Popular science books everyone should read
This came out of the comments at a friend’s new bad-science-journalism blog, Atomic Spin. It’s all in the title, really: good, non-academic books about scientific subjects. The below recommendations are all ones I have actually read; I’m currently looking for stuff to fill in the summer holidays, so please, comment away.
- Longitude (Dava Sobel)
Sobel’s book tells the story of John Harrison, who invented the first clock accurate enough to have longitude derived from it, and revolutionised navigation.
Both of these books are brilliant, undoubtedly. However, there’s no getting around the fact that ABHT, especially, is rather dense. The solution is twofold: firstly, get illustrated editions; and secondly, read The Universe in a Nutshell first. It’s a little less packed-in, and its bits-and-pieces structure means it’s much better suited to being read in chunks.
- Genome: The Autobiography of a Species (Matt Ridley)
This is the book that got me interested in genetics. Some bits of it have been superseded, but it’s also remarkably clear and easy-to-follow when laying out the basics of genetics – stuff which, with its talk of exons and introns and bases and helices, can easily sound like gibberish. Ridley’s style is very good.
- Fermat’s Last Theorem (Simon Singh)
Singh tells the story of history’s most infamous mathematical problem, and takes in vast swathes of maths history and current practice on the way. Also very lucidly written.
- The Code Book (Simon Singh)
Singh again, this time tackling the history of cryptography from its earliest inceptions up to the bleeding edge of quantum ciphers (uncrackable by virtue of the laws of the universe, we think.) Also a very handy primer, in that it teaches you how to both compose and break a lot of common ciphers; useful if you need that sort of thing.
- Le Ton Beau de Marot (Douglas Hofstadter)
Translation is too a science. Well, even if you don’t consider it to be a science in the strict sense (I don’t think Hofstadter does), the book is replete with scientific thought: in the course of his musings on translation Hofstadter deals at length with psychology, neurology and AI.
- The Stories of English (David Crystal)
And so is (socio)linguistics. Crystal is a legend in his field, writer of innumerable set books on English Language courses (I’ve read at least four in that context alone) and this is one of his best, tracing the origins of English from its roots in Anglo-Saxon through to the language of the Internet age.
- The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (David Crystal)
This one is an enormous textbook and no mistake, but seriously. If it is to do with the English language and worth knowing, it is in this book. Accents. Dialects. Nonstandard grammar. Slang. Rhyme. Rhythm. Internet-speak. How to write a letter. Everything.
- A Short History of Nearly Everything (Bill Bryson)
I love Bryson’s travel writing, and it turns out that his style translates rather well to accessible writing about science. Almost the best bit of this is how well he conveys the sense of slightly boggle-eyed wonder that witnessing Science so often brings on.
I’d like more recommendations – please comment!