The guide takes the broadest possible view of popular science writing to include non-fiction works about contemporary science, historical and biographical works, and fictional works that have scientific or medical themes. The key thing is that they are all written for a general audience.
If you’re new to the genre, here is an introduction to the variety of popular writing about science available in the Library’s collections, including a few choice examples to get you started. If you’re already a fan, there are suggestions on where to find out more about the latest and the best in the genre.
Find out more:
- Book prizes: you can find out about the best and latest in popular science writing by checking the winners of several specialist book prizes.
- Book clubs: if you want to discuss what you’re reading, you could join a science book club.
- General websites: there are also some websites that list new and ‘classic’ popular science books.
Wellcome Library collections
The Library contains a good selection of books on modern science that seek to explain scientific topics in a non-technical way. There are some well-known authors in this field, such as Steve Jones and Oliver Sacks. There are also 'classics' of the genre such as Richard Dawkins's 'The Selfish Gene'. Others explore the roles of science in society or discuss the consequences of new science and technology, for example.
Fiction with a scientific or medical theme (not necessarily science fiction) can offer a different perspective on scientific ideas and the people who work in science. Ian McEwan often writes on such themes. Another interesting area is fictional accounts of people's personal experiences of illness or disability. Of particular note in the Library, is the small but growing collection of graphic novels on biomedical themes.
As popular science literature, biographies can offer an insight into the processes of science and how scientists and doctors work. They can also be a way of establishing the reputation of people whose work might have otherwise been forgotten or overlooked, for example 'Rosalind Franklin: The dark lady of DNA'. Biographies can be about famous patients as well as famous doctors, for example, 'The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks'.
The Library holds a large collection of biographies about medical and scientific figures, past and present.
There are many popular accounts of the history of science and medicine. For example the 'Age of Wonder' by Richard Holmes. There are also fine historical examples of popular science, probably one of the first was Michael Faraday’s 'The chemical history of a candle' based on his Royal Institution lectures for young people.
One of the best ways of reading about contemporary science is in popular science magazines aimed at a general audience. They contain reports of new research from the scientific literature, discuss social and cultural issues, and offer reviews and information about new literature and arts relating to science. Some also contain short stories on scientific themes. The Library has a selection of general science magazines.
One of the best ways of finding recommendations for new popular science books is among the shortlists and prize winners of many specialist book prizes for science or non-fiction books.
The annual BMA Book Competition covers many categories of medicine. The Popular Medicine category includes clinical books aimed at the general public. The website lists highly commended books as well as winners.
The Dingle Prize is awarded biennially, by the British Society for the History of Science, for the best book in the history of science, technology and medicine accessible to a non-expert readership.
The Royal Society Prize for Science Books aims to encourage the writing, publishing and reading of good and accessible popular science books.
The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, sponsored by the BBC, aims to reward the best of non-fiction and is open to authors in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts.
The Warwick Prize for Writing is a global literature prize that crosses all disciplines. The prize is given every two years for "an excellent and substantial piece of writing in the English language", in any genre or form, on a theme that changes with every award.
The Wellcome Trust Book Prize celebrates the best of medicine in literature each year for the finest fiction or non-fiction book centred on medicine.
Jennifer Rohn of LabLit.com hosts the Royal Institution monthly book club, dedicated to fiction books with a science theme. Information about each month's book is posted in the Royal Institution's events calendar.
Guardian Science Book Club
Every month, lovers of science literature are invited to join Tim Radford in reading or re-reading a particular title, which is then thrown open to everyone for discussion.
Scientific American Book Club
An online bookshop with a wide selection of bestselling science and mathematics books. It includes new releases and classic titles.
Here are a few suggestions of sites that discuss popular science and popular science writing:
'New Scientist' magazine's site "where books, art and science collide".
Human Genome Bookshelf
Bookshelf editor Jon Turney explores classic books on genetics, both old and new.
LabLit.com is dedicated to the portrayal and perceptions of real laboratory culture - science, scientists and labs - in fiction, the media and across popular culture.
Lovereading.co.uk - popular science
The reading website offers a list of titles as a starting-point for general readers interested in science.
Popular Science on Wikipedia
An article about popular science as a literary genre, with a long but useful list of key popular science authors.