Does science ruin the magic of life? In this grumpy but very charming monologue, Robin Ince makes the argument against with the idea that the more we learn about the astonishing behaviour of the universe, the more we stand in awe.
I love Popular Science as a genre – having a science background myself, I am passionate about encouraging everyone to have a better understanding of science, and of becoming more aware of its place in everyday life. I also love anything that shows off the quirky nerdy humour that I know many scientists and engineers have! The best science books often combine in-depth research, stranger-than-fiction facts and a cracking narrative – here’s the pick of the recent crop:
Humble Pi: a Comedy of Maths Errors by Matt Parker
Matt Parker is a mathematician and a comedian, and he uses both skillsets to great effect in Humble Pi, a book about the maths that is all around us – and what happens when you get it wrong. The stories range from trivial and quirky (such as posters where the cogs won’t turn) to potentially deadly (wobbling bridges and NASA disasters); and Matt manages to highlight the funny and entertaining side in all of them. Humble Pi subtly celebrates the importance of maths to science and engineering, without depressing readers about being “not good at maths”.
When the Dogs Don’t Bark: a Forensic Scientist’s Search for the Truth by Angela Gallop
Angela Gallop has had an extraordinary career as a forensic scientist. In over 40 years, she has worked on a string of high profile cases that made significant advances to forensics and criminal law. When the Dogs Don’t Bark is her memoir of how science has helped to uncover the truth behind some shocking crimes. While the sensational details showcase her amazingly analytical mind, Angela is also keen to educate her readers about the risks of relying on forensic evidence too heavily. When the Dogs Don’t Bark will appeal to fans of True Crime and police procedurals, while its level of technical detail should engage science buffs. The Guardian newspaper also considers it an essential resource for aspiring crime writers!
The Wisdom of Wolves: How Wolves can Teach Us to be More Human by Elli H. Radinger
Wolves get pretty bad press in many cultures, and Elli Radinger is out to show everyone that they are not as Big & Bad as we’ve previously heard. Drawing on 25 years’ of observations, The Wisdom of Wolves describes the social structures and behaviours of wolf packs and shows how similar they are to human societies. The stories of how the entire pack helps to care for their young and their elderly; how the grownups teach their young to play; and how key decisions are made by females and the elderly, are heartwarming and offer surprising insights into kinship and parenting.
Why Can’t We Sleep? by Darian Leader
Sleep. It is a human necessity that has become a luxury in our busy world – so much so that there is an ever-growing industry helping us get the quantity and quality of sleep we want/need. Why Can’t We Sleep? is a timely examination of this hot topic – weaving together a history and critique of sleep research, with neuroscience, psychology, and the social, cultural and economic significance of sleep. This is psychoanalyst Darian Leader’s complex, intelligent, yet highly readable story on how and why humans sleep.
Guns, Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs and Steel is a hugely influential book that helped to establish Popular Science as a genre. Jared Diamond examines why some civilisations are more successful than others, in terms of wealth and political power, despite no inherent advantage in genetics or intelligence. He theorises that the tools of success are guns (superior weapons for military might); germs (Eurasian diseases weakening local populations, making them easier to conquer) and steel (advanced technology facilitating imperialism) – and that they all arose from environmental conditions that allowed early adoption of agriculture. Drawing together ideas from history, geography, economics and anthropology, Guns, Germs and Steel offers compelling theories and surprising insights into the development of societies.
Influenza: the Quest to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History by Dr Jeremy Brown
The deadliest disease in recorded history was the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed up to 100 million people worldwide. A century later, scientists are still searching for a cure – and an understanding of why this strain disproportionately affects young, apparently-healthy people. Dr Jeremy Brown uses the Spanish flu pandemic as the starting point of his history of our fight against this ubiquitous yet still deadly virus. Readers are swept along by this tense mystery/thriller as we begin to understand the high stakes involved – the ‘flu’s ability to spread widely and mutate repeatedly still cause thousands of deaths each year, with widespread social, political and economic consequences, and yet there is still no “bullet-proof” cure or vaccine in sight.
Great science books are far more than just dry factual texts; they inspire, educate, delight, warn and provoke us as much as they inform. As the saying goes “truth is stranger than fiction” and the finest science reads entertain — even shock — as well as give us a deeper understanding of the world around us.
One of the most popular science books of our generation is Cosmos by the late Professor Carl Sagan. First published in 1980, this bestseller was a trailblazer in bringing science books to the attention of the general public and outlined the link between science and our civilisation.
Released in conjunction with a thirteen-part TV series, Cosmos retains its immense popularity even today. In 2013, the book was re-released with an essay by science guru Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Prof. Sagan had the rare gift of being able to communicate his love for physics and astronomy and his groundbreaking works remain some of the most wonderful books ever written in the science genre.
Sagan died in 1996 however the mantle of explaining science to the general public in an exciting and interesting way has been taken up by a host of younger science authors. One of the foremost amongst these has been Dr Brian Cox.
A physicist like Sagan, Dr Cox also shares a deft touch with the medium of television and has hosted a number of science programmes. These have been credited with the explosion of interest in physics in universities in the United Kingdom. He has co-written a number of science books that explain complex scientific ideas in accessible and informative language. One of the most popular is Why Does E=mc2?
One of the major scientific breakthroughs of this century was the detection of gravitational waves by scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States. Predicted by Einstein in 1915, these are ripples in spacetime that are the “echo” of a Big Bang-type event.
Science journalist and author Marcia Bartusiak explains the nature of Einstein’s work in her 2000 work Einstein’s Unfinished Symphony: Listening to the Sounds of Space-Time. The book delves into the complexities of relativity, yet does so in such a way as to make the subject interesting, stimulating and relevant.
Great science books can also change our thinking and alert us to impending disasters. Two examples are Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, — which alerted readers to the dangers of pesticides — and Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, which tackles climate change, one of the foremost environmental issues of our time.
Though written over forty years apart, both have the power to galvanise people into action and change the world. They inform us powerfully of the dangers of an impending environmental disaster and teach us what needs to be done to avert such catastrophes. Both act as a call to action as well as a guide to scientific thinking and will be talked about for generations to come as books that inspired environmental movements.
For a challenging and enriching explanation of important scientific thinking of our time, it’s hard to beat a well-written book. Whether for a lay person with an interest, or an academic in the field of science, books represent our link to the most important scientific breakthroughs of our time.
No review of these popular texts would be complete without mentioning one of the most fascinating glances into the mind of a genius. This was the slim volume A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, and was, in essence, an exploration into some of the theories that underpin the concept of spacetime and the cosmos by one of our generation’s greatest minds.