The following are some books I’ve read that I recommend particularly highly. If I don’t recommend it highly, it’s not here. So, I won’t say “this is a really great book” about any of them. Or, rather, I say that about all of these. In many cases, both hardcover and paperback are available. In such cases, the link I provide will always be the paperback on the assumption that it is cheaper.
- Knocking on Heaven’s Door – Lisa Randall. This book is a wonderful explanation of what science is and is not, how it is done, and what we can look forward to in the near future from the LHC and many other experiments. Written for a lay person, this book actually manages to explain the experiments of the LHC including how particles are detected. This book was the first I’ve read that can give this level of technical detail about science and still be readable for those of us who are not scientists.
- A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking: The basics through relativity and quantum theory in plain language.
- Hyperspace – Michio Kako: Another good basics book that probably goes a bit farther into extra dimensions than the Hawking book. Also, it taught me a bit about the cubist art movement, based on an extra dimension of space.
- The Trouble With Physics – Lee Smolin: An interesting analysis of string theory’s lack of progress.
- The Cosmic Landscape – Leonard Susskind: Starting from the same data as Smolin, forms a very different conclusion.
- Warped Passages – Lisa Randall: Same start as Smolin and Susskind and a completely different answer. This has the most interesting physics possibilities of these three. I read them back to back to back in this order and recommend doing the same if you have that level of interest.
- Time: A Traveler’s Guide – Clifford A. Pickover: A serious study in the actual possibilities for time travel that are allowed by general relativity.
Environment/Sustainability/Politics (environmental only)
- Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity – James Hansen. The title is very clear about James Hansen’s professional opinion on global warming, just in case anyone has been hiding under a rock for so long that they haven’t heard of him. The book is shockingly well written and full of information you may not have heard before. For example, I had not heard about the level of technology, safety, and source of the energy of breeder reactors. The status on these alone is worth the time to read this book. However, it is also full of other information including the scientific case for anthropogenic climate change, which most definitely does NOT rest solely or even largely on computer models, and what it will take to solve the crisis.
- The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment – Paul R Ehrlich & Anne H. Ehrlich. This is an excellent overview of where we came from and what we are doing to the ecosystem on which we depend for our lives. It covers a tremendous number of topics relating to the ways in which humans have come to dominate this planet and what we must do now in order to survive on it. If you’ve read many of the other books on this list some will be review. If not, this is a great compendium of information.
- Earth 2: The Sequel – Fred Krupp & Miriam Horn. From the president of the Environmental Defense Fund and journalist Horn, this book is an optimistic look at the future and how we will solve the global warming crisis. This is quite different than many other books I’ve read which do not convey such an extreme belief that the crisis is indeed solvable. There is a lot of very interesting new technology described in this book as well as a pretty good sales pitch for a cap and trade system for CO2. Personally, I’ll take either a cap and trade system or a revenue neutral carbon tax. I don’t really see a reason to have Wall Street involved in the issue. Either way though, this is a very good book with a lot of exciting information on new technologies.
- Under A Green Sky – Peter D. Ward. This book is about mass extinctions. There have been 5 major ones, plus the one we’re in and causing today. One is known to be caused by a cometary impact 65.3 million years ago. The author is one of the scientists who proved that. Now he is presenting excellent evidence that the others were not caused by impact. The causes of the others is shocking and scary as hell. If only everyone would read this book!!
- The World Without Us – Alan Weisman. Far more than just the mental masturbation of imagining the world with no humans, this book talks about engineering and art that will last, some for mere decades, some for hundreds of millions and even billions of years. It talks about nature before during and after us and de facto wildlife preserves springing up in places you’d never expect.
- Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed – Jared Diamond: Study of civilizations that did and did not collapse and the relevance today.
- Plan B 2.0 – Lester Brown: Describes the necessary actions for human survival.
- The Weather Makers – Tim Flannery: Details the reality of anthropogenic climate change. What is known, what is not, what we must do, and what can and cannot be saved.
- Is the Temperature Rising: The Uncertain Science of Global Warming – S. George Philander: A relatively light book and highly readable for a climate science text book.
Biological Evolution/Human and Other Animal Brains, Minds, and Behavior
- Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin – Stephen Jay Gould: General evolution and the wonder of the evolutionary perspective.
- The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal – Jared Diamond: All about us, what’s unique in kind versus magnitude. This one has long been a personal favorite of mine.
- The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design – Richard Dawkins: The science of evolution, why it explains the tree of life in ways that creationism cannot, not yet as preachy as his later work so possibly more persuasive.
- Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are – Franz de Waal: Study of our behavioral characteristics and their similarity and differences from our closest cousins, the chimp and the bonobo, each of whom is more closely related to us than either is to gorillas.
- The Naked Brain: How the Emerging Neurosociety is Changing How We Live, Work, and Love – Richard Restak, M.D.: The current state of brain science and imaging. Scary!
- The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy and Why They Matter – Marc Bekoff with forward by Jane Goodall. The excellent quick read discusses the emotions of some of the various sentiences with whom we share this planet. The point is not whether the non-human animals have emotions. Anyone with a dog should know they do. The question is not whether they have the same level of intelligence we do. The question is whether they feel joy and pain and suffer when we mistreat them. There are a wealth of cases presented as evidence of the emotions of non-human animals. As we are animals too, we can observe and study their emotions. We can even test them with the same brain scans we use on humans and confirm that they indeed feel as we do using the same brain structures we have. This has far-reaching implications regarding our own morals as we cause tremendous pain and suffering in many animals and for what we should do going forward. Anyone who still believes the behaviorist psychologists of days gone by still have a point owes it to themselves to read this book and do some very serious introspection. (Sorry for such a long rant about one of the shortest books on the list.)
- Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think – Marc D. Hauser: Been a while since I read this, can’t give details. I do remember it being quite good.
- The Animal Mind – James L. and Carol Grant Gould: Also been a while.
- The Parrot’s Lament: And Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity – Eugene Linden: Amazing anecdotes of animal intelligence. The author makes no claims about this being scientific only that the sheer number of these amazing stories indicates a need for further study of animal intelligence.
- Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind – Sue Savage-Rumbaugh: The incredible story of Kanzi, a bonobo at the Yerkes Primate Research facility that learned language the way we do, just by being around it.
- Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape – Frans De Waal with incredible photos by Frans Lanting: A very detailed book on the bonobo.
- Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind – David Berreby: A very interesting book on the many ways which we use to divide us from them including race, religion, ethnic background, etc. It examines the many ways in which these divisions are not static and how some races simply merge into the mainstream and what was formerly a race is now simply not. The only thing changed is our viewpoint. It also looks at the brain biology in the way we do this as well as the effects on the brains of members of a stigmatized group.
- Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion-Year History of the Human Body – Neil Shubin. This book explains a tremendous amount about the history of our evolution and how it has affected what we are today, including a variety of common health problems like bad backs, hernias, and the like. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in their own body. Oh, and for those who are looking for a less confrontational book on evolution than one from Dawkins, this one simply provides the facts. It’s pretty convincing and cool to say “well, we wanted to find an animal between these two, went to exposed rocks of the right age, and after a lot of searching, there it was!”
- Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind – Gary Marcus. This is a great book about a lot of the problems with our brains and why, though they do some things amazingly well, they do some things very poorly, in particular remembering things. Also though, even when we have enough time to make a conscious choice, we still generally revert to simpler sections of our brains and let them do the work. There is a reason for this, unfortunately. However, Gary Marcus offers not only explanations, but also some suggestions for workarounds for the kluges in our heads.
- Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts – Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson. If Kludge could be described as an owner’s manual for our brains, Mistakes were made could be the owner’s manual for our minds. This book describes both the value and the huge cost of our self-justification for the decisions we make. It covers everything from minor decisions to dealings with our spouses to wars. Even W gets a good amount of honorable mention. (Dishonorable?)
- Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean – Michael Erard. An interesting study of the pauses we put in our speech, what they really mean, and whether they are in fact bad. After reading this book, you may be surprised to start consciously hearing ums from some of the best and most eloquent speakers around. Further, when not thinking about them, you’ll find that you don’t notice the pauses. You may even, as a result of reading this book, find that some, but not all, pauses are actually useful and improve communication.
- What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought – Keith E. Stanovich. There’s more to being smart than intelligence. This book describes the abilities measured by intelligence tests (and limits the term intelligence to those particular abilities) as well as abilities not included in intelligence and suggests placing more emphasis on these skills than we do today. Many such skills can even be taught and improved upon, making them an ideal focus for schools. Additionally, a large theme of the book is why intelligent people do stupid things, a concept the author calls dysrationalia a condition where someone has normal or better intelligence scores but fails to act rationally.
Politics (excluding environmental policy)
- It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street – Nomi Prins: This book describes what is really going on in DC and on Wall St. with respect to the state of the economy at present. The massive influence of Wall St. on Washington is a huge theme in the book as is the enormous funneling of public money (read: your tax dollars) to Wall St investment banks and the wealthy who profit from them. This is a huge theft of our money and has tremendous bipartisan support. This is not an Obama vs. W issue. They both suck massively on this one, as did several administrations of both parties before either W or Obama came on the scene. If you want to understand the real situation, please read this book.
- What’s the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America – Thomas Frank: Written by a native Kansan, describes the neocon movement, its reasons for being, and why it is misguided … and all without once using the term neocon.
- The I Hate Corporate America Reader: How Big Companies from McDonald’s to Microsoft Are Destroying Our Way of Life – Clint Willis and Natie Hardcastlem editors: A collection of articles detailing the ways in which corporate America is harming Americans and generally being completely unpatriotic.
- Trilogy of novels: Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael – Daniel Quinn: Though these are novels, they are a highly interesting look at society from a Stranger in a Strange Land style viewpoint. Get past who was chosen as the stranger, suspend disbelief, it’s worth it.
NOTE: I am trying to avoid making this a programming site. I’m putting recommendation(s) here for books that may be of interest to a general audience as well as to other geeks.
- Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software – Scott Rosenberg: This is a good read for the general audience and geeks alike. It describes the problems with the software development process that are the reasons why so many projects run late, despite good teams with the best of intentions. Wondering why it’s taking so long for a new piece of software or the next version of your favorite, read this.
This will be a short list. I’m not a history buff by any stretch of the imagination.
- Doubt: A History : the Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson – Jennifer Michael Hecht: This is not like any other history book you’ve likely read before. This is a look at the times in between. This is a look at the people who doubted the mainstream, whatever that was at the time. This is also a look at the effect that doubt has had not only on the secular world but on religion as well. Before religion would place great importance on belief rather than ritual obedience, there had to be doubters. Further, it has always been people who questioned who came up with answers, even when those answers strengthened religion, the questions came from those who, like Thomas Aquinas, wrestled with doubt. Whether you believe or not, if you think, this book is for you. Only a blind believer or blind non-believer would gain nothing from reading of the history of doubt. And, remember, I loved the book and am not that interested in history. Note that I am definitely NOT putting this book in with the list below as it would very definitely not fit there. This book is uncritical of religion and doubt alike.
- The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins: This book probably doesn’t need much in the way of a recommendation from me. There’s a lot of good scientific and logical reasoning in this book that is highly unlikely to convince the religious, but can make one excellent at alienating people with whom you don’t want to converse anyway.
- The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason – Sam Harris: For those who find Dawkins too wishy washy on the subject of religion, Sam Harris is downright vehemently opposed to religion in all of its forms. This one’s a bit over the top at times even for my taste. I include it here more as a topic starter than as a true recommendation.
- Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned About Love and Life With a Blind Wonder Cat – Gwen Cooper: This may be the ultimate feel-good book. One might expect the tale of a blind kitten to be sad. It isn’t. What can one learn about life from a blind cat? You’ll have to read it. The cat is incredible. The book is a light quick read and well worth the time.
Feel free to strike up a conversation about any of these or add your own recommendations to my reading queue.