Jody Gomez

What are your favorite science books?

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I wanted to start a discussion here that would allow us science geeks to discuss our favorite books and allow us to share reading recommendations with others. This can be any branch of science and I'll even say mathematics. So yes Summer!, any recommendations about aerodynamics fit the bill as well.

My favorites are the three volume Lectures on Physics by Richard Feynman, The Shoulders of Giants by Hawking, and The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins just to name three.

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Well...my all-time favorite is Origin of Species. ;-) And I do see the awesome beauty, brilliance, and parsimony (though I can't follow every detail) of Einstein's 1905 "The Photodynamics of Moving Bodies," the paper from the five in his Annus Mirabilis which introduced what came to be called special relativity. And there is Newton's Principia, which I'm coming to appreciate more and more through perusing the magnificent I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman 1999 first translation into actually readable English (plus Cohen's erudite commentary, which is as long as the original text).

Ellen

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I think you mean: "The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" (original title: Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper"). It's remarkable how small this revolutionary paper is, in contrast to all those thick volumes filled with pretentious nonsense.

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Dragonfly (to me):

I think you mean: "The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" (original title: Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper").

Blush. Right. (Does blushing have something to do with photodynamics?)

It's remarkable how small this revolutionary paper is, in contrast to all those thick volumes filled with pretentious nonsense.

Yes. Even though I don't understand all the details, I can recognize the straight-to-the-point compressed brilliance (another pun on light imagery).

Ellen

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Perhaps you were thinking of his paper on the photoelectric effect ("Über einen die Erzeugung und Verwandlung des Lichtes betreffenden heuristischen Gesichtspunkt"), for which he got the Nobel prize.

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Dragonfly:

Perhaps you were thinking of his paper on the photoelectric effect ("Über einen die Erzeugung und Verwandlung des Lichtes betreffenden heuristischen Gesichtspunkt"), for which he got the Nobel prize.

Possibly I was conflating the two titles. The paper I meant was the Electrodynamics one; I haven't tried to read the photoelectric effect paper (or the others from that year).

Ellen

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Ellen-

Good luck with the Principia. Hopefully they have translated the mathematics into a readable, modern form as well. I've never read it, but I've heard that mathematically it is trying for even physicists. Not that it is inherently difficult, but I don't think the equations are couched in modern forms.

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As far as layman's books concerning science I would recommend anything by Bryan Greene ("The Elegant Universe") or Kip Thorne.

(Ike Asimov is a given, as is Carl Sagan)

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Jake,

You know, as much science as I read, I've never picked up one of his books. Thanks for the recommendation and for reminding me. He's now in the holding pattern.

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Jody,

This is incidental, but when I was at Boston University in the early 1970's, I attended a few lectures by Issac Asimov. He was very entertaining.

I remember him mentioning an evolution theory for human beings. Women evolved smaller (and other things) because they are physically impaired during a fairly long pregnancy. So they stayed home and took care of the cave and did not develop prowess. Men evolved stronger (among other things) because they had to go out and kill dinosaurs and stuff for dinner.

Following that logic, Asimov said that it was women who actually prompted human progress. They developed agriculture, which they could do near the cave, while the cavemen were out hunting.

Somehow, despite the simplicity, I have a problem finding fault in these observations.

Michael

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Sorry Michael, somehow I missed your post. It never showed up as "new" on my radar.

First of all, wow! You attended some Asimov lectures. I bet those are something you'll never forget.

I'm chewing on that one, but yes, you are right, it is hard to find fault in that logic. Have you ever read Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jarrad Diamond?

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I like Jared Diamond a lot. His The Third Chimpanzee and his Guns, Germs, and Steel are both excellent.

My favorite book on cosmology is Eric Lerner's The Big Bang Never Happened.

If I may stretch the category a bit, I really enjoyed Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation and The Ghost in the Machine. They're both about a lot more than science, but it figures prominently in them.

One more book that I really enjoyed, though it is way too technical in places, was former Objectivist Robert Efron's The Decline and Fall of Hemispheric Specialization.

Those are the science books I like, off the top of my head. If some more come to mind, I'll add them to this post as an addendum.

REB

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If I may stretch the category a bit, I really enjoyed Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation and The Ghost in the Machine. They're both about a lot more than science, but it figures prominently in them.

Roger-You're about the third or fourth whose intelligence I respect that has recommended these two books. I have read "Darkness At Noon", but nothing else of Koestler's. Think I'll pick those up(which is the last thing I need, more books I have to read!, but I can't resist any excuse to purchase more books)

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Jody,

Darkness at Noon is a novel and a good one. But I cannot recommend those other two Koestler books enough (The Act of Creation and The Ghost in the Machine). You may not agree with everything in them, but I assure you that you will not regret a single second spent in the company of this intellectual giant.

Michael

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And now, lest there seemed to be any hesitation from me about buying yet more books, Michael has to hop in and recommend them as well!

Thanks Michael. There now on order.

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Jody:

[The Act of Creation and The Ghost in the Machine are] now on order.

Joining in with the enthusiasm for those books after you've already sent for them: Koestler is a big favorite of mine. It isn't an issue of agreeing or disagreeing with his theories, but one of the imaginative, erudite, and doors-of-thought-opening way in which he weaves his views. I find him a joy to read, and -- each time I return to him -- always a source of new questions.

Marsha Enright, who recently became a member of OL, is another Koestler fan.

Ellen

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I have no favorite... I have lots of favorites. I have intellectual crushes on Einstein, Feynman, Gould, Hawking, Ramon y Cajal, Gazzaniga, Kandel, Russell, etc. Currently I'm reading through the Nobel Prize lectures (all of them in all categories); also I want to read all books of and by Feynman, all books by Gould, I have two of Hawking's books, selected writings of Russell, and Einstein's Ideas and Opinions. I want to read all books by all these people-- and more. I know of Carl Sagan, Jared Diamond, etc. also. They're on the list :)

I also hunt down good science writing on the internet. I read scienceblogs.com for opinions and info from a variety of science fields; or find, through the scientist internet grapevine, stuff like this physicist's writing called "Quantum interrogation" at a group physicist blog called Cosmic Variance. Note: Some scientists do have a sense of humor. Most of the time it's dry, sarcastic, or wry, or all three. I know what in their writings to take literally, and what not to. I discovered this humor during my science education. Before that, I never had a sense of humor. [-(

Honestly, given my passed-out-naked-on-the-pavement talent in physics and math, I probably wouldn't be able to understand Einstein's paper, or Feynman's, which is why I'm a glorified biologist. *grin* Then you get "articles" like this where it's debated whether biologists are biologists because they can't do math: "Why, physicists ask, do biologists seem unable to utilize such simple concepts as the Riemannian-Christoffel curvature tensor or Galois fields in their work?"

Ok, I'm a geek.

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Asimov - Understanding Physics, On Physics, On Numbers ... - ok, yes anything Asimov. He's hand's down the most prolific and accessible science writer, and I give him a lot of credit for his writing influencing me towards science and technology when I was young.

Jared Diamond - I heartily second the recommendation for Guns, Germs and Steel. I had not heard of the Third Chimpanzee, but will have to check it out. (Collapse is nowhere near as good as GGS, but if you like Diamond and can stomach the environmentalist aspects it could be worth a read)

George Gamow - One, Two, Three.. Infinity An excellent easily-read work on large numbers and infinity. I think he might have had the science-writing gift of IA, but he didn't write much else in the way of books. I'm curious if anyone has read any of his other works.

Richard Dawkins - I second Blind Watchmaker, also recommend Unweaving the Rainbow. Still have to get around to reading Selfish Gene that is on my bookshelf.

Richard Feynman - others have already endorsed his physics writing, I also recommend Lectures on Computation as an intriguing intro to concepts of computer science.

Julian Brown - Minds, Machines, and the Multiverse - a little more specialized, this is a very good introduction to limits of computation, reversible computing and quantum computation.

I'll have to check into Russell as a science writer. I'd pigeonholed him in philosophy instead after getting frustrated with his (and Whitehead's) Principia - where he was recreating math from the ground up and I believe he took 40 pages to show 1=1 :).

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Michael,

I would like to read the books you have been reading about men killing dinosaurs, while the women farmed. If we were doing that, why aren't we bigger than we are? Shouldn't we be about 10 feet tall?

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This is quite an impressive list of science-related books. I have compiled the books into a list on Amazon, which will help support OL if you use the following link. I have also added Inky's favorite current read, Gray's Anatomy to the list.

Here is the link to Objectivist Living Science Picks at Amazon.

Kat

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Charles,

It depends on the dinosaur. Can you imagine having to haul a dead brontosaurus home for supper all the time?

That theory wasn't in a book, though. I heard it said by Isaac Asimov in a lecture at Boston University in the early 1970's. I remember him prefacing it with a remark that it was only a theory. If he said it there, he must have said it in other places. Maybe something could turn up on google...

Anyway, even with killing and hauling around heavy dinosaurs, maybe the cave-women were so rugged that they kept cutting the cavemen back down to size.

(This theory seems to have extremely rich evolutionary possibilities...)

//;-))

Michael

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Yes, yes, Arthur Koestler's books! He is my god of science writing - I wish I could write science as literately and literarily as he. Plus, many of his other books are very interesting, like The Sleepwalkers (about the great astronomers) and The Chrysthanemum and the Lotus - what can we learn from eastern cultures. His autobiographies, if you can find them, are fascinating because he was just about everywhere and knew everyone in Europe during the first half of the 20th century. (Biographies: Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing).

He was an ardent communist who fought with the Nazi's in Berlin, who became one of the most outspoken of anti-communists after touring the USSR. He lived an amazingly interesting life and was a true Renaissance man.

And, for my money, he did the most to move biology and psychology away from mechano-reductionism.

Another little-known, but great book of biology is Ludwig Van Bertalanffy's Problems of Life, which offers an intergrated systems-theory of living action.

And don't forget Aristotle's De Anima, a fantastic work of biology/psychology. Aquinas' commentary is excellent, too.

I also like Walter B. Cannon's The Wisdom of the Body (the theory of homestasis) and Stephen Walker's Animal Thinking (an anazing review of all the research on animal cognition up to the point of its publication, with interestin analysis).

In neuropsychology, don't miss the great Alexander Luria, who basically invented the field: The Mind of a Mnemonist and the Man With a Shattered Brain.

Best,

Marsha

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Ellen-

Good luck with the Principia. Hopefully they have translated the mathematics into a readable, modern form as well. I've never read it, but I've heard that mathematically it is trying for even physicists. Not that it is inherently difficult, but I don't think the equations are couched in modern forms.

Jody,

The Principia is splendid. If there were a Son of God, it would be Isaac Newton. Principia is thoroughly accessible if one has had highschool geometry and if one has the following guide to Newton's masterpiece:

The Key to Newton's Dynamics

J. Bruce Brackenridge

1995, University of California Press

Stephen

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Some quotes from favorite scientists:

The distinction between Falconer’s and Darwin’s predictions, a key ingredient in my analysis, rests upon our ability to define the central features of Darwinism (its autapomorphies, if you will), so that we may then discern whether the extent of alteration in our modern understanding of evolutionary mechanisms and causes remains within the central logic of this Darwinian foundation, or has now changed so profoundly that, by any fair criterion in vernacular understanding of language, or by any formal account of departure from original premises, our current explanatory theory must be described as a differe kind of mental “thing.” How, in short can such an intellectual entity be defined? And what degree of change can be tolerated or accommodated within the structure of such an entity before we must alter the name and declare the entity invalid or overthrown? Or do such questions just represent a fool’s errand from the start, because intellectual positions can’t be reified into sufficient equivalents of buildings or organisms to bear the weight of such an inquiry? —Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Stephen Jay Gould, p. 7

It seems to me that he might not be talking just about Darwinism, but any kind of intellectual entity. I very much enjoy his integrated approach to a lot of things, and through reading his stuff, I've begun to see the complexities in reality not as opposing forces, but more as sides of a coin, or facets of a diamond:

Science contains few outright fools. Errors usually have their good reasons once we penetrate their context properly and avoid judgement according to our current perception of “truth”. They are usually more enlightening than embarrassing, for they are signs of changing contexts. The best thinkers have the imagination to create organizing visions, and they are sufficiently adventurous (or egotistical) to float them in a complex world that can never answer “yes” in all detail. The study of inspired error should not engender a homily about the sin of pride; it should lead us to a recognition that the capacity for great insight and great error are opposite sides of the same coin—and that the currency of both is brilliance.
Lives are too rich, too multifaceted for encompassing under any one perspective (thank goodness). I am no relativist in my attitude towards truth; but I am a pluralist in my views on optimal strategies for seeking this most elusive prize. I have been instructed by T.H. Clark and his maximally different vision. There may be no final answer to Pilate’s inquiry of Jesus (John 18:37), “What is truth?”—and Jesus did remain silent following the question. But wisdom, which does increase with age, probes from many sides—and she is truly “a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her.”
The problem is not so much that we are driven to dichotomy, but that we import incorrect or misleading divisions by two upon the world’s complexity. The inadequacy of some dichotomies rests upon their anachronism.—Stephen Jay Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle; Chapter One: The Discovery of Deep Time
Nature revels in boundaries and distinctions; we inhabit a universe of structure. But since our universe of structure has evolved historically, it must present us with fuzzy boundaries, where one kind of thing grades into another. Objects at these boundaries will continue to confuse and frustrate us so long as we follow old habits of thought and insist that all parts of nature be pigeonholed unambiguously to assuage our poor and overburdened intellects.

The siphonophore paradox does have an answer of sorts, and a profound one at that. The answer is that we asked the wrong question—a question that has no meaning because its assumptions violate the ways of nature. Are siphonophores organisms or colonies? Both and neither; they lie in the middle of a continuum where one grades into another.—Stephen Jay Gould, p. 95, The Flamingo’s Smile

The categories have changed today, but we are still either rightists or leftists, advocates of nuclear power or solar heating, pro choice or agains the murder of fetuses. We are simply not allowed the subtlety of an intermediate view on intricate issues… p. 378, The Flamingo’s Smile

Here's one of my favorite Feynman quotes:

Throughout all the ages, men have been trying to fathom the meaning of life. They realize that if some direction or some meaning could be given to the whole thing, to our actions, then great human forces would be unleashed. So, very many answers have been given to the question of the meaning of it all. But they have all been of different sorts. And the proponents of one idea have looked with horror at the actions of the believers of another—horror because from a disagreeing point of view all the great potentialities of the race were being channeled into a false and confining blind alley. In fact, it is from the history of the enormous monstrosities that have been created by false belief that philosophers have come to realize the fantastic potentialities and wondrous capacities of human beings.

The dream is to find the open channel. What, then, is the meaning of it all? What can we say today to dispel the mystery of existence? If we take everything into account, no only what the ancients knew, but also all those things that we have found out up to today that they didn’t know, then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. But I think that in admitting this we have probably found the open channel.

Admitting that we do not know and maintaining perpetually the attitude that we do not know the direction necessarily to go permit a possibility of alteration, of thinking, of new contributions and new discoveries for the problem of developing a way to do what we want ultimately, even when we do not know what we want.

Looking back at the wrost times, it always seems that they were times in which there were people who believed with absolute faith and absolute dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter that they insisted that the rest of the world agree with them. And then they would do things that were directly inconsistent with their own beliefs in order to maintain that what they said was true.

...I want to maintain here, that it is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn’t get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.—p. 34, The Meaning of It All, Richard Feynman

The Statue Within by Francois Jacob is a beautiful book. This guy (a molecular biologist, who studied genetic mechanisms) is such a poetic and deep writer:

This endless race with time, this preference for desire over enjoyment is not without its drawbacks. Too often, it prevents us from understanding, and nurtures the illusion of life rather than life itself. It took me a long time to realize that this drive toward tomorrow has an advantage in at least one domain: in research. Late, very late, I discovered the true nature of science, of how it proceeds, of the men who do it. I came to understand that, contrary to what I had believed, the march of science does not consist in a series of inevitable conquests, or advance along the royal road of human reason, or result necessarily and inevitably from conclusive observations dictated by experiment and argumentation. I found in science a mode of playfulness and imagination, of obsessions and fixed ideas. To my surprise, those who achieved the unexpected and invented the possible were not simply men of learning and method. More than anything else, they possessed extradordinary minds, enjoyed the difficult, and often were creatures of amazing vision. Those in the front ranks displayed exotic blends of passion and indifference, of rigor and whimsy, of naivete and the will to power, in a triumph of individuality.—p. 8
Is there a better instructor than self-love on the path that no one can take for you?— p. 18
I carry within a kind of inner statue, a statue sculpted since childhood, that gives my life a continuity and is the most intimate part of me, the hardest kernel of my character. I have been shaping this statue all my life. I have been constantly retouching, polishing, refining it. Here, the chisel and the gouge are made of encounters and interactions; of discordant rhythms; of stray pages from one chapter that slip into another in the almanac of the emotions; terror induced by what is all sweetness; a need for infinity erupting in bursts of music; a delight surging up at the sight of a stern gaze; an exaltation born from an association of words; all the sensations and constraints, marks left by some people and by others, by the reality of life and by the dream.

Before my post becomes a quote compendium (examples are better than descriptions, I think), I'll just leave it at that for now. There are so many good books out there, but Gould, Feynman, & Jacob are really awesome.

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