Best science-themed books

If you cannot live your best life outside, then lead a thousand through reading

Writer: Altay Shaw
Editor: Lucy Masdin
Artist: Sophie Maho Chan

So, you finished binge watching all the movies you could find on Netflix, argued enough with your family over who is the best card dealer or monopoly player in the house and you want a little bit of peace and quiet? Though trying to vlog or learn a new skill could be enjoyable, everyone needs a world to escape conflicting information, conspiracy theories and whether or not a drive to Durham is a good eye-test. Reading can provide an ideal refuge from all that is happening in the world today. 

Note: This is by no way an exhaustive list. There are millions of books out there to devour but, for the sake of readability, here is a selection of top companions for life under lockdown.

Taking you to the ends of habitable Earth: 

Life at the Extremes – Frances Ashcroft 

2002 University of California Press 

Human life is one of the wonders of the world. We can survive monstrous monsoons, live from 100 feet below to 5000 feet above sea level, and go days without seeing the sun or resting beneath a starlit night. But, to truly understand the limits of what we can do, several experiments have been carried out to push the boundaries of what we as humanity consider hospitable. Enter Frances Ashcroft and the book that explains how as humans we can go to certain ends of the Earth yet get sick when we return from others, such as getting the bends from ascending from the sea floor too quickly after a diving experience. 

Though long and descriptive, the book does cover a good amount of physiology, making it ideal for those who have a love for biology or medical sciences. If you have ever wanted to understand the science of climbing a mountain or how a microorganism can survive conditions that would be deadly for us, this is sure to be the book for you.  

Psychiatrists beware:

Awakenings – Oliver Sacks 

2010 Picador 

You have almost certainly heard of Oliver Sacks if you have ever taken an interest in psychology or neurology. His writing style of narrative and humour allows for topics such as phantom limbs and visual agnosia, which even the most novice of neurologists can indulge themselves in without feeling out of their comfort zone. He covers the progressive incapacitation and subsequent treatment of patients that are confined to their minds with no means of communicating. Encephalitis lethargica virus for example, had left several patients in an immobile state for years. That was until the introduction of L-Dopa. 

The drug L-Dopa is used to treat Parkinson’s disease, a condition in which significant damage to the substantia nigra causes tremors as well as difficulty with movement and speech. L-Dopa can help to manage the symptoms but also has severe side effects in some patients. In Awakenings, you get the chance to explore the differences the medication has made in the lives of those who ‘awoke’ from their isolated and locked-in lives. If anticipating the outcome of experimental, untested treatments is your bread and butter and you love a good footnote, Sacks has the book for you (there is also a film adaptation with Robert De Niro in). 

Behind a childhood favourite:

The Psychology of the Simpsons – Alan Brown (editor) 

2006 BenBella Books 

A familiar guest at the dinner table whether you grew up in the USA or not, the Simpsons have been a family staple for 20 years. Though the latter series’ quality has been open to debate and recent issues with diversity in the cast has put them under the wrong type of spotlight, the episodes are written with noticeable scientific detail (many members of the writing team have degrees in physics and computer science). The storylines on the beloved family show have explored issues around mental health, including Barney’s realisation of his alcoholism and Bart’s long-term connection issues with his father. 

This book is an interesting take on the lives of those who live in Springfield. Though not comical in nature, it does offer a very deep insight into the childhood favourite show with the views and thoughts of psychologists and counsellors. If you have ever wondered about Bart’s rebellious nature or why Maggie has always sought independence from a young age, this could very well be the book for you. 

Science fact:

Bad Science – Ben Goldacre 

2008 Fourth Estate 

In a world where we are all trying to find reliable and trustworthy news regarding the pandemic and exit strategies out of lockdown, we need to distinguish between fact and fiction. Unfortunately, due to the distortion of statistical tests by small sample sizes and false positives, we are often led to conclude that information can only be seen as the author intended. However, this is an approach that is dangerous to science and one that needs to be abolished. 

In this book, you will learn about how misguided evidence affected thousands of families, including those who were hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic and failed by an inadequate government response. You will be endowed with the tools to distinguish between cure and sham, active treatment and placebo, in everyday life. Ben Goldacre, a UCL graduate, provides the ultimate review into how science can be used to justify false claims and how we, as members of society, can tell where the failings in the evidence are.  

Curveball pick:

Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams  

1979 Pan Books 

Now you may be wondering why a fiction book arises in a list of factual scientific books backed up by evidence and links to wider reading. To that I would answer that exploring the limits of human imagination, while having a great time travelling to the stars and collapsing timelines, is a scientific exploit in itself. To find at the age of 12 a series of books that merged scientific fact with species from other planets and myriad time zones without stretching what could seem feasible to a secondary school reader’s mind was extraordinary. 

Douglas Adams does an amazing job of making the fictitious believable as well as introducing you to the past, present and future simultaneously (though it does take a little wrapping your head around). From human emotion to intergalactic planning permits, this book ensures all corners of the galaxy are probed before you allow yourself a break to make a cup of tea. With impossibly-named characters, bizarre species and inevitably an awkward love triangle, take a leap into science fiction like no other. 

Witty and earnest:

This is Going to Hurt – Adam Kay 

2017 Picador

In recent years, the NHS has been under unprecedented strain due to chronic underfunding, as well as questionable occupational support for student doctors and nurses. As a medical student I have had a view into the life of NHS workers and the challenges they face ‒ from prioritising patients to balancing compassion with professionalism. What we see as patients is only a tiny window into the daily routines of those who give up their Sunday lie in to keep the rest of us going. However, this does not come without the risk of burnout and physical exhaustion. 

Adam Kay does his best to explain the course of life as a doctor, including the long shifts that plague junior doctors and the demands of being an obstetrics and gynaecology registrar. From the lonely early mornings to the emergency delivery of babies which put both mother and child’s lives on the line, Kay not only does an amazing job of explaining the thought process of a doctor during the never-ending shifts, but does so with humour, brutal honesty and plenty of footnotes that allow the reader to digest the day-to-day work of the NHS.    

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