Best Popular Science Books of 2011

Based on 12 “science book lists” from different sources ranging from the Economist and the New York Times to the Washington Post and the New Scientist, we have created a list of popular science books that were most mentioned on any of these lists. Below is the outcome of that analysis, providing the best popular science books of 2011.

Faced with the continuous stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, it is easy to think that we live in the most violent age ever seen. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work however that the opposite is true: violence has been declining for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in human history. For most of history, slavery, child abuse, assassinations, gruesome punishments, war and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphics) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?

2. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World by David Deutsch (mentioned 6 times)

In his previous book, The Fabric of Reality, Deutsch described the four deepest strands of existing knowledge-the theories of evolution, quantum physics, knowledge, and computation-arguing jointly they reveal a unified fabric of reality. In this new book, he applies that worldview to a wide range of issues and unsolved problems, from creativity and free will to the origin and future of the human species. Filled with startling new conclusions about human choice, optimism, scientific explanation, and the evolution of culture, The Beginning of Infinity is a groundbreaking book that will become a classic of its kind.

3. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (mentioned 4 times)

James Gleick, the author of the best seller Chaos, now brings us a work just as astonishing and masterly: a revelatory chronicle and meditation that shows how information has become the modern era’s defining quality: the blood, the fuel, the vital principle of our world. The story of information begins in a time profoundly unlike our own, when every thought and utterance vanishes as soon as it is born. From the invention of scripts and alphabets to the long-misunderstood talking drums of Africa, Gleick tells the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness.

James A. Garfield was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. Born into abject poverty, he rose to become a wunderkind scholar, a Civil War hero, and a renowned and admired reformist congressman. Nominated for president against his will, he engaged in a fierce battle with the corrupt political establishment. But 4 months after his inauguration, a deranged office seeker tracked Garfield down and shot him in the back. But the shot didn’t kill Garfield. The drama of what hap­pened subsequently is a powerful story of a nation in tur­moil.

5. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman (mentioned 4 times)

In this sparkling and provocative new book, the renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman navigates the depths of the subconscious brain to illuminate surprising mysteries: Why do you hear your name being mentioned in a conversation that you didn’t think you were listening to? What do Ulysses and the credit crunch have in common? Why are people whose names begin with J more likely to marry other people whose names begin with J? Why is it so difficult to keep a secret? And how is it possible to get angry at yourself: who, exactly, is mad at whom?

6. The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brian Greene (mentioned 4 times)

In this new book, Brian Greene explores our most current understanding of the universe, its deepest laws of nature, and our continuing quest to know more. The Hidden Reality reveals how major developments in different branches of fundamental theoretical physics, relativistic, quantum, cosmological, unified, computational, have all led us to consider one or another variety of parallel universe. In some, they are separated from us by enormous stretches of space or time, in others they’re hovering millimetres away, in others still the very notion of their location proves to be a concept beyond our reach.

7. Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World by Lisa Randall (mentioned 4 times)

Lisa Randall is an expert in both cosmology (the study of the largest objects we know of) and particle physics (the study of the smallest elements). In Knocking on Heaven’s Door, she explores how we decide which scientific questions to study and how we go about answering them. She examines the role of creativity, uncertainty, risk, beauty and truth in scientific thinking through provocative conversations with leading figures in other fields (such as  the forecaster Nate Silver, the chef David Chang and the screenwriter Scott Derrickson), and she explains with wit and clarity the latest ideas in physics and cosmology.

8. The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True by Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean (mentioned 3 times)

Packed with clever thought experiments, dazzling illustrations and facts, this book explains a stunningly wide range of natural phenomena. How old is the universe? What is stuff made of? Why do the continents look like disconnected puzzle pieces? What causes tsunamis? Why are there so many kinds of animals and plants? Who was the first man, or woman? This is a page-turning, graphic detective story that not only mines all the sciences for its clues but primes the reader to think like a scientist as well.

9. Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science by Michael Nielsen (mentioned 3 times)

In this book, Michael Nielsen argues that we are living at the dawn of the most dramatic change in science in more than three hundred years. This change is being driven by powerful new cognitive tools, enabled by the Internet, which are greatly accelerating scientific discovery. This book is the first book about the fundamental question how the internet is transforming the nature of our collective intelligence and how we understand the world. It tells the exciting story of an unprecedented new era of networked science. We learn, for example, how mathematicians in the Polymath Project are spontaneously coming together to collaborate online, tackling and rapidly demolishing previously unsolved problems. We learn how 250,000 amateur astronomers are working together in a project called Galaxy Zoo to understand the large-scale structure of the Universe.

10. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (mentioned 3 times)

Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work in psychology that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making, takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind  and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities-and also the faults and biases-of fast thinking, and reveals the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and behavior.

The 12 sources that have been used for this analysis:

  1. Boston Globe: http://bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2011/12/18/science-best-books-year/kmT6xnNy2nWED5Q1XE5rAK/story.html
  2. Cosmic Variance: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2011/12/21/last-minute-shopping-list/
  3. The Economist: http://www.economist.com/node/21541386
  4. Financial Times: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/ebf6c124-1468-11e1-85c7-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1haVdU9yX
  5. The Globe: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/the-globe-100-the-very-best-of-2011/article2248133/
  6. The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/01/books-christmas-presents-science-reviews and http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/02/books-christmas-presents-history-reviews
  7. The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/science–nature-planetary-possibilities-6267502.html and http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/history-countries-of-the-mind-6267504.html
  8. New Scientist: http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2011/12/win-the-10-best-science-books-of-2011.html
  9. New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/books/review/100-notable-books-of-2011.html?_r=1
  10. Physics World: http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/multimedia/48100
  11. San Francisco Chronicle: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/11/18/RVDP1LTU88.DTL and http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/11/18/RVDP1LTU6G.DTL
  12. Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/best-books-of-2011/2011/12/06/gIQANFuwcO_gallery.html#photo=1 and http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/notable-nonfiction-of-2011/2011/11/04/gIQAZzLfiO_story.html

1 Comment

  1. Top Books says:

    This is a very interesting science book list – thank you. I do think however that it’s better to remove Steve Jobs’ book from the list as it isn’t a true science book. You could argue it’s a popular computer science book or a book about the way the current technology is shaping society, but it’s my personal view to better exclude it from this list. Nice site by the way with many unusual and not so well known science books that I hadn’t heard of before!

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