Popular Science Books: An Appreciation Post

Popular science writing may be broadly defined as writing about science for a layman audience, and dates to as far back as the 18th century. Popular science books appear to me to be a rich field of publication at this time, and new books with a wide variety of intriguing themes come out every week.

I’ve read, and still read quite a lot of popular science books, and actually think they can be quite useful for scientists too. With the amount of specialization in virtually any scientific discipline today, scientists often work on some very specific problem, and communicating their findings to other scientists even in related disciplines shares parallels with the challenges faced by popular science writers. For scientists, reading popular science may help to broaden perspectives, provide pointers on communicating science more clearly, and occasionally even inspire new research interests and questions.

My favorite popular science books have strongly influenced my thinking and interests, and often served as jumping-off points for exploring fields I was beginning to get interested in. The best popular science books are almost like literature reviews with a friendlier tone and narrative drive, helping point readers to influential studies and diverse areas within a field.

I thought it would be nice to make a list of my top five popular science books. Here they are, in no particular order:

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past
David Reich

As the title of the book clearly communicates, this is a fairly comprehensive account of what we know today about the evolutionary history of modern human populations. Recent advances in genome sequencing technologies, and in the extraction of ancient DNA from fossil remains has revealed many surprises about human evolution. For instance, all non-African populations contain ~2% Neanderthal DNA in their genomes as a result of past interbreeding, and major human populations that occupy different regions today are often different from the ones that lived in the same regions as recently as 5,000 years ago.

David Reich is a population geneticist who has been at the forefront of many exciting developments in the field, which includes the discovery of ancient population structure and migrations in Europe, the Indian subcontinent, and East Asia. The narrative is structured as stories of past human populations inferred from genomic analyses, nested within stories of the population geneticists who conducted these studies. Reich goes to some lengths to describe in simple terms some of the statistical tests used to make inferences from population genomic data. I particularly like the illustration and explanation for the four-population test, which has been extensively used to demonstrate gene flow between diverged populations or species as in the case of humans and Neanderthals.

Some of the most powerful sections in the book are those devoted to exploring what genomic data can tell us about social structure and inequality in the past, and those that explore what findings from human population genomics mean for modern human identity and society. While making note of and dismissing possible racist interpretations that have inevitably emerged from findings on population differentiation, Reich stresses that such findings rarely correspond to simplistic traditional ideas of racial lineages, and that society should be prepared to deal with actual biological differences that exist between human populations while still ensuring equal treatment of all individuals. I think that’s fair.

Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior
Jonathan Weiner

This book is the closest thing to a page-turner a popular science book can be (with the exception of Richard Preston’s books, of course). The book is ostensibly a biography of Seymour Benzer, who pioneered the field of behavioral genetics by successfully initiating research programs to study the genetic basis of behavioral traits using fruit flies as the model organism. The three behavioral traits Benzer started off with – natural biological rhythm or clocks, mating behavior, and learning – make up the title of the book.

Weaving in and out of the biographical treatment of Benzer, Weiner brings to bear his considerable storytelling chops on the history of modern genetics starting from Thomas Hunt Morgan’s work in the early twentieth century. It is quite fun to learn about how scientists, especially in these early years, went from point A to point B as they made discoveries that have since become both essential knowledge for those in the field, and taken for granted.

My favorite parts of the book are the stories of how people in Benzer’s lab (or later, those in his former trainees’ labs) came up with new devices and experiments to measure fruit fly behavioral traits. For instance, Ronald Konopka and Yoshiki Hotta in Benzer’s lab conceived an experimental setup to detect patterns of fruit fly activity through the day based on when and how often fruit flies kept in tubes moved and interfered with light passing through the tubes, and used it to characterize disruptions in daily activities caused by the first clock gene mutants. Their work paved the way to uncovering mechanistic details of the biological clock in fruit flies, and subsequently in mammals.

Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures
Carl Zimmer

Parasites have always reserved a special place in my heart (and I don’t mean a Trypanosoma cruzei infection… I’ll show myself out). I’ve known about the major stories – like Toxoplasma gondii’s behavioral manipulation of mice to increase predation by its main reproductive hosts, cats, and the ability of Trypanosoma brucei to change its coat to evade the immune system – for a while, and recall them fondly like childhood fairy tales. This book introduced me to many more.

My favorite thing about parasites is the wide variety of innovations they have come up with to manipulate the behavior and immune systems of hosts. Zimmer does a phenomenal job of explaining the biology in simple terms, but where he truly excels, much like most of the authors in this list, is in structuring the narrative around the stories and motivations of the scientists who have made key discoveries in, and continue to work on understanding parasite biology.

A particularly memorable account in the book is related to the fact that many parasites, especially worms, have different life stages that don’t look very much alike. Early naturalists would often characterize these different stages as different species. The eighteenth century equivalent of the scientific community puzzled over the source and origin of human intestinal tapeworms, with spontaneous generation not completely off the table. Amusingly, a German pastor took offense to the idea of spontaneous generation (all life had already been created during Genesis, according to Christian beliefs), and based on observations of some resemblance between the human tapeworm Taenia solium and cysts often found in muscles of pigs, he designed a controversial but successful experiment: after feeding pig meat carrying the cysts to criminals who had been sentenced to death, he found tapeworms in the criminals’ intestines after they were executed, clearly demonstrating that the cysts and tapeworms were different stages of the same organism’s life cycle.

The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters
Sean B. Carroll

This is a very ambitious book that brings together the seemingly very different worlds of ecology and molecular biology. The unifying theme in these worlds, Carroll shows, is regulation.

After an introductory section, Carroll spends a substantial length of the book building a vocabulary for understanding regulation through recounting stories of the discoveries of the lac operon, cholesterol regulation, and cell cycle control. In the final section, he extends these ideas into ecological systems and describes what he calls the Serengeti rules, a set of rules governing the numbers and coexistence of organisms in ecosystems. The Serengeti is a region in northern Tanzania that is famous for its diversity of animals, and whose ecosystem Carroll frequently uses to demonstrate his ecological rules.

The book climaxes with Carroll’s insistence that just like how understanding molecular regulation has allowed us to develop modern medicine, understanding ecological regulation holds the promise to save ecosystems and the planet. He provides several examples of success stories of approaches based on understanding ecological rules, including the story of how wolves were introduced into Yellowstone to control herbivore populations and restore vegetation in the ecosystem.

The Selfish Gene
Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is a polarizing figure, with many I know in the scientific community keen to distance themselves from him because of his often extreme social and political views. Whatever those views may be, The Selfish Gene single-handedly began my interest in evolutionary biology, way back in high school and long before I even knew I could do this for a living (which is the plan now).

Dawkins’ premise is a simple one, that natural selection acts not at the level of the group or the individual, but at the level of the gene. Genes that confer greater fitness through increasing reproduction and survival are more likely to pass down to the next generation, and organisms are but vessels through which they continue their eternal journeys – until they’re outcompeted by more successful genes. While a modern biologist may not need much convincing for this idea, Dawkins will still ram home his point just a little bit deeper in any reader’s brain.

The book introduced me to several scientific paradigms that have stuck, not least my very understanding of natural selection. Beyond that, my first exposure to the RNA world hypothesis was his chapter on the primordial pool and the possible origin of life. I still think of cooperative behaviors and altruism in his terms of evolutionary game theory and kin selection. Dawkins came up with none of these ideas, but how else would a high school student learn about the work of Robert Trivers, W. D. Hamilton, and other influential evolutionary biologists? I am not implying that it should only be read by high school students. It’s a great read for anyone with some interest in biology.

No points for guessing which book produced the word cloud for the featured image.

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