Field of Science

30 favorite books

Computer science professor Scott Aaronson listed his 30 favorite books on his blog, so I thought I would (incompletely) list my own. These are volumes which inspired me even as a teenager and continue to stimulate and enrich my worldview. Reflecting my interests, they are mostly non-fiction (or as Richard Rhodes calls it, "verity"). List yours.
1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb – Richard Rhodes (probably the best work of non-fiction I have read, and in my opinion one of the best books ever written: easily parallels Shakespeare or the Greek tragedies as an epic work of horror and glory)
2. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy (probably the best work of fiction I have read; the imagery, violence and profound depth are simply stunning and without parallel)
3. Paradigms Lost – John Casti (probably the best work of general science I have read. Six great problems of modern science – the origin of life, nature vs nurture, language acquisition, artificial intelligence, quantum reality and extraterrestrial intelligence - are tackled in the form of a courtroom case with wit and brilliance)
4. Disturbing the Universe – Freeman Dyson (probably the best autobiography I have read)
5. Chaos – James Gleick (I know of no other book which speaks so vividly of a science on the cusp of explosive progress)
6. The Beginning of Infinity – David Deutsch (mind-expanding)
7. Gödel, Escher, Bach – Douglas Hofstadter (mind-blowing)
8. The Emperor’s New Mind – Roger Penrose (mind-bending)
9. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! – Richard Feynman
10. Naturalist – E. O. Wilson (ranks with Dyson’s book as the most sincere set of self-reflections I have ever seen penned by a scientist)
11. Waking Up – Sam Harris (probably the best and clearest argument in favor of secular meditation I have read)
12. Complete works of T.S. Eliot – T.S. Eliot
13. The Dragons of Eden – Carl Sagan (a lot of people rightly recommend Sagan’s other books, but I found this one to be his boldest and most imaginative volume – and it won a Pulitzer)
14. The Time Machine – H. G. Wells
15. The Story of Civilization – Will and Ariel Durant (A ten volume magnum opus; probably all you need to read for a grand dive into Westerrn Civilization)
16. Why I am Not A Christian – Bertrand Russell (brimming with trenchant wit and provocative juices).
17. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers – Paul Hoffman (a compulsively readable biography of one of the strangest and most brilliant minds of the 20th century)
18. A Beautiful Mind – Sylvia Nasar (an amazing exploration of both mathematical brilliance and mental illness)
19. My Family and other Animals – Gerald Durrell
20. King Solomon’s Ring – Konrad Lorenz (both Lorenz and Durrell provide delightful accounts of communing with nature and animals that would make any ten year old fall in love with the natural world)
21. Stories – Anton Chekhov (no one can turn words so simply as Chekhov)
22. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – William Shirer (an unsurpassed epic full of horror and triumph)
23. The Longest Day – Cornelius Ryan (the book that got me hooked on to WW2 history).
24. Begone Godmen! – Abraham Kovoor (a rare volume: Kovoor was an Indian rationalist who bravely took on spiritual and religious frauds and exposed their ‘miracles’ long before it was fashionable to do so)
25. In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat – John Gribbin (a book which would inspire anyone to study physics)
26. Manhunt – James Swanson (edge of your seat account of the 12 day hunt for John Wilkes Booth)
27. The Second Creation – Robert Crease (possibly the best history of particle physics)
28. The Eighth Day of Creation – Horace Freeland Judson (possibly the best history of molecular biology)
29. The Double Helix – James Watson (science with all its warts)
30. My World Line – George Gamow (Gamow was brilliant, wide-ranging, a prankster, and all these qualities shine through in this memoir)
And a few more:
31. Natural Obsessions - Natalie Angier (one of the best fly-on-the-wall accounts of academic science)
32. The Billion-Dollar Molecule - Barry Werth (a similar account of industrial science)
33. The JASONS - Ann Finkbeiner (vivid and entertaining profile of some of the most brilliant minds of American science)
34. Consciousness Explained - Daniel Dennett (I find Dennett to be one of the deepest and most original thinkers of our time)
35. Wittgenstein's Poker - Edmonds and Eidinow (Wittgenstein! Popper! The Vienna Circle! Russell!)
36. Paradox - Rebecca Goldstein (a brilliant account of a singular and tortured mind)


  1. Kanigel's "The Man who knew Infinity?"

  2. As someone always looking for lists of great books, this is an excellent start. Thank you!

    I thought GEB had a lot of extraordinarily witty and brilliant parts to it that *seemed* to point at a deeper, more coherent vision, but I never figured out what the vision was, or if there actually was one in the first place. What I got out of Penrose's book was "it starts with quantum effects in the brain and intelligence will eventually emerge from that" and wasn't sure what to do with that. Both got "bounced" at some point.

    A few that come to mind:

    1. The Beak of The Finch by Jonathan Weiner. Recaps long term study on Darwin's finches by the Grant team and their students. Really highlights on a granular level how evolution works in populations.

    2. The Box by Marc Levinson. One of those ubiquitous inventions that we take for granted, this book shows how shipping containers have completely transformed the global economy. One of those rare books that gives you a 50,000 foot view of the world. All of Levinson's books are good.

    3. Poor Charlie's Almanac. A collection of speeches and timeless worldly wisdom by Charlie Munger.

    4. High Output Management by Andy Grove. The best book written on how to run an organization, written in the spare time of a man running a organization.

    5. John von Neumann by Norman Macrae. Inspiring stories from the life of a hyper-intelligent man.

    6. The Marriages Between Zones 3, 4 and 5 by Doris Lessing. Everything in the Canopus series is great.

    7. From Third World to First by Lee Kwan Yew. In 1963 both Singapore and Jamaica became independent from Britain and both had a GDP per capita of about $500. This is the story of how Singapore became Singapore.

    8. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822 by Henry Kissinger. Utterly brilliant analysis of Napoleonic-era diplomacy, brimming with historical and psychological insight.

    9. Objective Knowledge by Karl Popper. Not necessarily the best-written book, but a powerful idea, explained.


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