100 All-Time Greatest Popular Science Books (and 17 More)


These great books offer accessible science to all readers, no matter their knowledge level. There’s something here for everyone, whether you’re interested in environmental science, kitchen chemistry, or just want to try out fun experiments with your kids. Check out our picks for the best in popular science (including 17 bonus reads!), and see how you can use them to better understand and explore our world.

Astronomy, Cosmology and Space Travel

The universe may operate on top of some incredibly mind-boggling physics, but those new to the subject can still wrap their brains around the basics.

  1. Cosmos: Even after his death, Carl Sagan retains his reputation as an intelligent astronomer who brought the universe to the masses.
  2. Bad Astronomy: Philip Plait’s accessible book dispels many of the myths associated with humanity’s inquiries into the cosmos, including the belief that the moon landing was a hoax.
  3. Nightwatch: Terence Dickinson’s book is about more than just stargazing, but using a telescope to make note of celestial bodies makes for a great starting point.
  4. Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: Walk through the corridors of academia with Dennis Overbye and meet with some of the top astronomical minds on the planet, learning about the personalities and the politics behind the science.
  5. Astronomy Today: Used in beginner astronomy classes, this bestselling textbook, on its 7th edition as of 2010, still appeals to interested readers not even enrolled in school!
  6. Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy: Featuring a foreword from Stephen Hawking, Kip S. Thorne’s book highlights the weird and wonderful theory of general relativity and its undeniable impact on the industry.
  7. A Brief History of Time: Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan alone could probably fill up this section, so self-discipline limits them to only two appearances on this list. A Brief History of Time is one of the former’s most popular, accessible works.
  8. The Edge of Physics: New Scientist consulting editor Anil Ananthaswamy travels the globe in search of people, places, and developments that lead to humanity’s greater knowledge of the universe.
  9. The Black Hole War: Complicated astrophysics concepts get broken down into easy, but not condescending, explanations suitable for beginners by Leonard Susskind.
  10. The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide: Beginner astronomers yearning to take to the skies with telescopes and guidebooks in hand would probably find this well-received resource extremely valuable.
  11. Pale Blue Dot: An excellent read by Carl Sagan for space geeks at any level of comprehension, one of Sagan’s most beloved books on popular astronomy speculates on mankind’s future in space exploration and delves into its rich past.
  12. The Alchemy of the Heavens: Mostly emphasizing the Milky Way, Ken Croswell blends astronomy and chemistry together to discuss the composition of stars, planets and other celestial bodies using language most readers can understand.
  13. Turn Left at Orion: This highly-recommended stargazing guide by Guy Consolmagno and Dan M. Davis ends up on quite a few reading lists, and for good reason! Approachable and informative, it serves as an excellent introduction to astronomy.
  14. Starlight Nights: Few books so perfectly bottle the awe and wonder one experiences when looking towards the heavens as this stargazing memoir by Leslie C. Peltier, perfect for astronomers new and old.
  15. The Planets: With lush prose, Dava Sobel finds creative ways to merge science with pop culture and ancient perspectives as a means of conveying some truly intriguing stories about Solar System planets.
  16. The Right Stuff: Beloved of almost anyone who pines to learn more about space travel, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff captures the imagination of anyone who has ever wanted to surge beyond the boundaries of the planet.
  17. The Universe in a Nutshell: The world-renowned Stephen Hawking condenses some of the more mindbending elements of astronomy into easily processed but no less educational chunks.
  18. Brother Astronomer: Science and religion publicly share an antagonistic relationship, but Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno an astronomer with the Vatican — points out that there really no reason they cannot peacefully coexist.
  19. An Introduction to Black Holes, Information and The String Theory Revolution: In spite of the title, this tome is more appropriate for advanced astronomers with at least some basic understanding of physics.
  20. 365 Starry Nights: Another book highly recommended for backyard and beginner astronomers, Chet Raymo’s fantastic resource contains 365 essays on the ever-shifting night sky.
  21. God’s Mechanics: A companion piece to Brother Astronomer, in God’s Mechanics, Brother Guy explains how scientists are able to balance religious belief with work in highly empirical fields.
  22. A More Perfect Heaven: In A More Perfect Heaven, the history and work of Copernicus are taken out of textbooks and into real life, sharing the personality, struggle, and extraordinary studies of the Copernican Revolution.
  23. Bang! The Complete History of the Universe: Take in the story of the universe’s explosion into existence in this new book that explores the formation of the first stars all the way to the future of Earth’s demise.

Biology and Natural History

An understanding of biology means an understanding of how humans function and interact with the other organisms around them.

  1. The Origin of the Species: Readers willing to maneuver Darwin’s dry Victorian prose will be met with some of the most influential and controversial scientific writings ever published. A must-read for anyone hoping to study biology in any depth.
  2. Silent World: The late, great Jacques Cousteau tantalized the imaginations of children and adults alike as he explored the world’s oceans and the delicate interplay between the animals, plants and their big blue environment.
  3. Wonderful Life: In this classic work of natural history, Stephen Jay Gould takes readers on a journey to the Burgess Shale for a valuable lesson on some of the oldest fossils in the world.
  4. Birds of America: When John James Audubon first made his legendary avian paintings available to the masses, he never realized that centuries later people would still praise his talent and ability to make biology an accessible science.
  5. Genome: One does not need an advanced degree in genetics to appreciate Matt Ridley’s awesome guide summarizing the findings of the Human Genome Project.
  6. The Selfish Gene: This book by Richard Dawkins is considered one of the most important books about evolutionary biology ever written, but fortunately its inversion of common approaches can appeal to a relatively broad audience.
  7. The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology: This beautiful biography of Bernd Heinrich intimately analyzes the relationship between two generations of biologists, both on personal and scientific levels.
  8. The Botany of Desire: A highly accessible, well-received botanical inquiry, Michael Pollan’s divine The Botany of Desire analyzes the integral role humans play in the lives of plants, and vice versa.
  9. Gray’s Anatomy: First published in 1858, Henry Gray wrote one of the most in-depth and influential anatomy books of all time. Regardless of one’s familiarity with the physiology of the human body, the concise, detailed illustrations prove a valuable educational tool.
  10. DNA: The Secret of Life: Crisp, clean and concise, DNA: The Secret of Life by James D. Watson presents the history of and science behind DNA in a book as informative as it is entertaining.
  11. The Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin’s travels on the H.M.S. Beagle resulted in some of the cornerstones of biology, and the journals he kept provide an intimate peek into what he observed throughout the experience.
  12. The Ocean World: With lush visuals perfectly capturing the colorful mysteries of the ocean’s depths, Jacques Cousteau provides readers with a generous resource cataloguing aquatic flora and fauna.
  13. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: Natural history buffs wanting to look at evolutionary biology and natural selection in an entirely different light might appreciate this accessible volume by Steven Jay Gould.
  14. Our Inner Ape: Highly regarded primatologist Frans De Waal peers into the genetic and behavioral similarities between humans, bonobos, chimpanzees and other primates using language general audiences can easily process.
  15. The Extended Phenotype: The provocative, yet completely viable, thesis of Richard Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype peers into how genetics can completely transcend a body to impact the environment around it.
  16. Darwin’s Ghost: Subtitled as “The Origin of Species Updated,” this book by Steve Jones seeks to bring Charles Darwin’s core teachings to contemporary audiences.
  17. Why We Run: For scientist and marathoner Bernd Heinrich, the act of running opens up some provocative questions about human biology and psychology.
  18. Cracking the Genome: By Kevin Davie, this book about the people and politics behind the cracking of the human genome is just as fascinating as the science with which they worked.
  19. The Ape and the Sushi Master: The popular primatologist Frans De Waal ruminates on his studies in cultural depictions of apes and the biological reasons why people find them so fascinating and frightening.
  20. The Ancestor’s Tale: Another astounding read from world-class evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, tracing the entirety of human evolution back through millions (not thousands) of years.
  21. In the Shadow of Man: Follow Jane Goodall in her adventurous life among the wild chimpanzees in her book, In the Shadow of Man.
  22. The Age of Empathy: Take a cue from nature in this book that highlights lessons for a kinder society found in the social behaviors of animals.
  23. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Michael Pollan’s natural history of food aims to change the way Americans think about eating.
  24. The Violinist’s Thumb: Bestselling author Sam Kean’s book reveals an incredible collection of stories of science, love, history, and language, as told by our DNA.

Chemistry

Chemistry comprises the basic building blocks of the universe, peering into how the micro bond together to form the macro.

  1. The Disappearing Spoon: Take a journey through the periodic table with Sam Kean and learn some absolutely fascinating facts about different chemicals’ role in shaping the world.
  2. The Elements: This undeniably gorgeous book by Theodore Gray provides some stunning photos of Earth’s basic elements, as well as details on their characteristics and uses.
  3. The Joy of Chemistry: Understanding the chemistry of daily life makes for an excellent introduction to the extremely complex study.
  4. Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: These experiments don’t require a fancy lab and sophisticated equipment, so DIY types desiring hands-on chemistry lessons should pick up this book.
  5. Napoleon’s Buttons: Jay Burreson and Penny Lee Couteur’s amazing thesis revolves around showcasing 17 molecules that entirely changes the course of human history, a fascinating amalgamation of chemistry, politics and sociology.
  6. Principles of Chemistry: Appropriate for college freshmen, Principles of Chemistry by Michael Munowitz introduces readers to all the basics in the most straightforward way possible.
  7. Nature’s Building Blocks: Walking through the core elements that comprise all known matter in the universe with John Emsley makes for the best possible introduction to the wide, wonderful world of chemistry.
  8. Radar, Hula Hoops and Playful Pigs: Delve into the chemistry of all classifications of the mundane and the fantastic alike with this book and its sequel, Genie in a Bottle!.
  9. What Einstein Told His Cook: Anyone who enjoys participating or indulging in the culinary arts will likely adore better understanding chemistry through food by Robert L. Wolke.
  10. Culinary Reactions: Another great read for better understanding chemistry through food, Culinary Reactions presents edible learning experiences.
  11. Periodic Tales: Periodic Tales goes beyond the simple periodic table, offering a cultural history of the elements, how they came to be, and how they got their names.

Environmental Science and Geology

With so many people concerned about keeping the planet as safe and healthy as possible, it pays to read up on how environmental management works.

  1. The Complete Guide to Rocks & Minerals: Hobby and beginner geologists can certainly appreciate this field guide to the rocks and minerals they may encounter on their journey.
  2. Dirt: David R. Montgomery’s compelling thesis revolves around the role of soil in the establishment and evolution of human civilization.
  3. The Prize: Daniel Yergin earned a Pulitzer Prize for his thorough research on oil and the politics, history and technology that surround it.
  4. Salt: As one of the most vital minerals on the planet, salt boasts an incredibly fascinating natural, social, biological, cultural and political history.
  5. The World Without Us: Alan Weisman made waves in multiple circles with his ruminations on how humanity’s creations, and, of course, the planet itself would fare after its demise.
  6. Surviving Galeras: Volcanoes fascinate the populace, and this startling account of Stanley Williams’ doomed expedition up Colombia’s Galeras is a tragic but riveting read.
  7. Hack the Planet: Climatology is one of the most prominent earth sciences in the public’s consciousness, and Hack the Planet by Eli Kintisch makes an argument for how to fix the current issues.
  8. Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: Another excellent book by Simon Winchester about one of the world’s most famous volcanic explosions for general audiences fascinated by how the planet works.
  9. Silent Spring: Readers desiring to learn as much as they can about environmental science should add Silent Spring to their essential reading lists. Rachel Carson was one of the most important voices in the burgeoning green movement, and her clarion call to understand and protect the environment continues to ring true.
  10. Isaac’s Storm: In 1900, one of the deadliest hurricanes in history struck Galveston, Texas. Erik Larson’s work of creative nonfiction obtained widespread attention and accolades for bringing history and earth science to a broad audience.
  11. How to Cool the Planet: This Geoengineering book takes a look at what might happen if, in a climate emergency, we had to suddenly cool the planet in a hurry.

Physics

Considering the advanced mathematics involved in physics, it comes as no surprise that general audiences find it one of the most intimidating sciences. Fortunately, books exist to slice away at some of the mystery.

  1. Relativity: While not exactly the easiest read for non-physicists, without Albert Einstein’s findings the modern world as understood today simply would not exist.
  2. Six Easy Pieces: This compilation of six lectures by Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman breaks complex physics concepts down into language that almost anyone can understand.
  3. The Cosmic Landscape: Perhaps a little more advanced than some of the other books on this list, The Cosmic Landscape by Leonard Susskinddelves into string theory and its role in all corners of the universe.
  4. The Elegant Universe: Superstring theory, general relativity and quantum mechanics converge into one resource that brings some of the basic physics findings to general audiences.
  5. E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation: Einstein’s iconic equation on the relationship between mass and energy boasts an incredible story and history, recounted here by David Bodanis. The writer certainly does not skimp on exploring how the earth-shattering finding interacted with the work of other physicists as well.
  6. Hyperspace: Even individuals with a tenuous grasp of physics still understand and appreciate the theories behind multiple and parallel universes, and this book by Michio Kaku explains how the concepts work in clear enough language.
  7. The Age of Entanglement: Louisa Gilder writes of the personalities and experimentalists what shaped quantum physics as it is understood and practiced today.
  8. Basic Physics: A Self-Teaching Guide: Anyone driven to teach themselves the basics of physics can appreciate this textbook by Karl F. Kuhn’s goals and exercises.
  9. The Dancing Wu Li Masters: This beautiful book draws parallels between dance, mysticism, culture and of course physics, presenting audiences with a provocative, philosophical read without any complex mathematics.
  10. The Five Ages of the Universe: Read about the history of the universe starting with the Big Bang and twisting and turning through until forever.
  11. Edge of the Universe: Explore the cosmic horizon and beyond this this book that accessible for experts and amateurs alike.
  12. The Theoretical Minimum: Learn about Physics 101 with a DIY twist in The Theoretical Minimum, a book that can help you make up for not delving deeper into physics while you were in school.

Psychology and Sociology

The social sciences impact humanity just as much as the “harder” ones out there, making them essential subjects for wider comprehension of how the world works.

  1. The Mismeasure of Man: Anyone interested in cognitive psychology and the measure of intelligence should check out this fascinating inquiry into IQ by Stephen Jay Gould.
  2. The Portable Jung: The influential works of Carl Jung could fill this entire list, but this hefty volume introduces readers to his fundamental teachings on psychology and psychoanalysis and works wonderfully as a useful primer.
  3. The Freud Reader: As with his student and eventual rival Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud altered the course of psychology forever. Given his extensive writings on the subject, a compilation makes for the best start.
  4. The Invisible Gorilla: People always seem to claim that they let their intuition guide them, but Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons point out the cognitive errors they will likely encounter that alter their perception.
  5. The Upside of Irrationality: In this intriguing work of “behavioral economics,” Dan Ariely engages general audiences by analyzing why humanity as a whole tends to self-sabotage.
  6. The Art of Choosing: Sheena Iyengar presents some fascinating psychological research on how humans react to having either too few, too many or too suspect choices.
  7. Man’s Search for Meaning: Victor Frankl wrote some of the most amazing psychological works of the 20th century, and most consider Man’s Search for Meaning his most essential inquiry into humanity’s attempts to make sense of itself.
  8. How Pleasure Works: Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom explores the scientific hows and whys behind why certain people so ardently desire certain things.
  9. Rules of Sociological Method: One of the most influential works of sociology ever penned, anyone hoping to learn as much as they can about the science should add this to their essential reading lists.
  10. Bowling Alone: Robert D. Putnam updated some of the concepts behind Reuel Denney, Nathan Glazer and David Reisman’s sublime The Lonely Crowd for contemporary audiences. Both books peer into the phenomenon of social isolation and how communities band together and fall apart as a result.
  11. Liespotting: Study the techniques of sniffing out lies in this psychology book for business and deal negotiation.
  12. The Paradox of Choice: Study the implications of living in a world of overwhelming choices in The Paradox of Choice.
  13. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: Author Dan Ariely insists that we lie to everyone, especially ourselves, in this book that pushes readers to challenge what they believe about dishonesty.
  14. Thinking, Fast and Slow: Daniel Kahneman explores our two systems of thinking, fast and slow, explaining the captabilities, faults, and biases of both in Thinking, Fast and Slow.
  15. Outliers: Outliers delves into what makes high achievers different, the building blocks that make them the successful people that they are today.

For the Kids

Educating children in the various sciences can be just as enjoyable as it is informative. The following books cover age ranges from preschool to early high school.

  1. The Stars: A New Way to See Them: Penned by the same scribe as the iconic Curious George, this stargazing guide for children and young adults is considered a classic primer on very basic astronomy.
  2. The Story of Snow: Introduce very young children to how one of their favorite meteorological phenomena work with stunning photos and simple explanations.
  3. Koko’s Kitten: Even adults find the story of Koko the Gorilla and her tender love of the kittens she keeps as pets heartwarming and educational.
  4. A Place for Birds: Ecologically minded parents and teachers wanting to teach younger children the basics of protecting birds and other animals from harm may want to pick up this recommended read.
  5. Mistakes That Worked: John O’Brien illustrates Charlotte Jones’ stories about scientific hiccups that eventually led to amazing moments in human history.
  6. Almost Astronauts: Sociology, technology and astronomy converge in this tale of NASA’s discrimination against hopeful female astronauts.
  7. What is the World Made Of?: With this simple picture book appropriate for first through third graders, readers can pick up the basics on the states of matter that comprise the universe.
  8. Earth Heroes: Kids who love the environment and want to know more about the men and women behind historic conservation efforts will appreciate this informative read by Bruce Malnor and Carol Malnor.
  9. Charged Up: Delve into the fundamentals of electricity and its undeniably rich history through Jacqui Bailey and illustrator Matthew Lilly’s child-friendly book.
  10. The Periodic Table: Elements with Style!: Sixty-four elements receive quick, fun and thoroughly kid-friendly treatment in this acclaimed read on the fundamentals of chemistry.
  11. Microlife That Helps Us: With some images straight from microscopes, Steve Parker illustrates the beneficial microorganisms that make everyday life possible.
  12. Consider the Following: Pretty much any book by Bill Nye, the famous “Science Guy,” will appeal to scientifically-minded children. Consider the Following, though, covers a nicely broad range of subject matter.
  13. You Can with Beakman: Beakman’s World creator Jok Church brings the beloved children’s program to bookshelves worldwide, chock full of some DIY projects that illustrate basic scientific principles.
  14. The Ultimate Dinosaur Book: Most kids experience a “dinosaur phase,” and this book caters to their interest with some excellent, basic paleontology lessons.
  15. Rocks and Minerals: The Smithsonian provides an absolutely stellar, engaging field guide to identifying all types of rocks and minerals, appropriate for older children with an interest in geology.
  16. Our Patchwork Planet: Our Patchwork Planet serves as a nice little primer on plate tectonics for children new to the wide world of geography and geology.
  17. Bathtub Science: Another delightful book that encourages kids (and their parents!) to pick up some cool science lessons during bath time.
  18. The Berenstain Bears’ Big Book of Science and Nature: Kids can explore the natural world in this big book with an almanac of the seasons, science projects, and fun facts about animals, plants, and more.
  19. Candy Experiments: Turn candy into a learning resource with this book that turns sweets into scientific experiments, and kids into enthusiastic participants.
  20. Mythbusters Science Fair Book: Turn to this book to find fun experiments in mythbusting that kids can enjoy, both for pure enjoyment, or for science fair resources.