20 of the best popular science books

Philip Ball, author of How Life Works, on what makes a great popular science book, plus our reading list of books that make the cut.

What is the secret of the most successful popular science books? There isn’t one, to tell the truth – but at the same time, it’s a formulation that works pretty well. Promise (ideally in the title) to reveal something “secret” or “hidden” about the world – about the plants, the brain, the universe, you name it – and you have a hook to draw in readers. This is a very old tradition: one of the most popular books for the Middle Ages was called the Secret of Secrets, a mishmash of alchemy, astrology, magic and medicine allegedly written by Aristotle, and audiences couldn’t resist that allure. It might sound a far cry from today’s popular science, but in both cases the promise plays on the fact that nature is often hard to fathom and understand. A good science book will deliver Aha! moments, leaving you feeling the wiser for it. 

Still, there’s no equation or formula that tells you how to do that. Sometimes the trick is to tell a human story, perhaps even with heroes and villains. Sometimes the sheer poetry of the prose is what wins the reader over. Sometimes we delight in mind-boggling ideas, or by contrast in finding the unexpected in the most ordinary or unappealing of places: dust, bacteria, disease. But at the core of the best science books are ideas: they make us think, and perhaps wonder, and we finish them looking at the world afresh.

How Life Works

by Philip Ball

A cutting-edge new vision of biology that proposes to revise our concept of what life is – from Science Book Prize winner and former Nature editor Philip Ball. Today we can redesign and reconfigure living systems, tissues, and organisms. Some researchers believe that ultimately we will be able to regenerate limbs and organs, and perhaps even create new life forms that evolution has never imagined. Incorporating the latest research and insights, How Life Works is a sweeping journey into this new frontier of the nature of life, a realm that will reshape our understanding of life as we know it.

Space Oddities

by Harry Cliff

In Space Oddities, physicist Harry Cliff takes readers on a tour of a baffling universe, discovering odd phenomena that challenge established cosmic theories. Unexplained particle energies are appearing under Antarctic ice, unidentifiable forces are meddling with matter's building blocks, and stars are inexplicably speeding away. Cliff delves into these mind-bending puzzles, meeting scientists seeking answers and questioning if these are natural anomalies or signs of hidden worlds. Through wonder, clarity, and humour, Cliff paves a path to investigate evolving physics and cosmology.

A Brief History of Black Holes

by Dr Becky Smethurst

In her enlightening book, Dr. Becky Smethurst explores the enigmatic phenomenon of black holes, which we orbit along with the Sun in the Milky Way center. From early cosmic observations and massive star collapse, to the famous black hole photographs and her research findings, Dr. Smethurst unravels mysteries. She explains why black holes aren't truly 'black', the dire consequence of 'spaghettification', their resemblance to sofa cushions rather than hoovers, and the future direction within the event horizon. The book reveals secrets of the universe, hidden in black holes.

The Rise and Reign of the Mammals

by Steve Brusatte

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

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.

Wise Animals

by Tom Chatfield

Wise Animals delves into our historical relationship with technology, charting its evolution from rudimentary tool usage and fire mastery to the birth of the computer, internet, and AI. It argues that just like our ancestors, modern children learn and develop alongside their era's technology, signifying our individual and species-wide co-evolution with technology. Rather than viewing technology as a threat, it presents the humanist perspective that we're neither technology's masters nor victims, but it's an integral part of our identity, intertwined with our future.

The Psychology of Stupidity

by Jean-Francois Marmion

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

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

‘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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Genius Within

by David Adam

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

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

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

by Oliver Sacks

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: