March 24, 2018

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 Principia–simply don’t occupy the same place in the scientific world that the Great Books hold in the humanities and related disciplines. No half-decent undergraduate curriculum, for example, would allow its literature students to escape deep familiarity with Hamlet, its philosophy majors to avoid studying The Republic, its classicists to skimp on the Odyssey, its divinity students not to delve deeply into the Bible, or its budding political scientists to pass on The Prince.

But few geometers feel any need to familiarize themselves with geometry as Euclid explained it; nor do physicists feel incomplete without understanding Newton’s original notation for his laws of motion. And I would much sooner encourage students to master a few basic college texts in math, sciences and engineering than push them to grapple with the same concepts by studying the original works that introduced them. The originals, after all, each represented one farsighted individual’s brilliant-but-still-hazy insight, which has since been clarified and extended far beyond that first attempt at elucidation.

In formulating my own must-read list, I found myself identifying the most important ideas in science, and then asking which books best convey those ideas. An example: evolution is one of the great ideas in science; but which book should we recommend to students? Darwin’s Origin of Species was a tremendous achievement and remains interesting today. But with the benefit of more than a century of further work and discussion, today’s scientists understand the mechanisms and implications of evolution much better than Darwin did. We just can’t justify withholding the best ideas from our hypothetical student, and so Darwin gets bumped off the list. Origin of Species is still a Great Book, but it’s no longer a must-read book.


  1. I agree entirely.

    It is surely one of the key distinctions between sciences and humanities that scientific ideas are generally independent of the original formulation and author (not historically, but for practical purposes as Dan Simon says).

    If there is something that makes me deeply suspicious of endeavours such as modern literary theory it is their dependence on the precise words and rhetoric of the formulators. So everyone has to go and read Foucault in the original and so on because his ideas are inextricably tied up with his opaque formulation of them.

  2. Of course, it depends on what you want to teach them. If the goal is understanding evolutionary theory or physics as of 2001, there are some decent texts available.

    If the goal is to teach them how to do really good research, then “Origin of species” and “Principia” aren’t bad choices at all, and textbooks aren’t very helpful.

  3. did you post your list yet, prof. Felten?

  4. I haven’t posted my list yet. Stay tuned.

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