Maybe you received an Amazon gift card for Christmas or maybe you’ve been looking for a book to while away the third lockdown. Either way, we’ve got some suggestions that we think will make the perfect first read of 2021.
Here’s our pick of the brightest and best popular science titles released this month, plus a few more non-fiction books that you ought to add to your reading list.
And for even more book-based self-care, come join us over at the Science Focus Book Club. You’ll get free samples of new and popular books, plus reading recommendations and bookish news sent directly to your inbox. Just sign up to the Science Focus Book Club Newsletter.
The best popular science books to read in January 2021
Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration and Life on Earth
There are several space missions to look forward to in 2021, including multiple spacecraft heading to Mars. NASA’s Perseverance rover is due to land on 18 Feburary, but what kind of world will it encounter there?
Kate Greene’s book gives us an insight into Martian life that is truly unique – she is one of very few people who can say she has lived on Mars. Alright, maybe she can’t quite say that, but she did spend four months living in an isolated geodesic dome as part of NASA’s HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission in Hawaii. Her writing brings this experience to life, but also leads us to question what it means to live here on Earth.
Ending Hunger: The Quest to Feed the World Without Destroying It
Anthony Warner is a firm favourite of the BBC Science Focus team. His writing is authoritative and authentically witty, whether he’s tackling bad food science in The Angry Chef or taking a knife to fad diets in The Truth About Fat, but Ending Hunger is perhaps his most important book yet.
In it, Warner dispels myths about GM foods, farming and climate change, and personal responsibility, all in a bid to offer a solution to world hunger. It isn’t a light read, but Ending Hunger is worth the effort if you’re interested in what we put in our mouths while others go hungry.
- Listen to Anthony Warner on the Science Focus Podcast
- Buy now from Amazon UK, Bookshop.org and Waterstones
To Be Honest
When was the last time you told a lie – even just a small one? For many of us, those little untruths we use to answer ‘How are you?’ and ‘Do you mind if I have the last biscuit?’ aren’t a big deal, but for Michael Leviton, anything other than honesty was banned from his childhood.
At just under 30, Leviton counted only three lies he’d told in his entire life. To Be Honest is his memoir, revealing what it is like to grow up without lying and what happens when you finally decide to bend the truth.
Drink?: The New Science of Alcohol and Your Health
Prof David Nutt
Attempting Dry January? You might want to pick up the recently released paperback edition of Professor David Nutt‘s eye-opening account of alcohol.
As the director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit at Imperial College London, Nutt knows a thing or two about the health effects of this one simple but deadly molecule.
In this definitive explanation of the science surrounding drinking, Nutt dives into subjects such as addiction and dependency, mental health, long-term damage, and the medical and societal impacts of our consumption.
Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It
Have you found that you’ve ended up talking to yourself more during lockdown? Whether it’s anxiety, stress or a lack of sleep that’s made the voice in your head get more incessant, it can be reassuring to know that you’re not alone.
In Chatter, psychologist Ethan Kross explores the reasons why we have an inner monologue, how it manages to have such an impact on our mood, and the ways we can turn it from critic to coach.
The Alignment Problem: How Can Machines Learn Human Values?
Though this year’s GCSEs and A-Levels won’t be determined by an algorithm after last year’s computer generated-results didn’t make the grade, artificial intelligence and machine learning are still very much a part of our everyday lives.
Algorithms, though designed by humans, end up making decisions on our behalf that we’re not 100 per cent sure we want. How do we make sure that they have our best interests in mind? Can AI ever be fair? This conundrum is the subject of The Alignment Problem.
Blood, Powder, and Residue: How Crime Labs Translate Evidence into Proof
Beth A Bechky
If you enjoyed listening to our podcast episode with forensic anthropologist Prof Dame Sue Black, you’re sure the love the gruesome details included in Blood, Powder, and Residue.
From inside a forensic science lab, Beth A Bechky reveals the way scientific analysis becomes evidence to be used in a courtroom. This book is as tense and gripping as any crime fiction novel.
Ouch!: Why Pain Hurts, and Why it Doesn’t Have To
Margee Kerr and Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
If you tell your GP that you’ve been having frequent pain, they might ask you to describe it and to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10. But how do you know what a 10 pain feels like, in order to compare it with your own?
We may think that pain is straightforward and universal, but it’s actually much more complicated. Ouch! attempts to reframe pain, using interviews, anecdotes and scientific research to give a thorough view of what it means when humans hurt.
The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness
The definition of consciousness is an elusive thing. Many books have tried to tackle the question of the intelligent mind and it is still a question for neuroscientists today.
In The Hidden Spring, neuropsychologist Mark Solms journeys through the scientific literature to try to resolve the consciousness problem once and for all. Of course, it’s for you to decide whether his words echo your own experience.
When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery Of Sleep
Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold
Research has shown that COVID-19 is making its way into our nightmares. But what actually happens when our brains dream?
Drawing on decades of research, sleep scientists Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold detail their new model of how and why we dream – a model that they call NEXTUP, the Network Exploration to Understand Possibilities.
On Task: How Our Brain Gets Things Done
If you’ve set yourself a list of resolutions for 2021, you may be keen to know how your brain actually turns thoughts into action.
Cognitive neuroscientist David Badre reveals how billions of neurons come together to do even the simplest of tasks.
Multitasking, self-control, the ageing brain and bad habits are just some of the cognitive functions unveiled in On Task, as well as the origins of our cognitive abilities and what it will mean for us looking forward.
The Happy Brain: The Science of Where Happiness Comes From, and Why
Even though there is no such thing as Blue Monday, we still may find ourselves feeling down at this time of year. But, where does happiness come from, scientifically speaking? From chemicals like dopamine and serotonin? From pulses of electricity travelling down neurons? And what causes these reactions in the first place?
In The Happy Brain, neuroscientist Dean Burnett explains the cutting-edge research and the neuroscience behind happiness.
The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – and Why They Stop
You may be sick of hearing about it, but understanding the coronavirus pandemic is as important as ever.
How do mathematicians build models that predict pandemics? What does data tell us about public health? And how can studying the spread of ‘fake news’ inform our understanding of virus transmission?
There have been a lot of virus-related books published in the last 12 months, and though this one from February was written before the pandemic, it is the essential guide to understanding contagious diseases.
Dune: The Graphic Novel
Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson, illustrated by Raúl Allén, and Patricia Martín
Refresh your memory of this famous story by Frank Herbert ahead of its return to the big screen (again) later this year with this new version. Adapted by Herbert’s son, Brian, and science fiction writer Kevin J Anderson, Dune: The Graphic Novel depicts the epic adventure that unfolds on the desert planet Arrakis in stunning illustrations.
Sci-fi fans around the world have loved Herbert’s tale of interstellar politics since 1965, but this book is sure to bring a new audience to Arrakis, too.
The Science of Living: 219 Reasons to Rethink Your Daily Routine
Dr Stuart Farrimond
If you’re making New Year’s resolutions (mind, we’d forgive you if you weren’t putting any more pressure on yourself coming out of the year that was 2020) then why not turn to science?
Dr Stuart Farrimond uses the latest research from psychology, biology, nutrition and more, to offer answers to 219 questions you might ask yourself in a day. Questions like: whether using your phone first thing when you wake up is bad, or what the most attractive qualities are to someone looking for a potential partner.
- Read articles from Dr Stuart Farrimond on sciencefocus.com
- Buy now from Amazon UK, Bookshop.org and Waterstones
The best books of all time
We reckon this is a fine selection of books to read this month, but there are plenty more that are well worth your time from the annals of history. If you’re looking for a little inspiration, here are a few more of our book recommendations to mull over:
- 28 of the best non-fiction and fiction books we read in 2020
- 20 of the best wildlife books and nature writing
- 16 of the best maths books
- 5 best physics books, according to Jim Al-Khalili
- AI: 5 of the best must-read artificial intelligence books
- 5 race science books you must read
- Science books for kids: 5 books for budding scientists
Are you excited to read any of the books on this list? Let us know what you think of our pick of the best science books out this month by messaging us on Twitter or Facebook, tag us in a picture of you reading any of the books on Instagram, and join the Science Focus Book Club for a community of other science book lovers.