10 Epic Science Books That Non-scientists Can Read and Enjoy

10 Epic Science Books That Non-scientists Can Read and Enjoy

The world’s great thinkers and scientists have long written down what they learn – we can head all the way back to Newton to see that. Some write for other academics, and some write for the public. When the two meet, you find some of the most influential books about science that have ever been written. I’m a big non-fiction fan and, having been a scientist, have compiled a reading list for anyone interested in getting their science on.

Here it is!

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Synopsis: As influential today as when it was first published, The Selfish Gene has become a classic exposition of evolutionary thought. Professor Dawkins articulates a gene’s eye view of evolution – a view giving centre stage to these persistent units of information, and in which organisms can be seen as vehicles for their replication.

Why should you read it: One of Dawkins’ earlier works and definitely his most influential, the book has rubbed people many ways over the years but there’s no denying that it is one of those rare tales that can be appreciated by both scientists and the public. Changed the game and also is the reason you always hear the word ‘meme’ now. Essential is 100 per cent the correct word for this one.

The Double Helix by James Watson

Synopsis: The story of the most significant biological breakthrough of the century – the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Why should you read it: A super personal account of one of the century’s biggest scientific discoveries, the book has always been seen as slightly controversial. If you’re not aware of the discovery of DNA’s structure at all, this is the perfect starting point – and even if you are, this gives you an inside look at just what that moment in time must have been like.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Synopsis: Bill Bryson describes himself as a reluctant traveller: but even when he stays safely in his own study at home, he can’t contain his curiosity about the world around him. A Short History of Nearly Everything is his quest to find out everything that has happened from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization – how we got from there, being nothing at all, to here, being us.

Why should you read it: Bryson is just a damn good writer. His books have typically dealt with travelling across the world, but this is one of his best. It’s witty, hilarious, clever and easily digestible.

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Synopsis: How can we make intelligent decisions about our increasingly technology-driven lives if we don’t understand the difference between the myths of pseudoscience and the testable hypotheses of science? Pulitzer Prize-winning author and distinguished astronomer Carl Sagan argues that scientific thinking is critical not only to the pursuit of truth but to the very well-being of our democratic institutions.

Why should you read it: Sagan’s bibliography is stacked with amazing pieces of scientific literature that explore the nature of our place in the cosmos, who we are and where we are headed. I’ve picked out Demon-Haunted World because of its pertinence to us now, some 20-plus years after publication, and how it encourages readers to think sceptically and critically of the world around them – how science must be used as a force for good.

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Synopsis: Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. Born a poor black tobacco farmer, her cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the most important tools in medicine. Yet Henrietta’s family did not learn of her ‘immortality’ until more than twenty years after her death, with devastating consequences.

Why should you read it: One of the most compelling scientific stories of the last few decades is told by Skloot in an engrossing, human way. It’s one of those books that flirts between being scientific and being dramatic but does so with the utmost respect and regard for the subject matter. Stellar.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

Synopsis: Was there a beginning of time? Could time run backwards? Is the universe infinite, or does it have boundaries? These are just some of the questions considered in an internationally acclaimed masterpiece by one of the world’s greatest thinkers.

Why should you read it: Hawking’s work deals with some of the most complex, astounding facets of the universe and builds on years of work by his contemporaries. In Brief History, he boils those complex theories down and presents the science in a way that any reader only remotely interested in space can understand. A classic.

Wholeness And The Implicate Order by David Bohm

Synopsis: In both science and philosophy, Bohm’s main concern was with understanding the nature of reality in general and of consciousness in particular. In this classic work, he develops a theory of quantum physics that treats the totality of existence as an unbroken whole. Writing clearly and without technical jargon, he makes complex ideas accessible to anyone interested in the nature of reality.

Why should you read it: Bohm’s work is definitely one of the more unusual on this list and was influenced not only by science but a much greater interest in understanding mysticism. This could have been one of the most difficult-to-read books ever written, but Bohm explains it in such a way that it will blow your brain clean out of your head – just in the best way possible.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks

Synopsis: In his most extraordinary book, “one of the great clinical writers of the 20th century” (The New York Times), recounts the case histories of patients lost in the bizarre, apparently inescapable world of neurological disorders.

Why should you read it: Sacks taking clinical case studies and writing about them in this way changed the way that everyone looked at clinical writing. Though this book is getting on in age, it stands up as one of the most important books on the clinical side of science you’ll find – with stories that are touching and human.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Synopsis: Visceral, intimate, gloriously candid and sometimes extremely funny, Jahren’s descriptions of her work, her intense relationship with the plants, seeds and soil she studies, and her insights on nature enliven every page of this thrilling book.

Why should you read it: I can’t go past Lab Girl, which tells the story of Jahren’s life and love of science and plants. Somehow makes a topic that I could not be less interested in (botany) appealing, interesting and wholly relatable. Reminds me of H Is For Hawk, too.

On The Origin Of Species by Charles Darwin

Synopsis: Still considered one of the most important and groundbreaking works of science ever written, Darwin’s eminently readable exploration of the evolutionary process challenged most of the strong beliefs of the Western world. Forced to question the idea of the Creator, mid-nineteenth-century readers were faced with Darwin’s theories on the laws of natural selection and the randomness of evolution, causing massive controversy at the time. However, Darwin’s theories remain instrumental in providing the backbone to modern biology today.

Why should you read it: The seminal work by Darwin has to be on this list by virtue of changing the entire worldview

Bonus: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Synopsis: Steven Johnson is one of today’s most exciting writers about popular culture, urban living and new technology. In The Ghost Map he tells the story of the terrifying cholera epidemic that engulfed London in 1854, and the two unlikely heroes – anesthetist Doctor John Snow and affable clergyman Reverend Henry Whitehead – who defeated the disease through a combination of local knowledge, scientific research and map-making.

Why should you read it: I am a really big fan of Johnson’s work and think that he does some of the most accessible and interesting science writing you can find. I’ve previously recommended his book Where Good Ideas Come From, but I think The Ghost Map is an even better read, explaining the Cholera epidemic and how it was unravelled like the best whodunnits in fiction.

This article has been updated since its original publish date.

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