18 of the best popular science books

From the science of why we dream to how science can actually make you more intelligent, here is a selection of some of our favourite popular science books.

From finding the formula for success to uncovering the secrets behind your dreams, popular science books are proving truly groundbreaking.

Even for those of us who never paid attention to biology in school, these books will finally open the doors to understanding the wonders of the universe – and learning everything from where our emotions come from, to how science might actually save the world from the dangers of climate change.

Here are some of the most exciting popular science books that you’ll need on your bookshelf this year.

The Rise and Reign of the Mammals

by Steve Brusatte

Book cover for The Rise and Reign of the Mammals

In The Rise and Reign of the Mammals, palaeontologist Steve Brusatte weaves together the history and evolution of our mammal forebears with stories of the scientists whose fieldwork and discoveries underlie our knowledge, both of iconic mammals like the mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers of which we have all heard, and of fascinating species that few of us are aware of. For what we see today is but a very limited range of the mammals that have existed; in this fascinating and ground-breaking book, Steve Brusatte tells their – and our – story.

The Last Drop

by Tim Smedley

Book cover for The Last Drop

Water scarcity is the next big climate crisis. Water stress – not just scarcity, but also water-quality issues caused by pollution – is already driving the first waves of climate refugees. And yet in recent years some key countries have been quietly and very successfully addressing the problem. How are Singapore and Israel, for example – both severely water-stressed countries – not in the same predicament as Chennai or California? Award-winning environmental journalist Tim Smedley explores how we can mend the water table that our survival depends upon, offering a fascinating, universally relevant account of how we've got here and suggesting practical ways to address the crisis, before it’s too late.

The Psychology of Stupidity

by Jean-Francois Marmion

Book cover for The Psychology of Stupidity

Edited by Jean-François Marmion, this dissection of stupidity is brought to you by some of the brightest brains around, including a Nobel Prize winner. The Psychology of Stupidity explains how lazy thinking leads to bad decisions, why even smart people can believe nonsense, how media manipulation makes us all dumber, and the pitfalls of trying to debate with a fool.

Psychedelic Apes

by Alex Boese

Book cover for Psychedelic Apes

Psychedelic Apes is a deep dive into a black hole. What if we are all living inside one and we just don't realise? What if we are the extraterrestrials? What if the dinosaurs were wiped out in a nuclear war? Bestselling writer Alex Boese looks at the strange subculture of wacky scientific ideas, and shows how some of them may be closer to reality than we think . . . 

How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch

by Harry Cliff

Book cover for How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch

‘If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.’ - Carl Sagan. Inspired by Sagan’s famous line, Harry Cliff ventures out in search of the ultimate apple pie recipe, tracing the ingredients of our universe through the hearts of dying stars and back in time to a tiny fraction of a second after our universe began. If you've ever wondered what matter is really made of, or how our world began after the Big Bang, or what the very first moments of our universe looked like – then this is the book for you.

Life's Edge

by Carl Zimmer

Book cover for Life's Edge

What exactly does it mean to be alive? Carl Zimmer examines the borders – if there are any - that surround the 'living world' and deftly summarises the many previous attempts to define 'life'. Whether searching for unique wildlife across the planet or making his own attempt to create life in a test tube, Zimmer tackles the fundamental question at the core of many social issues - when do we declare someone legally dead? When does life begin? Life's Edge is an utterly absorbing investigation by one of the greatest science writers of our generation. 


by Jackie Higgins

Book cover for Sentient

Sentient assembles a menagerie of zoological creatures – from land, air, sea and all four corners of the globe – to understand what it means to be human. Through their eyes, ears, skins, tongues and noses, the furred, finned and feathered reveal how we sense and make sense of the world, as well as the untold scientific revolution stirring in the field of human perception.

Until Proven Safe

by Geoff Manaugh

Book cover for Until Proven Safe

Until Proven Safe tracks the history and future of quarantine around the globe, chasing the story of emergency isolation through time and space.  Part travelogue, part intellectual history – a book as compelling as it is definitive, and one that could not be more urgent or timely.

The Sleeping Beauties

by Suzanne O'Sullivan

Book cover for The Sleeping Beauties

In Sweden, refugee children fall asleep for months and years at a time. In upstate New York, high school students develop contagious seizures. In the US Embassy in Cuba, employees complain of headaches and memory loss after hearing strange noises in the night.

These disparate cases are some of the most remarkable diagnostic mysteries of the twenty-first century, as both doctors and scientists have struggled to explain them and – more crucially – to treat them. 

Inspired by a poignant encounter with the sleeping refugee children of Sweden, neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan travels the world to visit other communities who have also been subject to outbreaks of so-called ‘mystery’ illnesses.


Book cover for Wayfinding

Bond explores why some of us are so much better at finding our way than others. He also tackles the controversial subject of sex differences in navigation, and tries to understand why being lost can be such a devastating psychological experience. Discover how our brains make ‘cognitive maps’ that keep us orientated, even in places that we don’t know, and how our understanding of the world around us affects our psychology and behaviour.

Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain

by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Book cover for Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain

In seven short essays about that big grey blob between your ears, neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett explores the origins and structure of the brain, as well as shelving popular myths about the alleged battle between thoughts and emotions, or between nature and nurture. Sure to intrigue casual readers and scientific veterans alike, the book is full of surprises, humour and revelations about human nature.

The Formula

by Albert-László Barabási

Book cover for The Formula

Did you always think success was just down to luck? It turns out, there’s a lot more science to it than that. In The Formula, Barabasi has discovered the indisputable scientific laws that actually dictate who gets ahead and why.

Why We Dream

Book cover for Why We Dream

We can all be guilty of reading too much into our dreams – but in this book, Alice Robb finally reveals what they actually mean, how we can control them, and the incredible impact they can have on the rest of our waking lives.

She Has Her Mother's Laugh

Book cover for She Has Her Mother's Laugh

The rise of websites like 23andMe shows that people are getting more interested than ever in who they are, where they come from, and what they inherited from their ancestors. Carl Zimmer’s book shines a brand new light on this question, examining not only the genes that we pass through the generations, but everything else as well – from microbes to technologies.

The Genius Within

by David Adam

Book cover for The Genius Within

What if you have more intelligence than you realize? Dr David Adam has been testing the exciting boundaries of neuroscience, and he’s here to show you how science can actually make your brain sharper, more focused, and even more intelligent.

How Emotions Are Made

by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Book cover for How Emotions Are Made

Our understanding of emotion hasn’t changed since Plato: we believe that emotions are hardwired into our brains, and we’re just taken along for the ride. But what if this view is wrong? And what implications does this have for society? When judges give lesser sentences for crimes of passion, when police officers fire at threatening suspects, what if they’re all relying on a dangerously outdated view of emotion?

The Wizard and the Prophet

by Charles C. Mann

Book cover for The Wizard and the Prophet

Never has the future of our planet been so pressing as it is today. As global temperatures soar, the population races towards ten billion, and our food sources threaten to run out, The Wizard and the Prophet weighs up the crucial perspectives of two little-known scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. Vogt, the Prophet, believes that our prosperity can only lead to ruin – but Borlaug, the Wizard, believes science will continue to rise to the challenges we face.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Book cover for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is the million-copy bestseller from the acclaimed neurologist, Oliver Sacks, a man the New York Times called 'the poet laureate of medicine'. In this extraordinary book, he recounts the stories of patients lost in the bizarre, apparently inescapable world of neurological disorders.

For even more pop science book recommendations, check out this episode of Book Break with guest host Simon Clarke: