The best science books that delve into the deep history of life, the universe, and everything

Who am I?

I’m a science journalist, podcaster and opinion columnist for the Bloomberg News Service. I’ve written for the New York Times, Science, Sky and Telescope, Psychology Today, New Scientist and other publications. I studied geophysics at Caltech, where I learned about climate change and the long history of our planet. I wrote about astrophysics and particle physics for Science Magazine before taking a job as a general science reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. There, I asked for the chance to write a weekly science column.  The editors said they wanted a sex column. I made the best of it, creating a column about sex in the natural world. 


I wrote...

The Score: How The Quest For Sex Has Shaped The Modern Man

By Faye Flam,

Book cover of The Score: How The Quest For Sex Has Shaped The Modern Man

What is my book about?

What really separates males from females in nature? What tendencies or traits would distinguish male willow trees, killer whales, bees, goldfish, mice, and men? The answer is simple – males have the smaller sex cell. Sperm are by definition smaller than eggs. The first life forms didn’t have sex or sexes. In my research, I went in search of the life forms that invented sexes(probably a form of algae) and explored the wide-ranging implications for life on earth. Along the way, readers learn why peacocks are polygamous and penguins are monogamous, why the male stick insect latches on to his mate for days on end, why some animals show homosexual behavior, why some clownfish change sexes, and why the male honeybee will try to mate with a queen even though his conquest causes him to die. 

The books I picked & why

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Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Story of the Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe

By Dennis Overbye,

Book cover of Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Story of the Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe

Why this book?

If you’ve ever wondered how the universe could have originated from a speck and expanded in a big bang, or why scientists came to believe such a thing, this book explains it all in an accessible, gripping story. Overbye, who is a science writer for the New York Times, paints a sweeping history of big bang cosmology through the colorful characters who put it together in the second half of the 20th century. The story revolves around astronomer Allan Sandage, who was a student of the famed Edwin Hubble. After Hubble discovered that the stars were arranged in galaxies that were speeding away from each other, he died, leaving Sandage to finish his quest to understand the implications of this expansion, measure the age of the universe, and determine whether the cosmos is eternally spreading out into an ever more sparse and lonely place.  


Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

By Neil Shubin,

Book cover of Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

Why this book?

From hiccups to hernias, the human body is rife with apparent design flaws. Why? Evolution, as it’s understood today, isn’t a ladder to perfection, and we humans can’t completely shake the anatomy of our distant ancestors – fish. Shubin describes his own work on Tiktaalik, a species that took part in the transition from fish to land animals. Its fossils hold clues to the evolution of our bodies – from the structure of our bones and joints to our organs and tissues. 

This unusual look at our evolution is a reminder that while humans evolved from some common ape-like animal, our evolutionary path goes back to the very origin of life, and along the way, we incorporated many anatomical quirks that benefitted creatures with very different lifestyles. 


The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

By Michael Pollan,

Book cover of The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

Why this book?

Why would roses look beautiful to humans? Why would certain herbs create hallucinations in the human brain? Michael Pollan follows the deep back story of four species of desirable plants to explore many questions we take for granted about the world around us. This book is an example of the way great science writing can answer questions we didn’t even think to ask. 


The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

By David Graeber, David Wengrow,

Book cover of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Why this book?

Were the original humans warlike or peaceful, lazy or industrious, egalitarian or hierarchical, monogamous or promiscuous? This ambitious book uses archaeology and historical records to make a powerful case that humans have lived in diverse ways throughout prehistory. They argue that the overthrowing of traditional ways in the European enlightenment was inspired by the age of exploration and encounters with Native Americans and other indigenous people. Through them, Europeans learned about alternative ways to organize societies – where, for example, following leaders was optional. Europeans, even as they denigrated those they encountered, also recognized that there were better ways for humans to live and thrive.


Nobel Dreams: Power, Deceit and the Ultimate Experiment

By Gary Taubes,

Book cover of Nobel Dreams: Power, Deceit and the Ultimate Experiment

Why this book?

A journey into the way particle physics reveals the structure of inner space, told through the dramatic competition between two teams of physicists using the world’s first supercollider at CERN. The goal was to find two theoretical but never detected particles called the W and Z bosons. Jealousy, overbearing personalities, and the rush for glory.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in astronomers, human anatomy, and plants?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about astronomers, human anatomy, and plants.

Astronomers Explore 13 books about astronomers
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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