This is a brief list of basic books on science necessary to live in the modern world. The list will not make you a scientist or an engineer, nor does it even attempt to cover a broad swathe of scientific fields. It will, at best, only prevent you from feeling illiterate when you read a story on some scientific breakthrough in the newspapers. It might, hopefully, allow you to question the scientific assumptions people make when policy intersects with science.

I’ve included a few biographies in this list as well because I think an understanding of the men and women who achieved scientific greatness enriches our grasp on the science and most importantly, its context – I say this as someone who is not usually fond of the biography genre.

I have tried to keep history off the list. This is not because I find it boring, irrelevant, or useless but because the history of science is its own study. Thus, works like Joseph Needham’s magisterial seven-volume (27 books!) Science and Civilisation in China have been given a miss. Similarly, I chose to go with Abraham Pais’ biography of Robert Oppenheimer instead of another excellent work by Kai Bird, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. A couple of books will feel like textbooks, probably because they are. Sorry, you will have to dip into just a little bit of the good stuff to understand the broader arguments on psychology, economics, and policy. On the other hand, there are a couple of pop-science books on the list too – the discuss the use of science in everyday life and how we ought to think about it, an important aside most forget in their relentless pursuit of the technicalities.

  1. Alcock, John. The Triumph of Sociobiology
  2. Atkins, Peter. Four Laws That Drive the Universe
  3. Axelrod, Robert. The Evolution of Cooperation
  4. Bell, Graham. Selection: The Mechanism of Evolution
  5. Brown, Daniel. Human Universals
  6. Buss, David M. The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love and Sex
  7. Changeaux, Jean-Pierre. The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge
  8. —. Neuronal Man
  9. Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens
  10. —. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain
  11. Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design
  12. De Waal, Frans BM. Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals
  13. —. Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes
  14. Dyson, George. Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
  15. Ewald, Paul W. Plague Time: The New Germ Theory of Disease
  16. Feynman, Richard. The Feynman Lectures on Physics (three volumes)
  17. —. QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter
  18. Gazzaniga, Michael. The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas
  19. —. Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique
  20. Goldacre, Ben. Bad Science
  21. Hauser, Marc. Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong
  22. Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time
  23. Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species
  24. Kandel, Eric. Principles of Neural Science
  25. —. In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind
  26. Kenneally, Christine: The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
  27. Ledoux, Joseph. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are
  28. Lieberman, Matthew. Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect
  29. Low, Bobbi. Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look at Human Behaviour
  30. Mayr, Ernst. The Growth of Biological Thought
  31. —. This is Biology: The Science of the Living World
  32. —. What Evolution Is
  33. Mealey, Linda. Sex Differences: Developmental and Evolutionary Strategies
  34. Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
  35. Pais, Abraham. Subtle is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein
  36. —. Niels Bohr’s Times, In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity
  37. —. J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life
  38. Penrose, Roger. The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe
  39. Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Knowledge
  40. —. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
  41. —. How the Mind Works
  42. Provine, Robert. Laughter: a Scientific Investigation
  43. Ramachandran, Vilayanur S. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers
  44. Richards, Robert J. The Meaning of Evolution: The Morphological Construction and Ideological Reconstruction of Darwin’s Theory
  45. —. Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior
  46. Ridley, Matt. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature
  47. Sagan, Carl. Cosmos
  48. Sagan, Dorion. Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science
  49. Schubert, Glendon, Roger Masters, Albert Somit. Primate Politics
  50. Tammet, Daniel. Thinking In Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math
  51. Trivers, Robert. Social Evolution
  52. —. Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers
  53. Widmaier, Eric. Vander’s Human Physiology: The Mechanisms of Body Function
  54. Williams, George C., Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Current Evolutionary Thought
  55. Wilson, Edward Osborne. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis
  56. —. On Human Nature
  57. Wilson, Eric. Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy
  58. Wrangham, Richard and Dale Peterson. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence

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