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The Best Books of 2020: Popular Science

Posted on 2nd December 2020 by Mark Skinner

In a year in which we have all been encouraged to put our faith in 'the science,' popular science publishing has delivered standout books in all disciplines. The burning political questions of the day have been addressed with rigorous logic, data and analysis through the work of Eugenia Cheng, Pragya Agarwal and Adam Rutherford, whilst the inexorable rise of Artificial Intelligence and 'big tech' have formed the basis of fascinating studies from Tabitha Goldstaub and James Ball respectively. In other areas, we have been gifted a revolutionary approach to breathing, a meditation on our relationship to the heavens and a hearteningly optimistic study of humanity's enduring respect for kindness.   



 

General Science

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A mesmerising journey through science, philosophy and history, There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness is a luminous new collection of essays from the ‘the poet of modern physics’ Carlo Rovelli.
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Adapted from the hugely popular podcast of the same name, Clark and Bryant’s compendium of weird, wonderful and jaw-dropping facts about the workings of the world is a tribute to insatiable curiosity.
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From the origins of our planet and its evolution to the minute details of everyday life, Carroll’s thought-provoking exploration into the infinite reign of chance is popular science writing at its most engaging.
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Philosophy

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Contesting the idea that we are innately self-seeking and driven by egotistical goals, the bestselling author of Utopia for Realists offers an uplifting history of the human capacity for kindness.

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The perfect introduction to living a good life without religious faith, this little book from the acclaimed scientist illustrates how broadly humanist beliefs and practices dovetail with how we commonly live and act today.
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The authors of the bestselling The Daily Stoic provide another fascinating journey into the ancient philosophy that has, throughout history, remained popular with those aspiring to glory and distinction.
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Employing all the tricks of detection, from clues and witness accounts to hard evidence, the bestselling crime author Sophie Hannah embraces the Herculean task of solving the mystery of happiness.
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With the healthy skepticism of an atheist philosopher, Julian Baggini explores the character and teachings of Jesus away from the religious elements in this fascinating reflection on what it means to lead an ethical life.
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Deftly charting the roots and causes of the worldwide loneliness epidemic, this ambitious and brilliant book is essential reading for anyone concerned about the kind of future we want to build.
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Astrophysics, Astronomy & Space

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Written with pace and exuberance, Marchant’s scientific and cultural history of humankind’s relationship with the heavens is packed with unforgettable stories and trivia from centuries past.
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Al-Khalili’s thrilling book on the pillars of modern physics unravels the fundamental principles of quantum theory, relativity and thermodynamics in clear, equations-free prose.
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Mapping the night sky in a truly spellbinding way, A History of the Universe in 21 Stars offers an inspiring journey through the mysteries of the cosmos and how humankind came to unravel them.
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Biology

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A revelatory account of how making minor alterations to the way we breathe could have profound benefits for health and wellbeing, Nestor’s clear, accessible volume combines science with ancient custom to develop a unified theory of breathing.

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In this absorbing and accessible book, Nobel prize-winning geneticist Paul Nurse explores five key ideas that form the basis of biology – and of life itself.
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A clear-headed and intelligent denunciation of racist stereotypes and pernicious eugenics, Rutherford’s masterly account of genetics and its dangerous misuse through history contains all you ever need to refute hateful claims about racial superiority.

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Approaching the contentious issue of social bias with nuance and exhaustive research, behavioural scientist, activist and writer Agarwal demonstrates how unconscious prejudice is still immensely prevalent in contemporary society.

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From our atomic origins to the miracles of memory, What Do You Think You Are? is a fascinating plunge into the science behind what makes each of us unique.
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In this meticulously researched and absorbing book, John and Mary Gribbin trace the ideas of evolution from ancient Greece to the present day, via its most famous champion Charles Darwin.
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From the depths of the oceans to the birds in the sky, the bestselling author of Other Minds tracks animal evolution through half a billion years in accessible, fluidly written prose.
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Mathematics & Technology

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With humour and clarity, the author of The Art of Logic dissects patriarchy, mansplaining and sexism by precise mathematical reasoning.
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Exploring a compelling cast of data detectives from Florence Nightingale to Daniel Kahneman, as well as the murky world of misinformation, How to Make the World Add Up is an indispensable guide to statistics from the author of Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy.

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Both brilliantly clear and very amusing, Numb and Number shows how there’s much more than meets the eye behind the figures presented to us as the basis of various predictions and decisions, from political polls to risk assessment.
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Peering behind the programs and the platforms to glimpse the real people who drive the internet forward, James Ball uncovers wealth, influence and power on an immense scale.
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Charting the history of Simulmatics, the first corporation dedicated to the prediction of human behavior and manipulation of data, If Then reveals the mid-twentieth century forebears to the companies rising out of Silicon Valley.
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A brilliantly clear exploration of both the risks and benefits of artificial intelligence, Goldstaub’s invaluable book functions as a primer for spotting gender bias in the brave new world of tech domination.
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Medicine & Neuroscience

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At the age of 84, expert on the physiology of ageing Dr Norman Lazarus shares his wisdom on the ways in which we can stay well for longer and hugely improve the quality of our senior years.
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From the mechanisms of dreams to the effects of a broken heart, the author of The Brain: The Story of You expertly distils decades’ worth of neuroscientific research in lucid and absorbing prose.
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The workings of the brain have fascinated scientists for centuries and, in this exhaustive yet highly engaging history of our quest for neurological knowledge, Cobb asserts that we may be closer to a full understanding of the organ than we think.
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In this intimate and compelling memoir, Christie Tate explores the painful but exhilarating process of group therapy and how the courage to open up in front of strangers can help us to get back to our true selves.
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