Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells, by Harold McGee, John Murray, RRP£35, 688 pages

A tour-de-force by McGee, the world’s leading writer about the science of cookery. He explores the chemistry and psychology of every smell we might conceivably encounter, from fine foods, flowers and fragrances to decay and death. He even makes an imaginary journey into space to sample extraterrestrial odours. Nose Dive is a superbly written odyssey around an underrated sense.

The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread — and Why They Stop, by Adam Kucharski, Profile Books, RRP£16.99, 352 pages

Kucharski, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, finished his book just before the coronavirus pandemic so it does not address Covid-19 directly. But it provides all the background you need to know how and why infections spread — not only germs but also misinformation about them.

Covid-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One, by Debora MacKenzie, Bridge Street, RRP£18.99, 304 pages

A health journalist who has covered emerging diseases for many years, MacKenzie has written my favourite so far among the growing list of books tackling the science and politics of Covid-19. She describes clearly and comprehensively the origins of the disease in China and the world’s failure to tackle the pandemic.

Best Books of the Year 2020

All this week, FT writers and critics share their favourites. Some highlights are:

Monday: Business by Andrew Hill
Tuesday: Economics by Martin Wolf
Wednesday: Politics by Gideon Rachman
Thursday: History by Tony Barber
Friday: Critics choice
Saturday: Crime by Barry Forshaw

What is Life?: Understand Biology in Five Steps, by Paul Nurse, David Fickling, RRP£9.99, 224 pages

Several scientists have written books asking “what is life?”, starting with Erwin Schrödinger whose publication in 1944 was one of the greatest intellectual contributions to 20th-century science. Nurse, a Nobel laureate and head of Britain’s Francis Crick Institute, is less ambitious than Schrödinger but his enjoyable book is a concise account of the biological, chemical and physical features that separate living from inanimate objects.

Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us about Life, Love and Relationships, by Camilla Pang, Viking, RRP£14.99, 256 pages

Pang, a 28-year-old postdoctoral researcher in bioinformatics, examines human behaviour and social expectations through the lens of her own attention deficit hyperactivity and autism spectrum disorders. Explaining Humans — written because she could not find a good existing “instruction manual for humans” — won the 2020 Royal Society Science Book Prize.

Tell us what you think

What are your favourites from this list — and what books have we missed? Tell us in the comments below

The World According to Physics, by Jim Al-Khalili, Princeton University Press, RRP$16.95/£12.99, 336 pages

Although this book covers well-trodden territory, Al-Khalili shows with new clarity how the three pillars of modern physics — quantum theory, relativity and thermodynamics — must come together to provide a full picture of reality. The author, a physics professor and science populariser, explains the complexities of his field with simplicity and elegance.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café

Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on AppleSpotify, or wherever you listen

Get alerts on Science books when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article