September 20, 2020

Must-Read Books: My List

Below is my list of six must-read books on science and technology. I know: I asked you for five, and now I’ve allowed myself six. I just couldn’t narrow it down any more.

Naturally, I include only books that I have read; and I must admit that I haven’t read many of the books suggested by readers. You all have added considerably to my books-to-read list.

The hardest aspect of this task was that I read most of candidate books long ago, so I no longer remember clearly what I learned from which book. And I’m sure the forty-year-old me of today would disagree with the twenty-year-old me who read some of these books. With that caveat, here is my list, in alphabetical order:

Harold Abelson & Gerald Sussman, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. A serious computer science textbook, this imparts more computer science ideas than any other book I have seen. It will be a challenging book for many people, but heeding Dan Simon’s advice to respect my audience, I’m including it anyway. If this book goes over your head, try Hofstadter’s Goedel, Escher, Bach which is easier to read, but is longer, shallower, and less focused.

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything. This is a light and entertaining whirlwind tour of modern science. If you’re going to learn science and technology in only six books, you’ll need to have one general survey to fill in the gaps, and this is it.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. Evolution may be the most important single idea in science, so we need a book about its mechanisms and implications. Darwin’s Origin of Species is very good, but it’s too far out of date. This is a good modern introduction to evolutionary thinking.

Richard P. Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Another challenging book. (It’s probably not a coincidence that I chose serious, challenging books in the two fields I know best.) Feynman may be the best physics teacher who ever lived. This book is based on his legendary Physics 1 lectures at Caltech. I took the same course years later, and it still bore Feynman’s stamp.

Henry Petroski, The Evolution of Useful Things. I had a hard time with this one. I felt I needed a book on general engineering, but no book stood out from the crowd. This book examines how the design of everyday objects like forks and paperclips has evolved over time. Petroski uses this history to illustrate the interplay between form and function, and how engineers go about improving even the most mundane objects.

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate. This is by far the best book I have seen on the nature vs. nurture debate. It points the way to a more civil and sensible discussion of the impact of biology on human nature and social policy.

Given only six books to introduce science and technology, I had to omit entire disciplines. The biggest absence on my list is mathematics, which is covered only partially and indirectly by Feynman. Probability and statistics are especially important, but I just couldn’t think of a good introductory book about them.


  1. Cypherpunk says:

    You cheated even worse, because Feynman is 3 books. You’ve really got 8 on your list.

  2. Hmm. I thought the Feynman Lectures were available in a single volume; but I can’t find that volume on Amazon or Maybe it’s out of print; or maybe it never existed.

  3. Would Darrel Huff’s “How To Lie With Statistics” be too basic an introduction to the perils of improper useage of statistical data? It’s more of a pamphlet than a book compared to everything else on your lists, but what I would consider a “must-read” for any high school graduate.

  4. On probability theory, this tyro at least has been impressed by Ian Hacking’s work. “The Emergence of Probability” is a first rate book melding philosophy and history of science; “Probability and Inductive Logic” is a very sound introduction to the basics of theory (I hope to use in a science and politics course I’m teaching next fall).

  5. Anonymous says:

    On probability theory, this tyro at least has been impressed by Ian Hacking’s work. “The Emergence of Probability” is a first rate book melding philosophy and history of science; “Probability and Inductive Logic” is a very sound introduction to the basics of theory (I hope to use in a science and politics course I’m teaching next fall).

  6. Anonymous says:

    I second Henry’s recommendation of Ian Hacking’s “An Introduction to Probability and Inductive Logic.” Hacking’s book has several nice features that fit the aims of this book list very well: very low mathematical prerequisites (junior high school algebra); a focus on the ideas behind the calculations, not the calculations themselves; solutions to all of the exercises which is invaluable to someone doing self-study. The philosophical questions about what probability *is* are often missing from more purely mathematical texts but they can be very important and serve to spark the interest of a curious but non-mathematical reader. The book also provides sufficient background for readers to tackle more advanced texts (if their math is up to it) and pointers to many of these texts in an annotated bibilography,

  7. QrazyQat says:

    The people whose work I respect in brain sciences and anthropology and psychology think Pinker is a waste of time, and from the bits and articles I’ve read of his I find no reason to disagree with them. If you want a book of that sort, I’d suggest The Symbolic Species by Terrence Deacon (1997, WW Norton and Co).

  8. QrazyQat: Could you be more precise about the problems with Pinker? Is he wrong or misleading; or does he just restate the obvious; or does he miss the important aspects of the issue? Of the books on my list, Pinker is the farthest from my expertise, so I’m especially eager to learn more about it.

  9. QrazyQat says:

    He tends toward making strawmen and beating them up, and doesn’t seem to have much of a handle on even his own field of study knows. Very odd. Looking around for something with more specific objections (since the last I read Pinker was a few years ago and I found pretty much nothing memorable there) I saw a pretty good Amazon review. The one entitled “A bid for celebrity, I guess” which is the latest one there right now. The Deacon book I mentioned didn’t have any of those problems, which is really nice, cause it’s very common for such books to have loads of problems of that sort. I think the authors often just don’t do their homework — luckily, some other authors do. This needs an essay 🙂 but I’ll just leave it at that with a recommendation for the Deacon book over anything Pinker.

    There’s some very good work being done in evolutionary psychology and the subject of human nature and human universals, but too often the most well-known writing that results is poorly thought through and supported, although often well written — if by well written you simply mean words strung across a page in a pleasing order. Thankfully there are some much better people working in the field and writing things up. The problem of course is that a popular writer tends to get an audience which is reading outside their specialities, and they do benefit from even a general idea of what’s going on in an unfamiliar field — but not if they simply get misled, as I’m afraid Pinker will do to you.

    BTW, I would also recommend, on evolution in general and on the subject of “nature”, “nuture” and the usually forgotten “development”, that almost anything by Richard Lewontin is good.

    I also think that Huff’s “How to Lie with Statistics” is still a basic “must read” for pretty much everybody. It’s the basic crescent wrench in the toolbox; gotta have one.

    And shouldn’t we have a little Will Cuppy on the shelf? (“Sartor Resartus is simply unreadable, and for me that always sort of spoils a book.”)

  10. It may as well be some sort of scheme to proliferate lisp throughout the universe, but the entirety of Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs is available online.

  11. The Hawkman Cometh says:

    Aw shucks, no A Brief History of Time? Stephen Hawking is feeling left out.

  12. I definitely agree with the Dawkins and the Feynman (as an aside, does anyone have any ideas about reasons behind the correlation between an interest in physics and computer security?). They’re two of the finest modern science books. I haven’t read SIPC, though it’s on my to-read list. I liked the Pinker book too, but it looks like I’ll also have to check out Beacon now.

    As for mathematics, how about Courant’s What is Mathematics? or for a more historical view E.T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics (which I read too long ago to recall how good of an introduction to mathematics it provides through the biographies)?

  13. Anonymous says:

    The inclusion of GEB as prospect makes me wonder about the introductory nature of your choices. If the purpose is to introduce someone to science and technology, why use books which require significant prior introductory material? (Granted, GEB might be the anomaly among your choices, but it’s the only one I’m familiar with.)

    Hmmm. I see your original entry didn’t include the “introduction” language, and is targeted at University students. I stopped reading GEB when I got far enough into it to realize that I haven’t the math background to appreciate it. Perhaps I should have skipped forward? Would a liberal-arts major be in the same boat?