July 5 is the birthday of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. I have always wanted to take a summer with the Principia and derive the calculus from first principles; however, I have not yet had a summer in which I was smart enough to do this. (My engineering calc prof had a slight accent, thus rendering my understanding of his discussion of dv/dt somewhat limited. I spent six months trying to grasp the basics of “dividity.”) If you have read the Principia, my recommendations are likely far too juvenile for you. But, if you like a fast-paced sciency read that doesn’t require the aid of your trusty TI-80, forge ahead.
1. Godel, Escher, Bach
Douglas R.Hofstadter’s discussion of formal systems and the inherent flaws in self-reference (and this before the advent of the selfie) is pure magic. Even more so, perhaps predictably, is his Metamagical Themas.
Hofstadter’s work combines philosophy, art, music, and math in a way that makes them all at least an order of magnitude more interesting. This book introduced me to the work of Escher (yes, it should have been a college roommate, but it didn’t work out that way), Godel (with whom I still have but a nodding acquaintance), and J.S. Bach and what a fugue is.
2. The Physics of Immortality
OK, stay with me. I’m not saying this guy is right. Here’s what I am saying:
- This guy is smart. Frank J. Tipler is a world-class cosmologist who might possibly have invented time travel. But not yet. But if so, then, clearly, already.
- For any respected scientist to publish a theory that posits the existence of God takes courage. It shouldn’t, because Science. But it does, because most scientists have spent a lifetime recovering from the ill effects of bad religionists and have a near-allergy to the subject.
I thought it was very thought-provoking, if a bit quite literally deus ex machina at the end. And, TBH, I did not read all the footnotes, because I simply cannot. My mathematical education stopped at pointy E and, as mentioned, dividity. If you are in the sciences, at some point someone is going to ask you about the Omega point and you’ll want to have an opinion, so take a tour and form one. And, if you have any thoughts about the Internet as Teihard’s noosphere, I’d love to hear them.
3. The Demon-Haunted World
It’s dated, yes, but expecting Carl Sagan to keep his cultural references up to date is a bit unfair. These are the broad, turtlenecked shoulders upon which the deservedly popular Neil deGrasse Tyson stands, and this is one of the best defenses of science I have read.
For people of faith, I’d suggest it is required reading. Sagan clearly shows the line between keeping an open mind as to all the things science does not yet know, and keeping a mind so open that any sort of trash can blow in. If you want to get a peek at the reason behind the just plain nastiness prevalent in some pro-science, anti-faith bestsellers, this is a good place to look.
Sagan doesn’t shriek or moan, he simply states his case for a rational approach to the world as the best chance we have of not dying as a species which, I hope, is a concept that everyone can get behind.
The first time I remember feeling “busted” by an author was while reading this book. For starters, I really did not notice that there were letters missing out of the title on the cover. I’m not saying merely that I was able to read the title without them (which apparently everyone can do), I’m saying that I did not notice their absence. It was a bit alarming when I did. Then, somewhere among the first pages, James Gleick nailed me. “Remember when microwaves were impossibly fast?” he asks. “Oh, yes. Well, faintly,” I think to myself. “Yes, it did used to take more than 90 seconds to make dinner.” “And now 90 seconds seems like a ridiculously long time, doesn’t it?” James asks, in more or less those words.
“What are you supposed to do for 90 seconds, just stand there? Or, do you sometimes, instead of pressing 90, press 88, because it’s infinitesimally faster to press the same button twice?”
Oh my actual G, James Gleick, how are you in my kitchen!?! I genuinely thought I alone had cracked the efficiency code of microwave programming. This must be what it’s like when a mentally ill person finds a doctor who can also see the invisible people. Gleick very early on found and named the illness virtually all of us have—a desperate need for everything to happen now, unless it has already happened, which it should have, because we are so very extremely busy we cannot wait for anything.
The book’s single flaw, in my opinion? It’s a really quick read.
5. Packing for Mars
Mary Roach was unknown to me until one author breakfast at BEA many years ago. She was on the panel along with, get this, emcee Jon Stewart, John Grisham, Cory Doctorow, and Condoleeza Rice. “Poor Mary Whats-it,” I thought. “Nobody is going to remember her.”
I packed home the ARC and started paging through. By the end of the week, I had bought and read all of her books.
Roach seems to share the same sort of serial obsessive disorder I have. You know the drill: Once you hear about something a bit interesting, you feel the need to immediately devour all knowledge on the subject. She picks some great topics—from the practical concerns of space travel in Packing for Mars, to the afterlife (how much does a soul weigh?) in Spook, to the rather bizarre way we deal with death in Stiff. More than once, I’ve seen a title of hers (Gulp, for instance) and thought: Nope, this isn’t going to be interesting at all. But, I’ll be deuced, she pulls it off every time.
Her research is meticulous. Where this would be boring in another writer, her persistence to hunt down the slightest detail invariably leads down a fascinating new avenue. With this writer, there is no road less traveled.
These are just a few thoughts to get you started. If they are not challenging enough, then I invite you to spend the day considering whether inertial frames effectively disprove the theory of gravity and, if not, whether the time-dilation effect of varying frames supports general relativity or explains why we experience time at all. Well, maybe not the whole day, but for the length of your daily constitutional. Do submit results or your thoughts on better pop-sci reads.