Within the first two weeks of January, readers the world over realize with a shudder that they actually have to follow through on their New Year’s resolutions to read more books. A simple promise to yourself becomes a challenge. Which books should you read? In what order? What if you make the wrong choice and waste valuable reading time on a book that underdelivers?
That’s where I come in. I’ve compiled a list of some of the most interesting popular science books out there, guaranteed to inspire and dazzle you, ranging from classics you’ve probably heard of but never read to underrated volumes that you should already be reading.
There are a few books that any popular science reading list should have, and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is chief among them. Although it does have a reputation for being inaccessible if you don’t have a background in astronomy or physics, it can be a very rewarding read if you take your time with it.
That being said, many ordinary notions of space and time just don’t apply to the interesting astrophysics that Hawking tries to describe, like black holes and the Big Bang. Extreme temperatures, pressures, and gravitation create strange conditions we can’t observe on Earth, so it can take a while to imagine what’s being described. Hawking does a good job with what he’s given, but I admit there are moments where he clearly moves too fast. It’s a solid introduction to some very interesting theories about how our universe emerged, but I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to start with something more readable.
Carl Sagan’s Cosmos fits that description. It’s another classic of the genre from a master expositor of science, rich in poetic reflection and scientific detail. The much-loved PBS television series of the same name was created alongside this slim volume. I recommend watching that in addition to reading the book so you can get the full experience of hearing Sagan read his words in his signature warm voice. He brings an irresistible charm to the text that makes every chapter — or episode — resonate.
And two lesser-known books
Cosmos and A Brief History of Time are both about astrophysics and astronomy — the big stuff of physics. At the other end of the spectrum is quantum physics, the world of the very small. Molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles like electrons and quarks are all described by quantum mechanics, and they behave according to very different rules than larger massive objects like stars and planets.
John Gribbin first explained quantum mechanics for a general audience in In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat. He’s written a number of books about quantum mechanics since then, but the original is still one of the best out there. It’s a lively story about how young generations of physicists bucked the trend of their predecessors to lay the foundations for quantum mechanics in the early decades of the twentieth century. Older luminaries like Einstein were famously opposed to some of the probability-based theories being put forward, but the new kids persevered to give us the physics that has led to all modern electronics.
David Albert’s Quantum Mechanics and Experience is not as well known, but it supplements Gribbin’s book very well. The Columbia philosopher of physics casts doubt on many of the ideas Gribbin presents as straightforward, suggesting that while the mathematics behind quantum theory is indisputable, we don’t really understand what it all means.
He quickly goes through some common misunderstandings to reach a big problem in modern physics: how to interpret quantum mechanics. There are many ways scientists have interpreted the same experimental results, which all imply different things about our universe.
For example, many experiments have shown that we can’t definitively calculate some measurable properties of subatomic particles, like their position and velocity, based solely on previous measurements. One interpretation of this says these properties don’t exist in any fixed way until we measure them. Another says that there exist entirely different universes parallel to ours where we could measure these properties differently.
Whichever theory you find most appealing, the fact is that modern physicists still don’t know how to interpret results that are almost a hundred years old — ancient history by today’s standards. Albert does a stellar job of explaining that conundrum.
Even if none of these books seem interesting to you, there are still lots of science titles I didn’t cover. From fungi to fermions, there’s bound to be something up your alley in a bookstore or campus library. May I suggest Gerstein’s popular science collection?
Whatever book you choose, I wish you happy reading!