I spent four years at Caltech, so I've read more than my share of science
books! But that was many years ago, so it's starting to change.
- Selfish Gene
Dawkins spends the entire book motivating a concept he calls the Extended
Phenotype. As far as I can tell it is just a subtle distinction in what
exactly it is we should think of as evolving in evolution: the species, the
organism, the gene, or entire coevolving systems? The style is a bit dry, but
he illustrates his points with interesting examples of his own and other
scientists' work. It is very thought-provoking, even if it falls a little
short of the life-changing revelation he suggests it might be in the preface.
- Guns, Germs, Steel
This won the Pulitzer Prize. It sets about trying to understand why it is
different peoples developed at different rates around the world. For example,
why is it Europeans came to dominate the world instead of Africans, Asians,
Americans, Australians, etc? The ultimate reasons turn out to be a combination
of several biogeographic factors -- having nothing whatsoever to do with race.
It covers an extremely broad range of topics, and essentially presents a
complete history of mankind. I can't say how fascinating I found nearly every
chapter of this impressive book! It is extremely readable.
- Third Chimpanzee
This is Diamond's first book, I believe. It's a bit of a scatter-shot, but
his purpose seems to be examining what exactly it is that makes us different
from chimps, our closest living relative. It is stuffed full of absolutely
fascinating discussions of everything from language to sex to genocide. I
learned a phenomenal amount of cool random trivia from this book.
Stephen Jay Gould
- Full House
This was not a good choice as a sole representative of Gould's works, but the
bookstore didn't have much selection. He has a very forceful writing style,
but damn is he long-winded! This book argued that statisticians need to be
careful to consider movement of averages separately from changes in spreads
or individual members of the sample; he illustrates his case with baseball
statistics (why there are no more .400 hitters) and evolution's apparent (but
misleading) trend toward complexity.
- Wonderful Life
This was also very long-winded, and the subject matter promised to be extremely
uninteresting. However Gould has such enthusiasm that he even made the
taxonomy of obscure pseudo-arthropod lifeforms absolutely fascinating. He
makes an extremely strong case against evolution being a directed process
toward complexity or some vaguely described "higher life forms".
- Godel, Escher, Bach
I happen to particularly enjoy Bach, logic puzzles, and math -- all major
topics of this broad interesting book -- so I thoroughly enjoyed every page of
it (and there are lots of pages to enjoy). I might even go so far as to say it
changed how I think a little. Specifically, this book was the kick I needed
finally to understand Godel's famous theorem. (That's the one that essentially
proves that you can't prove everything. It turns out to have many diverse
interpretations and applications throughout science.)
- Power of Babel
This is an excellent lay-man's introduction to linguistics. It slowed down
a bit toward the end, but he held me rapt most of the way through. He gives
loads of fascinating examples of how pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar,
semantics, etc. change over time and during cultural upheaval.
- The Language Instinct
This is a fascinating book that presents the theory that a good deal of the
complexities of human language is hard-wired into the structure of our brain.
He supports his theory with tons of fascinating experiments and linguistic
evidence. I secretly love linguistics (despite being utterly inept at learning
foreign languages myself), so this book fascinated me. I've heard derision of
Steven Pinker from scientist friends as being a "pseudo-scientist", but I
really don't see where it comes from.
- Fooled by Randomness
This was a passably interesting treatment of statistics that explains how most
people have trouble separating luck from skill. A main point he tries to drive
home (that every single reviewer has somehow missed) is that you need to
control the downside risk while leaving yourself open for upside. That is,
you've got to accept risk if you want anything in life, just make sure the
worst case is tolerable.
- Where is Everybody
This is a very broad fascinating survey of the nebulous field that addresses
the question: is there extraterrestrial life? He presents a few dozen possible
answers to the question and briefly analyzes their pros and cons.
Gary Zukav and David Finkelstein
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- Dancing Wu Li Masters
I've heard great things about this book but I just couldn't get into it. It's
probably the curse of the exhausted ex-physicist...