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Cool Science Classics for Summer Reading, Part 2

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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book cover of Coming of Age in SamoaLast week I recommended 20 great science books, in authorial alphabetical order from A to J, picked from my personal library. Here are 20 more, from K to W. Feel free to tell me if you don’t like my picks as well as offer some of your own.

War Before Civilization, Lawrence Keeley (Oxford University Press, 1996). The anthropologist Keeley argues that, contrary to the Rousseauian "myth of the peaceful savage," humans fought wars well before the advent of civilization. This remains the most empirically and analytically grounded of a wave of books rubbing our faces in our violent history. But read it carefully and you’ll realize that the evidence for war dates back not millions or hundreds of thousands of years but only about 10,000 years.

In the Name of Eugenics, Daniel Kevles (Knopf, 1985). Genetic determinists who denounce nondeterminists as antiscientific, politically correct sissies should be force-fed this chilling history of how human genetics was misapplied not only by Nazis but even by well-meaning progressives in the U.K., U.S. and elsewhere.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn (University of Chicago Press, 1962). This sneaky, subversive assault on conventional notions of scientific truth and progress triggered a revolution itself within the philosophy of science. Be sure to note where Kuhn compares scientists with drug addicts.

The Center of the Cyclone, John Lilly (Bantam Books, 1972). The inspiration for the films Altered States and Day of the Dolphin. Lilly pioneered research on sensory deprivation, bionic brain-control, dolphin intelligence, psychedelics and other exotic mind-related topics. His later books fell off the edge of intelligibility (perhaps because Lilly became addicted to the powerful anesthetic ketamine), but this autobiography provides a more or less clear account of his early forays into the hinterlands of consciousness.

Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession
, Janet Malcolm (Vintage Books, 1982). Malcolm, a journalist, writes in an acutely self-conscious, postmodern style that is perfect for this critique of Freudian therapy. Her psychoanalysis of psychoanalysis and its practitioners is all the more devastating because she so clearly understands them so well. With friends like this, Freudians must think, who needs enemies?

The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Benoit Mandelbrot (W. H. Freeman, 1977). The recently deceased discoverer (or should it be inventor?) of the iconic "Mandelbrot set" helped launch the field of chaos with this bombastic, brilliant treatise on fractals—mathematical objects that mimic phenomena as diverse as clouds, capillaries and stock market fluctuations.

Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead (American Museum of Natural History, 1928). Mead’s book, published when she was still in her 20s and based on her field work among the Samoans, depicts them as peaceful, sensuous flower children uncorrupted by modern civilization. Critics accuse Mead of projecting her preconceptions onto her subjects, but that is even truer of the critics.

The Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky (Simon and Schuster, 1985). The pioneer of artificial intelligence argues that minds are packed with many components that cooperate and clash as they try to solve problems. Mirroring its theme, this delightfully eccentric book consists not of a continuous, conventional narrative but of one-page essays with titles like "The Causal Now," "The Power of Negative Thinking" and "Self-Knowledge Is Dangerous."

Mortal Questions, Thomas Nagel (Cambridge, 1979). Most readers no doubt buy this collection of essays for "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?", Nagel’s famous take on consciousness and the solipsism problem (no one can really know what’s going on in anyone else’s head). But all of Nagel’s essays—on death, war, sexual perversion and ruthlessness—are insightful and lucid, especially for a philosopher.

Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, Dennis Overbye (HarperCollins, 1991). I had just completed a big article on cosmology and was considering writing a cosmic book when I read Lonely Hearts and realized I couldn’t match Overbye. He not only makes esoteric cosmic theories almost comprehensible, he also captures the mad passion of scientists trying to solve the riddle of the universe. If you read this book, you’ll see how little cosmology has progressed over the past two decades.

How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker (W. W. Norton & Co., 1997). Fortunately, most scientists can’t write as well as Pinker or we journalists would be out of jobs. He popularized evolutionary psychology with this bestseller, which describes the mind as a grab bag of adaptations designed by natural selection. But can you really know how the mind works without knowing how the brain works?

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes (Simon & Shuster, 1986). Rhodes’s book remains the definitive history of science’s most momentous, terrible application. The still-haunting question: Did the U.S. need to demonstrate the bomb’s power by destroying not just one but two Japanese cities?

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks (Harper Perennial, 1987). In his first book the neurologist transforms medical case studies of brain-damaged patients into gripping forays into the mysteries of mind, knowledge and reality. Question: Does Sacks confirm or contradict Noam Chomsky’s dictum that we will always learn more about ourselves from literature than from science?

The Politics of Nonviolent Action
, Gene Sharp (Porter Sargent, 1973). Is political science actually a science? I vote yes, if only so I can list Sharp’s vitally important work, which has inspired protest movements around the world, most recently in Tunisia and Egypt. Arguing in practical rather than moral terms, Sharp asserts that nonviolence is more effective than violence at achieving positive social change; people have reformed unjust governments, toppled dictators and resisted invaders through nonviolent means. If only more people—whether they be Islamic terrorists or leaders of the world’s most powerful states—would heed Sharp’s message!

PIHKAL, Alexander and Ann Shulgin (Transform Press, 1991). An acronym for "phenethylamines I have known and loved," PIHKAL is a lightly fictionalized memoir by the chemist Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin and his wife Ann, a psychotherapist. Phenethylamines are compounds that include the psychedelics LSD and mescaline. This startlingly original book tells how "Shura" and "Alice" fell in love and embarked on a career as "psychonauts" who tested hundreds of psychotropic compounds synthesized by Alexander.

Great and Desperate Cures, Elliott Valenstein (Basic Books, 1986). Lobotomies, insulin-injection, fever inoculation, shock treatments, barbiturates, sleep deprivation, tooth extraction—these are some of the "cures" that psychiatrists once inflicted on hapless mental patients, as the neuroscientist and historian Valenstein reveals in this gripping history. The Scientologists must love this book, but it’s all true and—given psychiatry’s persistent lack of progress—still relevant.

The Double Helix, James Watson (Atheneum, 1968). It’s a truism now that world-class scientists are not rational automatons but can be as awkward, arrogant, lustful and nasty as the rest of us. But beginning with its infamous opening sentence ("I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.") Watson’s gossipy account of the discovery of the structure of DNA is still bracingly candid.

The Illusion of Conscious Will
, Daniel Wegner (MIT Press, 2002). The Harvard psychologist draws on research by himself and others to demonstrate that our subjective sense of self-control is often—but not always!—illusory. Witty, clear-eyed, grounded in empirical data, this book yields deeper insight into the ancient riddle of free will than shelves of mere philosophy. But don’t let this book persuade you that free will doesn’t exist!

Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson (Harvard University Press, 1975). One of the great scientists and prose stylists of our age shows how evolutionary theory and genetics can account for the behavior of all social animals, from ants to humans. Although they shun the controversial term "sociobiology," modern evolutionary psychologists remain indebted to Wilson’s seminal book.

Nonzero, Robert Wright (Vintage, 2001). Denser, more difficult, less popular than Wright’s The Moral Animal (Vintage, 1995), Nonzero is also more original. Wright proves that a mere journalist can more than equal scientists in thinking through the implications of scientific fields—in this case evolutionary biology and game theory. Nonzero almost persuades me that when we examine the history of life through the lens of these disciplines, they yield a hopeful, even spiritual outlook on existence.

Image: courtesy William Morrow


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  1. 1. Shecky R. 3:44 pm 06/20/2011

    1. Mind Tools (or another choice) from Rudy Rucker
    2. The Riemann Hypothesis from Karl Sabbagh (there are several good recent popular choices on the Riemann Hyp.)
    3. Beyond the Hoax, an under-appreciated volume from Alan Sokal

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  2. 2. Airdog 6:51 pm 06/20/2011

    The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte brings art, science and an incisive analysis of statistical graphics all together into one brilliant package. A beautiful book, insightful, and, according to Amazon, one of the best books of the 20th century.

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  3. 3. Gaylellen 10:58 am 06/23/2011

    I loved this list, but disappointed that I didn’t find a single archeology title to pursue… so let me suggest Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Knopf, 2005).

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  4. 4. stargeek 7:47 pm 06/23/2011

    My earliest introduction to science came during high school when I read "Science and Sanity" by Alfred Korzybski. This book was one of those rare types that do not merely fill the mind with knowledge, but light a fire to better see. Much more recently "The Extravagant Universe" by Robert Kirshner has kept the flame going and excited the imagination.

    May I suggest you also read "Hell to Pay" by D.M. Giangreco? This book details the consequences of an invasion of Japan had they not surrendered completely. The Japanese themselves expected 10,000,000 to die, and our own people expected to lose 2,000,000. This makes the two atomic bombs and even the March firebombing of Tokyo pale in comparison. The unforeseen effect of Japan and the United States becoming good allies might not have happened if an invasion had taken place. Monday morning quarterbacking serves little purpose unless most of the relevant facts are known.

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  5. 5. Dberg 12:06 am 07/8/2011

    Song of the Dodo, David Quammen (my favorite)
    Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin
    The Diversity of Life, Edward O. Wilson
    The Greatest Show On Earth, Richard Dawkins
    The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
    Ever Since Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould
    Where the Wild Things Were, William Stolzenburg
    The Eternal Frontier, Tim Flannery
    In the Dust of Kilimanjaro, David Western
    Infinite Tropics (a short collection of Alfred Russel Wallace’s writings)
    The Beak of the Finch, Jonathan Weiner

    The next two aren’t exactly science, but they’re certainly relevant if you’re interested in environmental literature and activism:

    Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey
    The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry

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