Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Best writers of popular science

"I have a great recommendation for you", the acquaintance said to the much younger version of me. "I know you like science, and I know you like reading. You will love this."

The book was Shadows of the Mind by Roger Penrose. The identity of this well-meaning soul escapes me now. Which is probably for the better. For if it didn't, I might quite like to allow the face of my hand to get friendly with the back of his head. Shadows of the Mind was exactly the wrong sort of book for a novice science lover to read for pleasure. It was dense, jargon filled, way past my intellectual capabilities, and worst of all, long. It effectively convinced me that science reading for pleasure was not for me. If someone had gone about deliberately trying to get me off science books, they couldn't have done much better than recommending Penrose.

After years of assiduous avoidance, I was lured back to the fold by Simon Singh's superb book Fermat's Last Theorem. Now this was more like it. Science (or in this case, math) with attitude. Since then, I have been a regular reader of popular science books. At their best, popular science books can be illuminating, instructive, entertaining and in the hands of a special someone, even thrilling. So yes my dear wife, I do like reading them. And no, they are not a cure for insomnia.

The book I am reading right now is Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth. More on that book in a different post. For now, I wanted to ask the question - Who are the best popular science writers out there? Or to be more precise, which popular science writers do I most enjoy reading? Here is the quick rundown.

1. Simon Singh: A science journalist rather than a practicing scientist himself, Simon Singh has written some of the popular science books I have most enjoyed. Consider Fermat's Last Theorem, The Code Book, and Big Bang. All immensely entertaining.
2. Brian Greene: Theoretical physicist and one of the better known string theorists around, Greene is also a great popularizer of complex subjects (need I say any more than 'string theory' and '11 dimensional space'?). Both of his prior books - The Elegant Universe and Fabric of the Cosmos - are gems worth reading. His most recent book tells the story of the Big Bang and beyond to young children and is called Icarus at the Edge of Time. While we are at it, can someone go ahead and give Greene the award for most evocatively titled books in science?
3. Richard Dawkins: I have crowed about Dawkins in the past on Brick and Rope. Clearly, he is the kind of scientist that gets on the nerves of religious conservatives out there. But when it comes to evolutionary biology, no one can beat Dawkins. Consider The God Delusion, clearly the best written argument for atheism that I (a practicing theist) have ever come across. Also The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable. As I mentioned before, his latest is The Greatest Show on Earth which is turning out to be one heck of a book.
4. Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Astrophysicist and Director of the planetarium at American Museum of Natural History in New York. One of the most energetic and funny scientists you will come across. Consider Death by Black Hole and The Pluto Files. When it comes to using everyday metaphor to explain profound astrophysical truths, Tyson has few peers, except maybe ...
5. Richard Feynman: Quantum physicist, Nobel prize winner, creator of the Feyman diagrams, he of the 'brittle chalk' exposition of why space shuttle Challenger crashed, prankster, safe-cracker, brilliant, funny man and an irrepressibly enthusiastic writer of popular science. If there is one science book you will ever read for pleasure, let it be Surely You're Joking Mr.Feynman. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, What do You Care What Other People Think? or any of his other books are all most worthy investments of your time.

These probably make my top five list in this category. But there are a bunch of other notable writers and scientists writing about science. Writers I have enjoyed a lot, though not read extensively.

Among the original greats, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov are surely worth reading, though their works are truly numerous and one needs to be very selective. (By the way, I refer to the non-fiction science works of Asimov here. His science fiction and other works are classics in their own right, but purely on the dent of his writings about science, he is worthy of note in this context).

The one contemporary author that I hear is truly great but I haven't read yet is Carl Zimmer. He writes mostly about evolution, where Dawkins gives me as much as I can read, which is one of the reasons I haven't gotten to Zimmer yet. But the buzz surrounding him is immense and I absolutely have to read him. Zimmer is also the blogger at the popular blog The Loom. Which reminds me, the other person worth reading in the blogosphere, Ed Long at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Any favorites of yours that I might have missed?


  1. for a nice selection of popular science readings try out popular science.co.uk they have a 5 star & 4 star rating of books and is a good place to find what might be good out there..

  2. Ray Bradbury for science fiction.

    Apart from Carl Sagan's books, there was also an awesome show on science with him that used to air on DD when we were kids - that's how I discovered him. Your friend should have recommended his books to your younger self, they are easy reads and good fun.

    p.s. pardon the terrible grammar