Whether you teach science or just enjoy learning about the universe we live in, these books should be on your shelves (or digital readers).
Every once in a while, a really keen student will approach me about a topic they're interested in, and I always direct them to popular science books on the subject. I keep a decent-sized collection in my class, including some of my personal books that I'm happy to loan out.
Aside from being just genuinely interesting to read, popular science books are great reference materials for interesting quotes and passages. They also encourage students to read for more than just entertainment, providing deep learning experiences and improving their connection to the subject matter. Of course, sometimes kids just finish a test early and need something to look at.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that there are some books everyone should be familiar with. I'm sure English teachers have their picks among classic literature, but as a scientist and a reasonably informed citizen, these are the books I would recommend that everyone with an interest in science reads at some point in their lives, in no particular order.
Okay, I did say "in no particular order", but this is a great place to start. Bill Bryson shares a fascinating and entertaining account of the Earth and humanity's development from the perspective of a non-scientist. While not especially profound, this book is great for everyone from kids to adults who is just beginning to explore the depths of science. I haven't read his more recent biology-focused book, The Body - A Guide for Occupants, but I'm sure it's worth a look as well.
Enjoyed Bill Bryson's intro to cosmology? Then perhaps you're ready for Stephen Hawking's famous work which paints a far more detailed and scientific view of the universe's creation and expansion. As a renowned astrophysicist instrumental in our discovery and understanding of black holes, you'd expect Hawking's writing to be pretty dull, but instead he has a way of connecting with non-scientists without "dumbing it down". Upper-level physics students should enjoy this one.
A sprawling tale of the universe from beginning to end, with fantastic insights and stories about the people and discoveries that have led to our current understanding of it. Sagan gives us more than just a fact-based retelling of history – he actively shares his thoughts, opinions, and sense of wonder, allowing ethics and sentiment to be considered alongside rigorous scientific inquiry. This is both a timely and timeless book that I hope to share with my kids one day. I also highly recommend the original television series, or the updated versions, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and Cosmos: Possible Worlds, both hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Along the same lines as Cosmos and A Brief History of Time, this book explores our universe as described by one of the best public science figures of our time. It also benefits from being a much more modern publication and features up-to-date knowledge of the cosmos. Besides being an influential astrophysicist, Tyson is a huge fan of the internet, movies, and pop-culture, allowing him to easily connect with young people and the public in order to share his love for all things science. He was also instrumental in revoking Pluto's planetary status a few years back. His book on that topic is enjoyable reading as well.
Historian Yuval Harari provides a human-centered look at how we became the most influential species on the planet, beginning with our roots as hunter-gatherers and ending with speculations about our future. While not exactly focused on science, Sapiens does include plenty of interesting ideas from the perspectives of psychology, sociology, and of course, history.
This is another book not directly related to science, but still very relevant to scientists. It begins with an account of Frankl's experiences in Nazi concentration camps and ends with his attempts to answer some of humanity's deepest questions. I feel that ethics and philosophy are areas often neglected by scientists, to their detriment. As explorers, creators, and inventors, we should always consider how our discoveries could be used and misused, and what we as a species ultimately wish to accomplish.
Gould was a biologist famous for, among other things, the concept of punctuated equilibrium, which defied Darwin's slow and steady model of evolution by suggesting that species can change in quick bursts when selection pressures demand it. In The Mismeasure of Man, Gould challenges the idea that biology, through genetics, determines our fate. IQ testing, racism, and other social divisions are dissected here, in spectacular fashion.
There's little question about the influence this book has had on multiple generations of environmental scientists and activists alike. Rachel Carson, a fellow zoology major and marine biologist, spells out the problems associated with a reliance on pesticides and considers an alternative future. With the continued growth of the human population and industrialized farming, her words are just as relevant now as they were 60 years ago.
Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman's most famous book explores the decision-making process and helps us understand why we often make bad choices. His comparisons between the fast, intuitive mind, and the slow, considered one should be a fascinating read for anyone, although the content can be a little heavy at times.
Charlie D wasn't looking to get famous with his masterpiece on evolution, but famous he became. Since it was first published in 1859, it has never been out of print, a testament to how important this work is, not only to biologists, but to all of humanity. At times, Darwin's old-fashioned language can be a bit much, but as I tell my students, at least it's not Shakespeare!
I was assigned to read this book in my first year studying biology at university, and I've returned to it several times since. Dawkins argues against the group selection models of the time and suggests that genes are very much out for themselves. Far from encouraging bad behaviour, however, he provides compelling biological and mathematical arguments for why animals should cooperate and help others. Also, this is the book that introduced the world to "memes", although I don't think Dawkins had internet cats on his mind when he put forth the idea.
I'm a bit biased on this one, since Chris Hadfield is from my hometown of Sarnia, Ontario, Canada (we even named our tiny airport after him!). Still, this was an excellent read detailing Hadfield's life and career as a three-time Canadian astronaut. His descriptions of the challenges he has faced and the mindset he developed as a result of his experiences is valuable to everyone on Earth, and any other planet too.
Want to understand relativity and the nature of spacetime? Good luck! You're going to need it. If you insist, however, you might as well hear it from the man himself, Einstein. This will be beyond what most of your students can handle, but with a bit of focus and more than a little imagination, I think it's a worthwhile challenge for all science enthusiasts.
If Einstein was too much for you, you'll appreciate this humorous scientific take on everyday questions, answered by a former NASA rocket scientist and the creator of one of my all-time favourite (if poorly illustrated) internet science comics, xkcd. My students love this book, and each question is answered in thrilling, and as far as I can tell, fairly accurate scientific detail. There's even a part 2 out now!
This is the only science fiction book on my list, but it deserves a spot among these great works since it is a near flawless example of hard sci-fi (realistic fiction). The story focuses on astronaut Mark Watney, stranded on Mars for years as he attempts to survive and get rescued. The movie featuring Matt Damon was alright, but the book goes to fabulous scientific lengths to explain Watney's thought processes and engineering feats. There's some mild language, so if you want to use it with your classes you might want to consider the classroom edition, but c'mon. I've read some of the books assigned in English class. This is pretty tame by comparison.
Of course, there are dozens of other books I could have included here from across the scientific spectrum. Looking through my collection while making this list, I was surprised to find that I don't have anything that really appeals to chemists, so I'll have to do something about that. Otherwise, I hope you're inspired to read some of these amazing books and, if you're a science teacher, include them in your library or classroom collections.
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