Why I Want You To Read More Science
I am wild about one weird thing: convincing people to read books about science. Here’s why I think you should consider it, and how it could improve your life.
I am a happy person at the moment. Thanks to a beautiful twist of events, I’m currently living in an apartment across the street from my university, sharing shelves and shelves of books with my partner. I have embraced my thing — reading popular science, a genre of nonfiction books for general readers about technical topics — and spent the past year working full-time at a bookstore while reviewing books on readmorescience.com. I am studying to become a science writer, and I’m pretty excited about life in general. But just a few years ago, my life looked very different.
In 2016, I was hospitalized twice during a period of severe depression. Looking back, that year is sometimes difficult to remember in its haze of medications, psychiatry appointments, and an intensive outpatient program I attended three days a week. During my treatment, my doctors and counselors encouraged me to focus on something that would motivate me toward recovery and get me excited about the future. That something was reading books.
I grew up reading fiction and amassed a substantial library of novels by the time I was a teen. But it wasn’t until college that I first stumbled onto nonfiction books about the natural world. I tried to satisfy my fascination with biology by reading science and nature writing, but quickly learned my curiosity and enthusiasm for science was insatiable. As my library grew, so did my desire to change my major from literature to science.
Eventually, I did. I’m now studying microbiology at the local university here in small-town Oregon. I never imagined, after being a kid who hated math and struggled with my science classes in school, that I would become a science communicator encouraging women in STEM. I owe that transformation — and my journey to happiness — to reading science books.
But that’s enough about my story. Here’s why I’m willing to bet reading more science will change your life for the better.
1. Reading is good for your brain — and reading nonfiction is educational.
It’s true. The evidence indicates that recreational reading is good for your brain. Reading helps you relax, sleep better, and is a good influence on other people. It also gives you a break from social media and endless scrolling through click bait articles on your phone. But aside from that, reading nonfiction like popular science is also educational. It’s like watching a National Geographic documentary instead of a repeat episode of The Office (although, if you’re like me, you’ll find time for both).
Reading popular science opened my eyes to how entertaining and immersive nonfiction can be. When I reviewed The Dragon Behind the Glass by journalist Emily Voight, I was swept up in the adventures the author experienced in her quest to learn about the arowana fish. In my review, I write that “ Voigt pulls you in with the thrill of the chase. Enthused with the possibility of helping a notorious ichthyologist describe a possible new species of arowana, distinguishable by unique script-like markings on its scales, she sets out to obtain him a specimen from the wild.”
Voight’s adventures, as well as her ironic tone and amusing disinterest and even disgust with some of the fish owner’s obsessive behavior, is equally entertaining and captivating: “Although many books tend to flatline in the middle, Voigt’s constant and relentless pursuit of one fish (or fish expert) after another keeps the reader engaged and makes for a quick, effortless read. By the middle, you feel like you’ve left the spy thriller behind and are now having a good conversation with the author over dinner.”
While reading popular science, you’ll often find these books are as entertaining as they are educational.
2. Reading popular science is an opportunity to explore your interests.
If you’re busy with your career, college classes, or raising kids, exploring your casual interests can be challenging. You might not have the time or money to invest in a class, trip, or resources to pursue something that interests you. When I realized I wanted to learn more about fish after reading The Dragon Behind the Glass, I picked up a copy of The Eye of the Shoal by marine biologist Helen Scales.
Her well-written and amazing stories left me in awe of the ocean. I went on to read Smithsonian curator of fossil whales Nick Pyenson’s epic travelogue into the evolutionary history of whales. Then I had the opportunity to take a marine ecology class online through my community college, and was well-prepared to succeed thanks to the reading I had been doing on my own time.
Whatever your interests are, you can find popular science books to help you learn about them. Heredity and genomics has been a big topic lately thanks to the public’s interest in genetics, and science writer Carl Zimmer’s award-winning book She Has Her Mother’s Laugh eloquently tackles this subject for general readers. If you want to learn more about DNA, genes, and heredity, there are some great books out there.
Artificial intelligence is another popular (and futuristic) topic at the moment. I recently read two fantastic books by women involved in the fields of AI and computer science — Hello World by Hannah Fry and Turned On by Kate Devlin — which explore data privacy, artificial intelligence, sex robots, and technology of the future. If tech is your thing, the popular science genre has a lot to offer.
What about environmentalism, climate change, and the natural world? A quick internet search will help you find titles about combating climate denial, green technology, and other related books for learning about climate change and the environment. You can also seek out classic nature writing books such as Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which hugely influenced the field of environmentalism.
And if you’re a scientist, reading classic books by scientists who helped transform, found, or influence your field can be a great way to learn more about the history of the science you practice. For example, I’m currently reading a collection called Women in Microbiology.
3. Books about science keep you informed.
This is perhaps the most important and underrated benefit of reading nonfiction. The fact is, we live in an era of science denial, online misinformation, and fake news. The best way the general public can become informed voters and protect themselves against misinformation is by reading about science — thereby becoming science literate.
Here in America, the president and his party are not as supportive of science as the rest of us would like them to be. Perhaps if the president read more science, he wouldn’t make outrageous suggestions such as wind turbines causing cancer or “nuking hurricanes” to protect the country. If he was science literate, Mr. Trump might know that the scientific consensus on climate change is that it’s real, and it’s happening, and we need to change our policies to reflect that.
In addition, reading popular science books about current topics — from technology to global warming to endangered species — helps keep readers on top of scientific advancements in fields they may not know much about. Often these books are written by scientists or science writers with knowledge or experience in the field they are writing about. If you’re a biologist, for example, you might enjoy reading about advances in quantum physics written for general readers. If you’re not a scientist, you might enjoy a biography about a famous woman in science.
You never know what book may change the course of your life. When I picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, I was hardly interested in plants. But I was immersed in the story, amazed by the writing, and blown away by the history of the plants Pollan explores. It was one of the books that convinced me that I wanted to become a science writer. After reading it, I joined the National Association of Science Writers, eventually earning a travel fellowship through the organization and landing a summer internship as a science writer.
Remember when you were a child and a book made you want to become something — a firefighter, or a doctor, or an inventor? Everyone has books they cherished, even if they were fictional. Popular science books can change your life. They can introduce you to a new hobby or interest— mushroom foraging, birding, psychology, learning to code, nutritional science — and the opportunities (and reading material) are endless. I once decided I wanted to learn about the natural and mythological history of the avocado, and I couldn’t believe the resources I was able to find thanks to one book, The Food Explorer by Daniel Stone.
You never know what will inspire or captivate you. The point is to indulge your curiosity. Pick a topic and learn something new. Fall in love with good writing. Lose yourself in a story. Learn to love science if you never did before. It’s well worth your time.
There’s a saying in the science community: Science is for everyone. The truth is, science really is for everyone. Even me, a math-inept kid who didn’t know a thing about evolution until she was in college. As a science communicator, my goal is to empower other people, not just educate them. The point isn’t to give someone the facts: it’s to inspire them to learn more about something on their own. Math teachers don’t enjoy making students memorize multiplication tables — they love when a student realizes they have the tools and ability to work through a problem they previously didn’t understand how to solve.
Reading more science empowers you to think critically, informs you about topics you care about, and inspires you to learn more. It’s an invaluable education in science literacy, and accessible to anyone.
Who wouldn’t be excited about that?