The best books to understand what big data is and how it impacts us

Roger Highfield Author Of The Dance of Life: Symmetry, Cells and How We Become Human
By Roger Highfield

Who am I?

I’m the Science Director of the Science Museum Group, based at the Science Museum in London, and visiting professor at the Dunn School, University of Oxford, and Department of Chemistry, University College London. Every time I write a book I swear that it will be my last and yet I'm now working on my ninth, after earlier forays into the physics of Christmas and the love life of Albert Einstein. Working with Peter Coveney of UCL, we're exploring ideas about computation and complexity we tackled in our two earlier books, along with the revolutionary implications of creating digital twins of people from the colossal amount of patient data now flowing from labs worldwide.

I wrote...

The Dance of Life: Symmetry, Cells and How We Become Human

By Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, Roger Highfield,

Book cover of The Dance of Life: Symmetry, Cells and How We Become Human

What is my book about?

The Dance of Life is the autobiography of a scientist – Magda Zernicka-Goetz – whose research on early human development was partly inspired by challenging events in her personal life. But our book is more than that, providing a biography of all human life, explaining the extraordinary events that turn all the information held in our DNA into flesh and blood, and showing how a newly fertilized egg becomes 40 trillion cells that ‘know’ how to make a human, from lips to heart to toes. In short, we describe how the body builds itself and the extraordinary implications of this new understanding.

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The books I picked & why

Dear Data

By Giorgia Lupi, Stefanie Posavec,

Book cover of Dear Data

Why did I love this book?

Over a single year, Giorgia Lupi, an Italian living in New York, and Stefanie Posavec, an American in London, exchanged hand-drawn postcards to chart the granular details of their lives using clusters, plots, and graphs. We featured the outpourings of these talented “information designers” in a 2016 Science Museum exhibition on big data and these striking images, in turn, paved the way for their book, Dear Data, which provides a remarkable portrait of these artists. An intimate and human take on big data that invites us all to ponder how to represent our own lives.   

By Giorgia Lupi, Stefanie Posavec,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Dear Data as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From an award-winning project comes an inspiring, collaborative book that makes data artistic, personal - and open to all

Each week for a year, Giorgia and Stefanie sent each other a postcard describing what had happened to them during that week around a particular theme. But they didn't write it, they drew it: a week of smiling, a week of apologies, a week of desires.

Presenting their fifty-two cards, along with thoughts and ideas about the data-drawing process, Dear Data hopes to inspire you to draw, slow down and make connections with other people, to see the world through a…

Book cover of The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World

Why did I love this book?

This might not look like a big data book but, for me, the race to read the human genome marks the birth of big data in biology, in the form of a tsunami of DNA sequencing data. I edited Craig Venter’s A Life Decoded, the first genetic autobiography, which explored the implications of becoming the first person to gaze upon all six billion ‘letters’ of their own genetic code. While working on Craig’s extraordinary story I came across The Genome War and thought James Shreeve did a brilliant job in describing the drama, rivalry, and personalities in the race to sequence the very first human genomes between government-backed scientists and Celera, Craig’s company.

By James Shreeve,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Genome War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The long-awaited story of the science, the business, the politics, the intrigue behind the scenes of the most ferocious competition in the history of modern science—the race to map the human genome.
On May 10, 1998, biologist Craig Venter, director of the Institute for Genomic Research, announced that he was forming a private company that within three years would unravel the complete genetic code of human life—seven years before the projected finish of the U.S. government’s Human Genome Project. Venter hoped that by decoding the genome ahead of schedule, he would speed up the pace of biomedical research and save…

Information is Beautiful

By David McCandless,

Book cover of Information is Beautiful

Why did I love this book?

Big data can be beautiful and visualisations make for a wonderful coffee-table book. In Information is Beautiful, David McCandless turns dry-as-dust data into pop art to show the kind of world we live in, linking politics to life expectancy, women’s education to GDP growth, and more. Through colourful graphics, we get vivid and novel perspectives on current obsessions, from maps of cliches to the most fashionable colours. A testament to how the power of big data comes from being able to distill information to reveal hidden patterns and discern trends. 

By David McCandless,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Information is Beautiful as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A visual guide to the way the world really works

Every day, every hour, every minute we are bombarded by information - from television, from newspapers, from the internet, we're steeped in it, maybe even lost in it. We need a new way to relate to it, to discover the beauty and the fun of information for information's sake.
No dry facts, theories or statistics. Instead, Information is Beautiful contains visually stunning displays of information that blend the facts with their connections, their context and their relationships - making information meaningful, entertaining and beautiful.
This is information like you have…

Book cover of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Why did I love this book?

The more data the better? Not necessarily. Cathy O’Neil, an academic mathematician turned Wall Street quant turned data scientist, shows again and again how big data “threatens democracy." The ‘weapons of math destruction’ are models or algorithms that claim to quantify important human traits but can harm the poor, reinforce racism, and amplify inequality. Her glimpse of the dark side of big data shows how computers are only smart as the people who use them, the people who write their algorithms, the people who supply their data, and the people who curate all those data and algorithms. The old saw still holds true: garbage in, garbage out.

By Cathy O’Neil,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Weapons of Math Destruction as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A manual for the 21st-century citizen... accessible, refreshingly critical, relevant and urgent' - Financial Times

'Fascinating and deeply disturbing' - Yuval Noah Harari, Guardian Books of the Year

In this New York Times bestseller, Cathy O'Neil, one of the first champions of algorithmic accountability, sounds an alarm on the mathematical models that pervade modern life -- and threaten to rip apart our social fabric.

We live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly, the decisions that affect our lives - where we go to school, whether we get a loan, how much we pay for insurance - are being made…

Book cover of An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination

Why did I love this book?

‘They trust me….dumb f*cks.’ This telling exchange from the Harvard days of Facebook co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg appears in An Ugly Truth, which shines a harsh light on the tech behemoth that, ultimately, is built on the data of billions of people. As Meta, Zuckerberg’s new business incarnation, wafts into the virtual worlds of the metaverse, the story of Facebook is far from over, which makes this engaging book a tad unsatisfying. Nonetheless, it is a vivid example of how with Big Data comes Big Responsibility.

By Sheera Frenkel, Cecilia Kang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked An Ugly Truth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'An explosive new book' Daily Mail

'[A] careful, comprehensive interrogation of every major Facebook scandal. An Ugly Truth provides the kind of satisfaction you might get if you hired a private investigator to track a cheating spouse: it confirms your worst suspicions and then gives you all the dates and details you need to cut through the company's spin' New York Times


Award-winning New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang unveil the tech story of our times in this riveting, behind-the-scenes expose that offers the definitive account of Facebook's fall from grace. Once one of Silicon Valley's…

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