Holiday reading

TIR will be away for the next couple of weeks, but in the meantime here’s a selection of books to keep you occupied on your summer getaways – a mixture of recent reads and old favourites.

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The making of the atomic bomb” by Richard Rhodes (1987). An all-time classic, and one of those books that’s important as well as good. Not only tells the complete story of the birth of the atomic bomb, but embeds it in the historical and political currents of the time. Also happens to be the best introduction to particle physics I’ve ever read. A masterpiece.

Thinking, fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman (2011). Does what it says on the tin. A gripping and enervating exploration of how the brain makes decisions, based on the author’s lifetime of work. Flags a bit in the final third, but that’s a small quibble.

Neanderthal Man” by Svante Pääbo (2014). As one of my mentors put it, “Like Jim Watson’s ‘The Double Helix’…but with added bisexuality!” A warts-and-all account of the field of ancient DNA from one of its founders, climaxing in the Neanderthal genome. Also provides one of the most accurate windows onto the real life of working scientists.

Almost anything from Jared Diamond. “Guns, Germs, and Steel” (1997), “Collapse” (2005), “The world until yesterday” (2012) are three personal favourites. There’s a mischievous theory out there that claims Jared is not actually a person, but is in fact a committee – a tribute to the breadth of his scholarship and his ability to weave disparate academic conclusions into a single thesis.

In pursuit of the gene: from Darwin to DNA” by James Schwartz (2010). There’s no shortage of books on the origin of the field of genetics, but this is probably the pick of the bunch. Covers an immense amount of ground and succeeds in really making the personalities and disagreements of each era crackle with vitality.

The story of Earth” by Robert M Hazen (2013). Another topic that’s not short of contributions (Richard Fortey’s “Life: an unauthorised biography” is probably its most notable competitor), but this one succeeds by focusing on the mineralogical angle instead of the biological one. His account of the moon’s genesis is spell-binding.

Only a theory” by Kenneth Miller (2008). Debunking creationism and intelligent design from one of the authors of the biology textbook at the centre of Dover school trial. His personal faith makes his repudiation of both doctrines far more eloquent and compelling than in many other similar books.

Why nations fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (2012). A sequel to Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” in all but name. Argues that extractive political-economonic systems are the root of modern poverty.

Wonderful life” by Stephen Jay Gould (1989). Probably still the best account of the Cambrian explosion. Much of its scientific content is no longer valid (the introduction of the stem group concept basically torpedoed much of Gould’s thesis), but that doesn’t detract for one second from the verve of Gould’s prose.

Honeybee Democracy” by Thomas Seeley (2010). A quirky and original discussion of decision-making, based on the author’s work on honeybee swarms. How should a group efficiently balance the speed and accuracy of its choices? Bees point the way.


FICTION: Not as relevant to the blog’s mandate perhaps, so I’ve kept this list a bit shorter.

Robert Harris‘ Cicero trilogy (“Imperium”, “Lustrum”, Dictator”) falls into that rare category of fiction that not only entertains but teaches you something about human nature itself. A riveting account of the Roman Republic set around its foremost defender.

Hilary Mantel‘s Thomas Cromwell series (“Wolf Hall”, “Bring up the bodies”) still awaits its final volume, but the first two are already magnetic. Takes a while to adjust to the unconventional prose style that frequently shifts voice and person, but the result is like reading in 3D.

Almost anything by Graham Greene and Philip Roth. Probably the two outstanding wordsmiths of contemporary English from either side of the Atlantic. Good openers to Greene’s oeuvre are “Our man in Havana” and “The quiet American”; Roth for beginners should include “The great American novel” and “American pastoral”.

Finally, fans of science fiction should never pass by the late, great Iain M. Banks‘ Culture series of novels . Cheerfully ignoring the plausibility of the science by setting his stories within a civilisation so advanced that basically anything is possible, Banks is free to explore the moral and political aspects of his narratives. “The player of games” is probably the best introduction to the series; “Look to windward” its apex.

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