Great science writing is hard to find. I have assembled a list of some of the best popular science books I’ve come across in the past few years. Some are old, some new-ish, but all of them were good. It is a mixed bunch with respect to topic, but I am a great believer in reading outside of your field. In no particular order:
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (David Quammen)
This is an excellent read. Each chapter is dedicated to a zoonotic disease, from AIDS to Nipah, with titles such as Thirteen Gorillas and Dinner at the Rat Farm. The book was released before the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak, so it may also be worth picking up Quammen’s Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus which supplements his chapter on Ebola.
The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Siddhartha Mukherjee)
This is the story of cancer, from the first mentions of the disease (over 4000 years ago) to today. It covers the development of treatment options, the successes and the failures. It is grisly and bleak in (many) places, perhaps unsurprising given the subject, but highly acclaimed, beautifully written and very accessible. While the conclusion of the book unfortunately is not a promise of a cancer-free world, it nevertheless comes across as cautiously optimistic.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)
Skloot’s book is about Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer gave rise to the the HeLa cancer cell line used widely in research today. It is as much about the mistreatment of Lacks and her family related to the use of the cell line as it is about the scientific breakthroughs (and problems) that the cell line made possible. An important reminder that ethics in medical research is obligatory and necessary.
Why we sleep (Matthew Walker)
“Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory, makes you more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?” Neuroscientist Matthew Walker’s book on sleep is an excellent, compelling read on an important topic.
Six degrees (Mark Lynas)
This book on global warming was released in 2008, and is bound to be a bit dated. It is a great read nevertheless, and summarises the danger that increasing temperatures pose. Each chapter is set out to explain the consequences of temperature increase, degree by degree (One degree, Two degrees, Three degrees and so on) until six degrees. As expected, the expected effects get increasingly bad as you read on, but the book is more a call to action than to apathy. It is a great, if distressing, read.
The Drugs Don’t Work: A Global Threat (Sally Davies, Jonathan Grant, Mike Catchpole)
Not to be confused with the Verve song, this book is about antibiotic resistance and the thin pipeline for antibacterials. It is a very short book, written by experts in the field including the Chief Medical Officer for England (Davies), and its message is that the loss of antibiotics means the end to modern medicine as we know it. Published in 2013, the book unfortunately remains relevant and serious today.
The World Without Us (Alan Weisman)
What would happen if humans suddenly disappeared? This is a thought experiment, speculating on the outcome of the sudden (and impossible) disappearance of all humans on earth. When would our buildings crumble? How would our pets fare? When would all traces of us be lost? It’s an interesting idea, well written and discussed, and oddly reassuring in its description of a world without humans continuing to grow and thrive.
The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (Richard Dawkins)
This is a collection of science writing, penned by scientists and reaching as far back as the early 1900s. It is a varied collection, both in terms of topic and style, but it is a great read for anyone wanting to work on their science communication, or just wanting to read excellent prose on random scientific topics.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Mary Roach)
I admit to buying this book out of morbid fascination with the topic. Still, it is an interesting read. The book elegantly covers all aspects of human cadavers: their historical uses, their decomposition (or lack thereof), moral issues, how we dispose of them and how they can help us even in the modern age. It’s a great read if you are not squeamish.
Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus (Bill Wasik, Monica Murphy)
This is a summary of rabies, what we know of it, its history and cultural significance. It outlines the early misconceptions, the discovery of the virus, and the attempts at treatment in easy-to-understand language. It also highlights the impact rabies has had on society, including folklore. A fascinating read.
A Short History of (Nearly) Everything (Bill Bryson).
I do not think any list of popular science books would be complete without this gem. It is a book which covers (nearly) everything in surprisingly easy-to-follow language. Think Cosmos: A Personal Journey or Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey in book format, with more detail. As overviews go, it is in my view quite unbeatable.
Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ (Giulia Enders)
And finally, a recently-released book that I have not yet read (but want to): Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting The Story by Angela Saini, reviewed very favourably here.