoyed the Matt Ridley books ( – Red Queen, Origin of Virtue, and Genome and Ed Yong’s recent I Contain Multitudes ( Also, it’s a bit “soft”, but I liked Nate Silver’s The Silver and the Noise. They may have too much overlap with your background knowledge… but I did enjoy how they tie together various stories and focus on the personalities. Also, I enjoy reading stuff that is related to my research because I learn how successful writers communicate complex topics to non-specialists.

    • The Signal and the Noise is a bit soft. You’d think it’d be the sort of thing that would be below me, given that I already know a lot of statistics. But as I said in my review, it still really made me think and I still really enjoyed it. I think it was a great idea to do comparative study of “prediction” across a huge range of disciplines.

      Which perhaps points towards a common thread in many (not all) of the popular science books I like, vs. the ones I don’t. I really like books that link or compare things I wouldn’t have thought to link or compare. When the links stand up to scrutiny, those are often my favorite sort of books. I think because they’re a good match to how my brain works. My brain likes spotting/learning how idea X applies not just in its original domain, but in some apparently-totally-different domain. The risk is that it’s easy to do this sort of thing badly. That’s the problem with a lot of gee-whiz social psychology and neuroscience books these days: trying too hard to make a case that idea X explains or is connected to lots of things it really isn’t.

  6. Not necessarily a science learning book but Lab Girl by hope jaren is certainly inspiring and well written. This book certainly made me think hard about issues facing academics, women, and underrepresented groups a bit more. The narrator of the audio book is swell if you’re into that sort of thing.

    • Yes, I’ve been thinking of reading this one. I’m not necessarily looking to just learn science or history from my reading list–I want to read things that are thought-provoking and engaging. So memoirs of interesting scientists are definitely fair game.

      Seen several very positive reviews at the big outlets, including from Jeremy Yoder, whom I know. And I enjoyed Hope Jahren’s blog back when she was a blogger, hers is a distinctive and powerful voice. So I’ve been thinking of reading this. Also saw a couple of somewhat mixed reviews from science bloggers (Ambika Kamath, Athene McDonald), who were troubled by some of the incidents described (e.g., giving her grad students time-consuming makework and then pretending they messed it up to see if they’d voluntarily stay late to do it over.) But that doesn’t make me hesitate to read it; if anything it makes me want to read it more. Much as with Bob Trivers’ memoir, or The Man Who Loved Only Numbers–flawed characters often are the most interesting ones to read about, I find.

      • I liked Lab Girl, though it sometimes felt like it was four books that were morphed into one, so I was always left wanting more of any particular thread. But I would not give it to a student, class, or lab group to read without a qualifying statement that I don’t endorse some of the attitudes about students and work culture. I thin it’s a good jumping off point for discussion, but I was also troubled by some of the things I read.

      • I think Lab Girl is beautifully written but, like others, strongly disagree with some parts of it (and found other parts didn’t make sense — e.g., one major narrative is about how no one appreciated her early work, but I have a hard time reconciling that with her getting multiple job offers). Still, the writing is gorgeous.

  7. Thanks for this great list! I’m a neuroscientist and I like popular science books too, although they have to be very engaging for me to make it all the way through. Here are my favorites;

    Time, Love, Memory – a fascinating and beautifully written history of fly neurogenetics by Jonathan Weiner:

    Matt Ridley’s biography of Francis Crick was a fun read. Crick was certainly a character.

    Diane Akerman’s A Natural History of the Senses is more lyrical in style and not purely scientific, but if you get into it it will change the way you think about your senses:

    • Cheers for these. I’ve read both The Selfish Gene and a Rosalind Franklin bio, so I think I would enjoy reading a Crick biography. It would connect with and build on other things I’ve read (hopefully without too much overlap), and I like that.

      I loved Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch (which I left off my list only because many readers of this blog probably read it already). And that would give me an intro to Matt Ridley’s writing as well. It’s perhaps surprising that I’ve never read anything of his. Don’t know why, I just haven’t yet.

      Tried Time, Love, Memory long ago and for some reason couldn’t get into it and didn’t finish. I should probably give it another go.

    • Thanks, I could definitely see being into that. I read Measuring the World, a fictionalized account of Humboldt’s and Gauss’s lives. So I could definitely see reading the real story of Humboldt’s journey.

      • yes! Measuring the World is also great. About half of ‘The Invention of Nature’ is about how Humboldt influenced other big players in biology, ecology, & environmentalism -> Darwin, Thoreau, Muir, etc. It’s pretty amazing how far his reach was given how little he is taught today at least in the US.

  8. Let me just say that I just set up a Goodreads account as another way to get recommendations, and our readers are *way* better than Goodreads’ algorithm at suggesting things I’d quite possibly like to read, despite knowing less than Goodreads does about what books I’ve read. 🙂

    • Goodreads is great for keeping track of my ever expanding reading queue and is truly amazing at starting conversations with friends who are also goodreads users. If you’ve ever tried the “Compare Books” feature with a friend, you’re almost guaranteed to find books in common, or especially books they’ve read that are on your “to read” list. Really a fun thing to try out.

      But yeah, for recommending books to read, it is awful. This post and the comments are far better (or ask a librarian! our local library has a “what should I read next” online form, and the recommendations I have gotten from a real live person have always been spot on and far away from something I would’ve stumbled across otherwise).

      • Thanks, but don’t get too excited yet, I just set it up. 🙂 I’ve only rated like 55 books, most of which aren’t popular science or history of science. I suspect I’m not a great Goodreads follow, at least not yet, because I’m not a high-volume reader. I’m trying to become a higher-volume reader. Or get back to being a high-volume reader (I used to be one, many years ago).

        I’m also not a high-diversity reader, at least when it comes to fiction. For years, I’ve had a very small number of favorite authors whom I’ve stuck with and read a lot of (Terry Pratchett, David Lodge, a couple of others).

  9. In some other universe I see a blog post asking for book recs and don’t comment.

    I’d say that Spillover & Song of the Dodo are pretty similar, in terms of length/science/writing, though I read them 6-7 years apart, at either end of grad school, and can’t be sure. (I loved them both.) If you want shorter Quammen, he’s got a number of essay collections (Flight of the Iguana comes to mind), and I also loved Monster of God (top predator ecology and conservation, centered on a few species that eat humans).

    I’m currently reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert and thoroughly enjoying it.

    • I had the same response as Jeremy to Spillover – it’s a bit of a slog through all the details. However, even though I knew the science better going into the Song of the Dodo I LOVED that one. If I were ranking Quammen books I had read I would put Spillover at the bottom and Song of the Dodo at the top by a wide margin. Song is on the shelf with my favorite science books (as are several of the others mentioned above).

      • This is good to hear, because I already have a copy of Song of the Dodo that’s been sitting waiting to be read for a while. I confess that after I put down Spillover, I started worrying that I wouldn’t like Song of the Dodo either.

  10. History of science can certainly aid one in understanding ‘how science really gets done.
    2 of my favorites are ; DREAMS OF A FINAL THEORY, by Stephen Weinberg [ subtitle; the scientists search for the ultimate laws of nature]. His chpt ‘against philosophy’ is a thoughtful dialogue on whether studying ‘philosophy of science’ helps working scientists [ his answer: nope]. Weinberg won a noble prize for his work on the electo-weak force, a major piece of the standard model. Its very readable. I am told that Weinberg often had bull sessions with EO Wilson when he was at MIT; would be interesting to be a fly on the wall.
    The one science history book I have reread many times is :Robert Creasy & Charles Mann, ‘THE SECOND CREATION: makers of the revolution in twentieth-century physics’, about particle physicists’ winding/branching/dead-end paths to the standard model of particle physics. Hint: higgs boson is there, of course, at least the prediction. Its a very readable book.

  11. By no means a science book – but also for the fox – I recommend you two stories by David Garnett dealing with human relationships to nature, Lady into Fox and A Man in the Zoo.

    • Yes, I enjoyed both Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel as well. I find them a bit hard to evaluate because Diamond is a whipping boy among anthropologists, particularly cultural anthropologists. But as an outsider it’s hard for me to tell how much of that is legitimate beefs vs. political point-scoring (cultural anthropology is *highly* politicized).

  12. Another novel about science that I found compelling and very well-written is Allegra Goodman’s “Intuition,” which deals with a possible case of research fraud. And at the risk of being seen as a self-promoter, “Return to Warden’s Grove: Science, Desire, and the Lives of Sparrows” is a book of creative non-fiction that describes the practice of field research and what I call “the aesthetics of science” in the Canadian North.

  13. Beyond/before the written word lies the oral tradition. A good source of history of ideas, including science, are the interviews with distinguished thinkers called the’ web-of-stories’. these are not interviews in the sense of popular press, but indepth discussions of personal history, history of ideas, etc. By way of entre here is John Maynard Smith :;jsessionid=8B28DCC9F41949F5A5883C2380B19FEE

    • Thanks for the reminder of Mutants, I actually knew Armand a very little bit, we overlapped at Imperial College London if memory serves. Hadn’t heard of The Lagoon, sounds interesting.

  14. You likely have read them but if you are into popular science (and history of science and 18th century British science) … it is certainly worth reading Bates (The Naturalist on the River Amazons) and Wallace (The Malay Archipelago). They are very readable, often entertaining, and give considerable insight into the science (and more) of their times.

  15. Two great books are

    1) “The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science” by Richard Holmes. This covers a lot of science history between 1760 and 1830. It begins with the explorations of Joseph Banks and the influence he had on the Royal Scientific Society. Includes many great characters including William and Caroline Herschel, Mungo Park, Humphry Davy, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and Erasmus Darwin. Some pretty interesting stories about the early days of ballooning as well.

    2) “Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm” by Monte Reel. A great story about how a boy who grew up in west Africa brought the first gorilla specimens to the US and England and played a large and unintended role in the controversy of human evolution. The story is primarily about the life of Paul Du Chaillu but features a number of others including Robert Owen and some unexpected (at least to me) references to Abraham Lincoln.

  16. I’ll also recommend Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure by Tim Harford. He’s an economist and journalist. Interesting if slightly unsatisfying to someone with advanced training in evolutionary biology. Suggests that success in business and life is a matter of something like Darwinian evolution. Your feelings about the book likely will depend on how ok you are with loose evolutionary analogies.

  17. Three by James Gleick, one of my favourite writers:
    – “Chaos”. This one reads almost like a novel, yet really made me think about science differently (and the difference between complexity and complicatedness). I love this book and re-read it about every two years. (Partly because of this book, I also always give a lecture on chaos in the discrete logistic equation whenever I teach Population Biology.)
    – “Genius”. Biography of Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman, one of science’s great characters.
    – “The Information”. History of the dawn of information theory. Fascinating. (+1 on the Poundstone recommendation from above, too.)
    – Bonus: “Time travel”. I just got this from the library yesterday, so I’m only a couple chapters in, but so far seems as great as the first three.

    Some others:
    -“Naturalist” (E O Wilson). More than 20 years old now, but still a good read.
    -“Linked” (Albert-Laszlo Barabasi). Amazing book about network science by one of its leaders.
    -“Super-cooperators” (Martin Nowak). Great non-technical intro to the theoretical underpinnings of the evolution of cooperation.
    -“The Naked Ape” (Desmond Morris). Come for the group selection, stay for the crazy hand-waving.

    Great post topic!

    • Thanks Rob (and looking forward to seeing you on Friday!)

      Chaos wasn’t overfamiliar or too basic for someone who teaches it in population ecology (as I do as well)? Same question for Super-cooperators.

      Having read Fortune’s Formula, I worry a little that The Information would overlap too much. I take it you didn’t find it so? Or it did but you didn’t mind?

      I read Naturalist when it first came out. Only remember it vaguely–thought it was fine, wasn’t super-into it. I’d probably read it with different eyes now.

      I’ve read a (mediocre) book about Feynman, Feynman’s Rainbow. Probably better off reading Genius, which I’ve heard about.

      Our tastes may differ somewhat. Crazy hand-waving would just annoy me. So now I know not to read The Naked Ape. 🙂

      • Chaos is just as much about the history of the emerging discipline, and the individuals who shaped it, as it is about the science. I think it’s worth reading for that alone, if you like that sort of thing. You’ll definitely be familiar with the population biology applications, but there’s other things in there, too (fractals, turbulence, analog computing, etc.). I also just like Gleick’s writing.

        I didn’t find the Information and Fortune’s Formula overlapped too much. I enjoyed both.

        Yes, viewed from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist in 2016, I would say The Naked Ape would be quite aggravating, but that can be pleasant in its own way.

        By the way, I also loved another one you mentioned, the Erdos biography. Good call. See you Friday!

      • the definitive biography on Feynman is : Jagdish Mehra….’THE BEAT OF A DIFFERENT DRUM: the life and science of Richard feynman’. While it is rather technical, it can be read skipping the eqns..
        Dawkins wrote the Selfish Gene partly to correct all the books like Lorenz &, Ardrey , who skrewed up the use of Natural selection by making NS automatically favor species/Group level benefits. I think Richard wanted to explain better/more-correctly how NS was understood and used by modern folks [ Williams,trivers, Hamilton, etc].I think he also thought he could do better at this for a general audience [ he was correct] .Desmond Morris[= Naked Ape] was in the same Oxford dept at the same time;( Indeed I shared an office with Morris and Tinbergen during my 1975 summer at oxford; alas they never came in that summer..kinda hoped they would!)

    • I second the recommendation for “Chaos” , “Genius” and “The Information” in that order. Chaos is one of the best written non-fiction books I’ve ever read, parts of it boarderline on literature.

      I also highly recommend: “The beginning of infinity: explanations that transform the world” by David Deutsch, and “Einstein” by Walter Isaacson

      • James Gleick’s latest, Time Travel: A History, is next on my list of pop sci books to read. He gave a really wide-ranging and interesting talk about it at MIT recently, from science to pop culture.

  18. I’ll also add an anti-recommendation for a book I wanted to like, and feel like I should like, but which I gave up on 3/4 of the way through: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, by Daniel Dennett. If I have to read the word “skyhook” again, I might scream.

    • I mostly liked Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, though it has the problem of many Dennett books in that it’s basically his technical philosophy papers strung together with linking text written at a much lower level.

  19. I’d recommend “1491” and “1493” by Charles Mann. Both are more “popular history heavily informed by archaeology and ecology” than purely “popular science”, but they are very eye opening. 1491 tries to give an overview of our best knowledge of what life was like for pre-Columbus First Nations people, going through why a lot of what people were taught in school was probably utterly wrong. 1493 is an ecological history of the changes post-Columbus, focusing on the spread of organisms and trade across the world, intentional or not. Both do a great job of connecting ecology, archaeology, and history.

    I’d also recommend “Where Does The Weirdness Go?” by David Lindley. It’s another quantum book, but avoids the woo-woo-yness of most quantum mechanics books. It’s focused on explaining why quantum effects may disappear without needing to give us a privileged position as “observers” (spoiler: it’s likely due to statistical mechanics and the law of large numbers), and it gives a really clear layman’s description of what Bell’s inequality is, and why it implies about the way the world works.

    • Thanks. Where Does the Weirdness Go sounds totally up my alley. I was fascinated by the discussion of Bell’s Inequality in How the Hippies Saved Physics and now feel prepared to read a (non-woo-wooy) book on the subject.

  20. Not interested in modern popular science writing for a number of reasons. I read history, and exploration literature, which sometimes include some science, e.g. Brewer’s “Up and Down California”, or JW Powell’s various books. Many of these are now post-copyright and therefore freely available via OL and etc. Full blown treasure trove of stuff.

    Exception: “The Coming Plague” by Laurie Garrett. Outstanding book, wide ranging and heavily researched: gold standard of science journalism IMO. But then I love epidemiology. I would also read anything of similar standard on the ongoing genomics revolution.

    Also, “A Short History of Everything” by Bill Bryson because the man is hilarious and adventurous.

    • I was actually slightly disappointed in A Short History of Everything. Thought it was fine but nothing special, and as someone who’d chuckled through several of Bryson’s travel books I was expecting more.

      As an aside about Bryson, if you enjoyed his earlier stuff I suggest you avoid his latest, The Road To Little Dribbling. He’s curdled into a grouchy and sometimes quite nasty old man, and he’s only intermittently self-aware about it. There aren’t enough jokes at his own expense, and even if there were I doubt they’d be enough to leaven some of the frankly rather appalling things he says. And the bits that aren’t off-putting are mostly boring. It’s mostly just Bryson going from one British town to another, and either liking it or not depending on whether the town centre happens to be well-preserved and vibrant. His former broad curiosity about the world and the people in it has really narrowed, unfortunately.

      • I had the same reaction to The Road to Little Dribbling. Only one of his books I didn’t make it through.

      • Yeah, I almost quit Road To Little Dribbling.

        This is part of the motivation for this post. As I said in an earlier comment, I tend to read lots of books by a few favorite authors. But several of my favorites don’t write any more, at least not books I’d want to read. Terry Pratchett passed away (and unfortunately went downhill in his last few years). P. D. James passed away. David Lodge is I think still alive but he’s really getting on in years and the gap from one book to the next has been growing. Bill Bryson doesn’t seem to be worth reading any more, at least not his travelogues. I really need to branch out.

      • Bill Bryson has become Andy Rooney. “Can you believe…” It’s gotten so that I can’t help reading his new stuff in that Andy Rooney voice in my head. Really too bad.

  21. The recent Humboldt book is, indeed, brilliant – highly recommended. So too is Charles Mann’s 1491 (though I read it as “Ancient Americans”) – a real eye opener of just how little we know about pre-Columbian New World, and how much was lost.

    The two volume life of TH Huxley by Adrian Desmond that came out a while ago is great, I really enjoyed that.

    Ted Anderson’s Life of David Lack.

    Of Moths and Men by Judith Hooper.

    Dave Goulson’s two volumes – Buzz in the Meadow, Sting in the Tale

    The one I’m reading at the moment is Mike Shanahan’s Ladders to Heaven – see:

    • This is great fun. One might also consider ‘TEN THOUSAND BIRDS: ornithology since Darwin’ by Tim Birkhead, et all.( 2014). It includes , well, everything including bio sketches of many prominent folks, both professional scientist(eg, david Lack) and many others.

  22. Many probably wouldn’t be into this, but the armchair physicists out there may be interested in Manfred Eigen’s “From Strange Simplicity to Complex Familiarity.” It’s difficult to describe the book in brief — it covers a tremendous breadth of the history of the physical and life sciences and contains some really great anecdotes (and hand-drawn comics) regarding the author’s interactions with a number of well-known researchers. However, the book assumes the reader is already fairly fluent in matters of physics and chemistry, so can be a slowish read at times.

  23. Continuing to derail my own thread: another novel featuring totally fictional scientists that I highly recommend is Thinks… by David Lodge. Set at a fictional British university in the present day. Main characters are a psychologist who works on the nature of consciousness (now a sort of famous popularizer) and a writer who is new to the university. Character-driven light comedic novel about scientific vs. artistic ways of understanding people. David Lodge was a British academic for many years and so the characters and settings ring very true. Gets a lot of humor from the device of telling the story in part through the main characters’ diaries. And there’s a plot device that gives Lodge an excuse to ape the styles of various famous writers, to very entertaining effect. It’s breezy fun, beach reading for smart people.

    Anyone who wants to read amusing, fond-rather-than-biting satires of academia (with a focus on the humanities side) should read his “campus trilogy”: Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work. Each is somewhat of its time, and for Small World it helps (but isn’t essential) to know something about the huge battles over post-modernism that he’s satirizing. But they’re three of my favorite books.

  24. I’ll throw in a blind recommendation. I haven’t read this book, or even seen it, but given the importance of the topic, the surprising lack of books thereupon, and what I’ve heard of it, I would suggest it. This is Paul Edwards’ “A Vast Machine” which deals with the history and development of General Circulation Models (GCMs) of the atmosphere and their relationship to the attribution and prediction of global climate change. GCMs are extremely important pieces of science for a number of reasons, not all that accessible by any means due to their complexity. There’s no question that if I had the time, I would read that book. In the meantime I rely on Isaac Held’s web site, literature reviews and IPCC reports, all of which are highly useful.

    Another is Spencer Weart’s “History of Global Warming”. This I have read and it’s quite well done IMO, at least I learned a lot from it at the time. Moreover, he’s made the whole thing freely available online.

  25. Most often-clicked link in the post so far: Modeling Nature. Surprising. I’m guessing it’s lots of students clicking it, feeling like they’d better check out what I called the “standard history” of population ecology?

    #2: Fortune’s Formula. Presumably b/c it’s the first one and I said it’s possibly my favorite.

    #3, to my surprise: Everything Is Obvious. Only added that one hours after the post went up.

  26. My 3 faves are:

    1. The Hidden Forest: The biography of an ecosystem by Jon Luoma
    This book talks about the ecology of Douglas-Fir forests in Oregon. Even though I’m a forest ecologist I got even more inspired by reading this book, and think it would appeal to a general audience. I loved that it felt like I was meeting and getting to know the scientists involved.

    2. The Brain that Changes itself by Norman Doidge
    A book about brain plasticity. Fascinating case studies.

    3. The boy who was raised as a dog by Bruce Perry
    Again, fascinating and heart-warming case studies about overcoming the impact of traumatic childhood experience (maybe not quite a ‘science’ book, but worth mentioning regardless).

    I loved Song of the Dodo by David Quammen, but I read it as a PhD student who was transitioning across to conservation biology from a forestry background, so we didn’t get massive exposure to this stuff in my undergraduate degree.

  27. Thanks for the tips! My recommendations are most of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s (especially Braiding Sweetgrass) and Tim Low’s works. And as per Jim Bouldin’s comment, I think Bryson’s ‘Short History’ is an excellent general science engager for non-scientist readers.

  28. If I had to choose only one, it would be First Light by Richard Preston. It’s the story of the Hale Telescope on Mt Palomar and sketches the lives of several astronomers who use it. It’s written in quite an unusual, quirky style which really captures what it’s like to be a scientist.

  29. I’d also recommend Andy Knoll’s Life on a Young Planet, which is a great book about the first few billion years of (only single-celled) life.

    How to Clone a Woolly Mammoth by Beth Shapiro is new and also a fun read — it gets into the how, but also the whether and why of de-extinction.

    The Eternal Frontier by Tim Flannery changed my life — it’s a natural history of North America that starts with the KT impact event and goes up to the present. The older stuff is much better than the more recent, but reading the chapters on ice age animals was one of the formative moments of my undergrad experience.

    Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway is a great, if alarming, discussion of the roots of the climate denier movement and its roots in Big Tobacco and conservative think tanks.

  30. The Forest Unseen, David Haskell: Uses the simple exercise of watching a single square meter of forest as a launching point for observations on the ecology and evolution of the organisms in it. Different from most of this list in that much of the value comes from his poetic language. Still, he makes a number of natural history observations that were new to me.

    • Thanks. I confess that nature writing and natural history mostly aren’t my thing, but obviously they are for many readers. (This post seems to be turning into a Christmas list for lots of people, judging from the social media reaction…)

  31. This is so great. Yes, I have jotted down a half dozen books to put on the wish list for the holidays.

    I’ll second the David Haskell recommend: poetic language indeed.

    One of my faves has always been Steinbeck’s The Log From the Sea of Cortez.

  32. Somewhat different than the others, but I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (on writing and life) and enjoying it. It was recommended by some folks in response to my “Good enough” post.

    My major problem is that, these days, most of my time for reading comes in the few minutes before bed, and I don’t want to read science stuff then. I am currently in the process of rereading the complete Sherlock Holmes works as my bedtime reading.

    • Most of my bedtime reading is rereading favorite books. I want to get away from that (hence this post), but not entirely. I think there’s both value and pleasure in revisiting favorites.

      I feel the same about movies. I still buy DVDs, of movies that I anticipate will become old favorites I’ll want to rewatch repeatedly.

  33. Nina Federoff’s Mendel in the Kitchen is an excellent history of genetic engineering that reads pretty balanced, in spite of her perhaps more extreme viewpoint. I particularly enjoyed the beginning as she covered the history of patenting crop varieties and pushbacks against grafting. Written before the age of CRISPR, it also covers the technology of genetic engineering well for a curious non-scientist, yet quickly enough for a well-versed biologist to keep reading.

    I also liked and wish to reread James McCann’s Maize and Grace, a history of agriculture on the African continent in the last 5 centuries. It is less history of science than most of the above recommendations, but super interesting non-fiction that Jeremy, I think you’d enjoy.

  34. I’m surprised Tim Flannery’s only had one mention so far. I would rate “The Future Eaters”, “The Eternal Frontier” and ” Throwim Way Leg” as strongly recommended. If you pick just one, try “The Eternal Frontier”.

  35. The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending (and the blog “West Hunter”)

    The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years by J. G. M. “Hans” Thewissen

  36. I really enjoyed Brave Genius, by Sean B Carroll: It’s about Jacques Monod and Albert Camus, and half about their work and half about their lives, so there’s not a huge amount of science. But it’s fascinating to read about their lives while involved in the French Resistance, and Monod’s attempts to continue doing science.

  37. Oh, I am bookmarking this page for future reference. Some great recommendations!

    I will second (or third or fourth – I lost track) Andrea Wulf’s Invention of Nature. One of my favorite books of recent years. A lot of what’s already been listed are among my favorites – Eternal Frontier, 1491, Merchants of Doubt.

    I really enjoyed William deBuys’s The Last Unicorn last year, about the search for saola in Laos. Reminded me a bit of The Snow Leopard. Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hansen is lovely, and spans dinosaur evolution to 20th century hats.

    Ian Tattersall’s The Strange Case of the Ricketty Cossack was also quite good. Tattersall does an excellent job of weaving a history of physical anthropology (with all its mistakes) in with our latest understanding of human evolution, and presents his philosophy on how to approach questions of human evolution. He also has a book on the natural history of wine that I liked.

  38. OK, two more. Jeremy – I think you’d like Mark Avery’s Message from Martha about the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Some interesting population ecology in this plus a road trip:

    Probably not up your street but may appeal to some DE readers – Tony Juniper’s What Nature Does for Britain – I reviewed it last year:

    As I point out in the review although it has a British focus, you could actually replace that with any other country and have the same story barring the specifics.

  39. OK, this is getting a little far afield, maybe, but a friend (Hi John!) lent me Oliver Sacks’ autobiography “On the move” and it was engrossing. There’s science in it, and medicine, and encounters with several of the authors already listed above (Gould, Crick), but it’s a remarkable life. He basically decided to be (and could afford to be, once he started writing books) kind of a 19th century naturalist of brain disorders instead of a 20th century scientist. Well, that’s not right exactly. But his style of pursuit of knowledge makes it more than just a biography.

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