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« My “Greatest Science Books” Are Greater! | Main | Ten Worst Science Books »



Stevens Greatest Science Books: The Next Ten

This weekend, while the rest of you have been raking leaves or rooting for Michigan or gawking at the new Bond’s abs, I’ve been wrestling with a momentous question: What are the next 10 books that deserve sanctification within the “Stevens Greatest Science Books” list?

After exhaustive scholarship and profound reflection, I’ve decided that the 10 books below deserve this immense honor. These 10 books, like the 40 already on our list, stand out because of their subject matter, their rhetorical style and their impact on science and the rest of culture. Most also happen to be books I’ve actually read rather than just read about. That’s one important difference between the Stevens and Discover "Greatest Science Books" lists.

Other differences: The Stevens list includes only books published since 1900, and only one book per author. We list according to authors’ alphabetical order, not merit. The Stevens list will eventually include 100 books, so we still have 50 to go. Nominations welcome. Now, the next ten:

Gardner, Martin, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Dover, 1957. This was a tough choice. The mathematician, puzzler and magician Gardner is probably best-known as the author of Scientific American’s “Mathematical Games” column, which ran from 1956 to 1981 and inspired many of the world’s leading mathematicians to enter the field. Collections of these columns are still in print. But Fads and Fallacies is a skeptical classic that inspired many modern debunkers and remains all-too-relevant today (see for example see Gardner on reincarnation, UFOs and Dianetics, a.k.a. Scientology).

Johnson, George, Fire in the Mind, Knopf, 1995. A veteran New York Times writer meditates on the differences and, more importantly, similarities of religious and scientific approaches to truth in his native New Mexico. The only trouble with Johnson’s perspective is that it is so subtle and sophisticated that most readers don’t realize how radical it is.

Judson, Horace Freeland, The Eighth Day of Creation, Simon and Schuster, 1979. The journalist Judson provides an exhaustive history—based on interviews with more than 100 of the major participants, including 20 Nobel laureates--of what is arguably the most consequential chapter in the history of modern science, the discovery of the double helix and the genetic code. Eighth Day does for these biological breakthroughs what The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes (already a Greatest Book) did for the Manhattan Project.

Kevles, Daniel, In the Name of Eugenics, Knopf, 1985. Genetic determinists who denounce non-determinists as anti-scientific, politically correct sissies should be force-fed this sobering history by the historian Kevles of how human genetics has been misinterpreted and misapplied not only by Nazis by even by well-meaning progressives in the U.K., U.S. and elsewhere.

Malcolm, Janet, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Vintage Books, 1982. Malcolm is one of the few writers who can pull off the postmodern, self-referential, hall-of-mirrors schtick without seeming intolerably pretentious. Her analysis of psychoanalysis—the perfect subject for her--is all the more devastating because she so clearly gets it. With friends like this, Freudians must think, who needs enemies?

Nagel, Thomas, Mortal Questions, 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, the absurd, war, sexual perversion, ruthlessness and other topics--are insightful and lucid, especially for a philosopher.

Overbye, Dennis, Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, HarperCollins, 1992. I had just written a big article on cosmology and was thinking of writing a book on the topic when I read Lonely Hearts and decided that I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as Overbye. He not only makes the esoteric science almost comprehensible; more importantly, he captures the brilliance and mad passion of the astronomers and physicists trying to solve the riddle of the universe.

Pagels, Heinz, The Dreams of Reason, Simon and Schuster, 1988. Although the Greatest Book Chaos by James Gleick is more thorough and objective, the physicist Pagels provides a more personal, passionate, insider’s look at how chaos, complexity, computer science and mathematics

Pais, Abraham, Subtle Is the Lord. This remains the definitive biography of everyone’s favorite genius, Albert Einstein, by his friend and fellow physicist Pais.

Wright, Robert, The Moral Animal. This remains the most persuasive and stylish introduction to the field of evolutionary psychology, which views the human mind as a cluster of adaptations designed by natural selection. Wright not only explains ev psych; he also cleverly shows how it can illuminate the life of its seminal figure, Darwin. Caveat: Wright is very smart and a true believer, so he makes the field seem more rigorous and credible than it really is.

Comments

nc

Well, I can't fault this list at all!

Mainly because I've only read one book on the list, Abraham Pais' biography of Einstein.

I agree with you that it should be in the top ten. Pais wrote a fine book, and makes sure he tells the full story, even down to the nitty gritty of how Einstein dealt with attacks and censorship.

There is a lot to be learned from the book on many levels.

‘[Einstein’s] final manuscript was prepared and sent to the Physical Review. It was returned to him accompanied by a lengthy referee report in which clarifications were requested. Einstein was enraged and wrote to the editor [27 July 1936] that he objected to his paper being shown to colleagues before publication ... Einstein ... never published in the Physical Review again.’

– Abraham Pais, Subtle is the Lord, the Science and the Life of Albert Einstein, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1982, p. 495.

So much for the idea that Einstein had to undergo peer-review up to 1936! Peer-review is fine if you have peers but is no use if you are an obscure revolutionary with a totally new idea that debunks the mainstream work (which was on aether in 1905 before Einstein), if you are without a professor!

Other fascinating insights there include Pais's own discussions with Einstein. Pais was extremely pro-special relativity.

When Sir Edmund Whittaker's 2nd volume of "A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity" came out around 1953 (about a year before Einstein died), Pais noticed that it had a long section about special relativity which hardly mentioned Einstein's work. The chapter was titled:

"The Relativity Theory of Poincaré and Lorentz".

Pais went to Einstein (both were at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey), complaining to him about Whittaker's bias.

He reports that Einstein said that he would not read Whittaker, and if other people did, that was their own problem.

However, Pais, although stunned at the brilliance of Einstein's response to criticism, did not leave it there. He wanted Einstein to make some kind of attack on Poincaré's incompetence and so lent Einstein Poincaré's lengthy paper of 1904 on special relativity.

Pais reports that Einstein, after reading Poincaré's paper (Poincaré had used three postulates, and although in some respects he went further than Einstein went a year later, his approach was far less elegant), asked Max Born to write a paper giving some credit to Poincaré.

Born (to the infuriation of Pais) made a mess of it crediting Poincaré with discovering special relativity before Einstein!

Pais finishes by saying that after Einstein died, he went and asked Helen Dukas (Einstein's secretary who was also an executor of his literary heritage) for the return of Poincaré's paper (which was a rare and thus valuable item). It could not be found anywhere in Einstein's house.

There is this problem with turning a select handful of scientists into superstars: it is a vast enterprize and hanging all developments completely on a few individuals, and asking "where would the world be without them?" gives a snub to many others.

Even in general relativity, there was a controversy over whether Albert Einstein or David Hilbert came up with the correct form of the basic field equation first in November 1915.

If you subtract some great figures from the history of physics, if you know the details you can immediately see that events - although they would have occurred very differently in details and applications - would have necessarily not been completely different.

On the other hand, there is an endless desire on the part of human nature to have a short list of big heroes to worship, and no end of science writers willing to sell the public what it wants.

I look forward to reading the other nine books on your list!

Mike Cook

I concur with the James Gleick book on chaos. Although he never produced a single monument of a book, you have to give Isaac Asimov some credit for quantity. I think his understanding of how strange Newton's classical laws of physics really are comprise a good starting point for "deterministic" or "mechanistic" chaos theory.

Why not mention Roger Penrose and THE EMPEROR'S NEW MIND? I've read it maybe five times and filled the margins completely with comments. THE ARROW OF TIME by Coveney and Highfield is pretty good, even though those fellows keep dodging away from the conclusion they should reach--that complexity in everything is much, much too complex to be an accident.

WORLD ENOUGH AND SPACE-TIME by John Earman explores absolute versus relational theories of Space and Time and is excellent background for more recent discussions.

How can you talk about science without understanding that mathematics constitutes a bizarre universe all of its own? INFINITY AND THE MIND by Rudy Rucker is a must-read. Another mathematician well worth reading is John L. Casti, PARADISE LOST.

John Allen Paulos wrote NUMBERACY and BEYOND NUMERACY, is good on the idea of how symbols both empower and limit us.

VITAL DUST by Christian de Duve is good background for my most controversial nomination, DARWIN'S BLACK BOX by Michael J. Behe, which is written so very well that it deserves to be one of the most-hated books of our time.

Lastly, there is the book I intend to write, which I think I will entitle COOK'S COMPLAINTS. When I am at last free from working for a living, I wish to delve more seriously into some quibbles and complaints about how "spin" in terms of political discourse even plagues post-modern science.

For instance, we all are informed constantly that AIDS is a heterosexual disease. My problem--females virtually never, ever give this disease to anyone. Lesbians don't infect each other and girl prostitutes only seem to really pass the disease to men of African heritage. Why is that? I suspect that lack of circumsion, other STD's causing open sores on male private parts, and an African sexual practice called dry sex.

Next, I want to take on the idea that there is no safe minimum amount of things like radiation and lead. Homeopathic theory suggests that tiny amounts of anything are probably good for you. I want to flesh all that out, for our flesh does tend to collect lots of flotsam and jetsam. My own life experience involved truly massive exposures to asbestos (I milled the stuff for five yars only inconsistenly wearing simple dust masks), second-hand cigarette smoke (also massive exposures for decades), and toxic chemicals (I ran a creosote machine in my gandy-dancing days and also sprayed weeds in my younger farm days with highly concentrated weed killers. Then there were all my Navy experiences chipping and grinding off lead paint. I am 60 and seem to have no residual ill effects of anything like that. If I hadn't consumed so much sugar for decades I probably would be in perfect health.

Another AIDs question that is almost all spin concerns the prevalence of AIDS in Africa. The problem is that HIV infection usually is not directly diagnosed. The number and type of secondary problems resulting from having a compromised immune system often prompt the call that someone is HIV positive.

The problem in Africa is that people have a lot of serious health problems and they don't like being tested for AIDS. My hunch is that nearly any death from natural causes in Africa at present is being counted as an AIDS fatality for political and funding purposes. But if you don't diagnose the problem correctly, a ton of money can be thrown at the wall and nothing will stick.

I truly believe that there is some kind of secondary genetic code system going on. The concept of the selfish gene surely is way off base. Genes I believe are being quite cooperative all the time and even get swapped around on purpose in trans-genic fashion. One species may even produce a particular gene so that another species can eventually benefit by it, which is a corollary of the Gaia notion. At any rate, the present double-helix pumps out proteins both those proteins go on virtually seems to have a plan of their own in that timing and location of what particular role they will play seem to be so extraordinarily variable.

There has to be a secondary control system going on. It may not even be bio-chemical, but it is there.
Another insight about this concerns how "mutations" occur that enable and drive the process of natural selection."

It takes a really powerful cosmic ray to re-arrange a segment of DNA. Other mutagens may do the job, but for the most part they don't create permanent changes to a DNA line, only one-time mutations.

Permanently changing DNA by cosmic ray bombardment is like sculpting Michelangelo's Pieta by firing an assault rifle at a block of granite. Even then, as theorist in the field admit, when a workable "mutation" appears it still has to be very, very lucky to survive.

Will stunning new insights in neuro-science lead to a perfect lie detector? If you think the mind is only a fancy computer, you have to think so. When a computer "lies" you can always trace it back and fix the problems so that it won't lie next time.

The better lie detector may even be good for science, because scientists sometimes say things they don't even really believe. It may be that their unconscious mind even has understandings and conclusions that the conscious mind wars with and wrongly defeats. A scientist should be able to stick his head in an MRI machine and ask himself "Do I really believe in anthropogenic global warming?" or "Do I truly think that men and women are scientifically equal?"

Equality is probably not a term that should ever be used when sexual differences are discussed. Apples and oranges are different birds, so to speak.

Lastly, if the universe has a truly supernatural or mystical type of business going on, then it is all mystical. There are no partially mystical universes. I believe that I have encountered coincidences and singular events in my life that are inherently not quantifiable, yet are so profoundly significant (to me) that they shout of a mystical origin. Freud got onto this at the end of his life, noticing strange synchronicities. As I say, these types of things have been so abundant in my life that they rule out existence as being the indifferent-to-humans environment that some thinkers insist it has to be.

Holiday cheer to all. Remember, the universe cares for you!

John Dupuis

The list seems a little short on computing books. Ellen Ullman's Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents is a good memoir. I do short reviews of a bunch of others here: http://jdupuis.blogspot.com/2005/05/what-cs-means-to-me.html . The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks does seem to be an acknowledged classic.

Andrei Kirilyuk

Here are my additions to the "Stevens Greatest Science Books" list.

(i) Horgan, John. The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. Addison Wesley, 1996. It's false modesty, John, not to include your book in the list. A popular book that says that the WHOLE “great” science is finished should be there par excellence, even irrespective of its continuing discussion. What can be said in the least is that there was no remarkable, strong evidence against the main book statements in the past 10 years. Logically, it should even be at a side of Newton's Principia in an extended list because the latter actually starts modern science as such, while “The End of Science” puts a full stop in the development of THIS particular kind of knowledge (“hypotheses non fingo”). If further justification is needed, consider it as a demand of the people.

(ii) Bergson, Henri. L'évolution créatrice. Félix Alcan, 1907. English translation: Creative Evolution, Macmillan, 1911. This one is also logically related to “The End of Science” because Bergson can be considered as a kind of “Horgan of the year 1900”: he produced the same kind of critical analysis of conventional science (including the then emerging and very strong “new physics”) and found very fundamental, undeniable reasons to think that it CANNOT be right in principle, i.e. it cannot provide the genuine understanding of the real world. What we can clearly see now, a hundred years later, is that he was completely right (including his famous dispute with “great Einstein”) and predicted, already at that “glorious science” epoch, that it was actually something “untrue”, a “bullshit” knowledge, or “hype”, using a more rough modern terminology. It is a rare case where a philosopher has provided a deeper, more correct insight into the dominating (mechanistic) science doctrine, than professional scientists did. In this sense we can also say that “The End of Science” is a logical closure of what was started by Bergson, especially with respect to that “new” branch of unitary science that dominated disproportionally during the whole twentieth century. Bergson was the first to express serious, and logically correct, doubts about omnipotence of “glorious” science, while today's Horganism summarises the last phases of the disease and its lethal end. Therefore I would insist on this book inclusion into the list. In addition, it is very interestingly, “passionately” written and has not lost anything of its force today. (I would recommend to read it in the original, French version to those who understand French.)

(iii) Kline, Morris. Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty. Oxford University Press, 1980. It is a critical, serious, but “understandable” review of real development and modern state of mathematics, which could be described as a mild version of “the end of mathematics”. At least, it does not try to hide the existing difficulties and reveals a vivid, contradictory but passionate development of mathematics and its applications, as well as its serious today's problems. Since then the situation has become even more contrast, thus confirming the value of the book.

(iv) Lochak, Georges. Louis de Broglie. Un prince de la science. Flammarion, 1992. Unfortunately, the book seems to exist only in French, which shows that everything is not so honest and transparent in the “international” science book market and exchange. The book provides a very interestingly presented, realistic picture of the whole “new physics” emergence and development, around work and destiny of Louis de Broglie who was both one of the few recognised greatest scientists of the 20th century (Nobel Prise winner, etc.) and the strongest opponent of its dominating doctrine and “tyrannical” methods (his expression) of its imposition. It's a great pity that his real results and ideas about the necessity of genuine freedom in scientific research remain largely unknown, especially in Anglophone science world.

As a bonus, I would recommend also the classical “Discours de la Méthode” by Rene Descartes. As it dates of 1637, it is not illegible for the present list, but it is also very different from those other “ancient” books by Newton and others. It just insists on that intrinsically critical method of doing science, which is so much missing in its now dominating and ending version (ending just because of its thoughtless, uncritical play with “efficient” formal tools!). It is the basis of a whole another kind of knowledge, which has been started by Descartes, but unfortunately did not continue after its brutal interruption by Newtonian “hypotheses non fingo”. So it can be not without interest now, AFTER the end of that “advanced” Newtonian symbolism, to think about what we have been missing and maybe need to restart now. The style is very different from modern “shortcut” fashion, but I find it rather interesting, with its phrases of a page size but still expressing each a single, unified “thought”.

In general, a serious attempt to constitute a list of truly “good” books about science and its results shows how small is their number, if only one accepts the “unreduced” criteria of truth. It's not about the demand for something ideal, just for something at least generally correct and “hype-free”. Many popular and even “historical” science books cannot satisfy such realistic criterion of truth. For example, I would exclude Winner's Cybernetics from the list, taking into account its real content, rather than formal popularity and modern meaning of everything “cyber”. In reality, it was a very incorrect, “intuitive” attempt to introduce the missing idea of complexity, “relation of everything to everything else” into modern science, but in that form it can only be misleading (quite similar to modern “chaoplexity” stuff, “systems theory”, etc.). It is for that reason that I did not include in my additions otherwise popular and “historical” work of Prigogine (e.g. “Order Out of Chaos”): such “eye-opening” literature and publicity (cf. modern “nanotechnology”, “quantum computers”, “systems biology”,...) invariably appears to be eventually misleading and produces more harm than progress in knowledge development. In general, it appears that between relatively short lists of “truly best” and “truly worst” science books, there is a much longer list of those “popular but empty”, “merely entertaining” (and often strongly misleading) books, as well as articles, “concepts”, etc., the fact that demonstrates in itself the “contradictory” nature of the dominating kind of knowledge.

Mike Cook

Whoops, Casti's book is PARADIGMS LOST.

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