Creative types have been mining material from the sciences for years. Hollywood loves the imaginative leaps of science fiction (it’s been churning out Philip K. Dick adaptations for decades), and sometimes it even gets the science right. And these days, science is borrowing back from the arts. Harvard physicist Lisa Randall took the title for her latest book from a Bob Dylan song, and there are some seriously funny, eminently entertaining science books out there. Here are some titles that will have you laughing while you learn—about everything from quantum physics to the human gut.
Elephants on Acid: And Other Bizarre Experiments, by Alex Boese. Forget wondering whether elephants are really afraid of mice (the Mythbusters called this “plausible” after observing a coupla scaredy-pachyderms), and ask yourself how the gentle giants would respond to psychedelics. Can a chimpanzee raise a human baby? What’s the deal with scratch-‘n’-sniff? If you’ve suspected that science has a puckish side, and you want to get the lowdown on some of the wackiest experiments of all time, make this your next read.
How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, by Chad Orzel. Orzel explains quantum physics to his dog, Emmy, in a way that even the most tentative human students of the subject will find understandable and enjoyable. The conceit may sound insulting, but instead it’s humanizing—all doggy business aside. Emmy might not be able to use quantum tunneling or teleportation to catch squirrels, but at least, having absorbed the lessons of this book, she knows why (spoiler alert: dogs can’t teleport).
Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Take a break from your favorite zombie drama and read up on a virus that could easily have inspired that fearsome mythical creature. Husband-and wife-team Wasik and Murphy, a journalist and a veterinarian, assess the impact of rabies on our collective imagination (and on our bodies and public health systems) over time. Prepare for thrills, chills, and laughs.
Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, by Jon Mooallem. Mooallem’s subject matter—humanity’s unnatural reshaping of nature, our deluded assumptions about animals, “the wilderness,” and the massive depletion of both—seems likely to be the opposite of hilarious. But Mooallem’s curiosity, combined with zany characters (eccentric amateur lepidopterists, men dancing with whooping cranes) and witty, unsentimental prose help make tough issues palatable.
Anything at all (Stiff, Spook, Bonk, Packing for Mars, Gulp) by Mary Roach. Roach is the headliner of the funny science revue. If any search for “hilarious science books” doesn’t turn up a Mary Roach title, I’ll eat my hat, and the author’s latest, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, will explain, in gratuitous, comic detail, what would happen from there.
What’s your favorite funny science book?