Science classes in school – at least when I was growing up – did a lot more harm than good in terms of my scientific literacy and my eagerness to grow it. Laborious, beige textbooks full of graphs and math. Jaded teachers (most of ’em anyways – I did have one or two winners) with all the enthusiasm of a death-row janitor, and subject matter with very little real-life context. I liked the experiments usually, but even those often had a dreadfully high “so what” factor.
Today, science is a keen hobby and a passion of mine. I love anything to do with space – gravity, planets, Mars (especially Mars), exoplanets, Relativity (in my limited capacity to understand it), and all of the wonders of the Universe. But I’m also fascinated by the “how” and “why” behind just about everything… Evolution, climate, chemistry, aeronautics, and just anything I can more-or-less wrap my head around. Which, I’ll admit, isn’t everything. I am not a qualified scientist… Sadly. A PhD of some kind is on my lottery list. But today, I just look for those great books that make science not only easy to grasp, but entertaining as well.
That’s what people who are still scarred by the textbooks don’t usually realise: That the authors who can make what was dreary in school as entertaining and accessible as possible… they’re the ones who become best-sellers. Here are five great books that really expanded my mind, created a strong platform for understanding many others books and principles, and made a life-long science-non-fiction fan out of me.
Note: These are all available in audiobook format from Audible, which is where I got ’em.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
Literally one of – if not the – greatest book I’ve ever read, in all categories; never mind just science. In fact, yep, if I have to choose one, it’s this one. One part history of mankind, one part fascinating chronicle of what we know, what we don’t know, and how we figured it out (or spectacularly failed to do so), and one part masterclass in wit, subtle humour, storytelling and making the mundane relatable.
As my good friend Andrew Parrington said when he recommended it to me, “There is nothing in the whole book you won’t be glad to know after you know it”. Absolute genius, and no scientific background is needed to get stuck in.
Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, by Bill Nye
I loved Bill Nye as a kid. And I love him more so as an adult. Undeniable is a wonderfully told (by Bill himself in the audiobook, which adds a lot), uplifting and inspiring story that puts any skepticism against evolution to bed in an inclusive, welcoming, relatable, friendly, and thorough way.
It’s not a “science vs religion” angle (I’m so sick of ignorant people suggesting or outright stating that it’s some kind of rivalry – science is too busy frying bigger fish to care, and evolution could very well be the paintbrush of a Creator if one did indeed exist). This is just about how evolution works, how emphatically proven it is, the evidence and how overwhelming it is, and a whole bunch of mind-blowing facts told in good humour along the way.
Bill’s follow-up; Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World is really good too. All about how the technologies we have – and some that we’re working on – can cure the planet and its people’s ills, if we just wake up and prioritise it.
Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, by Neil DeGrasse Tyson
I’m using this one as kinda placeholder for all of NDGT’s books. I really like him, even if some people like my very smart buddy Byron think he’s “smug” and “insufferable”. I just think he’s entertaining, captivating and informative, with a child-like enthusiasm and passion that makes him and his love of space infectious. Especially when he’s narrating his own books. Space Chronicles tells the story of what we know, what we’ve done, what we’re on the brink of doing, what we could do if we made it a priority, and why it’s critical that we do so. We need to get people back into space dammit. Proper space. Not just, like, low-Earth orbit.
Why? Because the moon landings ushered in a whole generation fascinated by science. Which directly led to Silicone Valley and so many years of knock-on technology which we take take for granted today. The technology devised for the moon missions alone led to inventions that paid for the whole thing in the long run, economy-wise, many times over. Space is not just fascinating science… it’s good business.
Also check out NDGT’s Death by Black Hole (and Other Cosmic Quandaries), and Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (although that last one is a little more challenging, but reading these others first will sort that out for you, no problem).
Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution (Modern Physics for for Non-Scientists), by The Great Courses
This isn’t a book, strictly speaking. It’s a series of lectures which, together, make up a comprehensive course, intended to take people through the basics, then the meat-and-potatoes, and then some of the finer workings of Einstein’s two famous Theories of Relativity; Special and General.
Both are hard to wrap your mind around. To some extent, very few laypeople ever truly will. Especially General Relativity. That ish will explode your brain. Gravity, time, space-time… it’s not only mind-bending, but space-bending too! Literally. But, this course is digestible, relatable and leaves you with a workable understanding of the gist of things. Enough to know that things are way weirder than you ever imagined. And, to hold your own at a social gathering full of smart people. Excellent as an audiobook, but I understand it’s been transcribed as a book too.
Elon Musk: Tesla, Space-X and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance
This one isn’t, strictly speaking, a book about science. It’s an authorised biography about a man of science, and a truly unique, enigmatic and world-changing mind. I am a big Musk fan, but I know that he cuts a divisive figure. He’s awkward, blunt, almost certainly somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, and he has a really off-beat sense of humour. But, he is utterly driven and his visions for the future (many of which had already come to be by the time this was written, and some of which have done since) are inspiring and give me a great deal of hope.
I desperately want to see successful missions to Mars in my lifetime. Ubiquitous electric cars. Clean Energy. And a future where imagination and ingenuity are the only limitations. Elon does not take “can’t” for an answer. In fact, he’s motivated by it. And, while he’s equal measures lovable goof and insensitive bossy boots, he’s all drive and totally fascinating.
I understand there’s been an update subsequently, as this book was originally published in 2015. It’s a little outdated in terms of where Tesla, Space-X and Solar City are today, but still fascinating as to how it all came to be and as his personal story. And, all the more impressive since so many of his plans at the time of writing have since materialised, almost always with huge success.