9 Nonfiction Books About Science That Anyone Can Get Into
If science wasn’t your favorite subject in school, I totally feel you. Between the goggle lines across your forehead that stuck around no matter how hard you tried to rub them away, to all that complicated math you never quite mastered, there wasn’t a ton to love (unless you absolutely love science, in which case: you go girl.) But it’s time to put your preconceived notions about scientific endeavors behind you, because the nonfiction books about science on this list are some of the best around — and they’ll pull you in not only with their fascinating stories, but with their compelling writing as well. No snoozing here, I promise.
From the dramatic history of the Periodic Table of elements, to the first ever recording of the astral music of two black holes colliding, to the reason why you have bees to thank for that killer veggie wrap you had for lunch, these amazing nonfiction books about science will have you rethinking everything you ever hated about Chemistry 101 (and Biology, and Physics.) And they’ll make you much more cognizant of the beautiful, complex world you live in.
Here are nine of the best nonfiction books about science that literally anyone — STEM degree or not — can totally get into.
1. Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin
Science will never seem as rock ‘n’ roll to you as it does in Janna Levin’s Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, a book that tells the story of the scientists who have dedicated their careers to trying to record the music of the universe. (Remember all that stuff about outer space screaming in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time that you thought was just made up storytelling? This book explains the science behind all that, and so much more.) They’re called gravitational waves, and until recently, no scientist had ever recorded the sound before — but many tried. This book recounts the decades of passion and obsession that led to the recent scientific breakthrough. And it’s really cool.
2. A World Without Bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum
We’ve probably all experienced that bee who just takes a strange liking to us: droning around our heads, buzzing dangerously close to all our exposed, sting-able skin — and believe me, I know how difficult it is not to swat them into silence. But I always fight the urge — and you will too, after reading this book. Because without bees, life on earth would cease to exist... and pretty quickly, too. Don’t believe me? Then check out A World Without Bees. You’ll bee convinced in no time.
3. The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
Using the examples of four domesticated (and beloved) plants — the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato — food expert Michael Pollan explores the desires that human beings have always sought to satiate, and the ways plant life has evolved in order to do so. By exploring the mutually beneficial relationship between plants and humans The Botany of Desire will make you look at the world through an apple's perspective — and probably inspire you to plant a garden of your own this summer too.
4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
If you’ve heard the endless buzz about this book but still haven’t managed to pick yourself up a copy, make this your opportunity to do exactly that. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a book to be missed. A poor Southern tobacco farmer who spent her life on the same land worked by generations of slaves before her, Henrietta Lacks died at 31 from cervical cancer — but her cells live on. These “HeLa” cells have contributed to everything from the polio vaccine to in vitro fertilization — and they were taken without the knowledge of Lacks or her family. Part history, part crime story, part scientific study, this book is exceptional.
5. Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects by Amy Stewart
If you live in fear of the world's many-legged, flying, crawling, buzzing creatures, then this book might not be for you — or, it might totally squash your fears by making you realize how interesting the insect life in this world really is. From millipedes to hornets, Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects explores the moments when human beings and bugs have come head-to-head — and bugs have claimed victory.
6. The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean
Adventure, betrayal, violence, treasure, obsession: if these sound like the elements of a compelling story then look no further than the Periodic Table of elements (see what I did there?) The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements is a collection of nonfiction essays that chronicle the journeys of every element on the Periodic Table: how they were discovered, whose careers (and lives) they saved and ruined, and how they’ve changed human history forever. Plus, be sure to check out Gallium for tips on your next great party trick.
7. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
A scientific memoir of sorts, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has inspired countless girls to get outdoors and start poking around in the dirt. Using her own neighborhood of Tinker Creek, Virginia, as her case study, Dillard observes muskrats and monarch butterflies, studies pond water and wave mechanics, and witnesses every bit of the beautiful complexity of the natural world. Sure, dives in the Galapagos and Arctic expeditions might be a little more heart-pounding than the adventures of this book, but if you want to study the world up close, you really have to venture no further than your own backyard.
8. The End of Food by Paul Roberts
Not to add another foodie-downer to this list (but seriously, if you love your food, listen up!), but The End of Food tells a story of mass-marketing mayhem and the food that suffers from it. Increasing food-borne illnesses, nutrient-depleted crops, obesity and starvation... if this book doesn’t convince you to go local and organic, nothing will. While exploring crop modification, global food production, and food distribution, Paul Roberts makes the case for why humanity’s current relationship with food isn’t a sustainable one.
9. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Not for the faint of heart, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers explores all the things that happen to a body once its resident has permanently vacated the premises. Eerie as you may find the idea, the fact is that human cadavers have contributed enormously to scientific exploration for thousands of years. And believe it or not, Mary Roach’s book is both compelling and a little amusing. I mean: we’ve all got to take the journey sometime — might as well explore your options for doing some good after you’re gone.
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