Last-Minute Shopping List

By Sean Carroll | December 21, 2011 11:19 am

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.
CATEGORIZED UNDER: Advice, Top Posts, Words
  • Gizelle Janine

    Oh, wow. These all sound like awesome books, but let’s be honest, I can’t keep up with you. Forget being dense, how about too fast? 😀

  • Jens

    Totally needed this list. My father loves anything science based, as do I, and this is now his Christmas wish list.

  • Bob F.

    I agree with Gizelle — all these look great.

    And sorry for being OT, but can you explain how WMAP data can show the dark flow of all galaxies in the visible universe headed in one direction? (Towards the Great Attractor, I suppose?) I don’t understand how this is possible if the Hubble effect shows that all galaxies are speeding away from each other in all directions. It seems like a contradiction.

  • Paul Clapham

    I found “How I Killed Pluto” interesting because it described the actual life of a professional astronomer. As a professional physicist I expect you would find it perfectly normal, but most of us laymen don’t really know what the life of a scientist is like.

  • dmck

    Sean — I agree 100% about “The Beginning of Infinity”. The parts about “you won’t agree with everything” and “it makes you think on every page”. I suspect Deutsch is a cornucopian, a hopelessly naive philosophy (IMHO, caveat: professional ecologist) to take, but immensely engaging, baffling, and sometimes infuriating nonetheless.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    That Pluto book may have the best title of any popularization of science ever.

  • bla

    Nice post, sorry for the internet pedantry but: proscribed –> prescribed

    • Sean

      That’s a helpful grumpy comment! Fixed.

  • Ronan

    Can’t wait for Christmas Day I am getting Frank Close and Lisa Randall’s new books
    (I already have “From Eternity to Here” …)

  • Curious Wavefunction

    This blurb from the NYT review of Deutsch’s book says it best:

    “David Deutsch’s “The Beginning of Infinity” is a brilliant and exhilarating and profoundly eccentric book. It’s about everything: art, science, philosophy, history, politics, evil, death, the future, infinity, bugs, thumbs, what have you…Deutsch (who is famous, among other reasons, for his pioneering contributions to the field of quantum computation) is so smart, and so strange, and so creative, and so inexhaustibly curious, and so vividly intellectually alive, that it is a distinct privilege, notwithstanding everything, to spend time in his head.”

    Great list…I would also add Margaret Wertheim’s “Physics on the Fringe”, Peter Englund’s “The Beauty and the Sorrow” and Terrence Deacon’s “Incomplete Nature” (another thought-provoking book about everything)

  • nick anderson

    I second the recommendation regarding Richard Panek’s book the The 4% Universe which is one of the best books I have read about the scientific process in astronomy/cosmology and the scientists involved. It provides a lucid and not overly dense explanation of the astronomical observational techniques and methodologies involved, as well as the results/conclusions (an accelerating expansion of the universe–dark energy) of the work of the two, ultimately 2011 joint Nobel winning teams. The description of the sociological interaction (competition) among the astronomers and scientists in the two teams is an added bonus that makes for a gripping tale about how scientific research is undertaken in the “real”world.. I would rank it along with Timothy Ferris’ The Whole Shebang, for its lucidness , informed and engaging writing. I roared through the book–it reads like an excellent novel.

  • jackd

    Too late for Christmas shopping, but so welcome to have more pop-physics in my to-read list! Thank you!

  • steven johnson

    The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch seems to be quite illuminating on issues in the many worlds interpretation, such as the need for and difficulty in formulating a measure. Enough so that I wish I could have afforded my own copy.

    I don’t know what the above comment about “cornucopian” philosophy meant, especially considering that Deutsch is pretty much in your face about his adherence to Karl Popper. My judgment is that Popper’s notorious falsifiability is a failed effort to erase philosophical materialism or naturalism from science in pursuit of a specific antiCommunist agenda. I don’t think it was an accident that Popper initially insisted that natural selection was unscientific! Deutsch even copies Popper’s justification of US-style single member districts with elections by pluralities!

    Even if you like Popper, some of Deutsch’s ideas in this book can’t really be characterized as something you disagree with. Discussing the evolution of the modern human mind without reference to language is just plain obtuse. The deranged insistence that primitive man lived in oppressive societies indicates that Deutsch never grasped the idea that earliest humans lived in fissioning bands spreading constantly into new lands. However can you have a truly oppressive society when you and your cothinkers can just march away? I can’t even guess whether Deutsch hasn’t grasped that modern hunter/gatherer societies are not typical of the post because they’ve been marginalized or if he’s projecting some delusion about the savage/unconscious mind onto some movie screen in his head.

    Recommending this without serious cautions? Does the many worlds interpretation really reaquire all adherents cover for one another? Or do you all think like this? What’s next, recommending Timothy Ferris’ Science of Liberty?

  • Jimbo

    Loox interesting. Wonder if there’s any speculation about Dirac’s unyielding opposition to Renorm, similar to Einstein’s opp. to QM ? Also if there’s any speculation as to whether GR might never be cast into a renorm. gauge QFT, & remain forever classical ?

  • Steve Lubs

    I apologize for sending this message this late–but I have a question that came to mind after reading about the ‘missing forces’ mentioned in the November 2011 column.
    When I’ve talked with physicists about gravity, one thing that has bothered me is how it goes without saying that gravity affects all matter equally. Therefore, the gravitational forces between particles in an atom’s nucleus are so small that they would be almost non-existent. But wouldn’t a mass the size of the Earth exert a measureable affect on those particles? By that, I mean a single particle(proton, neutron, electron) outside of an atom. Have any papers been published on this?

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  • rww

    Thanks for the Frank Close. I’ve ignored his books for years because I didn’t know the name. He is a wonderfully clear and engaging writer.

  • Alan

    I’d recommend this book which challenges the rather limited way some materialists view the world,

    Life beyond death. What should we expect? by Professor David Fontana, who sadly died last year. This was his last published book.

    see for a review.

    I went with friends to a recent excellent overview of his life (in London) where physicists, psychologists (he was one) and researchers presented personal reflections on his life and their own studies. He was admired as a truly great researcher and a wonderful human being by all who knew him. Anyway see here:

    And there’s plenty of scope here (I hasten to add!) for physical scientists to get involved with. Indeed some were involved in observing the physical phenomena seen with Fontana during his decades long series of investigations. An excellent and eye-opening day though I knew of his work before.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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