The Best Pop Science Books with Simon Clark| #BookBreak

The Best Pop Science Books with Simon Clark| #BookBreak


Hey Book Break! My name is Simon, and I’m here doing a guest
video, because I am a bit of a bibliophile, and a scientist. So I’m going to be talking about my top five
pieces of scientific nonfiction. Let’s start with The Immortal Life of Henrietta
Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. This book is an absolute masterclass in blending
nonfiction with storytelling. The book contains three different story threads,
the first of which is Henrietta Lacks herself. Henrietta Lacks was a woman in America in
the mid-20th century, who died of cervical cancer. But just prior to her death, doctors took
some of her cells, which they were then able to grow in a lab. And they were able to do so so successfully
that her cells are still alive today. They just kept multiplying and multiplying. So in a sense, she has become immortal. Her cells have become incredibly important
to scientific research, and tens of thousands of scientific papers have been written using
her cells. But the problem is that her cells were taken
without her consent. So the first thread in this book is what happened
to Henrietta Lacks and her family when they found out what had been done to her. The second thread is about the science done
using her cells, and the scientists who used them. And the third is about Rebecca Skloot who
wrote the book, uncovering all this information and piecing the story together. Those three threads are combined in a way
that Hitchcock would call, ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch’, where you build up one particular
thread up to the point of maximum tension and then drop it, and then go to a different
thread and build that up. And it keeps your interest, and it’s just
a masterful use of techniques that you normally only see in fiction, applied to nonfiction. And the story that’s told using these techniques
is profoundly moving, and deeply tragic. The book touches on deep topics such as the
ethics of biomedical research. Should Henrietta Lacks’s family be reimbursed?
Compensated for the tens of millions of dollars that were made off of their mother’s cells? And the incredibly deep divide that existed
in America in the middle of the 20th century, and still persists to this day. I just can’t recommend this enough. I want more books like this in my life please. Next, another book about the human body. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by
Oliver Sacks. Something that I’ve noticed in books about
medicine and medical history, is that people are just reduced to a series of biochemical
reactions. There’s a series of causes, there’s then a
series of biochemistry things that go on, some physiological actions, and then some
results at the end. Which, you know, sometimes include death. The human being in the middle of all of that
somehow gets missed. And this is something that Oliver Sacks puts
dead centre in his book. The book is a series of case studies, particularly
interesting neurological cases over Sacks’s career as a doctor. Now this could easily have been one of those
books that I’ve talked about before: this happened, the human brain did this, this happened. But in this case, the humans, the personalities,
the souls are at the centre of each of these case studies. Sacks consciously moved towards a more humanistic
representation of medicine, and from doing that he raises incredibly interesting questions,
such as, a neurological patient who has no memory whatsoever, who lives entirely in the
moment. Do they have a soul? Do they have a personality? Or are they just constantly reacting to things
that are happening around them? The book introduces fascinating concept after
concept after concept, which I just never considered before. And in a way, the book feels like a meta-commentary
on how we talk about the medical sciences. In the last chapter, Sacks talks about a patient
who he describes as an ‘idiot savant’, someone who is incredibly gifted in one area, but
who has very minimal capabilities in others. The patient in the chapter in particular is
an incredible artist, but can barely verbally communicate, or understand other people. And when talking about how this patient can
be so incredibly in the moment of something, but not understand abstraction, it feels like
Sacks is commenting on how we talk about medicine. And how we talk about science in general. About scientists who are so incredibly good
at nailing down the abstract methodological way of thinking, but incapable of communicating
it to humans. And when you read the book, you’ll find that
it is beautiful. It is one of the, if not the most, beautifully
written nonfiction books I’ve ever read. Sacks draws his influences from a diverse
range of sources, and you can tell that he’s incredibly well-read. It really comes across. The book almost reads like poetry. It is just sumptuous. So for a book that’s about more than it says
it’s about, and what it’s about is incredibly interesting, and it’s told in a beautiful
way. I can’t recommend this enough. I thought it was fascinating. OK, all right, that’s enough gushing about
biology. Let’s talk about some real science. A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking. This is one of those books that is incredibly
popular, and has been bought by a lot of people, but not necessarily read by a lot of people. However, people should be reading it. If they just get the introduction down, then
they’ve read, in my opinion, the most interesting, the most engaging introduction to modern physics
that there is. I first read the book when I was about ten,
which was way too young. And I always assumed that I didn’t really
understand a lot of what I was reading at the time. But I recently re-read it, and having done
now a master’s degree in Physics, and a PhD, I realised that actually it had all gone in. The way that I think about physics, the way
that I think about the physical world, comes directly from this book. It had an unspeakably large influence on me,
without me even realising! Much as it has this reputation for being mind-bending
and difficult, I find, admittedly, slightly biased, two degrees, I find it to be the most
concise, the most precise in its use of language, introduction to physics that there is. I think you could argue that because Hawking
was confined to his wheelchair and had to type this book incredibly slowly, he had to
be incredibly economical with what he was typing, and how he was choosing to communicate
these complicated ideas. And that that really strengthened the book. It’s not even that long, considering the sheer
number of concepts that it put across. It’s a classic. It is for a reason. I think it’s the best introduction to physics
there is, so you should definitely read it. And then at number four, a book which I don’t
actually have with me. Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, by Alex Bellos. In a way, the fact that I don’t actually have
this book, is the best recommendation I could possibly give, because Alex’s Adventures in
Numberland is one of these books that I just had to recommend to people as soon as I had
finished reading it. For some context, I did my degree in physics,
and I recently finished my PhD in theoretical atmospheric physics, both of which had a great
deal of maths in. Except, I hated maths at school, and I sucked
at it. That is, until I read this book. Because this book was the key to the door. It unlocked maths as a field for me, because
after this book, I found it interesting. For some people, myself included, language
is just a delight. Like, words are these things that you can
manipulate and play around with your hands, and have fun with combining in new ways. And that’s exactly what the people in Alex’s
Adventures in Numberland, and Alex Bellos himself, are like with numbers. The book goes across a variety of fields of
maths, not necessarily modern cutting-edge research, but just vast areas of maths that
you might not even think of as being maths. And along the way, you meet these people for
whom numbers are these playthings. These abstract mathematical concepts, are
like old friends that they can have fun with. Looking at numerology, looking at infinities,
looking at probability, looking at the history of pi. The book just blasts through all of these
things, and along the way I could feel myself getting entrained, getting sucked into this
world. And I am so happy I read it, so happy because
it meant that I could suddenly enjoy this huge field of what I was doing in my degree
at the time. And it was one of these books that I just
had to immediately give away. So my copy has gone from person to person
to person, because I just think it’s one of the most influential books I’ve ever read. And that is the biggest compliment I could
give it. So I give it to other people to read. You should read it too. And then, lastly, something a little different. What If? by Randall Munroe. You may have heard of Randall Munroe, from
his comic strip XKCD, especially if you’re a scientist. But I’d argue the more interesting thing about
him is his project What If? Which was a blog which answered absurd hypothetical
questions with real answers. For example, from what height would you need to drop a
steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground. The book is like the greatest hits of that
blog, and all these questions are just so bizarre. Some of them you think, how on earth did somebody
come up with that? Is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate
yourself? But regardless of how ridiculous the situation
being considered is, Munroe applies real physics, real engineering analysis, to the problem. Which is why it’s on this list, because I’d
argue that it is the most scientific piece of scientific nonfiction that I’ve ever read. Because the focus is on the method. So many science books are just about ‘isn’t
quantum mechanics amazing?’ or ‘isn’t the way that we worked out how this enzyme in
the body works, how cool is this?’ In these books the method is lost, the way
we actually do science. There’s a reason why I recommend this book
to people who are going to university interviews to do science, because the way that Munroe
tackles a problem, and spells it out in the book, is exactly how you would tackle a science
problem in an interview. You work out your assumptions, you go through
some approximations, and then try and get it as accurate as possible, using the physics
that you do know, to make the most of an absurd situation. Despite the fact that some of the situations
covered involve rampaging T-Rexes and bridges made of lego that can carry traffic, the techniques
that are discussed in this book, the mindset that is put forward in this book, is incredibly
true to how I have done science in my academic career. So for that reason, this is arguably the best
piece of scientific nonfiction writing I’ve ever read. So I guess you should read it. So those are my top five. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The
Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, A Brief History of Time, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland,
and What If? Thank you so much to Book Break for having
me on the channel, I had a great time getting ready for this video and re-reading some of
these books. There’ll be a link to my channel down there
in the description, and let me know in the comments if you have some suggestions that
you think should have made it to my list. Thanks for watching.

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  1. Ok, you sold it. I HATE Science, but if you say so, I'll give it a go. I am going to try Hawkins, and maybe Alex's Adventures in Numberland – when you get it back from whoever has it now…

  2. Hey Simon! You mentioned in this video that you used to be bad at math and that you didn't like it. Do you think you could make a video about how you transitioned from that opinion and skill-level to actually liking and being good at math?

  3. Ooooo fantastic video!!!! Checking all these books out, very interesting recommendations thank you Simon!!!!

  4. Best book – '200 proofs. By Eric Dubay…..Now translated into 20 languages and has been watched by millions…….or just watch on YouTube.

  5. I was looking forward to a video like this. Here are my favourites:

    The endorphines
    History of LSD
    The microbe hunters
    The double helix
    The selfish gene
    The Euler gem

  6. So im on youtube and i search for "book reviews popular science books" and this video is one of the top results. And im watching it and Ive known about henrietta lacks and oliver sacks and brief history of time for years (im old, like 35) and I smile a bit at the thing he says about how people have copies of brief history of time but they have never read it haha yep that is true for me too I have never gotten past the introduction. . . So yeah the first three books in this review are basic science reads that even I know about them (my favorite science book is Cosmos by Carl Sagan — it changed my life when i first read it a long time ago ๐Ÿ˜†๐Ÿ˜Šโ˜บ) but I love what Simon is saying about the Oliver Sacks book and then Simon Clark starts talking about the Numberland book and this is one book im hearing about for the first time here, so i make a mental note to look it up later . . . And THEN Simon Clark introduces the final book on his list. And when the book cover appears I feel like — NO WAY!!! WHAT IF?! REALLY?! HAHAHA it is awesome and incredible because I spent all of yesterday reading What If for the first time — I only recenty discovered xkcd, recently as in last month — Im late af to the party I know but I fell in love with xkcd and then I got a copy of What If last month too but I only started reading it yesterday. And at first I didnt really expect to like it much — I looked at the list of contents first and the scenarios posed just sound awful — but I see the drawings and they look fun haha so I just start reading and before the first chapter is over I was hooked. I was reading the thing for Hours yesterday — i think im 40 % done — and i had read the Steak chapter. I am actually surprised at myself because I never expected to love the book this much — But there I was reading it for hours, which is something I am rarely able to do nowadays. (How i read nowadays: I read a book for an hour and then I put it down and do something else and pick it up again three days later, haha) so anyway I AM AWED BY THIS AWESOME LITTLE COINCIDENCE where this book review that I am watching for the first time today ACTUALLY LISTS WHAT IF AS ONE OF THE BEST SCIENCE BOOKS THERE IS. ๐Ÿ’“๐Ÿ’•

  7. Simon always makes me feel engaged in all his videos especially when it comes to books. He has now made me want to read over hundreds of books. ๐Ÿ˜‚

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