Popular Science Book Summaries

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A collection of short summaries, part of the A4166336



Clive Bromhall : A4192805

Working from the secure premise that humans exhibit a large degree of neoteny (the maintenance of juvenile characteristics into adulthood), this book argues that neoteny may be the fundamental key to our success, and works through the various implications.

Jared Diamond : Guns, Germs, and Steel

Working as a biologist in Papua New Guinea, Diamond was asked by one of natives, ‘Why do white men have so much cargo, compared to us black fellas?’ cargo being technology and goods. The book is subtitled ‘A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 years’, and Diamond takes the long view, looking at how agriculture started, and what ‘raw materials’ were available on each continent. Going through the various continents’ flora and fauna in detail, and the geography of the continents, Diamond creates an excellent theory to explain the West’s predominance in the broadest possible terms. The consequences of this development, in terms of the rise of the weaponry, infectious diseases (which have all crossed over to us from domesticated livestock) and technology, are discussed in depth, both as the widest-ranging historian and as a friend of the Papuan natives he has come to know and respect.

Steve Jones : Almost Like A Whale

Absolutely brilliant update to Darwin's Origin of Species. Wonderfully presents Darwin's ideas and then extends them by applying the recent advances in molecular genetics. Reapplies Darwinian principles to issues which face humanity today: AIDS, GM crops etc.
Well written so as to be accessible to anyone with a merely passing interest in evolution. Certainly don't need a scientific mind to enjoy it.

Edward J Larson : Evolution : The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory

Covers the history of evolutionary thought right from geology's dawning realisation that something evolution-y was afoot all the way through to the modern synthesis in the 1940's, via Cuvier, Lamarck, Darwin, Huxley, Mendel and beyond. This book could fill in quite a few gaps in many people's knowledge of evolution's background history, and it is very clearly written and readily digestible. Highly recommended for those who want to know how science realised that life changes.

D'Arcy Thompson : A4191392

A study of the form and development of plants and animals. Wonderful language, and many thought-provoking, if sometimes outdated, ideas.

Colin Tudge : The Day Before Yesterday

This book looks at human evolution from an ecological and historical point of view. Tudge takes a holistic view, looking at the climatic history of the earth and how mammals have responded to the shifts in climate, and the shifting continents over millions of years. This ‘dance through time’, how not just individual species but whole suites of species evolve due to these changes, is then applied to our own evolution. Tudge is no expert on fossils, although he discusses the classification of our ancestors well enough; what he excels in is applying general ecological principles to how ancient humans lived, which is truly fascinating and enlightening (homo floresiensis’ discovery would not have unduly surprised Tudge, I think). The discussions on hominds’ hunting techniques, the Pleistocene overkill with its incredible loss of species, and how farming began are particularly interesting. Anyone who is at all interested in human evolution and our place in nature should read this book.

Animal Behaviour

Stephen Budiansky : A4264490

A well written book looking at the skills and limits of animal perception and possible kinds of animal minds, this book is a very accessible read for the non-scientific reader.

Stephen Budiansky : A4259496

A thoroughly well written and highly recommended general look at the biology and behaviour of one of the best-loved domesticated animals
Covers evolution, anatomy, perception and intelligence, and many other topics with clarity and accessibility.

Stephen Budiansky : The Covenant Of The Wild

The story of the evolution of domesticated species from their wild ancestors, examining why certain kinds of animal are better suited to domestication than others, and how domesticated animals could have evolved without any deliberate human intervention. Also investigates the dependence of domesticated species on humans as a result of their adaptations.

Christopher McGowan : The Raptor And The Lamb

This book examines predator/prey interactions across the animal kingdom, and in various environments. Amongst the analysis of the technical features of various predators, each chapter has many little interludes giving examples of various real-life predation scenarios.
Well written, and well illustrated, this book manages to combine a wide range of examples with sufficient detail to interest most readers. Possibly not ideal for those of a squeamish disposition, this book is highly recommended to everyone else.


Daniel Dennett : Consciousness Explained

A study of what consciousness is (or might be) from a thought-provoking philosopher and excellent writer. This book takes a materialistic (non-spiritual) viewpoint of consciousness as being a process happening in the brain, and may be most readily understandable by someone used to concepts of computing, yet should be accessible to other people as well.

Steven Lavy : - Artificial Life [The Quest for a New Creation]

This is a great introductory book, it covers a lot of important early computer experiments, things like von Nuemann's self-reproducing cellula automata, Conway's game of life, flocking behaviour and genetic algorithms. Levy breathes life into his account of these scientists and their theories and experiments.

Roger Penrose : The Emperor's New Mind

A well written argument against the possibility of computers gaining artificial intelligence without some fundamental changes in our understanding of the laws of physics, particularly at the quantum level. (For an opposing viewpoint, see Daniel Dennett.)

Stephen Pinker : The Language Instinct

A classic book on the nature of human language. Deep yet accessible, and taking on the numerous aspects of language with energy and a will to understand and explain.

Stephen Pinker : A4265336

If you are a fervent believer in the Blank Slate principle of human cognition - that we all start off equal and end up as a pure product of nurture, rather than nature, you should probably read this book, even if you probably won't.
If, however, you are actually interested in examining the strength of argument against a nurture-only philosophy( however comforting or politically expedient such a philosophy may be), it's a must-read.

V S Ramachandran : Phantoms In The Brain

A highly recommended book, examining the operation of the brain by concentrating on studies of patients with specific neural damage.

V S Ramachandran : A Brief Tour Of Human Consciousness (not recommended)

Essentially cover same ground as Phantoms in the Brain. If you're interested in the mind and brain, buy Phantoms rather than this one.

V S Ramachandran : The Emerging Mind (not recommended)

Essentially cover same ground as Phantoms in the Brain. If you're interested in the mind and brain, buy Phantoms rather than this one.


Donald D Hoffman : A4277865

A great introduction to the human visual perceptual system, explaining some of its neat tricks, and reasons for some of its quirks and failings. Numerous illustrations make the explanations very clear, and no prior knowledge is required.


John D Barrow : The Universe That Discovered Itself

Life, the Universe and Everything are not explained in this book, but if they ever are, most of the same questions will be debated. It looks at how people have explained nature throughout history, and examines how our conception that there *are* laws of nature arose. It then proceeds through the latest developments in cosmology, via mathematics, logic and philosophy. Far and away the most thought-provoking of the recent many books on cosmology, this is a demanding but incredibly rewarding journey through what we think we know.

Rudy Rucker : The Fourth Dimension : A Guided Tour of the Higher Universe

A guide to understanding higher dimensional spaces, like space-time, beginning by exploring the imaginary two dimensional world called Flatland originally described by E. A. Abbot in the 19th Century.


John Emsley : A4267541

The Shocking History Of Phosphorous - John Emsley
(A biography of the devil's element)
One of the first elements to be isolated by late alchemists/early chemists, phosphorus has a long history of use and misuse, which this book comprehensively addresses.

Simon Garfield : A4278288

A history of the development of the first artificial dye, and the subsequent transformation of organic chemistry from an academic study to a massive industry.

John Mann : A4278017

A fascinating study of animal and plant-derived chemicals, and their uses throughout history as poisons, psychoactive substances and medicines.

John Mann : Molecules at an Exhibition

A highly readable book, looking at various elements and natural and synthetic chemical compounds, their manufafcture, uses and downsides.
Organised into eight 'galleries', (domestic chemicals, poisons, edible chemicals, etc) with 10 or so entries per gallery, this gives an excellent overview of some of the elements and chemicals we may meet (or wish to avoid) in everyday life.


John Allen Paulos : Innumeracy

A short book studying various kinds of mathematical illiteracy common to most (or virtually all) people. Probability, permutaions, percentages and general statistics are covered, with good explanations and only as much maths as is necessary.

Geology / Earth Sciences

Stephen Drury : A4263923

The history of the Earth, from the birth of its elements in stars, through the formation of the solar system, and the long process of subsequent geological change, influenced in the later stages by the presence of life, is amply covered in this outstanding book.

P J Small : The Study Of Landforms

More a textbook than a popular science book as such, this is nonetheless good reading for people interested in the forms of various landscapes, and the processes that underlie their formation. Some geological knowledge may be useful but not strictly necessary.

Science/Technology History

Stephen Budiansky : A4285172

A fascinating account of the technical and political aspects of Allied codebreaking in WWII on both sides of the Atlantic, Including the now famous tackling of the Enigma encryption system, initially in Poland, and later at Bletchley Park, and the American attacks on the Japanese cypher systems, which played a great part in US success in the Pacific, notably the battle for Midway.

Stephen Budiansky : A4280311

A thorough and balanced examination of military aviation in the century following the Wright brothers' first flight, examining the politics and strategy as well as the many technical aspects

Robert Buderi : A4266524

Certainly one of the most important technological developments of WWII, it is quite possible that without the development of radar and the command systems to make effective use of the information it provided, the Battle of Britain may well have ended differently. Though concentrating on the technological golden years of WWII, this book traces the history of radio detection from its earliest days through to its numerous post-war uses and implications.

Tom Standage : The Victorian Internet

(The remarkable story of the telegraph and the nineteenth century's online pioneers)
A study of the development of the telegraph, from the early days of optical signalling systems through early electric telegraphs, and the rapid expansion of telegraphy as a national, international and intercontinental communications system. The implications on various aspects of life are considered, and the book does a good job of drawing parallels between this first high-speed international communication system and the modern internet which followed a century later.

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