The most recommended popular science books

Who picked these books? Meet our 13 experts.

13 authors created a book list connected to popular science, and here are their favorite popular science books.
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Book cover of The Romantic Generation

Ran Spiegler Author Of The Curious Culture of Economic Theory

From my list on scholarly and popular-science books that both pros and amateurs can enjoy.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an academic researcher and an avid non-fiction reader. There are many popular books on science or music, but it’s much harder to find texts that manage to occupy the space between popular and professional writing. I’ve always been looking for this kind of book, whether on physics, music, AI, or math – even when I knew that as a non-pro, I wouldn’t be able to understand everything. In my new book I’ve been trying to accomplish something similar: A book that can intrigue readers who are not professional economic theorists, that they will find interesting even if they can’t follow everything.

Ran's book list on scholarly and popular-science books that both pros and amateurs can enjoy

Ran Spiegler Why did Ran love this book?

Although I am a classical music fan, 19th-century romanticism isn’t generally my cup of tea. And yet, I couldn’t stop reading Charles Rosen’s book about the romantic composers in 1830-1850.

While Richard Taruskin was an academic scholar with a side gig as a performer, with Charles Rosen, the situation was reversed. His identity as a professional pianist is quite palpable in this book. However, as with Taruskin, I enjoyed how Rosen was able to move back and forth between analyses of musical scores and discussions of the wider European culture in the 19th century.

This book helped me become a huge fan of Schumann’s piano music. What more can one ask from a book on music?

By Charles Rosen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Romantic Generation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What Charles Rosen's celebrated book The Classical Style did for music of the Classical period, this new, much-awaited volume brilliantly does for the Romantic era. An exhilarating exploration of the musical language, forms, and styles of the Romantic period, it captures the spirit that enlivened a generation of composers and musicians, and in doing so it conveys the very sense of Romantic music. In readings uniquely informed by his performing experience, Rosen offers consistently acute and thoroughly engaging analyses of works by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Bellini, Liszt, and Berlioz, and he presents a new view of Chopin as a master…


Book cover of She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

Benjamin Oldroyd Author Of Beyond DNA: How Epigenetics is Transforming our Understanding of Evolution

From my list on popular science books on biological evolution.

Why am I passionate about this?

I first read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene in 1980. It blew me away and precipitated my transformation from bee breeder into evolutionary geneticist. Later, I realised almost all evolutionary biologists of my generation were similarly drawn to their careers by Dawkins’ book. Why? People like Dawkins have the astonishing ability to transform complex theories into engaging narratives, to ferret out weird and wonderful examples from nature, and to exploit them for their explanatory power. My "best books" all have this in common. Big ideas about evolution and genetics illustrated by examples. I think they are the best kind of ‘pop science’ in that they are written for lay people, yet they inspire professionals.

Benjamin's book list on popular science books on biological evolution

Benjamin Oldroyd Why did Benjamin love this book?

Is it nature or nurture that makes a person? Well, it depends on the trait. Many things (e.g., number of noses or biological sex) are genetically determined. Other traits like IQ are about 50/50 genes and environment. Still others, like language, are entirely environmental. 

Humans are fascinated by genetic determinism and its contributions to race, gender, feeble-mindedness, disease. Witness the popularity of 23 and Me. Zimmer’s wonderful book gives an even-handed and sometimes brave account of the history of our obsession with heredity and some of the terrible things that have emerged from it: eugenics, forced sterilization, concern about human "mongrels," the concept of racial purity.

I was fascinated by the details he dug up, explaining the life experiences of individual people who fell afoul of government programs to "improve" the human population. 

By Carl Zimmer,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked She Has Her Mother's Laugh as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2018 BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE FOR NON-FICTION

'Elegantly written, wittily constructed . . . My science book of the year.' Robin McKie, Observer, 'Best Books of 2018'

She Has Her Mother's Laugh presents a profoundly original perspective on what we pass along from generation to generation. Charles Darwin played a crucial part in turning heredity into a scientific question, and yet he failed spectacularly to answer it. The birth of genetics in the early 1900s seemed to do precisely that. Gradually, people translated their old notions about heredity into a language of genes. As the technology for studying…


Book cover of Where Song Began: Australia's Birds and How They Changed the World

Benjamin Oldroyd Author Of Beyond DNA: How Epigenetics is Transforming our Understanding of Evolution

From my list on popular science books on biological evolution.

Why am I passionate about this?

I first read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene in 1980. It blew me away and precipitated my transformation from bee breeder into evolutionary geneticist. Later, I realised almost all evolutionary biologists of my generation were similarly drawn to their careers by Dawkins’ book. Why? People like Dawkins have the astonishing ability to transform complex theories into engaging narratives, to ferret out weird and wonderful examples from nature, and to exploit them for their explanatory power. My "best books" all have this in common. Big ideas about evolution and genetics illustrated by examples. I think they are the best kind of ‘pop science’ in that they are written for lay people, yet they inspire professionals.

Benjamin's book list on popular science books on biological evolution

Benjamin Oldroyd Why did Benjamin love this book?

Quick, what’s the most melodious sound in the English countryside? Is it the nightingale or the skylark, perhaps? Maybe the coo-coo?

Songbirds are quintessentially northern hemisphere species, and their songs permeate literature, not just in Europe but also in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Of course, birds evolved in the global north. Right? Wrong! Low argues that songbirds, parrots, and pigeons first evolved in Australia and have spread out across the world.

It’s a controversial view, but as a proud Aussie, I’m happy to believe it. Even if it’s wrong, Low writes about birds with a passion that only the truly obsessed can pull off. If you love birds, you’ll love this book.

By Tim Low,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Where Song Began as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An authoritative and entertaining exploration of Australia's distinctive birds and their unheralded role in global evolution

Renowned for its gallery of unusual mammals, Australia is also a land of extraordinary birds. But unlike the mammals, the birds of Australia flew beyond the continent's boundaries and around the globe many millions of years ago. This eye-opening book tells the dynamic but little-known story of how Australia provided the world with songbirds and parrots, among other bird groups, why Australian birds wield surprising ecological power, how Australia became a major evolutionary center, and why scientific biases have hindered recognition of these discoveries.…


Book cover of The Primacy of Doubt: From Quantum Physics to Climate Change, How the Science of Uncertainty Can Help Us Understand Our Chaotic World

Brian Clegg Author Of Interstellar Tours: A Guide to the Universe from Your Starship Window

From Brian's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Science explainer Tudorbethan church musician fan

Brian's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Brian Clegg Why did Brian love this book?

Possibly the best popular science book I’ve ever read.

Palmer explores the nature of mathematically chaotic systems and shows how we can deal better with the uncertainty they embody.

Many real-world systems, from something as complex as the weather to something as simple as a jointed pendulum, are chaotic, meaning that they are hard to predict as very small changes in the way they are set up produce vast differences in outcome.

Palmer covers a whole series of different topics, in several cases giving the best explanation I’ve ever seen. It’s not that this is an easy read. I had to go back over a couple of sections to really take them in – but it was very rewarding.

By Tim Palmer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Primacy of Doubt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Quite possibly the best popular science book I’ve ever read” (Popular Science) shows how the tools that enabled us to overcome the uncertainty of the weather will enable us to find new answers to modern science's most pressing questions

Why does your weather app say “There’s a 10% chance of rain” instead of “It will be sunny tomorrow”? In large part this is due to the insight of Tim Palmer, who made uncertainty essential to the study of weather and climate. Now he wants to apply it to how we study everything else.  

In The Primacy of Doubt, Palmer argues…


Book cover of Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

David N. Schwartz Author Of The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age

From my list on the lives of 20th century physicists.

Why am I passionate about this?

My dad was a Nobel Prize-winning particle physicist who co-discovered the muon neutrino, a particle whose existence was first explained by Fermi. I am not a physicist myself but grew up around physicists and have always been fascinated by them and was lucky to have met many of the great 20th century physicists myself – through my father. My family background enabled me to know these great scientists not only as scientists but as people.  

David's book list on the lives of 20th century physicists

David N. Schwartz Why did David love this book?

James Gleick is one of the best popular science writers we have, and this classic biography of everyone’s favorite physicist was the first to peel back the curtain and give readers a deeper look into the man, his work, and his life. Behind the clowning and the joking was a deep sadness that Feynman carried with him throughout his life. But his contributions to physics, particularly quantum electrodynamics, put him in the legendary category. 

By James Gleick,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

To his colleagues, Richard Feynman was not so much a genius as he was a full-blown magician: someone who “does things that nobody else could do and that seem completely unexpected.” The path he cleared for twentieth-century physics led from the making of the atomic bomb to a Nobel Prize-winning theory of quantam electrodynamics to his devastating exposé of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. At the same time, the ebullient Feynman established a reputation as an eccentric showman, a master safe cracker and bongo player, and a wizard of seduction.

Now James Gleick, author of the bestselling Chaos, unravels teh…


Book cover of The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet

Keith Heyer Meldahl Author Of Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains

From my list on geology that tell great stories.

Why am I passionate about this?

When I first crossed the American West nearly 4 decades ago in my ’67 Chevy, it changed my life. I had never imagined mountains built of contorted rock shoved miles into the sky, faults slashing like fresh scars across the landscape, and starkly beautiful deserts where people seemed an afterthought. After many happy years of researching and exploring the West with my geology students, I knew I wanted to tell the story to a larger audience. The result has been three books: Hard Road West, Rough-Hewn Land, and Surf, Sand, and Stone. 

Keith's book list on geology that tell great stories

Keith Heyer Meldahl Why did Keith love this book?

Written with the clarity and zest of Bryson and McPhee, but with the added benefit that Hazen is a professional geologist. I like this book because of how Hazen takes the reader into the process of how a geologist works and thinks. Hazen’s specialty is mineralogy, and his main thesis—that living organisms and minerals evolved together with each shaping the other’s future—makes for a unique and thought-provoking take on the history of our planet. 

By Robert M. Hazen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Story of Earth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hailed by The New York Times for writing "with wonderful clarity about science . . . that effortlessly teaches as it zips along," nationally bestselling author Robert M. Hazen offers a radical new approach to Earth history in this intertwined tale of the planet's living and nonliving spheres. With an astrobiologist's imagination, a historian's perspective, and a naturalist's eye, Hazen calls upon twenty-first-century discoveries that have revolutionized geology and enabled scientists to envision Earth's many iterations in vivid detail-from the mile-high lava tides of its infancy to the early organisms responsible for more than two-thirds of the mineral varieties beneath…


Book cover of The Biggest Number in the World: A Journey to the Edge of Mathematics

H Chris Ransford Author Of In Search of Ultimate Reality: Inside the Cosmologist's Abyss

From my list on weird thrilling science universe.

Why am I passionate about this?

As a child, I felt profoundly dissatisfied by the pat and cardboard cutout explanations that some teachers offered for life and the universe: there had to be more! I decided to go into science. The explanatory power of science is 'next level,' to use a contemporary phrase, and unless and until we explore it, we'll miss the beauty and sheer wonder of the universe. Neither should we overly specialize: science is not compartmentalized, but vastly different fields of science feed into and reinforce one another. Popular science has an essential role to play: irrespective of how arcane hard science may appear to be, its story can always be told in everyday words.

H Chris' book list on weird thrilling science universe

H Chris Ransford Why did H Chris love this book?

The first time I came across this wonderful book, I did the inevitable double take: I had happened to study infinity in its many possible renditions, and the title of this superb book seems to be a mistake: an obvious, silly contradiction in terms, because we can always add one to any purported 'biggest number in the world' and thereby immediately produce an even bigger number. Yet...This book describes the weird, weird world of huge numbers, the race amongst a rarefied coterie of aficionados to find ever bigger specific, provable numbers, and much else besides. 

Mind-blowing.

By David Darling, Agnijo Banerjee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Biggest Number in the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From cells in our bodies to measuring the universe, big numbers are everywhere

We all know that numbers go on forever, that you could spend your life counting and never reach the end of the line, so there can't be such a thing as a 'biggest number'. Or can there?

To find out, David Darling and Agnijo Banerjee embark on an epic quest, revealing the answers to questions like: are there more grains of sand on Earth or stars in the universe? Is there enough paper on Earth to write out the digits of a googolplex? And what is a…


Book cover of The Carbon Footprint of Everything

Neil Kitching Author Of Carbon Choices: Common-sense Solutions to our Climate and Nature Crises

From my list on climate change and our natural world.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a Scottish geographer and energy specialist. I love nature and snow and don't want to see it destroyed or lost. I wrote Carbon Choices, on the common-sense solutions to our climate and nature crises, to share my expertise and passion to help people to make a difference. People, businesses, and governments all need to understand the serious consequences of climate change. Education is the first step towards taking action. Carbon Choices focuses on the solutions, many of which are 'common sense', to protect people and nature upon which we all depend.

Neil's book list on climate change and our natural world

Neil Kitching Why did Neil love this book?

We need to cut our carbon footprint to 'save the planet'. But how do we do so without an understanding of the carbon footprint of what we buy. Mike's book brings this important subject to life. The impact of bananas, grown in the tropical sunshine, is not as bad as you might expect as shipping has a fairly low carbon impact, but when buying coffee it is the milk, not the coffee granules, or boiling the water that has the big carbon impact. Avoid milky lattes at all costs! A quirky and fun book.

By Mike Berners-Lee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Carbon Footprint of Everything as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Carbon Footprint of Everything breaks items down by the amount of carbon they produce, creating a calorie guide for the carbon-conscious. With engaging writing, leading carbon expert Mike Berners-Lee shares new carbon calculations based on recent research. He considers the impact of the pandemic on the carbon battle—especially the embattled global supply chain—and adds items we didn’t consider a decade ago, like bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. 

Supported by solid research, cross-referenced with other expert sources, illustrated with easy-to-follow charts and graphs, and written with Berners-Lee’s trademark sense of humor, The Carbon Footprint of Everything should be on everyone’s bookshelf.


Book cover of The Shocking History of Phosphorus: A Biography of the Devil's Element

Kathryn Harkup Author Of The Secret Lives of Molecules

From my list on chemistry that aren’t chemistry.

Why am I passionate about this?

After many years of studying the subject and still more writing about it, my mind is still blown away by the fact that pretty much everything around you is a chemical of some kind. Even more impressive to me is that all of the molecules that make up everything you can see, smell, touch, and taste are made from combinations of just a handful of elements. The periodic table is a one-page summary of pretty much everything, the ultimate Lego kit to build a whole universe. I love finding out about and telling the stories of these incredible chemical constructions.

Kathryn's book list on chemistry that aren’t chemistry

Kathryn Harkup Why did Kathryn love this book?

Yes, it’s a book all about one element, and that element just happens to be my favourite, but it’s also a book about biology, history, alchemy, ghosts, spontaneous human combustion, murder, industrial poisoning, and war.

I have spent plenty of time in the lab getting to know phosorus at a very personal level, but this book revealed a whole new side to the element. If, like me, you love the macabre and gothic, the sinister and the scientific, this is the element and the book for you.

By John Emsley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Shocking History of Phosphorus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Born of the age of alchemy and harbouring the kind of mysterious influence that alchemists sought, phosphorus brought wealth to a few but misery to many. For over 300 years, phosphorus maimed, killed, polluted and burned - sometimes on a terrifying scale. Yet, such were its perceived benefits that doctors prescribed it, every home contained it and whole industries were dedicated to its manufacture

'This is popular science at its best, a great subject, unfolded with the skill of the storyteller' - Lisa Jardine, Sunday Times

'An excellent and convincing read' - Financial Times

'This well-written book is an enlightening…


Book cover of The Oxford History of Western Music

Ran Spiegler Author Of The Curious Culture of Economic Theory

From my list on scholarly and popular-science books that both pros and amateurs can enjoy.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an academic researcher and an avid non-fiction reader. There are many popular books on science or music, but it’s much harder to find texts that manage to occupy the space between popular and professional writing. I’ve always been looking for this kind of book, whether on physics, music, AI, or math – even when I knew that as a non-pro, I wouldn’t be able to understand everything. In my new book I’ve been trying to accomplish something similar: A book that can intrigue readers who are not professional economic theorists, that they will find interesting even if they can’t follow everything.

Ran's book list on scholarly and popular-science books that both pros and amateurs can enjoy

Ran Spiegler Why did Ran love this book?

This is actually not one book but a five-volume (!) series of books which contains some of the best writing on classical music I’ve ever come across.

Taruskin, who passed away recently, was a legendary musicologist. In his writings, he managed to combine analytic writing that addresses his colleagues with unbelievably sharp and insightful writing that I, as a classical music fan who is not a pro, enjoy tremendously.

Taruskin loved picking intellectual fights, and this sort of combative energy is gripping. In this series, there are major story arcs like the interplay between “oral” and “literate” traditions or the role of nationalism in 19th-century music. I liked how Tarsukin switches smoothly between a close analysis of a piece and a discussion of how it relates to the wider culture.

By Richard Taruskin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Oxford History of Western Music as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Oxford History of Western Music is a magisterial survey of the traditions of Western music by one of the most prominent and provocative musicologists of our time. This text illuminates, through a representative sampling of masterworks, those themes, styles, and currents that give shape and direction to each musical age.

Taking a critical perspective, this text sets the details of music, the chronological sweep of figures, works, and musical ideas, within the larger context of world affairs and cultural history. Written by an authoritative, opinionated, and controversial figure in musicology, The Oxford History of Western Music provides a critical…