TIR will be on holiday the next couple of weeks. While we’re away, here’s a selection of literary treats (mostly, but not wholly, science-based) to keep you engrossed wherever you are. Best wishes for a long and enjoyable summer to all our readers!
Naked Statistics: stripping the dread from the data by Charles Wheelan. Should be required reading on every undergraduate course, and a copy placed in every laboratory. Wheelan is an extremely gifted communicator, and manages to make statistics not just fun but also intelligible by focusing on the intuitive aspect rather than the number crunching. Lively and loopy prose matched with astonishing clarity of explanation. Your eyes will be opened, both to the uses and the abuses of a branch of mathematics that will only become more relevant in the era of Big Data.
Status Update: celebrity, publicity and branding in the social media age by Alice Marwick. Insightful and frequently damning account of the birth and early days of social media, written as an ethnographic study of Silicon Valley. The fieldwork was done prior to Twitter becoming ubiquitous so it sometimes seems like a letter from the past, but its emphatic criticism of the rampant chauvinism and misogyny in the industry is bang up-to-date. A welcome caveat for all those seduced by the notion of a personal brand.
Prisoners of Geography: ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics by Tim Marshall. One of those books that suddenly makes a lot of puzzling contemporary new stories make sense. Why did Russia invade Crimea? Why does France have most to lose from a weakened EU? Why are Africa’s rivers less helpful than Europe’s ones? Lays bare the fallacy of altruistic dealings in international politics, and highlights the perpetual jostling between nations big and small for resources, influence, and security.
Serving the Reich: the struggle for the soul of physics under Hitler by Philip Ball. As Western politics drifts to the political right and anti-immigration and protectionism return to prominence, Ball’s book is a sober reminder that moral choices are not always easy, and that the right course of action is not always clear (and sometimes only is with hindsight). Focuses primarily on the response of three prominent German-based physicists – Max Planck, Peter Debye, Werner Heisenberg – to Nazism. Planck emerges as a tragic figure trapped by the conventions of his age, Debye as somewhat complacent and wilfully blind, and Heisenberg, who has long had his detractors, as irrevocably compromised.
The Meaning of Human Existence by E. O. Wilson. Bitesize essays on humankind’s place in the biosphere from one of biology’s elder statesmen. Wilson’s avuncular prose is both challenging and stimulating, and he comes across as an erudite and wise figure. There are precious few scientists capable of writing compellingly on the big issues of the day without descending into muddled self-aggrandisement, but Wilson pulls off the trick with alacrity.
Germany: memories of a nation by Neil MacGregor. The genius of this book is the way it makes you aware of quite how much you can infer about a culture from its artwork (whether paintings, sculpture, architecture, or even furniture and coinage). Such a thesis could be made about any culture in history of course, but MacGregor’s choice of Germany is an apt one for the current political climate. A spellbinding portrait of Europe’s reluctant powerhouse that has one of the most delicious opening questions a contemporary reader could wish for: why is Germany the only country in the world that erects monuments to its own shame?
Straight and Crooked Thinking by Robert Thouless. Originally published in 1930 but one of those works that remains as useful today as ever. Whether you want to win dinner-table arguments or spot when you’re being manipulated by political slogans, this is an essential guide to the lost art of rhetoric.
Angels & Ages: a short book about Darwin, Lincoln, and modern life by Adam Gopnik. Darwin and Lincoln happened to be born on the same day, and despite the reams of prose already committed to both men, essayist Gopnik manages to craft a beguiling narrative that links the two and frames them as heralds of the modern age. Entertaining and intriguing.
The Time Machine by H G Wells. The Time Machine is like the Origin of Species – it’s one of those books that everybody’s heard of and is vaguely familiar with, but few have actually read. It’s worth the effort! First, it’s incredibly short. Second, Wells not only had good ideas, he could really write and was capable of posing some conceptual humbingers (see his explanation for why you wouldn’t observe someone travelling forward in time for an example).
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. McEwan has long been a friend of the scientific community, and his style of focusing intensely on a small number of scenes in high detail would translate nicely into a research paper. Like film director Stanley Kubrick, a recurring theme of his work is the unexpected consequences incurred by a random event – here, a ballooning accident leads to a pop science writer’s life being drawn into a vortex.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck / Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson. Two works charting the demise of the agricultural worker, in 1930s America and 1890s England respectively, with eerie connotations to the creative destruction ongoing in manufacturing and other blue collar jobs today. Steinbeck’s is the more dramatic of the two, while Thompson’s carries a bucolic charm and nostalgia for a lost way of life.