1. says

    I still haven’t found time to finish Christiane Nusslein-Volhard Coming To Life, but the portions I read were both clear and interesting. John Conway and Richard Guy’s The Book of Numbers is excellent for engaging the ol’ abstract-thought circuits and eroding away the math phobia. For sheer fun factor, I have to recommend Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy.

    Oh, and anything by Larry Gonick.

  2. DiscGrace says

    Someone gave me a copy of Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex recently – I thought it was awesome, though definitely not intended for the weak of stomach. Also, Stiff, by Mary Roach, is an awesome look into what happens to human corpses post-mortem, especially with regard to people who donate themselves to scientific study.

  3. Will E. says

    I’ve really been getting into popular science books–I have no formal education in science so I rely on them to fill in the gaps in my education. Only now am I realizing why Carl Sagan is a giant among popularizers–his Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was, as they say, unputdownable. Recently I enjoyed Simon Singh’s The Big Bang, which may be too basic for some, but as I said, I’ve got no background in this stuff, so it was just right for me (Weinberg’s First Three Minutes sailed over my head). And I know he’s criticized here, but I found Pinker’s The Blank Slate to be ripping good read. Otherwise, the usual suspects: Carl Zimmer, Matt Ridley, Dawkins, et. al.

  4. Claire says

    Tim Flannery’s “The Weather Makers” is a very good layman’s explanation of global warming and climate change. Virus Hunter by CJ Peters is a good semi-autobiographical set of stories about emerging viruses. Simon Winchester has a pretty good book that’s sort of a history of geology called “The Map That Changed the World”.

  5. Jeff Chamberlain says

    Here’s two, neither new, which I think deserve more publicity:

    Lewis Wolpert, The Unnatural Nature of Science
    Alan Cromer, Uncommon Sense

  6. Mary Edwards says

    I’ll second Claire’s recommendation of “The Map That Changed the World” and have enjoyed all of Simon Winchester’s books. “Krakatoa” is also very enjoyable. I loved reading “The Coming Plague” by Laurie Garrett.

  7. afarensis says

    The Ape in the Tree: An Intellectual and Natural History of Proconsul by Walker and Shipman is an excellent read – if you like fossil apes…

  8. says

    I would say that Kirschner and Gerhart’s The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemna, was one of the more intellectually stimulating reads I had the pleasure of undertaking this year.

  9. says

    I recommend Rainforest by Thomas Marent: it’s expensive, but the photographs and rainforest soundtrack are worth every penny of it (which was why I bought it at a discount at Border’s).

    I also recommend Mammoths, Sabertooths and Hominids and Evolving Eden by Jordi Agusti and Mauricio Anton… The books are about the evolutionary history of the mammalian megafauna of Europe, and Africa, respectively…
    On the other hand, I read those two mostly for the excellent pictures.

  10. says

    Sean Carroll’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” was a good read and (at least the first part) of D. S. Wilson’s “Darwin’s Cathedral” is a lot of fun (it’s possible that he is a little to sympathetic to religion for your tastes). For recent books in the vein of evolution/religion I think this might be my favorite. Somewhat older, but a book that I liked, Richerson and Boyd’s “Not by Genes Alone”.

    Also, more philosophy than science I guess, Phil Kitcher’s “Science, Truth, and Democracy”. Third edition of Sober’s anthnology “Conceptual Issues in Evo-Bio” is out.

    Also, I’ll say that Guns, Germs, and Steel is excellent (though my guess is that everyone has read it).

    All the best,


    P.S. I’m a big fan of this blog, keep up the good work.

  11. DrSteve says

    The NYTimes just put up a list of the best 100 of the year and among the was “The Ghost Map” – a history of a cholera outbreak and England and the birth of the science of epidemiology.

  12. says

    Martin Brookes: Fly: The Unsung Hero of 20th Century Science.

    Mark Ridley: Evolution: An Oxford Reader, selections from scholarly books and articles for the experienced layman or scholar.

    Randolph Nesse and GC Williams: Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine which contains an excellent look at many common bad ‘designs’ of the human body.

  13. tacitus says

    For astronomy and cosmology then anything by Timothy Ferris is a good read. Really enjoyed “The Whole Shebang:A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report” and his other books ain’t half bad either.

  14. says

    Peter Medawar was a great (science) writer (Dawkins doesn’t hold a candle to his education, wit and style), any of his books could be recommended, but I’ll go with the first ones I read as a student: “Pluto’s Republic: Incorporating The Art of the Soluble and Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought”, “The Threat and the Glory: Reflections on Science and Scientists” and “Memoir of a thinking radish”.

    Gould’s “Wonderful life” and “Full house” explain beautifully the most commonly misunderstood ideas about evolution.

    Sagan’s “Pale blue dot” puts us in cosmic perspective.

    I have to run, feeling guilty about skipping so many great science writers, especially non-English ones.

  15. says

    I really enjoyed Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks, but that’s just because the author is a fascinating guy. The chemistry in the book is pretty basic. Still, for a non-scientist who wants to read about the process of getting interested in science at a young age, I imagine it’d be pretty good.

    Also, in the science/history vein, I just finished reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, and I couldn’t put it down.

  16. says

    Tristram – for the benefit of UK readers, Williams and Nesse’s book is called Evolution and Healing here, rather than Why We Get Sick. I agree that it’s splendid.

  17. says

    The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution (Sean B. Carroll)

    A quick and easy read, definitely targetted at the casual reader. The author assumes the reader is something of a math-phobe and ignorant of basic rules of genetics, but is willing to explain it all. I confess I had never really thought about how a present-day genome can provide pesuasive evidence of evolution — perhaps because evolution seems so self-evident to me. Well worth the time it took to read, especially as it brought up recent discoveries I had not heard of.

  18. says

    If people want to learn modern physics starting from scratch, and reaching a very-well-educated layperson level, I recommend my old grad-school office-mate Mike Munowitz’s Knowing. Mike is the most lucid scientific writer I know.

  19. Silmarillion says

    For someone who’s never been interested in science before, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is a pretty good start. I find it’s one of those books that I can read over and over again and still take away something new from it.

  20. Markk says

    For getting a sense of Time – “Earth”, “Life”, or “Trilobyte” by Richard Fortey are good. To get a sense of a scientific open question and how people are trying to solve it, “Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago” by Erwin is one of the best I have ever read – it has technical detail but is accessible to any educated person. The discussions are open ended and give you a real feel and framework to look at meteorite claims and such. Discussing 50,000 year periods that occurred over a quarter of a billion years ago is kind of mind blowing also.

  21. says

    I’ll second the suggestion of Fly: an experimental life by Brookes. It’s a fun read that really gets you involved in the doing of science, rather than just the results.

  22. Garrett says

    I was really into Up From Dragons: The Evolution of Human Intelligence by John Skoyles and Dorian Sagan. Some freaky revelations in there (and it almost comes across as a very good book on parenting for a couple of chapters in the middle if you’re going to be raising kids soon).

    Bill Bryson’s book mentioned above is less a hardcore science book and more a history book filled with amusing anecdotes about the scientists who came up with these things. There are a few errors in it, but since it’s covering such a wide range of things in a not entirely serious manner it does the job quite well, I think.

  23. J Daley says

    I recently finished, and very much enjoyed, Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation.

    The Earth Moved: On The Remarkable Achievments of Earthworms by Amy Stewart is a fantastic read for anyone who doesn’t have the patience to read Darwin’s On the Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Actions of Earthworms but is still interested in the fascinating lives of these invertebrate savants.

    The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, while not strictly a science book, is an excellent, and very informative treatise on the nature of the North American diet. (Ecology of American cuisine, perhaps?)

  24. G. Tingey says

    For library-ites, and people who want to look EVERYTHING up:

    “The Rubber Bible” … a.k.a. The chemical Rubber Company’s handbook of Chemistry & Physics.
    Republished every year – and about £50 (~= $100 ?)

  25. Warren Terra says

    They aren’t really evolution books as such, but I’d heartily recommend the following books for the lay reader:

    Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day Of Creation – it really is the great book for learning the basis of molecular biology, and where it came from. Completely appropriate for anyone.

    For someone who’s read Eighth Day ind is still interested – at a somewhat higher level – I’d recommend Phage And The Origins Of Molecular Biology

    For anyone with an interest in experimental genetics:
    Sturtevant’s History Of Genetics
    Lords Of The Fly (can’t remember the author)

    All of these should be available used, say through abebooks.

  26. yagwara says

    When I was about 12, W.Kaufmann’s Black Holes and Warped Spacetime changed my life. Stellar evolution, black holes, and the big bang, in simple language but with real content missing from books like A Brief History of Time. Slightly out of date but that is part of its charm.

    As a corrective to the oversimplified view of stellar evolution in that book, P.Kaler’s The Hundred Greatest Stars is just beautiful. Gives a little glimpse of the richness and variety out there. Good for random browsing.

    Definitely not for kids, J.Wheeler’s A Journey into Gravity and Spacetime is a hard, hard book. It is a popular book – there is no mathematics, lots of pictures, and an informal style – but there is real content in this book. Ideal for those who are frustrated with popular accounts of physics and want to to learn more, but who don’t have the mathematics for college texts. If you can make it through this book, you will really understand general relativity – without doing any math.

  27. Mike says

    If it’s a booklist for evolutionists and not just a list of books about evolution per se, then it should include ‘The Pterosaurs: From Deep Time’ by David Unwin. It is packed with scientific wonder, as well as with wonderful pictures that shouldn’t mislead anyone into thinking it is just a coffee table book.

    And if you don’t think the book belongs on the list, read it anyway.

    There will be a quiz.

  28. NJ says

    Geez, and nobody has mentioned John McPhee?

    Basin and Range
    In Suspect Terrain
    Rising from the Plains
    Assembling California

    Or get ’em all together as
    Annals of the Former World

    McPhee weaves together science, history and culture in a fashion that authors like Simon Winchester (whom I like, don’t get me wrong) can only begin to imitate.

  29. says

    PZ is a forward-thinker — at least I would hope so.

    Title: Linking physiological mechanisms of coherent cellular behaviour with more general physical approaches towards the coherence of life
    Author(s): Jaeken L (Jaeken, Laurent)
    Source: IUBMB LIFE 58 (11): 642-646 NOV 2006
    Document Type: Article
    Language: English
    Cited References: 25 Times Cited: 1
    Abstract: Schrodinger pointed out that one of the most fundamental properties of life is its coherent behaviour. This property has been approached from a physiological point of view by Ling in his ‘association-induction hypothesis’ and extended by Pollack (gel-sol theory), by Chaplin and by Kaivarainen (detailed studies of cellular water). The question of coherence has also been attacked from general physics in three independent approaches: from non-linear thermodynamics (Frohlich), from quantum field theory (Del Giudice and his group) and from quantum mechanics (Davydov). In this paper all these approaches are unified. The emerging picture constitutes a new paradigm of life.
    Author Keywords: coherence; association-induction hypothesis; gel-sol transition; Bose condensation; Frohlich wave; Davydov soliton; cytoskeleton
    Addresses: Jaeken L (reprint author), Karel GroteHogesch Univ Coll, Dept Ind Sci & Technol, Biochem Lab, Salesianenlaan 30, B-2660 Antwerp, Belgium
    Karel GroteHogesch Univ Coll, Dept Ind Sci & Technol, Biochem Lab, B-2660 Antwerp, Belgium

    E-mail Addresses:

  30. says

    The Magic Furnace – Marcus Chown

    The best account of the history of the discovery of how the elements were formed in stars. A real page turner IMHO.

  31. bernarda says

    First, two books by James Gleick, “Chaos: Making of a New Science” and “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman”.

    Second, by Richard Feynman, “What do you care what other people think?”

    Third, if you are into mathematics, there are several good books by Ian Stewart such as “From Here to Infinity”.

    Another mathematician, John Allen Paulos also has several good books such as “Once Upon a Number”; “Innumeracy”; “Beyond Numeracy”. He writes, as does Stewart, in an engaging and accessible style with good anecdotes.

  32. says

    It’s by no means a recent book, but I’m in the middle of “Genome” by Matt Ridley and as a physicist I’m blown away by the clarity with which he writes about genetics.

  33. says

    I’d second Richard Fortey’s Earth (haven’t read his other books but looking forward to doing so); I also am quite enjoying A People’s History of Science by Clifford Conner.

  34. says

    Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences by Edward Tenner is one of the most underrated science books ever. Check it!

  35. jeff says

    I would recommend “Right Hand, Left Hand: the Origins of Assymetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms and Cultures” by Chris McManus. I found it very interesting.

  36. CCP says

    said that already…
    McPhee! somebody else said that already…
    For more biological (less geological) McPhee, see The Founding Fish

  37. David Ratnasabapathy says

    The Seashell On The Mountaintop by Alan Cutler is a fascinating read.

    Nicolas Steno’s the guy who, 400 years ago, realized that the fossil record can be used to probe the history of the Earth. The book uses the story of his life as a vehicle to explain the basic science behind geology. Excellent for total beginners.

    Also recommended: Charles Lyell’s Student’s Elements of Geology. It’s out of date of course; but if you’re an interested non-geologist that doesn’t matter. The book’s a lucid introduction to geology. If you want to know how we can be certain that the earth is hundreds of millions of years old (at least): read this book.

  38. says

    I’m not really jealous that you’ve got so many readers over here, P.Z., but my request for recommendations for good history books, over at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, isn’t doing nearly so well as this one.

    But there is one fine science-like book in history that I think scientists should read: Rats, Lice and History, by Hans Zinsser. Zinsser is the guy who first isolated the typhus bug and came up with a vaccination for it. He details the history of disease and how humans deal with it, in extremely entertaining fashion.

    It was recommended to me first by a lit professor, and since then I’ve had it recommended by many literature nuts, but only a few scientists.

    More scientists should read it. Heck, more people of all stripes should read it. It’s great science and great literature, all at once.

  39. William says

    Didn’t think of this earlier since it’s an older book, but National Geographic’s Picture Atlas of Our Universe was quite possibly the book I read as a youngster which made me love astronomy and the mysteries of science. Big, hardcover, full color, simply organized. You’ll have to buy it used, but it’s a fantastic coffee-table book that adults and kids can enjoy.

  40. AnthonyK says

    I can’t believe no one’s yet mentioned E.O.Wilson! What about “The Diversity of Life” or – less biological – “Consilience”. He writes superbly. And btw make sure you don’t get the other E.Wilson as his books contain little science……

  41. CCP says

    Zinsser! Yes!
    E.O.Wilson!! Hell yes!

    Another recommended author: Bernd Heinrich. His many books span comparative physiology, animal behavior, bioenergetics, natural history (old school), and taxa from bees to ravens to humans…great stuff.

  42. says

    There are several books I’d recommend. Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is probably a good intro to science for beginners, as is Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Slightly more technical/specialized would be Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and of course Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. I enjoyed Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel too. There are many more, of course, but there are so many excellent books I haven’t read. If magazines count, I highly recommend Scientific American.

  43. says

    I just finished “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” by Sagan. It’s the only book I’ve read recently that was as hard to put down as one of Dawkins’ books. It would be a good book to give to someone who might be offended by “The God Delusion”, but it’s by no means apologetic to religion.

  44. Thinker says

    My recommendations are for the generally interested public, not for specialists.

    Matt Ridley

    1. Genome (the autobiography of a species in 23 chapters)
    2. Nature via Nurture

    I think I heard that the latter of these was also published under a different title, so you may have to check around a bit.

    Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything

  45. Sara says

    If an English Major who enjoys reading evolution/paleontology books can throw some in….

    “Parenting for Primates” by Harriet Smith is an interesting look at cross-species parenting practices.

    I know its *very* “general public,” but I thought “Before the Dawn” was an interesting read as well… the author is a NYT science writer.

    Carl Zimmers “at the Water’s Edge” had me fascinated *and* managed to help me understand HOX genes in a way that my biologist husband hadn’t been able to.

    Richard Fortey’s “Life: A natural history of the first 4 billion years on earth” gave me a really good overview of current knowledge across all periods – in my previous self-educating phased I’d concentrated on the Jurassic/Cretaceous and didn’t know much about the Cambrian/PreCambrian. That was a fun read for me.

  46. says

    Thanks to llewelly for recommending my reviews ( ) and my tie-it-yourself trademark bowtie. I have reviews of many of the books mentioned in this great thread.

    I have a mailing list that gets roughly once a month messages about additions to the site, plus occasional extras like my recent short list of books for gift-giving. A link to subscribe is on the Science Shelf main page ( ). I do not share the mailing list with anyone for any reason.

    I just today added a review of THE SCIENTIST AS REBEL by Freeman Dyson at

    For 2006 book reviews, most recent first, go to

  47. says

    The last science book I read was Maxwell’s (yes, that Maxwell’s) Theory of Heat, which is quite interesting. One thing that amazed me is that even in his time they were talking of electric thermometers. Another bit of note is that he shows how science fits together and is not isolated fact statements – Wilson/Whewell’s consilience, illustrated. I have a few more remarks on the book at my website here, if anyone wants to look.

    Someone mentioned Science, Truth and Democracy – may I ask, don’t yoiu find that Kitcher relies too much on predicting the outcome of a piece of research, which is impossible?

  48. says

    I’ve just started The Machinery of Life by David S. Goodsell. It’s an introduction to cells and what’s in them, and is lavishly illustrated in black and white.

    I’m getting a good vibe so far: he talks about the way the world of the cell is different from our ordinary experience (e.g., brownian motion is an important factor, while gravity is mostly negligible). The illustrations are all in a consistent style, and are all at a small set of magnifications, so that they can easily be compared.

    At 130 pages, obviously it can’t do more than provide an introduction to the world of the cell, but it’s still useful for a layman.