7 of the most popular science books of all time

A primer on the infinite of knowledge waiting to be learned.

  • Chaos theory, evolution and the cosmos make for an eye-opening read.
  • Carl Sagan paints a sagacious picture of humanity's place in the universe.
  • Great scientists give us a glimpse into their minds and their theories.

Scientists have been sleuthing through the mysteries and secrets of the universe since humankind first started asking questions. Just what is going on in this grand amphitheater of reality? The courageous and curious sometimes leave their ivory towers to translate their arcane works into a more readable and digestible format.

Popular science books are an excellent way to get a grasp on a number of complex topics. They're also great starting points for people looking to dig deeper and learn more of the nitty gritty of the science itself. The wonders and observations from both inner and outer space and beyond is a clarion call for the reader that seeks to know more about how things work in the world.

From Charles Darwin to Stephen Hawking and more, these popular science books are guaranteed to open up new pathways of intellectual growth and curiosity.

A Brief History of Time

Stephen Hawking jokingly said that his book the Brief History of Time, is the least-read and most bought book ever. In it, Hawking set out to give a broad overview of what he knew and supposed to know in the wide realm of physics.

He goes on to explain the Big Bang and its connection to relativity, while also examining string theory — the idea that the universe is made up of some 10 or 26 dimensions. At some point in the book, he declares that intelligent beings can only exist during the expansion phase of a universe. Hawking makes this a thrilling read for the popular science book fan, as there isn't a single equation in sight.

On the Origin of Species

The first edition of Charles Darwin's seminal evolutionary book, The Origin of Species, was first published in 1859. For such a massive book and game changing scientific tome, it was actually written to be read by the general public.

The central thesis and without denial, fundamental fact of reality, evolution by natural selection remains one of the most important and mind-expanding discoveries we've ever realized. The beginning of the book sets the scene and slowly explains the basis of natural selection, at times it feels as if this could be found in a modern biology textbook.

This revolutionary idea is even more astounding when you realize that back in the 1800s, the concept of genetics didn't exist and there was no known science connecting the myriad of species together under one life-force. Darwin uncovered a fascinating and awe-inspiring fundamental fact of biology. It is so profound that geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously once said, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Carl Sagan, renowned science popularizer, sets out to explore our brief foray into the infinite. In this book, Sagan suggests that the human species and all of its biosphere's survival may depend on us spreading to the stars. Sagan seeks to show how the many scientific discoveries throughout the years has changed the perception we hold of ourselves and our place in the vast cosmos. It's worth excerpting Sagan's famous Pale Blue Dot quote in full, as he succinctly sums up how important cosmic perspective is for this little group of primates rotating together on this speck of blue:

"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar,' every 'supreme leader,' every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

The Selfish Gene

Before Richard Dawkins was known as an dogmatic atheist, he wrote The Selfish Gene, which would turn out to be one of the first major popular science books. It's an incredibly poetic take on the subjects of genetics and evolution. Aside from Darwin, previous attempts to explain evolutionary processes and genetics had been largely academic and devoid of any popular understanding.

Dawkins manages to argue his idea that genes are the real drivers of evolution and a kind of immortality. To Dawkins, species and the individuals are mere vehicles for the gene, so they are in a sense just tools to propagate the gene. Before Dawkins put forth this idea, the general consensus was that natural selection hones its behavior in favor of keeping the individual creature or species alive. Try to take the idea metaphorically, as Dawkins' The Selfish Gene tends to border on the metaphysical at times.

Infinite in all Directions

Freeman Dyson has lived a long life as an incredible scientist. In Infinite in All Directions, Dyson's inquiries spread far and wide to the diversity of species on Earth to the infinitesimal workings of the universe and wonders about humanity's place in the cosmological scheme of things.

Originally presented as a sequence of lectures given in Scotland in 1985, the book does tend to reference some events of the time. Most of the topics from the lecture have been reworked into book form and cover a wide breadth of disciplines. Dyson gives a special dissertative focus on nuclear disarmament as well.

Chaos: Making a New Science

James Gleick gives a cursory introduction on the actual science of chaos. After that he goes on to account for the many scientists who laid the foundation for this science. Their trials and tribulations make up the majority of this book.

Gleick manages to convey an interesting aspect of chaos theory that serves as a gateway to more advanced topics and possibly a meandering walk into game theory. The main idea is as follows: the most innocuous and minute change in initial conditions will lead to unpredictable if not drastic changes in the later output. An example of this is the oft repeated Butterfly Effect, where the flapping of a butterfly's wings could go on to cause a storm some few thousand miles away. Chaos theory is in a sense an all-encompassing aspect of anything in existence and so touches everything from mathematics, biology and to even manmade ideals, such as finance or economics.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Thomas Kuhn sought to change the cliched perspective of the diligent scientist slowly working with his bin of unquestionable facts, hypothesizing, experimenting, accumulating knowledge in incremental steps and then… aha! Discovery. No, the structures of scientific revolution doesn't come from the status quo set of accepted scientism caste book — they emerge from what Kuhn calls a paradigm.

A paradigm is a cultural and scientific communally accepted background all scientists adhere to. It is a set of assumptions, theories, and biases in which all new scientific evidence must first pass through before new discoveries are reworked into new hypotheses about reality. Kuhn believed that what we call science is just "filling in the details," after a paradigm has been set.

Kuhn challenges the concept of scientific process and considers it rather to be a shift of paradigms in which we radically change our view of the world. Think for example, the Copernican revolution, Einstein's theories or quantum physics. After enough time, the paradigm will play out to its final conclusion before being disregarded for a newer and more comprehensive paradigm — that one, too, is liable to one day be usurped by more compelling arguments.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Trauma in childhood leads to empathy in adulthood

It's not just a case of "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Mind & Brain

  • A new study suggests children who endure trauma grow up to be adults with more empathy than others.
  • The effect is not universal, however. Only one kind of empathy was greatly effected.
  • The study may lead to further investigations into how people cope with trauma and lead to new ways to help victims bounce back.
Keep reading Show less
Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less