December 1, 2022

Great Books

Arnold Kling points to a recent survey that asked university presidents to name five books every student should read.

The top ten books on the list are: The Bible, The Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Democracy in America, The Iliad, Hamlet, The Koran, The Wealth of Nations, The Prince, and The Federalist Papers.

Arnold rightly laments the absence of modern books on the list. More interesting to me is the lack of consensus. The top-scoring book, the Bible, was recommended by only 20 of the 128 presidents; and the Federalist Papers made the top ten despite being mentioned by only three percent of the respondents (four out of 128).

On the topic of science and technology, depressingly few books were mentioned at all. The top sci/tech scorer was Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, with three mentions. Also mentioned were Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Ridley’s Genome, and, oddly, Brockman’s Greatest Inventions.

Readers: tell me in the comments which five science and technology books you would have every student read. I’ll summarize and give my own list once your lists are in.


  1. Must-Read Books: Readers’ Choices

    Last week, I asked readers to name five must-read books on science and technology. The results are below. I included nominations from my comments section, from the comments over at Crooked Timber, and from any other blogs I spotted. This represents th…

  2. I remember trying to read Darwin at school – I gave up with ‘more bloody pigeons’.
    Are great books the answer for EVERY student to read for knowlege of Science & Tech?
    Would the stark ontological reductionism of Rothman’s The Science Gap and whatever is recommended for general statistical literacy, be a better choice for everyone?
    I’d suggest Wigner’s 1960 essay The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences and Hamming’s 1980 essay The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics

    , but I fear they need a deal of mathematical & scientific knowlege to appreciate.
    A new revision of such an essay, needing less mathematical & physics prowess and giving a feel for what can be explained by simple algorithms like Boids and scaling laws and fractals like A
    General Model for the Origin of Allometric Scaling Laws in Biology
    would be good – but I’ve been out of Uni a long time now.

  3. Great Books vs. Must-Read Books

    Dan Simon has an interesting reaction to my post on must-read books in science and technology. I can’t do Dan’s post justice with a single quote, but here’s a sample: [T]he Great Books of science–and they do exist: viz., Euclid’s Elements, Newton’s Pr…

  4. I’ll add just two…

    1) I, Claudius by Robert Graves
    2) 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    …keeping the last thee to myself.


  5. 1. The Third Chimpanzee : The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared M. Diamond

    2. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

    3. Evolution by Carl Zimmer (Companion to the PBS Series)

    4. QED by Feynman

    5. Tufte series on information. Especially the sections that cover critical analysis of graphs/data. (i.e. the sections on cholera mapping, etc.)

    I’m more centered towards high school level (teacher) so some of these are probably too “dumbed down”. I think all are easily accessible though to even non-science majors. For those Jared Diamond fans, I personally enjoyed Third Chimpanzee more as it dealt more if the biological evolution than cultural. It’s probably important to note that I am an undergraduate in biology/physics. For those that own Tufte, I’m refering to things such as on p35 in Visual Explanations (3 demographic maps).

  6. Evelyn M. Blaine says:

    For what it’s worth: there should probably be some book on the foundations of mathematics other than GEB:EGB, which is charming but a little difficult to actually learn the theory from. Russell’s “The Philosophy of Mathematics” is still a classic. In biology, I would second Darwin and any good modern evolution textbook. In economics, every literate person should know, in addition to Smith, some Ricardo, Keynes, and Marx.

  7. Five books only, eh? A tough decision, but OK – I’ll bite. In selecting the books, I wanted to avoid dumbed-down presentations, as well as the traditional textbook approach, which can do a great job of killing any interest in a subject by students, while in the process misrepresenting science as a collection of dusty dead facts bound together by a plethora of plug-and-chug exercises, rather than a lively and exciting enterprise. I also tried to keep in mind that these are books that any undergraduate could be expected to read, while at the same time choosing a selection that would be challenging and provocative.

    What is Mathematics?, by Richard Courant and Herbert Robbins, revised by Ian Stewart – a survey of mathematics that conveys love for the field, and its intrinsic beauty, both abstract and applied. Unlike many other such surveys, actual practice is gently encouraged – an intelligent reader could go on to do some real math after reading this book. It would also serve as excellent – if not strictly required – background for the other books on this list.

    Evolution, edited by Mark Ridley – I am not referring here to the textbook written by Ridley with the same title, but rather to the reader published by Oxford University Press. The recently published second edition brings together a wealth of original research papers that are accessible to the lay reader, and communicate the excitement of doing biological science much more effectively than any textbook I’ve ever seen.

    The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, by John Maynard Keynes – yes, it is far from perfect; yes, economic theory has come a long way since 1936. With those two caveats in mind, this book excels as an example of a key researcher in the social sciences writing about their work for both a general and specialized audience clearly and precisely, without insulting the intelligence of either one. Would make a great pair with Darwin’s Origin of Species (recommended by other people above, and which I reluctantly omitted in favor of the broader range of perspectives represented by Ridley’s reader).

    From Falling Bodies to Radio Waves & From X-Rays to Quarks, by Emilio Segre – this compact two-volume set balances beautifully the presentation of both the history of science and the physics. Mathematical enough to be rigorous, not so mathematical as to scare off an intelligent student. Does a great job of communicating the (sometimes messy) process leading to the development of theories in the physical sciences.

    Micromotives and Macrobehavior, by Thomas C. Schelling – an elegant and clear introduction to key concepts of systems and models. Since this book was written before personal computers became commonplace, there are no fancy graphics or simulations accompanying the examples presented – which may be all for the better, since the fundamental ideas are laid bare. After reading this, a student should be better prepared to tackle the current crop of books on subjects as diverse as ALife and networks with a clearer eye for separating the wheat from the chaff.

  8. 1. The Future of Ideas
    2. QED
    3. Beyond Fear
    4. 1984 (I think it’s required in high school- it was at mine, but people seem to have forgotten)
    5. Science And Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics

    Honorable mentions to the PATRIOT Act (read aloud by Christopher Walken)

  9. I considered the Origin of Species, but I wouldn’t exactly class that as “modern”. What’s the timescale we are talking about here?

  10. Mine, alas, tend to be a little lightweight. Oh well.

    The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Tufte
    The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint by Tufte (probably a little esoteric, but relevant to how we communicate scientific and technological information.
    The Evolution of Useful Things by Petroski
    The Design of Everyday Things by Norman (so much of modern life is nonintuitive, after all)

  11. Basic science and tech education

    Ed Felten has posted a call for science/tech books we’d like all students to read. Ed is disturbed by the low number of science- and technology-related books that appear on the “must read” lists of an international group of college…

  12. snippets

    Here’s a bunch of stuff I found on the web. Read it, you’ll like it.

  13. In no particular order:

    Connections by James Burke
    Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
    The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore
    Gaia by James Lovelock
    The Roving Mind by Isaac Asimov

  14. Just one name book: Darwin’s Origin of Species. Any four drone textbooks will fill out the list, IMHO better than most of the other (mostly excellent) books that the other posters have pointed to. Sex ed is no substitute for sexual experience, and learning about science in cultural (or other) context is no substitute for learning the mental techniques of science.

  15. Ilkka Kokkarinen says:

    I don’t know why my comment didn’t show up, but here goes again: John D. Barrow’s “Impossibility” covers a lot of important material in an accessible way.

  16. Ilkka Kokkarinen says:

    I second many books mentioned here, especially GEB (now who wouldn’t?), but one book that covers a lot of important material and is quite well-written would be John D. Barrow’s “Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits”.

  17. Florian Weimer says:

    The top of my list would be “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” by Popper (which hasn’t been mentioned so far, oddly enough). I’m less sure about the remaining items. Maybe GEB and “Software Fundamentals” (a collection of papers by Parnas). And after that? I don’t know. It’s hard to find modern titles which are both important and not very specialized.

  18. I’d go for Feynmann, Dawkins, and Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. Okay, it’s partisan on a still controversial subject. I just happen to think it’s substantially right too.

    Couple more personal choices:
    The Pleasures of Counting – Tom Koerner. It’s a good showcase for what you can do with fairly basic maths (nothing beyond a bit of calculus) covering epidemics to Enigma machines.
    Security Engineering – Ross Anderson. Great stuff on principles of system design to withstand attack – lots of examples of what can go wrong from banking to nuclear command and control. Also discusses some of the politics and background.

  19. I second Darwin, Freud, and Dawkins.

    I thought about SICP but decided it wouldn’t be accessible to a wide audience. It’s a shame that it’s so hard to find a good introduction to programming for the general public.

  20. Tiens, un air de Biblioblog

    Amusant, ce post résume le résultat d’une étude menée auprès de 128 présidents d’universités US, à qui l’on a demandé…

  21. In random order:

    The Timeless Way of Building (Cristopher Alexander)

    The Beak of the Finch (Jonathan Weiner)

    First Light (Richard Preston)

    The Machine that Changed the World (J.P. Womack et. al)

    The Language Instinct (Steven Pinker)

    and lots more…

  22. 1) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn)
    2) The Double Helix (Watson and Crick)
    3) Guns, Germs, and Steel (Diamond)
    4) The Sciences of the Artificial (Simon)
    5) Some subset of Feynman’s Lectures on Physics

  23. QED by Richard Feynman
    The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
    The Evolution of Co-operation by Robert Axelrod
    Structure, or Why Things Don’t Fall Down by J E Gordon
    but not Godel, Escher and Bach, which is, in the end, a “show off” book with not a lot of substance to it.

  24. Justin Palmer says:

    I agree with other people who’ve said that the books should be more practical and accessible to everyone. SICP, one of my favorites on computation, fails the accessibility test, e.g.

    So, I’d add Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and maybe Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams; they’re classics, if not 100% correct by modern standards. Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate are super, too. Ideally I’d pick a book on AI and computation for the layperson, but I don’t know if such a thing exists : ); people seem to like Jack Copeland’s Artificial Intelligence and GEB. And for econonmics, I like Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful.

  25. Second Feynman, Medawar and Diamond.
    Add Cavalli-Sforza, History And Geography Of Human Genes and Medvedev, The Rise And Fall Of T. D. Lysenko.

    Oppose Hofstadter.

  26. i’m just going to throw in one title: the day the world changed by james burke. it’s kind of a history of science but it (and the tv series of the same name) helped me to realize that science does not exist seperately from society.

  27. Basic science and tech education

    Ed Felten has posted a call for science/tech books we’d like all students to read. Ed is disturbed by the low number of science- and technology-related books that appear on the “must read” lists of an international group of college…

  28. RMS’ book and CatB are interesting choices, but perhaps The Hacker Ethic by Pekka Himanen would be better. I haven’t read RMS’ book, but I’m pretty sure it will be trying to push a particular ideology. There’s nothing wrong with that, I happen to agree with it, but The Hacker Ethic attempts to explain what’s fundamentally interesting about hackers and how they arrange their time. Instead of studying how Free Software is applied, as CatB does, it studies the priorities of hackers; something that can be applied to far more diverse topics more readily.

    I have to agree with the GEB:EGB suggestion. It’s one of those books that is simply inspiring and, again, applicable to many different domains.

    Richard Dawkins has written a few books that should be considered for a list like this; however it’s hard to single out one in particular – perhaps the Selfish Gene? It’s a good starting point that is elaborated upon by his following books. He has a good knack for switching your perspective to illuminate a key point or driving force.

  29. [In no particular order…]

    The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes
    Guns, Germs & Steel, by Jared Diamond
    A Brief History of Time, by Stephen W. Hawking
    Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, by John Allen Paulos
    Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter

  30. Cypherpunk says:

    The other contributors have good suggestions, but I don’t think people really need to know advanced physics concepts like cosmology or QM. They need to know about technological issues that will affect their world. My books here are all intended to be readable and entertaining while teaching lessons about technology which will change the lives of the readers.

    Guns, Germs and Steel is probably the book which has given me the most insight into why the world is the way it is. Personally I would count it as a history rather than a technology book, but in any case it would repay reading for anyone.

    Economics is probably the most misunderstood subject of importance. The one book I would recommend is the libertarian classic, Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt. His primary lesson is to look beyond the short term and immediate consequences of an action or policy to see its secondary and long term effects.

    The three transformative technologies of the 21st century will be nanotech, biotech and AI. For the first, Drexler’s Engines of Creation is the book that launched the nanotech revolution. It’s not as technical as his opus Nanosystems but it’s very readable and bluntly outlines both the dangers as well as the incredible promise of this new technology.

    For biotech, I’d probably go along with Genome, although I found it to have a number of errors. Ridley himself describes it as a mile wide and an inch deep. But it’s readable and entertaining, and does give a good picture of the potential for future gene therapies.

    For AI, try Mind Children by roboticist Hans Moravec. This book is a little more “out there” than the others, Moravec looking ahead to an era when computers and robots acquire super-human intellligent and become our “mind children” who carry on the heritage of the human race in ways we can’t imagine. It’s a startling vision but if Moore’s law continues (aided by nanotech) it is likely to come true within the lifetimes of people reading this.

  31. For a general audience:

    Linked: The New Science of Networks by Barabasi
    — Godel, Escher, Bach may have been profound for its day, but there has been a lot of real science dedicated to understanding the world at large in the last few years. “Linked” shows some of that. Or maybe “The Quark and the Jaguar” or “Six Degrees” would be better. Something in the arena of complex systems, though.

    High-tech Heretic by Cliff Stoll
    — Why do we spend so much time teaching kids how to use computer applications that they can pick up on their own in a day?

    Secrets and Lies, or Beyond Fear, both by Bruce Schnier.
    — What does security mean to you? How do you know?

    The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard Feynman.
    — Being creative isn’t entirely innate. Some of it is just how you look at things.

    something by Carl Sagan. Cosmos? Billions and Billions? The Demon Haunted World? Contact? All of them were good, but I can’t say which one captures the “think rationally” message the best.

  32. 1) Code (Lessig)
    2 and 3) (tie) Brief History of Time (Hawking), The Inflationary Universe (Guth)
    4) Tufte’s triology of information display/ visualization/ explanation
    5 and 6) (tie) Free Software, Free Society (RMS), The Cathedral and the Bazaar (ESR)

    I’ve heard Jessica Litman’s Digital Copyright is good (haven’t read it yet) and I’m just waiting for Pam Samuelson and Prof. Felten to team up and write the definitive tech. policy book. 🙂

  33. taco cabana says:

    1. Godel, Escher, Bach
    2. A Brief History of Time
    3. Tao of Physics
    4. Six Easy Pieces
    5. How the Mind Works

    sorry….i’m not really qualified to give a list since i haven’t really read enough serious books on science (as opposed to textbooks)….but i offer a list none-the-less because i’m just that swell…..

  34. 1. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
    2. Brief History of Time
    3. Guns, Germs, and Steel
    4. Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett
    5. Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter

    It’s hard to choose just 5. 🙂

  35. Five is too few, but I’ll stick to the rules…

    1. The Character Of Physical Law, Richard Feynman
    2. What is Mathematics?, Courant & Robbins
    3. Fads & Fallacies in the name of science, Martin Gardner
    4. The Limits of Science, Peter Medawar
    5. Goedel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hosftadter