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Suggested books for book review


A Planet of Viruses – Carl Zimmer

Synopsis: “Viruses have been a part of our lives for so long, in fact, that we are actually part virus: the human genome contains more DNA from viruses than our own genes. Meanwhile, scientists are discovering viruses everywhere they look: in the soil, in the ocean, even in caves miles underground. This fascinating book explores the hidden world of viruses—a world that we all inhabit. An eye-opening tour of the frontiers of biology.”


Parasite Rex – Carl Zimmer

Synopsis: “…fantastic voyage into the secret universe of… extraordinary life-forms—which are not only among the most highly evolved on Earth, but make up the majority of life’s diversity.”


The World Without Us – Alan Weisman

Synopsis: A thought experiment: “Look around you, at today’s world… Leave it all in place, but extract the human beings. Wipe us out, and see what’s left. How would the rest of nature respond if it were suddenly relieved of the relentless pressures we heap on it and our fellow organisms? How soon would, or could, the climate return to where it was before we fired up all our engines? …Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without us would miss us?”


A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

Synopsis: What happened, and how humans figured it out. Bill Bryson “uses hundreds of sources, from popular science books to interviews with luminaries in various fields. His aim is to help people like him, who rejected stale school textbooks and dry explanations, to appreciate how we have used science to understand the smallest particles and the unimaginably vast expanses of space.”


The Best Science Writing Online (2012) – Ouellette

Synopsis: More than fifty of the “most provocative, original, and significant online essays” about science.


The Stuff of Life – Mark Schultz

Synopsis: A comic book about DNA! “Let’s face it: From adenines to zygotes, from cytokinesis to parthenogenesis, even the basics of genetics can sound utterly alien. So who better than an alien to explain it all? Enter Bloort 183, a scientist from an asexual alien race threatened by disease, who’s been charged with researching the fundamentals of human DNA and evolution and laying it all out in clear, simple language so that even his slow-to-grasp-the-point leader can get it… Bloort’s explanations give even the most science-phobic reader a complete introduction to the history and science of genetics.”






The Disappearing Spoon – Sam Kean (on the periodic table)

Synopsis: An “amble from element 1, hydrogen, to element 112, copernicium. Attaching stories to a human-interest angle… anecdotes about elements of war, elements of health, and elements of wealth… explaining why Silicon Valley is not Germanium Valley…”


Wonderful Life with Elements – Bumpei Yorifuji (below left)

Synopsis: “In this super periodic table, every element is a unique character whose properties are represented visually: heavy elements are fat, man-made elements are robots, and noble gases sport impressive afros. Every detail is significant, from the length of an element’s beard to the clothes on its back. You’ll also learn about each element’s discovery, its common uses, and other vital stats like whether it floats—or explodes—in water.”


The Periodic Table: Elements with Style! – Simon Basher (above right)

Synopsis: Designed to look like the profile pages of a certain popular social networking site… “the pages of this book feature “homepages” for each of the chemical elements — complete with witty and informative profiles written by the elements themselves.”



Death From the Skies! These are the Ways the World Will End – Philip Plait

Synopsis: Do you love action films and tales of disaster and suspense? Would you rather watch a Michael Bay movie than do your science homework? If so, this book that explains “the science behind the end of the world” is for you! The author apparently has “an infectious love of astronomy that could win over even the science-phobic.” The author who also founded the popular “demystifies the scientific principles” behind asteroids, black holes, and other calamities that threaten us all.


Death by Black Hole (And Other Cosmic Quandaries) – Neil Degrasse Tyson

Synopsis: Neil deGrasse Tyson guides you “through the mysteries of the cosmos with clarity and enthusiasm” in this collection of more than 40 of his favorite essays. “…from what it would be like to be inside a black hole to the movie industry’s feeble efforts to get its night skies right.”


Space Chronicles – Neil Degrasse Tyson

Synopsis: This book apparently includes “the best of Tyson’s commentary, including… an eye-opening manifesto on the importance of space exploration for America’s economy, security, and morale. The book is all about human space interactions, with “topics that range from the missteps that shaped our recent history of space travel to how aliens, if they existed, might go about finding us.”


The Accidental Universe – Alan Lightman

Synopsis: “From the triumph of the Higgs boson to the underlying discomfort of multiverses, from the question of God to the erosion of embodied presence via digital self-distraction, Lightman explores with wistful irony, lyricism, and insight his relationship as a theoretical physicist, a cosmologist, a novelist, a humanist, and a human being to the ever-changing and mysterious interior and exterior universes we all inhabit, knowingly or not…”



Mathematics and Humor: A Study of the Logic of Humor [Kindle Edition]

From the Author

In the book I i} explore the operations and structures common to humor and the formal sciences (logic, mathematics, and linguistics), ii) show how various notions from these sciences provide formal analogues for different sorts of jokes and joke schema, and iii) develop a mathematical model of jokes (joke schema) using ideas from “catastrophe theory”. In accomplishing this I discuss self- reference, recursivity, axioms, logical levels, non-standard models, transformational grammar, and several “mathematical” (in an extended sense) ideas. Relevant psychological and philosophical matters are discussed and provide a matrix for both the technical development and for the jokes.


The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth


Based on a National Magazine Award-winning article, this masterful biography of Hungarian-born Paul Erdos is both a vivid portrait of an eccentric genius and a layman’s guide to some of this century’s most startling mathematical discoveries.


In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World

“‘Popular mathematics’ may sound like a contradiction in terms. That’s what makes the genre so important: we have to change that perception. Mathematics is the Cinderella science: undervalued, underestimated, and misunderstood. Yet it has been one of the main driving forces behind human society for at least three millennia, it powers all of today’s technology, and it underpins almost every aspect of our daily lives. “There are many ways to make real mathematics accessible. Its history reveals the subject as a human activity and gives a feel for the broad flow of ideas over the centuries. Biographies of great mathematicians tell us what it’s like to work at the frontiers of human knowledge. The great problems, the ones that hit the news media when they are finally solved after centuries of effort, are always fascinating. So are the unsolved ones and the latest hot research areas. The myriad applications of mathematics, from medicine to the iPad, are an almost inexhaustible source of inspiration.”


Gödel, Escher, Bach

Douglas Hofstadter’s book is concerned directly with the nature of “maps” or links between formal systems. However, according to Hofstadter, the formal system that underlies all mental activity transcends the system that supports it. If life can grow out of the formal chemical substrate of the cell, if consciousness can emerge out of a formal system of firing neurons, then so too will computers attain human intelligence. Gödel Escher and Bach is a wonderful exploration of fascinating ideas at the heart of cognitive science: meaning, reduction, recursion, and much more.


Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

This masterpiece of science (and mathematical) fiction is a delightfully unique and highly entertaining satire that has charmed readers for more than 100 years. The work of English clergyman, educator and Shakespearean scholar Edwin A. Abbott (1838-1926), it describes the journeys of A. Square, a mathematician and resident of the two-dimensional Flatland, where women-thin, straight lines-are the lowliest of shapes, and where men may have any number of sides, depending on their social status.

Through strange occurrences that bring him into contact with a host of geometric forms, Square has adventures in Spaceland (three dimensions), Lineland (one dimension) and Pointland (no dimensions) and ultimately entertains thoughts of visiting a land of four dimensions—a revolutionary idea for which he is returned to his two-dimensional world. Charmingly illustrated by the author, Flatland is not only fascinating reading, it is still a first-rate fictional introduction to the concept of the multiple dimensions of space. “Instructive, entertaining, and stimulating to the imagination.” — Mathematics Teacher


Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshipped it, and the Church used it to fend off heretics. For centuries, the power of zero savored of the demonic; once harnessed, it became the most important tool in mathematics. Zero follows this number from its birth as an Eastern philosophical concept to its struggle for acceptance in Europe and its apotheosis as the mystery of the black hole. Today, zero lies at the heart of one of the biggest scientific controversies of all time, the quest for the theory of everything. Elegant, witty, and enlightening, Zero is a compelling look at the strangest number in the universe and one of the greatest paradoxes of human thought.


The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives


In this irreverent and illuminating book, acclaimed writer and scientist Leonard Mlodinow shows us how randomness, change, and probability reveal a tremendous amount about our daily lives, and how we misunderstand the significance of everything from a casual conversation to a major financial setback. As a result, successes and failures in life are often attributed to clear and obvious cases, when in actuality they are more profoundly influenced by chance.


A Mathematician’s Apology

A Mathematician’s Apology is the famous essay by British mathematician G. H. Hardy. It concerns the aesthetics of mathematics with some personal content, and gives the layman an insight into the mind of a working mathematician. Indeed, this book is often considered one of the best insights into the mind of a working mathematician written for the layman.


Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences


Dozens of examples in innumeracy show us how it affects not only personal economics and travel plans, but explains mis-chosen mates, inappropriate drug-testing, and the allure of pseudo-science.


Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra


For curious nonmathematicians and armchair algebra buffs, John Derbyshire discovers the story behind the formulae, roots, and radicals. As he did so masterfully in Prime Obsession, Derbyshire brings the evolution of mathematical thinking to dramatic life by focusing on the key historical players. Unknown Quantity begins in the time of Abraham and Isaac and moves from Abel’s proof to the higher levels of abstraction developed by Galois through modern-day advances. Derbyshire explains how a simple turn of thought from “this plus this equals this” to “this plus what equals this” gave birth to a whole new way of perceiving the world. With a historian’s narrative authority and a beloved teacher’s clarity and passion, Derbyshire leads readers on an intellectually satisfying and pleasantly challenging journey through the development of abstract mathematical thought.


The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure


In twelve dreams, Robert, a boy who hates math, meets a Number Devil, who leads him to discover the amazing world of numbers: infinite numbers, prime numbers, Fibonacci numbers, numbers that magically appear in triangles, and numbers that expand without. As we dream with him, we are taken further and further into mathematical theory, where ideas eventually take flight, until everyone – from those who fumble over fractions to those who solve complex equations in their heads – winds up marveling at what numbers can do.


Hans Magnus Enzensberger is a true polymath, the kind of superb intellectual who loves thinking and marshals all of his charm and wit to share his passions with the world. In The Number Devil, he brings together the surreal logic of Alice in Wonderland and the existential geometry of Flatland with the kind of math everyone would love, if only they had a number devil to teach it to them.


A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form 


A brilliant research mathematician who has devoted his career to teaching kids reveals math to be creative and beautiful and rejects standard anxiety-producing teaching methods. Witty and accessible, Paul Lockhart’s controversial approach will provoke spirited debate among educators and parents alike and it will alter the way we think about math forever.




Ignorance: How it Drives Science – Stuart Firestein

Synopsis: This book is about chasing the unknown, “…this puzzling over thorny questions or inexplicable data, that gets researchers into the lab early and keeps them there late, the thing that propels them, the very driving force of science.” It’s about how scientists identify problems, plan steps for action, and decide how to explore what confuses them. Firestein discusses “looking for connections to other research, revisiting apparently settled questions, using small questions to get at big ones, and tackling a problem simply out of curiosity. The book concludes with four case histories–in cognitive psychology, theoretical physics, astronomy, and neuroscience–that provide a feel for the nuts and bolts of ignorance, the day-to-day battle that goes on in scientific laboratories and in scientific minds with questions that range from the quotidian to the profound.”


The Half-Life of Facts – Samuel Arbesman

Synopsis: “Smoking has gone from doctor recommended to deadly. We used to think the Earth was the center of the universe and that Pluto was a planet. For decades, we were convinced that the brontosaurus was a real dinosaur. In short, what we know about the world is constantly changing. But it turns out there’s an order to the state of knowledge, an explanation for how we know what we know…”


Free Radicals – Michael Brooks

Synopsis: Aren’t you tired of the inaccurate portrayals of scientists as either (1) “passionless,” boring and socially awkward; or (2) as “mad” as Christopher Lloyd’s character in Back to the Future? Fear not! In this book, you’ll hear real, relatable and exciting stories about “the men and women who have revolutionized the scientific world into a fast-paced and thrilling exploration of the real process behind discovery…”



Guitar Zero – Gary Marcus

Synopsis: This book is about working against detrimental self-conceptions… using cognitive science! It’s an “inspiring and fascinating look at the pursuit of music, the mechanics of the mind, and the surprising rewards that come from following one’s dreams…” The book “debunks the popular theory that there is an innate musical instinct while challenging the idea that talent is only a myth. From deliberate and efficient practicing techniques to finding the right music teacher, Marcus translates his own experience—as well as reflections from world-renowned musicians—into practical advice for anyone hoping to become musical or learn any new skill.”


Answers for Aristotle – Massimo Pigliucci

Synopsis: This book covers philosophy, science, intuition, and the science behind intuition. If you want to know the answer to what Aristotle famously asked (“How should we live?”), the author argues that “the greatest guidance to this essential question lies in combining the wisdom of 24 centuries of philosophy with the latest research from 21st century science.” By the way, Aristotle was the first person to (publicly, at least) combine those two fields.


Big Questions from Little People – Gemma Elwin Harris

Synopsis: Questions from young students (“Do animals have feelings?”, “Why can’t I tickle myself?”, “Who is God?”) answered by scientists, philosophers, writers, etc. including Phillip Pullman, Richard Dawkins, Gordon Ramsay, “adventurist” Bear Gryllis, and linguist Noam Chomsky!


Talk to Me: Design & Communication between People & Objects – Paola Antonelli

Synopsis: Published by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, this book argues that “objects talk to us, and we have come to expect interaction with them.” It explores “interfaces, websites, video games, devices and tools, and information systems–as well as installations that establish practical, emotional, or even sensual connections to cities, companies, governmental institutions, or other individuals. The featured objects range in date from the late 1980s to today, with particular attention given to the last five years and projects currently in development..”


The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World – David Deutsch

Synopsis: A New York Times bestseller that explores “every fundamental field of science, as well as the history of civilization, art, moral values, and the theory of political institutions.” It was called a “provocative, imaginative exploration of the nature and progress of knowledge.” It argues “that explanations have a fundamental place in the universe—and that improving them is the basic regulating principle of all successful human endeavor.”


Visual Complexity – Manuel Lima

Synopsis: This book is about tech-enabled data use and connections to art, etc. From “Finding patterns and making meaningful connections inside complex data networks has emerged as one of the biggest challenges of the twenty-first century…”


On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes – Alexandra Horowitz

Synopsis: This book was one of Maria Popova’s ( top books of 2013. The experts include “an urban sociologist, the well-known artist Maira Kalman, a geologist, a physician, and a sound designer. She also walks with a child and a dog to see the world as they perceive it.”


Intuition Pumps – Daniel C. Dennett

Synopsis: In this book, “one of the world’s leading philosophers offers aspiring thinkers his personal trove of mind-stretching thought experiments.”