One should perhaps start any list of popular science writers with Aristotle, whose observations and ideas about every aspect of the world we live in – particularly regarding the mystery of existence, promoted by the Catholic Church – provided the world with an early scientific base on which early scientists built their scientific vision. It was wrong, though, so we start with Copernicus instead, whose writings directed our sight towards the truth, which was then grasped and developed by the other writers on this list. The Church clung to Aristotle’s model, however, furiously defending it, even going as far as torturing and killing those who questioned it. Eventually, though, guided by generations of popular science writers, the writers of our generation became free to educate us without fear or favour. Those writers are our guides to how things actually are.
Unlike scientists that turned their hand to fiction, the popular science writers listed below have played an incalculable role in the understanding of the universe that we have today. All of them adopted a public education stance in at least some of their book writing.
Nicolaus Copernicus 1473-1543 was, without doubt, the most important astronomer in Western culture but he was also a mathematician, physician, diplomat, economist, classics scholar and translator, He also had a doctorate in canon law and served as a Warmian Cathedral chapter canon.
He wrote books on all those subjects but is best known, of course, as an astronomer who changed the world with his most famous book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly spheres)
In that book Copernicus presented a model of the universe that undermined the Ptolemaic geocentric system in which the earth was the centre of the universe, replacing it with the model familiar to us today – that the planets revolve around the sun. The publication of that book was one of the most important events in the history of science publications. Copernicus’ model was taken up by other astronomers and it led to the Copernican Revolution and subsequently to the Scientific Revolution.
Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’Galilei (known as Galileo) 1564-1642 was, like Copernicus, a polymath. He was not only one of the most famous astronomers of all time, he was also a formidable technician, inventing the thermoscope and also several kinds of military compasses, as well as the astronomical telescope. He is often called “the father of modern physics.” He was also a writer, his most famous book being Sidereus Nuncius, 1610, in Latin, translated as ‘The ‘Starry Messenger,’
Galileo’s adoption of Copernican heliocentric, where the Earth rotates daily and revolves around the sun, got him into trouble with the Catholic Church. An investigation condemned him as foolish, ridiculous and heretical in that his discovery was opposed to Holy Scripture.
‘Starry Messenger’ was an account of his telescopic work, his observation of the moon and his discovery of four of the moons of Jupiter. Regardless of its being in Latin it was written in an accessible, compelling style. The book was, for obvious reasons, revolutionary, exploding the geocentric world view and taking the wind out of the Church’s sails.
Sir Isaac Newton 1642-1726 was an English scientist and theologian, known mainly for physics and astronomy. He was central to the philosophical revolution known as ‘The Enlightenment.’
Building on and developing Galileo’s technology he invented a practical reflecting telescope. From that invention he developed a theory of colour, observing that a prism separates white light into colours in a visible spectrum. That work was presented in his influential book Opticks (1704). His most important work, though, and the basis of his great fame, was his formulation of the laws of motion and gravitation. Those formulations formed the dominant scientific viewpoint until Einstein outdated them with his theory of relativity. They were the subject of his most famous book, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687).
Charles Darwin 1809-1882 studied for a medical degree at Edinburgh University but abandoned that to study theology at Cambridge. His main interest, though, had always, even in childhood, been natural history, and even as he studied other subjects his passion for that grew.
He got the chance to pursue his passion in 1831 when he was employed as a naturalist to go on a voyage on the Royal naval ship, The Beagle, which was on a mission to survey the coastline of South America. During that voyage, Darwin collected samples of rocks and fossils, plants and animals and sent them back to England on other ships. On his return, his study of those samples led to scientific discoveries and, with other scientists, to his Theory of Evolution.
Darwin’s book,On the Origin of Species or to give it its full title – On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, published in 1859, is probably the most important book ever written on a scientific subject. He wrote it for the general reader and it was widely read and widely ridiculed by his critics and the media. The idea that human beings had not been created whole and perfect by a supernatural entity, but had evolved from apes, and before that, other creatures, and originally from a single cell, was simply laughable to them.
Oliver Sachs 1933-2013
Oliver Sachs was an entertaining writer. He seemed to be as interested in the art of writing as in the art of medicine, which was his subject – as a specialist in neurology. Eye-catching titles such as Awakening and The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, The Island of the Colorblind, attract the attention of the twentieth century readers who browse the shelves of bookshops, and the books’ contents are interesting too.
Sachs, neurologist, naturalist, science historian, and above all, writer, moved from the UK to the United States in about 1960, where he took further medical degrees. In the 70s he worked with a group of survivors of the 1920s sleeping sickness epidemic at the Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx. The patients had been unable to move on their own for decades. It was that experience that inspired him to write his first book, Awakenings, which was made into a movie starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams in 1990.
Carl Sagan 1934 – 1996
During his lifetime Carl Sagan was the most famous scientist in America, not only because of his work at Cornell as professor of astronomy and of research at Harvard, but also on NASA’s robotic missions, in editing the scientific journal, “Icarus,” appearing on television, including regularly on Johnny Carson’s “Today Show” and, amazingly, creating and narrating his own television series, “Cosmos.” seen by more than 500 million people in 60 different countries, and his more than a dozen books, many of which were written for the general reader. His book, The Dragons of Eden won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1975.
In The Dragons of Eden 1977 Sagan draws the fields of evolutionary biology, anthropology, biology and computer science together to speculate on how human evolution may have evolved, and it’s a fascinating read.
Richard Dawkins 1941 – is a biologist, specialising in animal behaviour. He is a very fine writer, able to communicate complex ideas to readers who don’t have a scientific background and, as such, has been central in raising the public understanding of science. He served as Professor for Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford from 1995 until his retirement in 2008.
His book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, made him a best-selling author. And he went on to write several more books on biology. In The Selfish Gene Dawkins argues that it is not a species or individual organism that constitutes the basic unit of evolution but that genes are. Genes are ‘selfish’ in that they use organisms and mechanisms to promote their own survival.
However, the book that made him an authorial super-star was The God Delusion, in 2006, his summing up of his ideas and his promotion of atheism.Dawkins is the most public atheist in the UK and the most sought-after debater against religious apologists. The God Delusion is the complete rejection of any supernatural element in our universe.
Stephen Jay Gould 1941-2002 was an American science all-rounder, mainly in the fields of evolutionary biology and, paleantology, while also being a distinguished historian of popular science. During most of his academic career he taught at Harvard University although he spent some years at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
While being highly respected among the scientific community he was also well-known to ordinary people through his many books written for the general reader. He was so popular that the US Library of Congress named him a Living Legend.
Gould’s most famous book for the general reader is Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. This is a fascinating account of what we have learnt from studying the Burgess Shale – the remains of an ancient sea where research into the creatures who had lived there revealed brand new, astonishing, insights into evolution.
Stephen Hawking. 1942-2018
Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time, 1988, was one of the top selling books of the twentieth century and catapulted him into the ranks of “A list” celebrities: the book remained on The Times bestseller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks. After that success he wrote several more books, most of them reaching the bestseller list. He also became a celebrated television personality in spite of being severely disabled, totally paralysed and needing to communicate through an electronic device.
His fame did not distract him from his day job between 1979 and 2009, which was the highly prestigious Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, the position previously held by Isaac Newtron, Charles Babbage, George Stokes and Joseph Larmor. At the time of his death he was the director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge.
In A Brief History Of Time Stephen Hawking explains the complex details of our universe, such as time, gravity, planets, stars, and black holes, to general readers, in a way that all of us can understand without having a degree in physics, mathematics or astronomy.
Neil de Grasse Tyson 1958 –
Tyson is probably the most effective, and certainly one of the most prolific, living popular science writers. He is an astrophysicist – the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Centre for Earth and Space in New York. Eminent as he is as a scientist, he is better known for his best-selling books, which are informed by his scientific activities.
Death by Black Holes is his most famous and most popular book. It’s a collection of essays and if you like (shudder) horror stories you will enjoy the opening, title essay. Here he describes in objective, unemotional detail the physics of black holes – exactly, with no details withheld, he tells you what would happen to your body if you were unfortunate enough to fall into a black hole. “Hollywood Nights” demonstrates how pathetic movie makers are at getting the night sky right in their films.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (2017) is a discussion of several basic space questions that live in your and my mind.
Tyson frequently appears in the media and hosts his own successful astrophysical talk show, Star Talk.
And that’s our pick of the best popular science writers. What’s your take – anyone missing from this list you think we should add? Let us know in the comments section below.