The science books that every non-scientist should read

Rosalie Wells lists the best science and medicine books to read this summer

Let me start by being completely honest—I am not a scientist. I am an English student who struggled with GCSE science, nearly setting myself on fire with a Bunsen burner on multiple occasions. Despite this, I love popular scientific writing, so here are my top science books for other scientifically challenged readers out there.

This short selection leans towards medical as much as it does to scientific writing. You will have to blame my sister—who is now a medicine student—for that. Her Junior Doctor books first drew my attention to the scientific world.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: This is one of those rare books that you read and are instantaneously compelled to tell the world about. To give the briefest of synopses, Henrietta Lacks was a black woman from Baltimore, a sample of whose cells were taken during her treatment for cancer by a tissue researcher, George Gey. He discovered that her cells grew infinitely, and they became the basis for an incredible amount of modern medicine—including many modern vaccines and treatments for diseases such as HIV. As well as an informative read about the cell culture industry and legal disputes over tissue property, the book charts the pervasive effects of institutional racism in science and medicine. If you don’t have time to read it, it’s been made into an upcoming HBO film starring Oprah Winfrey.

How Can Physics Underlie The Mind? by George Ellis: I was writing on Virginia Woolf in Michaelmas, a woman who was intrigued by particle physics. I decided to follow suit and escape from metaphors and modernism for an hour to immerse myself in physics. Ellis’ enthusiastic explanation: that the smallest governing particles of matter are random, not determined, floored me. Discoveries in ‘quantum uncertainty’ destroy our notions of determinism, leaving our very existence a matter of chance. Ellis further cites processes like epigenetics (DNA modification by environmental factors) as proof that our brain is not solely determined by the low level structures like the particles that constitute it, but also by ‘higher’ factors like the environment we grow up in. I finished the book with the conviction that everyone should know about scientific theories of this magnitude, physicist or not.

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The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge: Doidge’s book is immensely readable. He structures his scientific information into individual stories of people with neurological or mental health problems, with one thing in common—they were able to change their brains. Although these changes appear to be miraculous, the effects are a result of a phenomenon called neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to shape itself. Doidge recalls an individual only possessing half of their brain who could still perform most functions, demonstrating that their brain had ‘re-drawn’ its ‘networks’ into different areas. This book dismantles the body/mind division. I was particularly struck by the explanation that when a person with OCD performs a compulsive act, the repetition in the brain’s neural pathways makes the compulsion/action relationship more likely to happen again—like how sledging down a snowy hill becomes easier the more times the path is used.

The Lazarus Effect by Sam Parnia: No, not the one from the Destination: Void science-fiction series. This gripping book is about cases like that of the footballer Fabrice Muamba, who was ‘dead’ for 78 minutes after an on-pitch cardiac arrest. It is clear why this event—bringing to the public eye a rare phenomenon of life after ‘death’—captured so many people’s imagination. Parnia’s book delves into investigating death, complicating the assumption that it is a clear-cut event. What makes this book so readable is the interweaving of detailed science with philosophical theories of consciousness and identity, and Parnia’s narrative urgency and intensity in conveying to his readers the importance of recent scientific research into death.