June 14, 2011 | 7
I don’t know about you, but I like nothing more in summer than settling down with a great science book. So here are 20 recommendations, in authorial alphabetical order, from A to J. Next week I’ll give you 20 more. Some are new, some more than a century old, but they’re all classics. And since science doesn’t move nearly as fast as most people think it does, great science books remain surprisingly timely. I’m listing original editions, but these are all available in one edition or another on Amazon. This list, of course, is personal, idiosyncratic, argumentative and meant to provoke you into thinking about what makes a science book endure. Facts, ideas, rigor, substance? Or rhetoric, imagination, style? If ongoing research undermines a book’s credibility (and a few books on this list come to mind), is it no longer “great”? Can it persist as literature? Okay, enough blather, here’s the list.
Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness, by James H. Austin (MIT Press, 1998). At 844 pages, this book by a neurologist and Zen practitioner contradicts its own dictum that wisdom lies in simplification. Zen and the Brain nonetheless evokes Varieties of Religious Experience (see below) in its effort to comprehend mystical experiences sympathetically and scientifically.
In Search of the Light: The Adventures of a Parapsychologist, by Susan Blackmore (Prometheus, 1987). A spectacular marijuana-propelled out-of-body experience propelled Blackmore, while a student at the University of Oxford, into a career as a parapsychology believer and researcher. This memoir relates how the British psychologist gradually, painfully became a psi skeptic—albeit one who still pursues and finds meaning in altered states.
Yanomamö: The Fierce People, by Napoleon A. Chagnon (Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1968). Among the bestselling anthropology books of all time, Chagnon’s first-hand account of a violent Amazonian tribe challenges, to put it mildly, romantic notions of the peaceful, noble savage. Contrary to what his allies and enemies alike often claim—and to his credit—Chagnon resists simple Darwinian explanations of violence.
Language and Problems of Knowledge, by Noam Chomsky (MIT Press, 1987). Chomsky could not care less about being writerly, entertaining or eloquent in any conventional sense. Language and Problems of Knowledge nonetheless yields insights into one of the most original, uncompromising thinkers of our age.
The Astonishing Hypothesis, by Francis Crick (Charles Scribner’s, 199). The co-discoverer of the double helix outlines a plan for reducing consciousness, science’s great bugaboo, to physical processes in the brain. Just as only the commie-basher Richard Nixon could reestablish relations with communist China, so only the arch rationalist Crick could make consciousness a respectable scientific subject.
The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins (Oxford University Press, 1976). In the most original and influential of his many books, Darwin’s icily eloquent defender and extender introduces the theory of selfish genes, which remains as compelling and disturbing as ever.
Freedom Evolves, by Daniel C. Dennett (Viking, 2003). Dennett provides a robust, sensible defense of free will and a corrective for the hard-core determinism being peddled lately by Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking and other scientific know-it-alls.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond (Viking, 2004). Even more important and eloquent than Diamond’s best seller Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (W. W. Norton, 1997), Collapse examines a wide range of peoples, from ancient Easter Islanders to modern Montanans, and gleans lessons about why societies fail or thrive. If we still screw up the planet, we can’t claim we didn’t know any better.
Infinite in All Directions, by Freeman J. Dyson (Harper & Row, 1988[[OR: Harper Perennial, 2004]]). The iconoclastic physicist reflects on superstring theory, God, the origin of life, the long-term prospects for intelligence and other topics that most of us last pondered in our sophomore year in college. The title is an apt description of Freeman’s own mind.
Against Method, by Paul Feyerabend (New Left Books, 1975). One of the most loathed and misunderstood modern philosophers introduces his anarchic antiphilosophy, which he sums up with the phrase “anything goes.” As practiced by Feyerabend, philosophy becomes performance art.
The Interpretation of Dreams (first English edition), by Sigmund Freud (Macmillan, 1913). This is the centerpiece of an oeuvre that, regardless of its scientific merits, has had an irrevocable impact on science, psychology, the arts and all of culture. Question for scientist/authors: Would you rather be influential than right?
Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, by Martin Gardner (Dover, 1957). Gardner poses a tough choice. The mathematician, puzzler and magician is best known as the author of Scientific American‘s Mathematical Games column, which ran from 1956 to 1981 and inspired many future mathematicians. Collections of these columns are still in print. But Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science is a skeptical classic that remains all too relevant today (see, for example, Gardner on reincarnation, UFOs and Dianetics, aka Scientology).
The Interpretation of Cultures, by Clifford Geertz (Basic Books, 1973). Geertz equates anthropologists with literary critics and cultures with “texts,” and he displays his own intensely personal style of cultural interpretation, which he calls “I-witnessing” and (in another book) “faction.”
The Information: A History, a theory, a Flood, by James Gleick (Pantheon, 2011). Gleick toiled over this monumental book forever, and his work paid off. The book is worth reading just for the bio of Claude Shannon, underappreciated father of information theory. But Gleick also tells the tale of our evolving representations of knowledge, from hash marks on clay tablets to electrical pulses animating our smart phones. Just don’t believe him when he suggests that everything is information.
Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, by Stephen Jay Gould (W.W. Norton, 1989). In this meditation on a fossil site called the Burgess Shale, the co-author of punctuated equilibrium—which nasty critics dubbed evolution by jerks—makes the case that contingency has played a crucial role in life’s history. As in all Gould’s writings, the florid sophistication of the prose contrasts with the simplicity of the message, which boils down to “shit happens.”
Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas R. Hofstadter (Vintage, 1980). This wildly inventive exploration of recursion, self-referentiality, human and machine minds and all manner of other metatopics by Gardner’s successor as a columnist for Scientific American (Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas was an anagram of Gardner’s Mathematical Games) still exudes an aura of geek chic.
The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, by Aldous Huxley (Harper & Row, 1954). The British novelist, essayist and seeker ushered in the psychedelic and New Age eras with this account of his encounter with mescaline, which reveals “what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.” Kids in the 1960s thought, “Gimme summa that!”
Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster, 2007). Isaacson’s graceful, warm, thorough overview of Albert Einstein’s multidimensional life—scientific, personal, philosophical and political—has quickly become the definitive biography.
The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, by William James (Longsmans, Green & Co, 1902). As fresh now as when it was published a century ago, this extraordinary book—by a seeker desperate for answers and yet too skeptical to settle for any—remains the best attempt to explain spirituality from a rational, scientific yet open-minded perspective.
Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order, by George Johnson (Knopf, 1995). A veteran science journalist (and friend of mine) meditates on the differences and, more importantly, similarities of diverse religious and scientific quests for truth in his native New Mexico. Johnson’s perspective is so subtle and sophisticated that some readers may not realize how radical it is.
Next week: authors K to Z.