My favourite popular science books

Everyone has their own catalogue of favourite books but this is my personal choice of popular science volumes published within my lifetime.


A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bill Bryson

In some ways a perfect example of how not to write a popular science book, Bill Bryson's account is heavy on facts and short on analysis. Indeed, he seems to think of science as an ever-expanding library of proofs rather than a methodology, makes sweeping assumptions and relies rather too much on television documentaries for source material. And then there's all the basic factual errors. For all that, it's still a worthwhile read!

Seeing Further: The Story of Science and The Royal Society

Bill Bryson

A brief introduction by Bryson paves the way for 21 essays by both scientists and writers. A few are a touch philosophical for my taste but most are thought-provoking and offer interesting incites into scientists' behaviour and motivation. Maggie Gee's essay and Lord Martin Rees' conclusion are amongst my favourites, whilst the late Stephen Schneider's discussion of climate change from an IPCC insider should be compulsory reading for just about everyone.

The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing

Richard Dawkins

Excerpts from just about everyone of scientific note of the past century, accompanied by Dawkin's own erudite observations. A great taster for piquing curiosity in both scientists and their work, amongst the familiar names (Sagan, Hawking, etal) there are some wonderful older pieces from the likes of Arthur Eddington, James Jeans and even Einstein himself.

Guns, Germs and Steel

Jared Diamond

Diamond's style is reminiscent of Darwin, offering example after example in support of the (original, as far as I know) thesis of how societies have evolved according to local natural resources. As a result it's seemingly a bit long and repetitive, but the central ideas are provocative and important.


Allan R. Glanville (Chief Consultant)

An Australian contribution to the beautifully-illustrated state-of-knowledge glossies, this densely-packed volume contains a myriad of examples of applied science and technology. It might provide good source material for high school students wanting a break from scouring the Internet!

Science: The Definitive Visual Guide

Adam Hart-Davis (Editor)

If you have inquisitive children (and shouldn't they all be?) then this fantastically-illustrated introduction to science, technology, engineering and maths is the bee's knees. Content includes potted biographies of scientists and natural philosophers from all periods and a comprehensive reference section covering everything from standard measurement units to common physics equations.

Broca's Brain

Carl Sagan

A miscellaneous collection of essays on topics as diverse as Einstein, pseudoscience, the religious experience and robot space probes, this early Sagan offering tackles all its subject matter with equal aplomb.

The Demon-Haunted World

Carl Sagan

Some of the historic details might be lacking in accuracy, but Sagan's call to arms against the dangers of credulity, superstition and religious interference in the secular is perhaps even more timely than when it was written.

History of science

The Ascent of Man

Jacob Bronowski

A very personal interpretation of how mankind's world view has changed over the millennia. Although over forty years old, it's just as relevant today as when it was first published.

The Dinosaur Hunters

Deborah Cadbury

One of several books with the same title, this volume details the history of some of the great European, especially British, dinosaur pioneers: Gideon Mantell, Richard Owen, Mary Anning, etc. A very atmospheric account of the key players who turned a curiosity into a science whilst offering some insights into the development of geology too.

The View from Planet Earth

Vincent Cronin

Possibly the most successful attempt to integrate the history of science into the context of both the arts and culture in general. Cronin's thesis of how science has been driven by the same urges that inspire the humanities is even more all-encompassing than Carl Sagan's work.

Science: A History

John Gribbin

About as densely-packed a history of Western science from the Renaissance onwards as you could ever hope to find in a single volume, the only problem is the occasional missing figure. But for potted biographies of dozens of luminaries, I'd recommend this whole-heartedly.

Ingenious Pursuits

Lisa Jardine

An engrossing description of the birth of modern scientific thought, detailing the discoveries and discoverers on both the cosmic and microscopic scales during the Enlightenment. There's plenty of history on the Royal Society too.

Leonardo: The First Scientist

Michael White

As comprehensive an account of Leonardo da Vinci's scientific and technological work as we may ever get, seeing just how little we really know about his life. This effort integrates all sides to the ultimate Renaissance Man whilst delineating personality traits that make him very much a man of his time.

Astronomy and astrophysics

Just Six Numbers

Martin Rees

If you know any Biblical literalists who ask how come the universe is so finely-tuned for human existence, this book contains the answers. At times a tad dry, this is nonetheless a thoroughly worthwhile breakdown of cosmology at a nuts and bolts level.


Carl Sagan

The first popular science book I owned. Although there are a few factual errors and the planetary science is now way out of date, Sagan's poetic exuberance make this one of the most memorable reads in any subject, not just science.

Big Bang: The most important scientific discovery of all time and why you need to know about it

Simon Singh

An effortless read that must surely be the most comprehensive account within the sub-genre. I learnt a fair amount of new facts, including some personalities I'd never heard of in an area I thought I knew very well.

Biology and natural history

The First Eden

David Attenborough

All of David Attenborough's tv series tie-ins are worth reading, but this history of how the ecology of the Mediterranean influenced local civilisations has a clear thesis and is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.

The Ancestor's Tale

Richard Dawkins

Once you have mastered the backwards conceit (where 'before' means after) it's difficult to think of any book since Darwin's works that hammers home the evidence in favour of natural selection as well as this one.

The Greatest Show on Earth

Richard Dawkins

If Darwin were alive today then he may well have written much of this book, which nails down the numerous types of evidence in favour of evolution by natural selection. The only problem is the repeated attacks on Creationists, which strike me as unlikely to change the mind of waverers and woolly thinkers, let alone of any Creationist numbskulls.

Dry Store Room No. 1

Richard Fortey

I've often wondered what goes on behind all the unmarked doors in London's Natural History Museum and thanks to this book I now know some of the juicy secrets. Besides which, Fortey writes some of the best anecdotes about scientists you're likely to ever come across.

Life: An Unauthorised Biography

Richard Fortey

It's hard to think of a book that packs as much information per page as this one. As dense a primer on the history of life as you could want, although the forgotten kingdom of fungi gets the usual short shrift.

Bully for Brontosaurus

Stephen Jay Gould

Most of Gould's essay collections contain gems, but this was the first one I read and its humorous elements help to overcome the author's occasionally irritating style.

Wonderful Life

Stephen Jay Gould

A controversial book to the experts, this description of the Burgess Shale fauna gave many non-scientists their first introduction to some of the earliest (and strangest-looking) life forms known.

The Making of Mankind

Richard E. Leakey

A detailed if dated account of the painstaking work that has gone into uncovering human ancestry and a shocking expose of how important areas of science have been grossly underfunded.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

This book is to human evolution what Cosmos is to astronomy. Personal yet learned, poetic but bold, the subjectivity might appear distracting but the content challenges the reader to question common behaviourial motivation, which is no bad thing.

Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins

Carl Zimmer

A very fine - and beautifully illustrated, if brief - introduction to hominin/hominid evolution. Fossils, genes and artefacts are all covered in a brisk, no-nonsense fashion. And there's even a DNA primer!


The Periodic Table

Primo Levi

My first introduction to Levi and still my favourite, this pot-pourri blends fact and fiction to describe atomic elements in poetical terms that ironically outstrip any of Levi's own poems.

The Bedside Book of Chemistry

Joel Levy

I spotted the odd formula typo in this otherwise excellent combined history, explanation and exercise volume. Although the latter means it's not really bedtime reading material, the step-by-step maths are easy to follow. Despite covering some familiar ground, the book piqued my interest in a discipline I've not much delved into since school chemistry lessons.


1089 And All That

David Acheson

If 1066 And All That was a comic account of all the history you can remember, this 'slim volume' is a fun-filled summary of serious mathematics, little of which I remember learning at school. In essence, it's a primer to inspire even mathematical numbskulls like me to delve deeper.

Infinity: The Quest to Think the Unthinkable

Brian Clegg

I approached this book with trepidation, partly due to getting frequently lost in a sister volume on genetics, but I needn't have worried. If you ever wondered about infinity but were too afraid to ask, this is the book.

The Num6er My5steries

Marcus de Sautoy

An introduction to many aspects of mathematics, I must confess to not understanding all the proofs quite yet, but I live in hope. If only de Sautoy, current Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, had been my high school maths teacher!

In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World

Ian Stewart

This includes familiar maths such as Newton's Law of Gravity and the Fourier transform in addition to some less well-known equations such as the Black-Scholes equation. Not an easy read but interesting for the background history even if - like me - a lot of the mathematical details go over the head.

Palaeontology and geology
(mostly New Zealand)

Moa: The life and death of New Zealand's legendary bird

Quinn Berentson

A beautifully illustrated account of the history of the scientific discovery of the moa, with a bonus in the form of a detailed look at the development of New Zealand paleontology from its shaky early Nineteenth Century foundations.

A Photographic Guide to Fossils of New Zealand

Hamish Campbell, Alan Beu, James Crampton, Liz Kennedy and Marianna Terezow

A pocket-sized guide jam-packed with colour photographs of common species, the descriptions are precise and I assume accurate to a professional level. If you have trouble identifying any New Zealand fossil, especially the myriad of sea snails, cockles, clams, etc, this is the book for you.

In Search of Ancient New Zealand

Hamish Campbell and Gerard Hutching

The book where I first learned about the controversy surrounding the submerged Zealandia theory, the text is charming as well as informative: where else would basalt and granite be compared to milk and cream? There are plenty of gorgeous photographs too, ranging from high altitude aerial shots to microscopic conodonts.

The Kiwi Fossil Hunter's Handbook

James Crampton and Marianna Terezow

Perhaps the most family friendly of the range, this handy-sized volume (ideal to take fossicking) includes location maps as well as excellent photographs of fossils - both extracted and more importantly still in situ. The text even lists the potential hazards at each site!


Richard Fortey

A detailed and well-illustrated monograph on my favourite fossil lifeform by Mr Trilobite himself.

Trilobites, Dinosaurs and Moa Bones

Bruce Hayward

Subtitled 'The Story of New Zealand Fossils' this 1990 beginner's volume is less dated than you might think, although amateurs today are probably unlikely these days to get access to some of the described sites, such as quarries.

The Field Guide to New Zealand Geology

Jocelyn Thornton

Although the text is aimed at the general public, this book reminded me of school geology volumes - only better - and it covers fossils too! The number and quality of cross-sections, geological maps and pencil illustrations of fossils is superb.


Coming of Age in the Milky Way

Timothy Ferris

Appearing in the same year as A Brief History of Time, Ferris's book seems nothing less than a greatly expanded version of its more famous contemporary. It covers some of the same ground as Cosmos too, but it's definitely a worthwhile read in its' own right.

Six Easy Pieces

Richard P. Feynman

An introduction to some of the basics of physics, the chapter on the conservation of energy alone is worthwhile for the 'aha' affect it had on me. Such a pity my school physics teacher couldn't explain like Feynman!

Six Not So-Easy Pieces

Richard P. Feynman

Like Hawking, only with some the equations on display. I'm not saying I understand all of it, but definitely a book I learn from each time I read it.

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter

Richard P. Feynman

This slim volume describes quantum electrodynamics in a unique - and understandable - way. Not that I understand QED: no-one does. But for the bits that are known, this book lays it out beautifully. So much for my school physics lessons stating that the angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence: that's only mostly true...

The Elegant Universe

Brian Greene

Starting in Stephen Hawking and John Gribbin territory before zooming off into string theory, Green's writing is difficult but rewarding. I have to admit I still don't understand much of the second half of the book, with Calabi-Yau spaces featuring highly on my list of things I'm not clever enough to fully understand without more effort. Definitely a book to encourage deeper thinking!

In Search of Schrodinger's Cat

John Gribbin

As much a history of quantum mechanics as a description of the science concerned, it nonetheless manages to convey some of the basic ideas with little pain.

A Brief History of Time

Stephen W. Hawking

Despite mutterings about its' complexity, this is just about the easiest (or at least shortest) history of cosmology and astrophysics around, even if it inevitably misses out on some of the amazing developments of the past two decades.

Physics of the Impossible

Michio Kaku

I'm not sure how seriously Kaku took this project, seeing as how he liberally peppered it with mentions of Star Trek and other SF works. It's a twist on the science speculation genre, but for all the frivolity convincing enough to make a good case in support of Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law: 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'.