Pop-science books

book recommendations

Outside the lab, you can often find me reading books about science (or listening to them on my commute). There are a lot of really bad pop-science books out there—I’ve read some of them, unfortunately, which is how I know they’re so bad—but there are also a lot of terrific ones. Here are some of my favorites. I like these because they actually walk you through the relevant research, but they don’t dive so deep into the weeds that it’s impossible to follow unless you’re a specialist. And they’re written by people who know what they’re talking about, either because they’re real scientists in the field or because they’ve done extensive careful research on the topic and stick closely to the facts.

I am always interested in book recommendations! If you know of a great pop-science book, please do shoot me an email, I'd love to hear your suggestions. Same if you're interested to know what I think of a book that's not listed here, especially if it's about language or animal communication—I probably have an opinion to share.

A different kind of pop science book, this contains 100 brief reflections by well-known psychologists about the scientific discoveries that made them famous. Some of them tell you about the nuts and bolts of the discovery, while others spend the time reflecting on the factors that contributed to their successful careers. But all of the essays are concise, accessible, and fascinating. (My mom loves this book!)

Possibly my favorite popular science book of all time, this is written by Dr. Abigail Marsh, a Georgetown professor and expert in the neural bases of extraordinary altruism and sociopathic behavior. This is partly the fascinating story of her career, and partly a scientifically rigorous yet accessible overview of the research in this field. I found it gripping from start to finish.

You’ll need a strong stomach for this book, but if you’ve got one, I *highly* recommend it. Mary Roach is a hilarious narrator of the fascinating, important, and sometimes absurd research that's done with cadavers. (It's not just dissection!) Maybe don’t read this if you've recently experienced a loss or know someone who died in a car or airplane crash. I personally found her writing quite respectful, but could see room for disagreement.

Another one by Mary Roach. This one is all about the behind-the-scenes research that enables human space travel. Lots of funny anecdotes about zero-gravity experiments and annoyed astronauts reporting unanticipated problems from space. It’s occasionally gross (NASA has spent a really long time developing ways to work around the gravity-dependence of basic bodily functions) but not nearly as gross as Stiff, and equally funny.

This one isn't really a pop-science book, but in a way it's a book about the effects of radium on the human body—so I'm including it. The data don't come from a research program, but rather from lawsuits, testimony and newspaper interivews with the teenage girls and young women who ingested radium paint as factory workers in the early 20th century. Unlike other books on the topic, this is written from the women's perspective. Horrifying, but absolutely worth a read.

(Currently reading; so far it's GREAT)

This isn't out yet but I'm really looking forward to reading it—it's written by a well-known linguist and should be excellent.