Here are some of my favourite popular science books with particularly savvy quotes.
1. A Short History of Nearly Everything
The ultimate eye-opening journey through time and space, A Short History of Nearly Everything is the biggest-selling popular science book of the 21st century, and reveals the world in a way most of us have never seen it before.
"Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly—in you."
2. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Yuval Noah Harari
From a renowned historian comes a groundbreaking narrative of humanity's creation and evolution. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind explores the ways in which biology and history have defined us and enhanced our understanding of what it means to be human.
"Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud."
Yuval Noah Harari
3. The Selfish Gene
The Selfish Gene is a classic exposition of evolutionary thought. It articulates a gene's eye view of evolution, giving centre stage to these immortal units of information in which life is a vehicle for their replication.
"Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes are forever."
4. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
Robert M Sapolsky
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst is a quirky, opinionated and magisterial synthesis of psychology and neurobiology that integrates this complex subject more accessibly than ever. Darwin would have been thrilled.
"Eyes often have an implicit censorious power. Post a large picture of a pair of eyes at a bus stop (versus a picture of flowers), and people become more likely to clean up litter. Post a picture of eyes in a workplace coffee room, and the money paid on the honor system triples. Show a pair of eyes on a computer screen and people become more generous in online economic games.”
Robert M Sapolsky
5. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
Neil deGrasse Tyson
What is the nature of space and time? How do we fit within the universe? How does the universe fit within us? Astrophysics for People in a Hurry brings the universe to us with clarity and wit in bite-size chunks of information.
"What we do know, and what we can assert without further hesitation, is that the universe had a beginning. The universe continues to evolve. And yes, every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the big bang and to the thermonuclear furnaces within high-mass stars that exploded more than five billion years ago. We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out—and we have only just begun."
Neil deGrasse Tyson
6. The Mysterious World of the Human Genome
The Mysterious World of the Human Genome is the ultimate DNA memoir. Learn about the evolution of genomes, the genomes of our ancestors, epigenetics, how DNA works, and the amazing scientific history of the discovery of DNA.
"In April 2015 the human embryo was deliberately engineered in a scientific experiment for the first time. I believe that this is as great a leap as the discovery of gravity by Newton and relativity by Einstein."
7. In the Shadow of Man
In the Shadow of Man is world-renowned primatologist, conservationist, and humanitarian Dr Jane Goodall's account of her life among the wild chimpanzees of Gombe. One of the most enthralling stories of animal behaviour ever written.
"I became totally absorbed into this forest existence. It was an unparalleled period when aloneness was a way of life; a perfect opportunity, it might seem, for meditating on the meaning of existence and my role in it all. But I was far too busy learning about the chimpanzees' lives to worry about the meaning of my own. I had gone to Gombe to accomplish a specific goal, not to pursue my early preoccupation with philosophy and religion. Nevertheless, those months at Gombe helped to shape the person I am today... All the time I was getting closer to animals and nature, and as a result, closer to myself and more and more in tune with the spiritual power that I felt all around... The beauty was always there, but moments of true awareness were rare. They would come, unannounced; perhaps when I was watching the pale flush preceding dawn; or looking up through the rustling leaves of some giant forest tree into the greens and browns and the black shadows and the occasionally ensured bright fleck of blue sky; or when I stood, as darkness fell, with one hand on the still warm trunk of a tree and looked at the sparkling of an early moon on the never still, softly sighing water of Lake Tanganyika."
8. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales features fascinating case histories of patients lost in the bizarre, inescapable world of neurological disorders. Though inconceivably strange, these sympathetic re-tellings are studies of people struggling to live against incredible adversity.
"If we wish to know about a man, we ask 'what is his story--his real, inmost story?'--for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us--through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives--we are each of us unique."
9. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief
Jordan B Peterson
Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief brings together neuropsychology, cognitive science, and Freudian and Jungian approaches to mythology and narrative. The result is a rich theory that makes the wisdom and meaning of myth accessible to the critical modern mind.
"Behavior is imitated, then abstracted into play, formalized into drama and story, crystallized into myth and codified into religion—and only then criticized in philosophy, and provided, post-hoc, with rational underpinnings."
Jordan B Peterson
10. What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Fans of xkcd ask Munroe a lot of strange questions. How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live? If there was a robot apocalypse, how long would humanity last? All new Q&As plus some old favourites are featured in What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions and make for masterpieces of clarity and hilarity.
"Take wrong turns. Talk to strangers. Open unmarked doors. And if you see a group of people in a field, go find out what they are doing. Do things without always knowing how they'll turn out. You're curious and smart and bored, and all you see is the choice between working hard and slacking off. There are so many adventures that you miss because you're waiting to think of a plan. To find them, look for tiny interesting choices. And remember that you are always making up the future as you go."
11. The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It
The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It is the first book to tell the fascinating story of gene therapy. Discover how it works, how patients have been helped and harmed, and how scientists learned from each trial to get to a cure that fixes disease at its genetic root.
"Fledgling medical students learn right away the mantra: when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. It means suspect first the most common explanation for a patient's symptoms. Round up the usual suspects. In Corey's case the horses were night blindness and albinism, then retinitis pigmentosa. Medical geneticists, however, deal almost exclusively with zebras, most of which are caused by mutations in single genes. Even the more familiar among these, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease, are rare compared to conditions that reflect more of an environmental input, such as the common forms of heart disease or emphysema. But understanding how the rare genetic conditions happen can often explain more common ills. For example, the statin drugs that millions of people take to lower cholesterol were developed based on studying the one-in-a-million children who died of familial hypercholesterolemia, their cholesterol so high that it collected in waxy, yellow clumps behind their knees and elbows. Understanding how the mutant gene revved up the body's own cholesterol production suggested ways to induce the opposite effect."
12. Free Will
In writing Free Will, neuroscientist Sam Harris argues how true independent action is an illusion—yet how this truth doesn't undermine morality or social and political freedom. However, it should change the way we think about the big questions in life.
"Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn't choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime—by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?"
13. Thinking, Fast and Slow
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist and Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, takes us on a tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think, revealing where we can and can't trust our intuitions.
"A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact."
14. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
In our so-called information age, pseudoscience is burgeoning. In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan demonstrates how the siren song of unreason is not just a cultural wrong turn but a plunge into darkness that threatens our most basic freedoms.
"Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."