48 | NewScientist | 29 September 2012
HALF a century ago, biologist Rachel Carson sent shock waves through US society. By the time her book Silent Spring hit the shelves on 27 September 1962, it had already sparked fierce debate. In the weeks before publication, President John F. Kennedy had to field questions about the widespread use of pesticides, an issue he noted had become a central scientific concern thanks to Miss Carsons book.
As well as bringing scientific ideas to a broader audience, piquing fascination and providing entertainment, popular science writing helps further scientific and social discussion. Carsons book divided opinion, and drove a public conversation that shaped policy and paved the way for the environmental movement.
There is a wealth of books with similarly powerful legacies not written for academic circles, but
for anyone curious enough to crack the spine. With the help of eminent scientists and writers we made a shortlist of 25 such popular science books. With close to 4000 votes cast, you helped us whittle it down to the top 10 that helped changed the world.
Most influential, according to New Scientist readers, is Charles Darwins On the Origin of Species. It marked the foundation of evolutionary biology, but it wasnt just for scientists. From old ladies to philosophers, in the words of Thomas Henry Huxley at the time, everybody has read Mr Darwins book. n
On the Origin of Species wasnt only for scientists everyone from old ladies to philosophers read it
Mr Darwins bookThe 10 most influential popular science books, as voted for by New Scientist readers, make for one revolutionary reading list
1On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859) penguin Classics, 9.99/$13 Darwins hugely influential book, which introduced what Richard Dawkins dubbed arguably the most important idea ever, was selected by more than 90 per cent of voters.
2 A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988) Bantam, 8.99/$18 Perhaps the worlds best known book on cosmology by its best known physicist this modern classic tackles the big questions of the universe.
3 The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976) oxford University press, 8.99/$19.95 Taking evolutionary theory to a new level, Dawkins argued that individual organisms are survival machines for the genes that they carry. The book also introduced a now familiar cultural idea: the meme.
4 The Double Helix by James Watson (1968) orion, 8.99 An account of the discovery of DNAs double helix by one of the Nobel winners behind the breakthrough.
5 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)penguin Classics/houghton Mifflin, 9.99/$14.95Fifty years on, Carsons expos of the impact of chemical pesticides continues to have a profound impact.
6 The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris (1967) Vintage, 7.99 One of the first books to portray humans as the animals that we are, The Naked Ape caused quite a stir when it was first released.
7 Chaos by James Gleick (1987) Vintage, 10.99This finalist for the Pulitzer prize was
the first popular science book to tackle the emerging field of chaos theory, and helped kick-start the subject across many fields.
8 Gaia by James Lovelock (1979) oxford University press, 8.99/$19.99 Lovelocks book introduced the Gaia hypothesis that everything on and of the Earth is an interconnected, evolving and self-regulating system.
9 An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus (1798) oxford University press, 8.99/$14.95 This highly controversial work examined the possibility of humans outstripping natural resources.
10 The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski BBC Books, 9.99 The work celebrates human ingenuity, from the early use of tools to breakthroughs in modern science.
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