Highfield was educated at Chase Side Primary School in Enfield and Christ's Hospital in Horsham. He read Chemistry at Pembroke College, Oxford and was awarded a Master of Arts degree in Chemistry in 1980 followed by a Doctor of Philosophy for research on Neutron scattering from chemical species.
Highfield was the Science editor of British newspaper The Daily Telegraph for more than 20 years. During that time he set up a long running science writing award for young people, a photography competition, the 'scientists meet the media' party, and organised mass experiments from 1994 with BBC's Tomorrow's World, called Live Lab and Megalab, such as the 'Truth Test' with Richard Wiseman.
Popular science books published
The Mind Readers
In 2014 he wrote a 10,000 word article The Mind Readers in Mosaic, published by the Wellcome Trust. His account of the efforts to communicate with brain damaged patients that suffer disorders of consciousness was reproduced in other media worldwide, such as Gizmodo, The Week, The Independent and Pacific Standard.
In 2011 his book Supercooperators: The Mathematics of Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour (Or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed) was published, co-authored with Martin Nowak. A review published in Nature by Manfred Milinski describes the book as "part autobiography, part textbook, and reads like a best-selling novel." David Willetts, in the Financial Times, described the book as an "excellent example" of using the nexus of evolutionary biology, game theory and neuroscience to understand the development of cooperation in society
In 2006 his book After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning was published, co-authored with Ian Wilmut. Steven Poole in The Guardian describes the book as "an extremely lucid and readable explanation of the history of cloning and biologists' ideas for the future."
The Science of Harry Potter
The Physics of Christmas
In 1998 his book The Physics of Christmas: from the aerodynamics of reindeer to the thermodynamics of turkey was published. The British edition, Can Reindeer Fly?, got the world's shortest book review ('No')
Frontiers of Complexity
In 1996 his book Frontiers of Complexity: the search for order in a chaotic world was published, co-authored with Peter Coveney. The Nobel Laureate Philip Warren Anderson commented that 'I believe firmly, with Coveney and Highfield, that complexity is the scientific frontier.'
The Private Lives of Albert Einstein
In 1993 his book The Private Lives of Albert Einstein was published, co-authored with Paul Carter.
The Arrow of Time
Awards and honours
After testing a treadmill desk in 2006, Highfield uses one at work in the Science Museum and has advocated their widespread adoption. He often invites his visitors to take it for a spin, including Heston Blumenthal, Craig Venter, Samira Ahmed, Al Jean, Ben Miller and Dame Gail Rebuck 
Highfield married Julia Brookes in 1992 and has one son and one daughter.