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Tom Siegfried

Top 10 desert island books for science fans

desert island books

Should you find yourself stranded on a desert island with plenty of time on your hands, there are several books that offer substantial intellectual rewards.

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Some books require a lot of uninterrupted concentration. As I wrote recently in a review of Leonard Susskind’s Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum, it would be an ideal book to take along if you were banished to a desert island. After a few years of careful reading, and re-reading, you’d be a master of quantum mathematics. It would make you a better person.

But suppose you had already mastered quantum mechanics before being banished (or perhaps knowing quantum mechanics was why you got banished). You would want to pack a different difficult book. Not all books that demand serious sustained attention are worth the effort, of course, so you would need to choose carefully. Or pack more books. (Ideally, you could just load them on an e-reader, once Amazon starts selling a solar-powered version.)

In any event, I’ve compiled my list of favorites for desert island reading. They’re not necessarily the best books I’ve ever read, but they all offer substantial intellectual reward if you give them your undivided attention without competition from television or Twitter.

10. The Joy of x (Strogatz, 2012)

Not hard to read at all, but the best survey of the basic ideas of mathematics, and an excellent preparation for reading the more technical stuff. 306 pages.

9. Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (Newton, 1687)

This one’s one of the hardest books in history to read, but you have to remember that it probably wasn’t very easy to write, either. Having never been banished to a desert island, I have so far just read passages here and there. Even if you can’t get through the whole thing, though, you should be sure to read the “rules for reasoning in philosophy” in Book III. 626 pages.

8. Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum (Susskind and Friedman, 2014)

Actually, you should also read the prequel, The Theoretical Minimum (Susskind and Hrabovsky) to bridge the gap between Newton and quantum mechanics. 351 pages.

7. Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (von Neumann and Morgenstern, 1944)

Game theory was devised for economics, but has invaded most other areas of science as well, and most people have no idea what it’s all about. Especially if they’ve seen the movie A Beautiful Mind, which mangled John Nash’s math beyond recognition. That’s why if you want to learn about science you’re better off reading books than watching movies. 632 pages.

6. Gravitation (Misner, Thorne, Wheeler, 1973)

This one is delightful, but comprehensive. You should come away with a deep appreciation for general relativity and how it makes gravity make sense. And I should finish reading it someday. 1,219 pages.

5. The Science of Conjecture (Franklin, 2001)

Not so well known, but well worth reading — a comprehensive history of the human effort to understand the nature of evidence (up to the origins of probability theory in the 17th century). Lesson: As evidence, P values are better than torture, but not by much. 486 pages.

4. Origin of Species (Darwin, 1859)

Readable, but rich. A masterful presentation of reasoning based on observation. And Darwin knew how to evaluate evidence. 460 pages.

3. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Gould, 2002)

An underrated book that perceptively analyzes Darwinian evolution and shows how the theory itself has evolved. Verbose, but littered with insights into the tricky nuances involved in analyzing systems of vast complexity — that is, life. 1,343 pages.

2. The Road to Reality (Penrose, 2004)

Really deep, really difficult, intensely technical investigation into the relationship between mathematical concepts and the physical world. Despite some quirky predispositions to deny certain aspects of conventional physics wisdom, Penrose slices though the usual layers of popular explanations and approximations to get to the heart of how math works and what it means. I’ve been working on it for eight years and am halfway through. Might go faster on a desert island. 1,049 pages.

1. Flatland (Abbott, 1884)

A breeze to read, but a necessary reminder that everything else you’ve read might turn out not to be just as it seems. Abbott’s protagonist perceived the fallacies in the Flatlanders’ version of reality and dared to expose them. They didn’t banish him to a desert island, but they did (spoiler) throw him in jail. 155 pages.

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