Popular Science Books

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With Science Alive coming up here at the Main Library on February 2nd, I’ve been wondering which areas of science adult Americans are interested in and what scientific developments we typically take the time to read about in our limited spare time. The New York Times bestseller list seemed liked a good place to investigate this question, since it tells us which books are being read by large numbers of people.

I found that although a large percentage of books on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list are biographies or about politics, history or economics, several excellent science books appeared on the list this past year. Moreover, many of these books stayed on the list for several weeks. A glance at the titles on the list shows that the majority of these very popular science books have something in common. Most of them are about our minds and the sources of our behavior and abilities, and perhaps more importantly, how to change our behavior and develop our abilities. Two others tell us about the world around us. One focuses on where the universe came from, and the other explains how to make accurate predictions about the future. The final, and possibly the most popular, book seems to be in a category of its own, and discusses advances in medical science and raises the question of ethics in the pursuit of these advances. Often people consider science as abstract or theoretical; however, taken as a group, one thing the books on the list show is how relevant science is to our daily lives.

If you are interested in the issues described above, here are some great science books from The New York Times bestseller list that you might like to try. Click on the titles to check for availability at the St. Joseph County Public Library.  Please note that several of them are available not only as print books, but also as e-books, audiobooks and e-audiobooks.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells about a woman who suffered from cancer and whose cells are still being used all over the world to study cancer and other diseases. The use of the cells has advanced medical science, and yet their use may not have been ethical as they were used without the consent of the person they were taken from. This book is the One Book One Saint Mary’s title this year at Saint Mary’s College. We at SJCPL will be hosting a book discussion led by two physicians on January 29th at 6:30 pm at the Main Library, and Saint Mary’s College will host a talk by the author Rebecca Skloot on February 27th.


In The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t, Nate Silver, who has made astoundingly accurate predictions about baseball and about the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, explains how to use statistics effectively to determine what will happen in the future. Nate Silver also discusses statistics in his popular blog, FiveThirtyEight, which you might want to take a look at.



A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing by theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss describes new evidence and presents the latest theories regarding how the universe came into being. Because this topic goes straight to the issue of our religious beliefs and our understanding of why and how we came to exist, this book may not be as different as it first seems from those that help us understand ourselves, which I will look at next. You might want to watch the author’s lecture on this topic on YouTube as well to see if you might be interested in this title!



In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business, Charles Duhigg discusses studies in neuroscience that have helped to explain how the parts of the brain associated with habits work and how this information can help us to change unproductive habits. He provides some intriguing and powerful examples of the difference we can make by changing our habits. This is a great example of how scientific research can help people improve their everyday lives.



Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman explains that we make choices by engaging in two types of thinking—fast and intuitive and slow and rational. He shows how the two interact and demonstrates that sometimes depending too much on fast thinking and our intuition can lead us into making mistakes in life and at work. Kahneman’s examples and discussion of thought and decision-making shows us in the end how to make better choices.



In Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain examines the emphasis that our culture places on extroversion, which is characterized by interacting with people and being assertive. On the other hand, she argues that we undervalue introversion, which is characterized by spending quiet time alone and serious thinking. She also discusses exciting new research that examines the origins in the brain of these two temperaments. Most interestingly, she poses the question of whether, as introverts or extroverts, we should push ourselves beyond our comfort zones.  See Susan Cain’s talk on TED.


In The Violinist’s Thumb, Sam Kean tells some intriguing stories about real people, some of them famous, that illustrate how DNA works, how it shapes our abilities, and what it shows about the history and future of the human race.



How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, written by Ray Kurtzweil, explains a theory called pattern recognition of the mind, with which he explains intelligence. This theory seeks to demonstrate how our minds work, how they relate to our identity, and how to develop artificial intelligence.



Imagine: How Creativity Works, our final bestselling science book, studies the science of creativity and explains how everyone can develop the thought-patterns that lead to creativity. This book is an interesting case, because the author, Jonah Lehrer, invented some of the quotes by Bob Dylan that he included in his study. Read a description of the situation here and an argument that the book is still worth reading here. Does this invalidate the work as a whole? You be the judge!


Although I am more of a fiction and humanities reader, I have read Quiet and really enjoyed it and am eager to read Imagine, Thinking Fast and Slow and The Signal and the Noise.  Have you read any of the books on this list or any other science books lately?  What did you think?

One Comment

  1. I read The Power of Habit, and really enjoyed it. It told how we respond to cues in perpetuating our habits, and if we can change the cues, or change the response, we can change our habits. Very interesting!

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