What popular science books have changed the world?

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Half a century ago, biologist Rachel Carson wrote a popular science book that exposed the impact of chemical pesticides on the natural environment and stirred fierce debate in society. Silent Spring was a near instant bestseller, and though Carson died less than two years after it was published, her legacy persists; the work helped to launch the American environmental movement and continues to inspire people today.

Silent Spring is just one example of the profound impact of popular science writing. Science is the most powerful tool we have for analysing and making sense of the world, and there is rich history of books that promote its wider understanding. To celebrate this tradition, and to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring in September, we are asking New Scientist readers to vote for the most influential popular science books – by which we mean those that have had the biggest impact on both science and society.

With the help of a panel of distinguished writers and scientists, we’ve selected a shortlist of 25; now we need your help to winnow these to the top 10. In return, you’ll get a chance to win a set of all 25 shortlisted books. Read more about them below.

The competition is open to New Scientist subscribers and registered users. (Register now for free.) You can vote for up to 10 titles – remember, we’re looking for those that have had the biggest impact. See the full terms and conditions and then have your say!

Purchasing via the Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk links below helps support RDFRS

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 A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)
It is perhaps the best known book on cosmology by the world’s best known scientist. Since it was first published nearly a quarter of a century ago, A Brief History of Time has been translated into at least 40 different languages and sold some 9 million copies.

 

 

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Black Holes and Time Warps by Kip Thorne (1994)
It began as a back-of-an-envelope calculation for his friend Carl Sagan, who was working on the science fiction story Contact and wanted his heroine to travel through space by taking shortcuts through black holes. But initial curiosity turned into much more for theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. As Sagan later told PBS, “I got back a long letter from Kip with about 50 lines of closely reasoned equations.” That letter grew into Black Holes and Time Warps, which explained how time travel might work in a real physical sense. The book became a bestseller, and Contact didn’t do too poorly either: in 1997 it was made into a film starring Jodie Foster.

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Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: A personal history of the atomic scientists by Robert Jungk (1956, first published in German)
The late historian and journalist Robert Jungk was interviewing nuclear scientists for a documentary film about the making of the atomic bomb when he realised he had the makings of an insightful book. As New Scientist Feedback editor John Hoyland points out, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns “massively influenced the anti-nuclear-weapons movement worldwide, and in general, opened the world’s eyes to the onset of the nuclear age and the nuclear arms race”.

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Chaos: Making a new science by James Gleick (1987)
The first popular science book to tackle the emerging field of chaos theory, journalist James Gleick’s Chaos earned the author a Pulitzer prize. Not only did the book bring this complex physics to the public, says our features editor Ben Crystall, “It helped kick-start the subject into a host of other fields”.

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Disturbing the Universe by Freeman Dyson (1979)
A mixture of autobiography, rumination on poetry and philosophy, and exploration of physics and cold war history, Disturbing the Universe is a book unlike any other. As our technology features editor Sally Adee puts it, “Freeman Dyson is the Spiderman of physics: in his autobiography, he makes the case that for scientists in particular, with great power comes great responsibility.”

 

41FWhmVlAJL._SL500_AA300_.jpg Godel, Escher, Bach: An eternal golden braid by Douglas Hofstadter (1979)

Often referred to simply as GEB, Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer prize-winning book looked at the overlapping interests and passions of three brilliant men: mathematician Kurt Godel, graphic artist M. C. Escher and composer and musician Johann Sebastian Bach. “A wonderful integration of science and art,” says Frank Wilczek, who nominated the book for our short list, GEB went on to influence a generation of thinkers. “We need more like this,” Wilczek adds.

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 Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (1997)
Nominated for our list by Steven Pinker, this bestselling book earned University of California, Los Angeles, geographer Jared Diamond a Pulitzer prize. Guns, Germs and Steel examined why modern human societies are so different from each other – with some cultures long relying on industrial processes while others used simpler tools until quite recently. The book is a favourite volume for many public figures, but to Diamond’s recent dismay, they don’t always portray his ideas with the greatest accuracy.

 

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On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
More than 150 years ago English naturalist Charles Darwin wrote up his theory of evolution for a general reader. From old ladies to philosophers, “everybody has read Mr Darwin’s book” Thomas Henry Huxley wrote at the time. Though On the Origin of Species fiercely divided opinion, there was no mistake that it inaugurated “a new epoch in natural history”. The 1859 publication changed the way people understood their own origins and marked the foundation of the field of evolutionary biology.

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The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski (1973)
The book published to coincide with a 13-part television series for the BBC, The Ascent of Man explored and celebrated human ingenuity and inventiveness throughout our history – from the earliest use of tools to breakthroughs in modern science. The work profoundly affected many who read it – including physicist David Deutsch, who nominated the title for our list.

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The Ambidextrous Universe by Martin Gardner (1964)
Of the many books penned by this mathematics and popular science writer, The Ambidextrous Universe, which explores all things symmetrical and asymmetrical, had perhaps the biggest popular impact. A long-time columnist for Scientific American, Gardner’s playful style and infectious enthusiasm for his subjects makes his writing a joy to read.

 

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The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg (1977)
Nominated by Freeman Dyson, The First Three Minutes was one of the first popular science books to bring physics to the public and set the standard for many works to follow. Steven Weinberg wrote this history of the very early stages of the universe, after the big bang, two years before he was awarded a Nobel prize in physics.

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The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker (1994)
The capacity for language is innate for and unique to humans, argues Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct, which helped to bring some of the ideas of fellow scholar Noam Chomsky to a broader audience. The contested ideas aimed to do nothing less than blow out of the water common misconceptions about language, and fuelled a debate that continues to this day.

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The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (1985)
The iconic title of Oliver Sacks’s compendium of clinical experience belies the care, kind humour and expertise employed in its writing. Providing insightful glimpses into the lives of people with disorders such as autism and Alzheimer’s, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat explores big questions of identity and the mind.

 

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The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)
Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene took evolutionary theory to a new level. He argued that an organism’s urge to reproduce is prompted by our genes, which also direct us to favour our relatives, ensuring the survival of shared genes. The work, which has been translated into at least 20 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, also introduced a now familiar cultural idea: the meme.

 

Continue to the New Scientist website for a complete list of all books

Written By: Culture Lab
continue to source article at newscientist.com

10 COMMENTS

  1. There is only one popularization worth considering here ( sorry Professor Dawkins! ) and that is;

    On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection, Or The Preservation Of Favored Races In The Struggle For Life

    A rather long 19th century title to say the least!

  2. I voted, and the three first ones are: 92,9% “
    On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin”; 80,0%  “The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins” and 71,8% “
    A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking”.

  3. I’m in the odd position of being a passionate advocate of science and the scientific method as being the best way to understand the world while finding most scientific writing extremely difficult, terribly dry or even (I hang my head) frankly boring. The fault is mine – I just don’t have that kind of brain. History is my thing, and I find I need a link to humans, or a human to keep me interested – for example I found The Origin of Species daunting but hugely enjoyed the plethora of books about Darwin’s life and impact on contemporary society that came out last year. For this reason Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark is the book that has had the most impact on me, especially as it happened along when I was at a stage in my life when I was emerging from an adolescent, awkward, politically motivated relativism. Query: does a book about the impact and values of science count as ‘a science book’ when it is not concrned with the details of a scientific theory, as with The Selfish Gene?

  4. Malthus? I thought he was only notable in that Darwin read him for a laugh.
    “Brief History” is very famous, but isn’t it a bit out of date now? How about “The Road to Reality” or something else more recent? “The Emperor’s new mind” is kind of interesting, but I’m not sure how much it inspired or has directed research into quantum computation. Similarly “Chaos”. Interesting, but a dead end, no?

  5. I agree with Person, Malthus? Okay, I can see its importance, but the essay itself is a dirge.

    Also agree with Mrkimbo in the sense that the human story is the glue which binds all this together for me. Of which, I particularly liked Holmes’ ‘Age of Wonder’ (?) and, since reading it, cannot hear the name ‘Herschel’ without asking, ‘Which one?’

    In a rush but… some great books on the history of the periodic table, too, again, with a wonderfully human slant – I’ll dig the titles off the shelf later now I’ve worked out how to use the edit function.

    My top three – present company excepted – would be in order of how they affected my life:

    1) ‘The Ascent of Man’. Bronowski’s prose is such that it is difficult to read any line in the book without hearing the man speak them in his umistakenly impassioned tones. A book I’ve given to both my daughters.

    2) ‘Wonderful Life’. Again, many rejoinders regarding the content, but it’s the humanity of the writing that has made me readily give the book away on numerous occasions. I last re-bought it from a charity shop only three weeks ago. I haven’t opened it since but it keeps catching my eye on the bookshelf. It makes me smile to see it there, glad that it’s home.

    3) ‘Guns Germs and Steel’. No materialist can be without this wonderful book. It really blew me away when I first read it. A very powerful book.

    Trouble is it’s hard to know where to stop?

    Sagan’s ‘A Demon Haunted World’ should surely be one of those three?

    What about those fantastic ‘shotgun blast’ books of science?

    Those books that no self respecting understairs toilet should be without?

    Various Angiers books spring to mind, or Bryson’s ‘A Short History of…’, or Gould’s ‘Ever Since Darwin’ – a fantasic compendium of science of which the proprietor of this site once said was; “elegant, erudite, witty, coherent and forceful”.

    I’ll stick to my top three for the vote but can’t help but think they should have gone for the top 100.

    Presently reading ‘Did my Genes Make Me Do It’ – Avrum Stroll (interesting but quite dry) and – one for Mrkimbo here – Richard Cohen’s ‘Chasing The Sun – the epic story of the star that gives us life’ – a door-stop of a book and a right mish-mash of history, myth, and science.

    One final nod to Darwin and ‘Origin’ – who on earth could get to the passage:

    “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers,
    having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that,
    whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of
    gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and
    most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved..”
    (1st Ed. 1859)

    and not wonder how so much could be said so beautifully, and so wonderfully, yet with so few words.

    Anvil.

  6. I’m pretty much on a personal quest to read as many of these titles as I can find. Of the ones I’ve already looked at, I’d say On The Origin of Species must be the most historically influential (because the theory of evolution is easily the most powerful and comprehensive idea in science), but The Selfish Gene is the book I’d actually read again and refer back to happily. I find Victorian prose too often likes long, complex sentences that you can’t read casually without losing the gist, and I’m not a slow reader.

  7. Selfish gene and blind watchmaker would have to feature prominently. But the problem with voting is that the outcome is essentially the ‘the most voted for’. Why people vote is too complex to interpret. Often it is what people think they would like other people to think that they like. Hence extremely
    influential books, despite being flawed, tend not to feature. E.g. Ayn Rand. The most hated, yet widely read, author in history.

    I’d like to see a category more along the lines of ‘books which will eventually change the world, but haven’t done so yet’.

    With an award going to the mothers and grandmothers who attempt to implement those world changes by tending to purchase pop science books on the off chance that their descendants will eventually actually read them and that perhaps it might make a difference. Or at least provide some momentary amusement.

    Richard Dawkins’ books have been extraordinarily influential in the world of economics. Though only in the scientifically oriented area – which is a very tiny subset of most of economics. Economists don’t usually encounter evolutionary theory in their core curriculum. It’s left to birthday gifts from
    grandmothers to arrange to cover this essential contribution to economic theory.

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