The authors - 1: Chown - 2: Dawkins - 3: Cairns-Smith - 4: Thompson - 5: Gordon - 6: Hofstadter - 7: Sutherland - 8: Pinker - 9: James - 10: Feynman


Top Ten

Ten books everyone should read to understand the world we live in

I don't claim that these are the "top ten books of all time" - for a start, Darwin's Origin of Species isn't here. No, this selection of core reading is my attempt to range over all the Big Questions. And if you read all of these books, and answer a few simple questions, you will soon be eligible for a degree certificate issued by the academic arm of the Imaginatorium, otherwise known as Brian's On-line Global University of Science. (Whose initials will feature boldly on the certificates once I've designed them.)

First the universe: what's it made of, and where did it come from?


Marcus Chown: "The Magic Furnace - the search for the origin of atoms" (1999)

This is a wonderful book. It deals with beginnings - the beginning of the universe, and the beginning of scientific thought. What is everything made of? Just indefinitely divisible "stuff", or are there ultimate building blocks like Lego bricks? The elusive figure of Democritus in ancient Greece was the first to answer this question, giving us the word we still use: atomos or "uncuttable". Democritus gave arguments to suggest why matter should be atomic, but this remained entirely hypothetical until experimental science got underway almost 2000 years after him. So the story leaps to the time of Newton, who not only hypothesised, but also tested his ideas, and produced (among other things) his laws of motion. It was Daniel Bernoulli who thought through the implications of seeing a gas as a collection of particles like billiard balls, in constant motion, and saw that it fitted reality. From there on, a stream of thinkers gradually pieced together the story of the basic stuff the world is made of.

Read the rest of my review (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Popup help)

And life? Where did that come from? And is it a special kind of stuff?


Richard Dawkins: "The Blind Watchmaker" (1986)

Dawkins starts from the well-known story of William Paley's exposition of the "Argument from design" in 1802, in which he contemplates stumbling over a watch on a heath. Paley deduces that "the watch must have had a maker," by which he of course means a personifiable being, who was aware of the task of watch-making. Dawkins spends the next three hundred pages pointing out that this just doesn't follow, since we understand that there is a non-personifiable - that is, blind - mechanism for doing the same thing. But not quite in the same way: for this blind watchmaker, design just has to be good enough to survive, and there is no going back to sort out early design decisions that leave us with lumbago and eyes that are wired backwards.

The subtitle to the American edition spells out the message: "Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design." Strictly though, since it is useful to use the term "design" to include the effect of evolution, this should read "Without a Designer." Ah, but that's America.

Read the rest of my review (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Popup help)

It should be clear from Dawkins' book that there really is no mystery about giraffe necks, bombardier beetles, and the rest of it, but there is a Huge gap in our knowledge of how the biochemical foundations - the same for all known life - came about. Cairns-Smith has a provocatively tentative, but fascinatingly plausible candidate explanation.


Graham Cairns-Smith: "Seven Clues to the Origin of Life" (1985)

This is a delightful book - only just over one hundred pages, and interspersed with Sherlock Holmes quotations in the manner of an unfolding detective story. He starts with a brief introduction to the problem, and mentions some of the "solutions" often found on loopy websites, but dismisses these as sterile. Chapter 1 closes with the following quotation, from The Hound of the Baskervilles, chapter 3:

"Of course, if Dr. Mortimer's surmise should be correct, and we are dealing with forces outside the ordinary laws of Nature, there is an end of our investigation. But we are bound to exhaust all other hypotheses before falling back upon this one."

Then he plunges into a description of the basic nuts and bolts of life: the DNA-RNA replicating machine, the coded messages, the folding proteins. I suppose he is only skimming the surface of biochemistry, but I found the exposure to the details very stimulating. (Surely no-one can come out of this thinking biochemistry is simple!) But while people with a lot of time and patience have been able to piece together so many of the mechanisms, these all start with the basic large molecule replicating machinery already in place. How could this ever have been bootstrapped, he asks? Chapter 10, "Crystals," introduces his candidate, an entirely different, utterly low-tech replication mechanism that could have built the scaffolding for subsequent organic evolution. In the last third of the book, he gives us plenty of support for his idea, but is quite clear that it remains a hypothesis - the book closes not with a Verdict, but with the eponymous Seven Clues. Fascinating. (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Popup help)
Note: May only be available from Amazon UK - or find used copy through ABE

Dawkins has eloquently expounded on Darwin's Idea, a sort of managerial view of how life came to be the way it is. What of the shop-floor view? A much-misunderstood (and thus abused) section of the Blind Watchmaker is about Dawkins' experiments with "biomorphs," a computer simulation of a (very simple) evolutionary universe. In this case there are no constraints on the patterns that can form, other than those in the general rules of the system. But in the real world, organisms are subject to the laws of physics - and the Blind Watchmaker has to be not only a manager, but also an engineer. It was the genius of the next author, in one of the great classics of scientific literature, to recognise that the general patterns of biological growth and form are simply a reflection of the physical constraints on solutions of the problems organisms face.


D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson: "On Growth and Form" (1917)

After an introductory chapter on philosophy - ultimate causes, and that sort of thing - he begins as he intends to continue, with no hesitation about writing down equations. He deals first with the basic ideas of dimensions and scaling: Why do elephants have such thick legs in proportion to those of grasshoppers? Because weight scales with the third power of linear size, and the supporting strength of a bone scales with only the second power of its linear dimension (i.e. the cross-sectional area). At the other end of the scale, the form of cells and unicellular organisms can largely ignore gravity: here simple rules of geometry kick in to govern the shapes that objects form. He has a memorable section on gnomons, self-similar shapes typified by mollusc shells and curly rams' horns; as in so many cases, apparently unrelated items are in fact only mathematical variants on a theme.

That is an extremely cursory skim over the themes of this book, but so many things fell into place once I had read it, that I would consider it the single most essential book in this list.

After original publication in 1917, D'Arcy Thompson expanded the content in the second edition (1942). Then John Tyler Bonner produced the abridged version (only 330 pages) in 1992: this is the version I read (a few years back), and the one I would recommend.

Read the BBS posting I made back in 1995: "More paper formats"

Abridged version: (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Popup help)

Second edition (Dover reprint): (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Popup help)

Engineering is humans doing the same thing as nature, and getting similar answers because they are solving the same equations.


J. E. Gordon: "The New Science of Strong Materials - or Why You Don't Fall Through the Floor" (1968)
J. E. Gordon: "Structures - or Why Things Don't Fall Down" (1978)

These books cover the two aspects of making things: the materials you use, and the way you put the bits together. There is a certain degree of overlap, and I think you could happily read the two in either order. Gordon writes in an immensely approachable style, a bit port-and-cigars-British perhaps, full of memorable examples of ships breaking in two, and why not oiling a grandfather clock makes it last longer. He is not afraid to write equations, but most of them are fairly simple.

"Materials" introduces us first to stresses and strains, elastic behaviour, and Hooke's law. Then he dives into the molecular basis of material strength, and the reason why practical materials (such as sheet steel) fall miserably short of the theoretical value. The problem turns out to be cracks. He opens Chapter 5, "Crack-stopping, or how to be tough," by commenting on the unreliability of Pliny the Elder's "Natural History", and then writes (in italics):

The worst sin in an engineering material is not lack of strength or lack of stiffness, desirable as these properties are, but lack of toughness, that is to say, lack of resistance to the propagation of cracks.

Much of the rest of this book concerns itself with this issue of toughness, and there is a wealth of down-to-earth information on practical materials such as masonry or plywood, in addition to the metals.

"Structures" brings more tales of cracks in beams, boats, and bridges, but he also touches on some "Growth and Form" themes: the engineering basis on which some animals are constructed. In particular, he shows us the two most basic ways of making a rigid structure: either building on a space-frame, or using a monocoque. The latter is the principle on which modern cars are made, with essentially a single body piece in the form of a shell - the sort of construction plants have always used. Gordon keeps this entertaining, with lots of anecdotes, and personal opinions: "Greek roofs can only be described as intellectually squalid," he says.

Materials: (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Popup help)

Structures: (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Popup help)

At (USA) in particular, look out for a special deal on the two books together.
(I can't get a direct link to work, unfortunately.)

Computation: the new mathematical paradigm of the twentieth century. There can surely be little doubt that the ubiquitous computer is the single engineering advance that made the biggest impact on human society in the last century (if not semi-millennium, since printing). But unlike some of the other topics in this list, this is something I have absorbed over so many years, that I really can't remember reading a particular book that brought enlightenment. So the next book is certainly the hardest to recommend. It may also be the hardest to read, for it is long (750 pages), and somewhat convoluted.


Douglas R Hofstadter: "Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid" (1979)

A huge tome, full of wonderful stuff. He does tend to be lengthy about things, so some people love him, while others hate him. Get it and see what you think.

His selection of the three heros of the title is interesting. Kurt Gödel was the mathematician who published a famous paper in 1931 ("On Formally Undecidable Propositions") that demolished the idea of building a complete axiomatic basis for mathematics, as proposed by Hilbert in his set of Big Problems at the beginning of the twentieth century, and most enthusiastically pursued by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead. The basic "trick" which it used to do this is the Strange Loop (Hofstadter's term), the contradictory self-reference typified by the old chestnut "This statement is false." The book is a discovery of similar patterns in J. S. Bach's music and M. C. Escher's drawings.

Of course it also features many other personalities - Fermat, Turing, Ramanujan, and Magritte to name but a few - and some gruesome puns and multilingual wordplay. He has a thing about "ants" in particular, and we meet "Fermant's last fugue"- "Aunt Hillary" - "Di of Antus" - and "Lierre de Fourmi", whose discovery of the following somehow ends up called "Johant Sebastiant's Well-Tested Conjecture":

na + nb = nc has no solutions in integers for n > 2.

Actually the above is "Fermat's last theorem upside down". I have also seen a claim that the subtext of the book is an assertion of Goldbach's conjecture about prime numbers. Well, together with Douglas Hofstadter, his coeditor of "The Mind's Eye" Daniel Dennett, J S Bach, and the Goldberg variations, it is certainly easy to end up very confused - as I did. Here's just one more joke: from the bibliography, and curiously close to the bone.

Gebstadter, Egbert B.: "Copper, Silver, Gold: an Indestructible Metallic Alloy." Perth: Acidic Books*, 1979. A formidable hodge-podge, turgid and confused - yet remarkably similar to the present work. Professor Gebstadter's Shandean digressions include some excellent examples of indirect self-reference. Of particular interest is a reference in its well-annotated bibliography to an isomorphic, but imaginary, book.

* Hofstadter's book was originally published by Basic Books. But why "Perth"? I've no idea. (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Popup help)

When thinking goes wrong...


Stuart Sutherland: "Irrationality - the enemy within" (1992)

A very wide-ranging survey of irrational aspects of human behaviour. As John Allen Paulos eloquently puts it in one of the 'blurbs', "One of the most appealing aspects of this book is that its grand pronouncements are few and its specific illustrations plentiful..." Here's a typical example - a classic demonstration of how people make the wrong decisions. Four cards are presented as below, and the subject is told that each card has a letter on one side and a number on the other, and asked to consider the rule "Any card with an A on one side has a 3 on the other." Which cards is it necessary to turn over in order to test whether these cards comply with this rule?

A  D  3  7

Answer further down the page

I always particularly recommend this book to anyone to whom it isn't immediately obvious that a collection of true but retrospectively selected anecdotes whereby one sort of "fortune-telling" or another correctly predicted various future events amounts to zero evidence for the efficacy of the "fortune-telling".

It seems extraordinary that this book keeps going out of print - last year the US edition was out of print - now the UK one is. Hmm - perhaps this could be a topic for conspiracy theorists? (USA) - Amazon Japan (Popup help) - Find used copy through ABE

We've come from physics, the most basic science, through biology, and now we can look at Language and Music, a couple of aspects of culture which bear scientific analysis. (Not all aspects of culture do, as witness the dismal efforts of much postmodernist drivel supposedly "analysing" literature.) It also might seem odd that I include the next book, despite having serious reservations about its central thesis. But then, science books aren't there to tell you the Truth, they're there to make you think.


Steven Pinker: "The Language Instinct" (1994)

Pinker is a linguist in the Chomskyan tradition, and this is his exposition of Chomsky's linguistics for the general reader. But it is also much more - a broad introduction to the whole sweep of modern ideas about language. Pinker is a skilled writer, and the book is full of witty examples.

After you have read this, I very much recommend Geoffrey Sampson's book "Educating Eve" - although attacking his position, even Sampson praises Pinker's writing: "His book is superbly well written (as well as very fully researched)." (Chomsky's writing style, in contrast, is miserably opaque.)

Some more comments in my 1997 holiday reading (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Popup help)

Music - where mind and mathematics meet


Jamie James: "The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe" (1993)

"The Music of the Spheres" covers an immense sweep of history, from Pythagoras to Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The relation of number to music runs all through this book, starting with the story of how Pythagoras was passing a blacksmith's, and noticed that the note given out by a piece of iron on the anvil was determined by the weight of the hammer hitting it. Thus a hammer of twice the weight produces a note an octave higher. James keeps us suspended for sixty pages and 2000 years before revealing that Vincenzo Galilei (Galileo's Dad) pointed out that this is all wrong (but then went on to make some mistakes of his own).

Read the rest of my review, and more, in "Music by Numbers" (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Japanese: Popup help)

In the end, though, learning about the world is fun. For nitpickers, number five in this list is actually two books, so I feel no compunction at all in not choosing a book for this last item.


Richard Feynman: "Safecracker Suite" (CD)

Richard Feynman (1918-88) won the Nobel physics prize in 1965, for fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics. So he knew a thing or two; but he also had an incredible sense of fun. This CD consists of informally made recordings of "The Chief" (Feynman) telling stories about safecracking, interspersed with drumming numbers - one of them the amazing "Sensei Samurai," in his inimitable fake Japanese.

During the second world war, while he was working on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, Feynman found himself working out how to crack open a safe. Despite holding documents of the utmost secrecy, the safes really weren't very safe at all. Naively, he imagined that all he had to do was point this out (which admittedly he did in a cheeky way, by putting notes in Important People's safes), and security would be tightened up. But how did Administrative Mind respond to the message? Naturally, by posting notices warning people to watch Feynman carefully, and banning him from high security areas. "Shoot the messenger."

Wonderful stuff!

Available from: Scientific Consulting Services International


Answer to Sutherland's card problem

The cards to turn over are A and 7. Most people get the first of these right, but fail to realise that it is necessary to check that the 7 card does not have an A on the reverse side. Neither of the other two cards matters - in particular, the rule does not require that a card with 3 on one side has anything particular on the other side.


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