The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew

  • Alan Lightman
(Vintage, 2014)

Physicist and literary wizard Alan Lightman reflects on how our cosmos, potentially one among uncountable others, has fortuitously created the perfect conditions for life. He considers intricate symmetries in nature and the unfathomable vastness of space. This journey through seven overlapping 'universes' — frameworks for exploring recent research — culminates in a vision of humanity hooked on technology, gradually detaching itself from reality.

Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality

  • Edward Frenkel
(Basic Books, 2014)

With infinite passion, media-feted professor Edward Frenkel shares his rise to mathematical greatness against a tide of Russian anti-Semitism. Appeasing maths-haters, he uses a borscht recipe to explain quantum duality. (See Marcus du Sautoy's review: Nature 502, 36; 2013.)

Life at the Speed of Light

  • J. Craig Venter
(Abacus, 2014)

Biologist J. Craig Venter shares his life's work of catalysing progress in biological engineering, sequencing the human genome and ultimately creating the first “synthetic cell” (Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0). (See Nathaniel Comfort's review: Nature 502, 436–437; 2013.)

The Compatibility Gene

  • Daniel M. Davis
(Penguin, 2014)

At the heart of our immunological-response systems lie 'compatibility genes', which determine each body's capacity to fight diseases or accept medication. Immunologist Daniel Davis explores these genes' roles in successful skin grafts, ill-fated pregnancies and more.

Brave Genius

  • Sean B. Carroll
(Broadway, 2014)

Against the tumult of the Second World War, biologist Sean Carroll tells the interwoven stories of philosopher Albert Camus and geneticist Jaques Monod, friends who worked for the French resistance and won Nobel prizes. (See Jan Witkowski's review: Nature 501, 487–488; 2013.)

The Joy of Pain

  • Richard H. Smith
(Oxford Univ. Press, 2014)

Psychologist Richard Smith explores the roots of Schadenfreude (joy in others' pain) in society, from reality television thriving on public humiliation to cases of envy-incited crimes, including Nazi persecution of Jewish people. (See Dan Jones' review: Nature 500, 147; 2013.)

Dosed: The Medication Generation Grows Up

  • Kaitlin Bell Barnett
(Beacon, 2014)

Journalist Kaitlin Bell Barnett, herself medicated in youth, tells the stories of five people who from childhood have been treated with psychotropic drugs for conditions such as depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, addressing their sense of lost freedom and identity.

The Dynamics of Disaster

  • Susan W. Kieffer
(W. W. Norton, 2014)

Geologist Susan Kieffer showcases Earth's most destructive processes, highlighting geographical discrepancies in disaster preparedness. In 2010, for example, similar-energy earthquakes caused over 50,000 deaths in Haiti, yet none in New Zealand. (See Roger Bilham's review: Nature 502, 438–439; 2013.)

What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness

  • Elizabeth Svoboda
(Current, 2014)

Would you risk your life for a stranger's? Survival instinct would suggest not, but science writer Elizabeth Svoboda finds that heroism comes naturally to some, and others can learn altruism using methods such as compassion meditation.

Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia

  • Anthony M. Townsend
(W. W. Norton, 2014)

As technology infiltrates urban life, Anthony Townsend observes how cities evolve in the digital sphere, from parking apps in Germany to crowd-sourced maps of African slums. (See Melanie Moses' review: Nature 502, 299–300; 2013.)

The Psychopath Inside

  • James Fallon
(Current, 2014)

After confusing his own brain scan with a psychopath's, neuroscientist James Fallon trawled his past and genealogy. Assembling evidence from obsessive–compulsive disorder to violence in his family history, Fallon considers how nurture may overcome nature.

The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets

  • Simon Singh
(Bloomsbury, 2014)

US television series The Simpsons is craftily dotted with maths jokes by numerate writers who chose comedy over academia. Physicist Simon Singh exposes and explains gags of varying complexity, although all can chuckle at Homer's naive belief in an “infinity plus one”.

Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination

  • Joyce Appleby
(W. W. Norton, 2014)

Six centuries of overseas exploration is lucidly charted by historian Joyce Appleby. While voyagers exulted over exotic species, the spread of disease to indigenous peoples exposed the high price of scientific discovery.