Field of Science

This year's 100 book odyssey

I finally achieved my goal of reading a hundred books this year (105 to be exact, although I will probably take a break for the rest of the year). It's an important item off my bucket list. The experience has provided an immense sense of satisfaction since it may be very hard to do this for a while because of time constraints. I am particularly happy that some of these volumes were real tomes that I was lugging around everywhere.

As usual, the list was heavily biased toward non-fiction, with most of the books covering history, science and philosophy. I do want to increase my share of fiction next year, and on the non-fiction (or "verity", as Richard Rhodes calls it) front want to read more about AI, technology, biology and economics.

Is it hard to read a hundred books in one year, essentially two books a week? Not particularly if you try to grab every spare minute (after work and family, that is) for doing it; and I am not even a fast reader. Apart from the usual times (early morning, after work, bedtime, in the bathroom), I used to read in Ubers, in trains, in lines in coffee shops, in restaurants when dining alone, while waiting for friends to show up, in stores while the wife was shopping, at the DMV when I had to wait 2 hrs for my driver's license, during the occasional walk or hike, and during lunch break at work (but don’t tell anyone!). I used to read paper books when possible, but read on my Kindle and on my phone when nothing else was available. I could have read even more had I listened to Audiobooks, but I find it hard to concentrate on the spoken as opposed to the written word. Basically you try to cram in a few words every time you can. Sometimes this does lead to fragmented reading, but you gradually get used to it. And at the end of it you feel uniquely well-read, so it’s absolutely worth it, if for no other reason as a personal challenge.

 Here’s the list in case someone wants holiday book suggestions, starting with the most recent volumes (starred volumes indicate favorites that were reread). Happy Reading! 
 1. Jill Lepore – These Truths: A History of the United States. Perhaps the best, most even-handed single volume on American history that I have read. 2. Don Norman – The Design of Everyday Things 3. Edward Gibbon – Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1. A monumental work that really needs to be savored like fine wine. Because of its archaic style and long sentences it’s not easy reading, but enlightenment comes to those who are patient. I don’t know if I will ever get through all six volumes, but one can try. 4. Isaac Asimov – Asimov’s Mysteries. * 5. Charles Darwin – The Origin of Species.* 6. Candice Millard – Destiny of the Republic. A great thriller about the sadly short-lived presidency of the brilliant James Garfield and his assassination. The book is as much about medical ignorance as about anything else; even though Joseph Lister had demonstrated the value of antibiotics, the doctors of the day resorted to crude measures like sticking their fingers into a wound to find the bullet. It was infection that did Garfield in and not the bullet. 7. Leslie Berlin - Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age. A fantastic book that brings to life some of the underappreciated characters who, in just eight years, pioneered six transformational industries: video games, personal computing, biotechnology, venture capital, semiconductors and communications. 8. Valley of Genius – Another great and very unique book about Silicon Valley that patches together sound bytes from interviews scores of Silicon Valley pioneers over thirty years conducted during different times. Makes for a very unique experience where one person begins where another trails off, and you get multiple perspectives on the same people and events. 9. Michael Hiltzik – Dealers of Lightning: Xerox-PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age. An excellent account of what was, for a brief period, the most innovative computer science lab in the world, giving us everyday inventions like the mouse, the GUI and the windows desktop. 10. John Carreyou - Bad Blood. Reads like a soap opera. No wonder it’s being turned into a Hollywood movie with Jennifer Lawrence. 11. Abraham Pais – Niels Bohr’s Times 12. Abraham Pais – Subtle is the Lord* 13. Niels Bohr – Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge. There are few wiser men in human history than Niels Bohr. 14. Niels Bohr – Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature. 15. Doris Kearns Goodwin – Leadership in Turbulent Times. You think these times are politically fraught? Just ask Lincoln or FDR. 16. William Aspray – John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing. 17. Oxtoby and Pettis – John von Neumann. 18. Ray Monk – How to Read Wittgenstein. 19. Michael Lewis – The Fifth Risk. A great book on how crucial government functions are in keeping Americans alive and thriving every single day. 20. John Wesley Powell – The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons. I read this first-hand account during a trip to the Grand Canyon. Powell was really the first American to explore what was then a land inhabited only by Natives, and the courage and resilience of his team were amazing (he lost several men). 21. Michael Beschloss – Presidents of War 22. Charles Krauthammer – Things that Matter 23. Charles Krauthammer – The Point of It All. One of the last conservatives who was a well-read and eloquent intellectual. 24. Venki Ramakrishnan – Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome. 25. Charles Darwin – The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. Darwin may have seemed conservative in his demeanor, but this book really brings out both his radical thinking and his sense of humor, especially about religion. 26. Steven Weinberg – Third Thoughts. 27. Richard Powers – The Overstory. In one word – spellbinding. Powers is the most creative writer alive in my opinion. It made me fall in love with redwood trees. 28. Craig Childs – House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest. 29. Simon Winchester – The Perfectionists. A superb history of precision engineering. 30. Alan Lightman – Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. A meditation on science, time, existence and other topics from one of the most literary and poetic science writers of his generation. 31. Sabine Hossenfelder – Lost in Math: How the Search for Beauty Leads Physics Astray. 32. Chaos – James Gleick. * (This may be the fourth of fifth time I have read this landmark book). 33. Brian VanDeMark – Road to Disaster. A new approach to the Vietnam War that sees it through the lens of theories of organizational behavior and cognitive biases of the kind explored by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. 34. Brian Keating – Losing the Nobel Prize. A unique first-hand account of a false alarm (cosmic inflation) that led the author very close to a Nobel Prize. 35. William Perry – My Journey to the Nuclear Brink. 36. Jeremy Bernstein – A Bouquet of Dyson. 37. Loren Eiseley – The Unexpected Universe. 38. Loren Eiseley – The Immense Universe. 39. Loren Eiseley – The Firmament of Time. If you think Carl Sagan is eloquent and poetic about how vast the cosmos and how insignificant and yet profound life are, read Loren Eiseley. 40. Ann Finkbeiner – The Jasons: The Secret History of America’s Postwar Elite.* 41. Tom Holland – Persian Fire. A gripping account of the Greco-Persian Wars. Marathon, Salamis, Thermopylae, all come alive on these pages. 42. AI Superpowers – Kai-Fu Lee. 43. What is Real – Adam Becker. A case for David Bohm’s interpretation of quantum theory. 44. Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time. 45. Oliver Sacks – The River of Consciousness. A moving posthumous collection of Sacks’s eclectic writing; on Darwin, on consciousness, on plant biology and neurology and on time. 46. Oliver Sacks – Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. 47. Sy Montgomery – The Soul of an Octopus. The description of octopus intelligence in this book impressed me so much that I actually stopped eating it. 48. Kevin Kelly – What Technology Wants. 49. Jon Gertner – The Idea Factory.* 50. Arieh Ben-Naim – Myths and Verities in Protein Folding. 51. A. P. French – Einstein: A Centenary Volume. Fond recollections of a great physicist and human being by friends, colleagues and students. 52. Intercom on Product Management. 53. John McPhee – Annals of the Former World. A towering history of the geology of the United States, written by one of the best non-fiction writers in America. No one else has the eye for observational detail for both people and places that McPhee does. 54. Oliver Sacks – On the Move.* 55. William Prescott - History of the Conquest of Mexico: Vols 1 and 2. Vivid, engaging, monumental; hard to believe Prescott wasn’t there. 56. Joel Shurkin – True Genius. A biography of physicist and engineer Richard Garwin, one of the very few people to whom the label genius can be applied. 57. Lillian Hoddeson and Vicki Daitch – True Genius*. Another true genius: John Bardeen, the only person to win two Nobel Prizes for physics. The definitive treatment of his life and contributions to world-changing inventions like the transistor and superconductivity. 58. Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian. The greatest novel I have read. Breathtaking in its raw beauty and Biblical violence. 59. John Archibald Wheeler – At Home in the Universe. A collection of essays from a physicist who was also a great philosopher and poet. 60. John Wesley Powell – The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. The first exploration of the area around the Grand Canyon by a white man, Powell’s journey became known for its harrowing loss of life and adventures. 61. Franck McCourt –Angela’s Ashes. Achingly beautiful, heartbreaking account of Irish poverty. 62. Adam Becker – What is Real? Fascinating account of quantum physics and reality, and one that challenges the traditional Copenhagen Interpretation and gives voice to David Bohm, John Wheeler and others. 63. Steven Weinberg – Facing Up: Science and its Cultural Adversaries 64. Benjamin Hett – The Death of Democracy. The best account I have read of the details of how Hitler came to power. Read and learn. 65. George Trigg – Landmark Experiments in Twentieth Century Physics. The nuts and bolts of some of the most important physics experiments of the last hundred years, from the oil drop experiment to the Lamb Shift. 66. Albert Camus – The Stranger 67. Norman McCrea – John von Neumann 68. Werner Heisenberg – Physics and Philosophy* 69. David Schwartz – The Last Man Who Knew Everything. A fine biography of Enrico Fermi, the consummate scientist. 70. A. Douglas Stone – Einstein and the Quantum. Einstein’s opposition to quantum theory is well known; his monumental contributions to the theory are not as well appreciated. Stone fixes this gap. 71. John Cheever – Cheever: The Collected Short Stories. Melancholy, beautiful prose describing the quiet despair of New England upper class suburbia. 72. Arnold Toynbee – A Study of History 73. Aldous Huxley – Brave New World 74. Charles Darwin – Insectivorous Plants 75. William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying 76. Lillian Hoddeson – Critical Assembly* 77. Herbert York – The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller and the Superbomb 78. Joseph Ellis – Founding Brothers*. Worth reading for the wisdom, insights and follies that the founding fathers displayed in erecting a great nation. 79. Noam Chomsky – Requiem for the American Dream. Everyone’s perpetual wet blanket, with his incomparable combination of resoundingly true diagnoses and befuddling philosophy. 80. Colin Wilson – Beyond the Occult. This book had mesmerized me as a child. Now I am more critical, but some of the case studies are fascinating. 81. John Tolland – Adolf Hitler. Still stands as the most readable Hitler biography in my opinion. 82. Ron Chernow – Grant. Fantastic. Brings to life the towering, plainspoken, determined man who won the Civil War and became president. Chernow is evenhanded in his treatment of Grant’s drinking problems and corruption-riddled presidency, but he clearly loves his subject. And who wouldn’t? That kind of simplicity and grassroots activism seems to be from another planet these days. 83. Priscilla McMillan – The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer* 84. Paul Horgan – Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History. An epic history of Indians, Spaniards and Anglo-Americans who settled the great states around the Rio Grande. 85. Toby Huff – The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West*. A superb examination of why modern science developed in Europe and not other parts of the world. Huff’s main explanation centers around the European legal and scientific system derived from Roman law and Greek philosophy, both of which encouraged scientific inquiry. Both these elements were crucially missing from Islamic countries, China and India. 86. A. P. French – Niels Bohr: A Centenary Volume. A glowing set of tribute to a great physicist and human being. 87. Stephen Kotkin – Stalin, Volume 1: Paradoxes of Power. Monumental biography of the tyrant, although not easy going because of the dense detail and slightly academic writing. Kotkin’s is likely to be the last word, though. 88. Joseph Heilbronner and Jack Dunitz – Reflections on Symmetry. A beautiful exploration of symmetry in chemistry, physics, biology, architecture and other scientific and human endeavors. 89. Chuck Hansen – The Swords of Armageddon, Vols 2 and 3. The definitive history of US nuclear weapons. Everything you can possibly read about their details without having the feds show up at your doorstep (as they did show up at Hansen’s door many times without being able to ever prove that he had access to non-public information). 90. David Kaiser – Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics* A fascinating socio-scientific exploration of how a key scientific idea makes it ways by fits, starts and eventual acceptance into the scientific community. 91. Cormac McCarthy – Child of God. Highly disturbing story of a man on the fringes, filled with dark humor. Not McCarthy’s best in my opinion, and I won’t recommend it for weak stomachs. 92. Franz Kafka – The Metamorphosis 93. Lawrence Badash – Reminiscences of Los Alamos 94. Herodotus – The Histories. The account of the Greco-Persian Wars is especially rousing, and Herodotus of course made a seminal contribution to history by treating it as contemporary account rather than divine, untouchable past. 95. Freeman Dyson – Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters 96. Iris Chang – The Chinese in America. An amazing account of how Chinese immigrants came to the United States and laid down roots here in the face of poverty, cultural challenges, political upheavals and discrimination. 97. Robert Divine – Blowing on the Wind 98. Richard Rhodes – Energy: A Human History. A history of energy transitions, focusing on the human beings, some well known and others obscure, who engineered it. As usual, Richard is highly adept at both digging up fascinating individual stories as well as deciphering the big picture. 99. Norman Cohn – Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. 100. Jim Holt - When Einstein Walked with Gödel. A series of essays on math, philosophy, genius and the nature of reality. 101. Anil Ananthaswamy – Through Two Doors at the Same Time. Captivating account of the essential nature and many ramifications of one of the most simply stated and yet perplexing, deep and mind-bending experiments of all time. 102. Marcus Chown – The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origin of Atoms. 103. E. O. Wilson – The Meaning of Human Existence. 104. David Quammen – The Tangled Tree. 105. V. S. Naipaul – A House for Mr. Biswas.


  1. Really impressive. Great to see such an annotated list. I haven't read that copiously since I was in 6th grade. Then again, it's all been downhill since then.... :-)

  2. Literature still has the greatest impact on the human mind. As such there is no metrics , impact factor and h index to inflate and indulge in unethical practices.
    There is an article by Prof R Ernst a NL who is very critical of bibliometry and he is happy that literature is not subjected to metrics. Here is the article.

    Chimia (Aarau). 2010;64(1-2):90.
    The follies of citation indices and academic ranking lists. A brief commentary to 'Bibliometrics as Weapons of Mass Citation'.RErnst

  3. You have an * after 14 of the books - is that bad HTML formatting, or something you were trying to indicate for the format you read the book in?


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