I’ve been meaning for a while to do a post on “Books You Should Read,” but I put it off until the last minute (of 2011), so now it’s a shopping list. I’m sticking to books that came out in the last year or two, on subjects vaguely related to what we often talk about here on the blog, since I know people get grumpy when we deviate from the prescribed topics of conversation. And I’m trying to highlight books that aren’t already bestsellers, but deserve to be; I’m assuming you don’t need me to tell you about recent books by Lisa Randall, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, or Brian Greene. (Or me, or my lovely wife.) Note for late shoppers: Amazon will get you all of these in plenty of time for Christmas. And pre-emptive apologies to anyone whose book I didn’t include — probably because I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.
|How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown. My Caltech colleague Mike Brown is the person most responsible for getting Pluto demoted from planetary status, by discovering Eris and other Kuiper-belt objects. For a long time I thought it was silly to go to such trouble to re-classify a celestical body, but this book convinced me otherwise. Part of the reason is that Brown (or plutokiller on the Twitter) is an enormously engaging writer; few quasi-autographical science books have managed to mix the personal side with the science so effectively.|
|Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed, by Carl Zimmer. My sleeper pick for book of the year, Carl Zimmer’s compendium of science tattoos is a real delight. I’m not especially fascinated by tattoos or their own sake, but the beautiful photography here is matched by Carl’s fascinating descriptions of the science behind each one. This would make a great gift for just about anyone.|
|The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, by Owen Flanagan. Western atheist/naturalists are occasionally criticized because we speak disapprovingly about traditional Western religions, while not paying attention to Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies. Here’s the book that redresses the balance, but in a very sympathetic mode. Flanagan is a thoroughgoing naturalist, but appreciates some of the insights into human nature that Buddhism has to offer. In this book he offers a careful philosophical examination of Buddhist beliefs and practices, in the light of modern scientific understanding of humanity and our universe.|
|The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe, by
Frank Close. “Quantum Field Theory” is the scientific concept that, in my opinion, features the largest ratio of “people should be familiar with” to “people are familiar with.” Frank Close looks at the historical development of the subject, one of the great intellectual triumphs of the 20th century. I could nitpick (Ken Wilson isn’t even mentioned once?), but this book is full of great insights.
|36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, by Rebecca Goldstein. This really is a work of fiction: Goldstein has written an entertaining novel about the travails of a psychologist who is thrust into the media limelight as “The Atheist With a Soul.” A fun and provocative read, for the philosophy and for the characters.|
|The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World, by David Deutsch. Deutsch is a well-known iconoclastic physicist, a pioneer of quantum computation and a champion of the many-worlds interpretation. Here he takes on an even bigger subject: the nature of explanation. Moving from quantum physics to culture to the Enlightenment to the nature of consciousness, you might not agree with everything Deutsch says, but you will be thinking deeply on every page.|
|Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman. Eagleman was one of the speakers at our Setting Time Aright conference this summer, and is an expert on the neuroscience of time perception. Here he digs into the nature of consciousness, explaining how the many sub-conscious pieces of your mind work together to make you who you are. A great read.|
|Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, by Michael Nielsen. Nielsen has been advocating “Open Science”: the idea that science would progress faster and more efficiently if we took advantage of the internet and social communication to create collaborative projects that would have previously been impossible. In this book he lays out the case, peering into the future to unveil a dramatic new mode of learning about the universe.|
|The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. Here at Cosmic Variance, Lucretius is our favorite ancient Roman philosopher/poet. Greenblatt tells to story of how his great work, De Rerum Natura, was almost completely lost, only to be rescued from a Medieval monastery, and subsequently have a great influence on thinkers in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and beyond.|
|Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science, by Ian Sample. The missing particle in question is of course the Higgs boson, which hopefully won’t be missing much longer. Sample both explains the physics behind the Higgs and why we need it, and tells the human stories of the theorists who came up with the idea and the experimenters who are looking for it. Essential background reading as we close in on the Goddamn Particle.|
|The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions, by Alex Rosenberg. A bracing and uncompromising philosophical take on what it means to live in a world governed by the laws of nature. Rosenberg is able to look at how nature works with amazing honesty, saying nice things about “scientism” and “nihilism” and other epithets that most atheists run away from. One of those books that is well worth reading whether you agree or not.|
|About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, by Adam Frank. While some of us write big books about the physics of time and cosmology, Adam Frank has written an entertaining look at how those subjects interact with culture and our collective self-image. Every society has a cosmology, and it helps shape how we think about ourselves. An interesting take on the meaning of time through history.|
|The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality, by Richard Panek. Maybe you’ve heard that the universe is accelerating? Nobel Prize and all that? Panek has written a gripping tale of the people behind the science, the multiple teams of ambitious astronomers who raced to take the measure of the universe.|