This Year in Books: Biographies, Science, Essays.

This is my pick of books I enjoyed reading in 2013. I am hardly capable of reviewing books but I tend to pick books in order to answer a specific question.

Biographies

I have a penchant for physicists’ lives in the first half of the 20th century. How did scientists organize their lives and research without computers? How did they cope with war? Did it help the development of theoretical physics that their knowledge and skills were quite diverse?

Paul Dirac was perhaps an underrated hero of quantum physics until the release of The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo. Dirac trained as an engineer and searching for a job without success. He was driven by a top-down approach to physics: by the beauty of mathematical equations that eventually match a model of reality. Dirac’s usage of mathematics and his way of inventing new symbols (Dirac said he invented the bra) was said to give proof of his engineering mindset.

In Inside The Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer Ray Monk gives a vivid account of the Manhattan project and the related rise of the reputation of scientists (which kept – in my opinion – misleading aspiring physics students for decades to come about their employability). For multi-talented and erudite Oppenheimer physics was the best way to do philosophy. Though not an administrator before, he turned out to be the perfect facilitator and “project manager” – speaking the language of theoretical physicists and engineers alike.

I picked this Oppenheimer biography because I found Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Monk superb:

It is a book for those interested solely in Wittgenstein’s life as well as for amateur philosophers who had tried to decode the Tractatus in vain (as myself). I am not sure if you grasp the combination of his logical analysis of language and his allusions to the mystical without knowing about Wittgenstein’s debut in philosophy as Russell’s mentee on the one hand and his desire to be given the most dangerous task in World War I, in search for a life-altering experience, on the other hand. Peter Higgs has recently stated that he would not have been successful in today’s academic system. The more we are flabbergasted by reading about Wittgenstein’s lifelong reluctance to publish anything.

Wittgenstein had trained as an engineer, too.

Other biographies I read I 2012 might corroborate that a training in engineering or working closely with engineers helps the development of the theorist’s mind:

Jürgen Neffe’s biography of Einstein lays out his life in chapters dedicated to different aspects of his life, rather than using a chronological approach. So the voyeuristic reader can zoom in on Einstein’s family life. I was most interested in his childhood when Einstein lived in his father’s and uncle’s electrical engineering company, and his track record as an inventor.

If Feynman – featured in Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick- wasn’t the archetypical combination of a theorist and a hands-on tinkerer I do not know who was. His playing with flexagons or his childhood experiments with the garden sprinkler are legend.

History of Science and Popular Science

Until I read The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin last year I did not know that there are different genres of popular physics that can be characterized as enthusiastic or critical. Enthusiastic accounts use the science-is-cool approach  – that applies to sci-fi-style descriptions of the inner workings of the LHC as well as “spooky” theories used to explain experimental results. I believe it is not an accident to see that genre grow in times of cut governmental budgets.

The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll was awarded the prize for the best science book 2013 by the Royal Society. I have hardly seen a popular book covering theory at such a deep level and giving account of LHC’s history and work and live in the scientific community in general.

Critical books focus on the way (string) theory became detached from reality in a way that might have been too much even for Dirac. In the beginning of the 20th century theory was driven by experimental results to be explained – now theory is said to have taken up a life on its own.

The title Farewell to Reality: How Fairytale Physics Betrays the Search for Scientific Truth is sensationalist. In my opinion Jim Baggott gives a rather balanced account of the history of physics – I would recommend this book to anybody who wants to understand what the big questions in fundamental physics have been in the past 100 years.

Physics on the Fringe by Margaret Wertheim is an unusual gem. She criticizes contemporary research in a subtle way – as a by-product of describing life and mind of a so-called outsider physicist. A book that focuses on paradoxers without buying into their theories but showing respect for the human beings behind the theories (I blogged about the book here.)

Matthew Rave shows that theoretical models can be explained in a completely different way – not featuring famous physicists and artistic photos of particle colliders: Why is there  anything? is a Socratic dialogue that fans of Douglas Hofstadter’s Achille and Tortoise will enjoy.

Class of Its Own: Books by Nassim Taleb.

A review of books read in 2013 would not be complete without mentioning Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile and The Black Swan again. I blogged about these books and ideas here, here, here, and here.

In relation to the science books I want to emphasize his refreshing perspective of academic – planned, Soviet-Harvard-style – research versus tinkering by amateurs. I might over-generalize but I feel that those eminent 20th century physicists were tinkerers at heart.

Essays on Life, Work, the Universe and Everything

Taleb’s books are essays and not for the nit-pickers. This made me recognize that some of my all-time-classics could be classified as personal essays as well. These books are partly autobiographical vignettes, partly analysis of specific industry sectors – entangled using a narrative in a peculiar way.

The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living by Randy Komisar. A career in Silicon Valley illustrated by a fictional character, a young entrepreneur who wants to start an internet-based funeral business. Actually, the book is about the delusion of the Deferred Life Plan – do what you have to do and then do what you want to do. Using Taleb’s language it is about Optionality in your life.

21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com , Mike Daisey’s account of working at amazon.com in the glorious days before the dot.com bust is the most hilarious account of Dilbert’s life in the cubicle: his fight with illogical metrics, managers who admire Michael Moore’s movies and don’t see the inconsistency, or people nearly killing each other for exposure to the ray of light shining through the building’s single tiny window.  Underneath the epic story it is a book of a seriously multi-talented man and his love-hate relationship with the corporate world.

The Art of Working Less  is the (translated) title of my favorite German book in that category. It is very different from your typical self-help book on work-life balance. Both authors trained as medical doctors and were successful in their careers – as a doctor running his practice and a as CEO of a publishing house, respectively – until they decided to leave the treadmill.

The authors analyze the historical development of the value assigned to work. They wonder about our obsession with work – way beyond financial necessities and trancending the professional realm by attributing work-like “ethics” to our unpaid occupations too. The target group of the book are people who could easily afford to work less, but don’t do so. Martin Luther is blamed for having instilled protestant work ethics in generations by replacing work (Arbeit – a term with negative etymological connotations) with Beruf (profession) being very similar to Berufung (vocation, true calling).

Psychology

Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain – an eye-opener. I am typically considered an extremely extrovert person by people who know me personally. Cain tells me otherwise, my reluctance of “social” company events gives proof of that. Probably I am a faker on a mission: Introverts are able to transcend their limits if they want to achieve their goals. I enjoyed Cain’s experiment of attending a Tony Robbins workshop for research purposes.

In David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants Malcolm Gladwell investigates how and why a physical or other disadvantage can lead to superior results. I was most impressed by the stories of dyslexic people who became successful in jobs that heavily rely on reading and writing skills. Gladwell’s heroes have learned to cope with so-called failure at an early age and they developed workarounds and skills replacing literacy as memorization, negotiation skills, and reading cues.

Fiction

I don’t read much fiction and if so, I tend to read several books by single author in a row. Last year was dedicated to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Chesterson’s Father Brown. This year I turned to Philipp K. Dick‘s dystopian fiction and Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Technology

Robust Control System Networks by Stuxnet decoder Ralph Langner is no-nonsense technical analysis – and yet the first book I read that contained a reference to the The Black Swan. Langner brilliantly debunks the way risks are evaluated in IT security, that is using insurance-based models and indulging in building theoretical models. Langner highlights the way control engineers at the shop floor think in contrast to this.

In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Nicholas Carr brilliant analysis reflects all my personal findings – again confirmed by this summer’s time-out from social media. I am eagerly awaiting his upcoming book on automation.

Having enjoyed reading Jaron Lanier, I am aware of the irony of hosting my blog on one of those Siren Servers.

Taleb has called Ray Kurzweil his anti-me in Antifragile, so I am probably not the most unbiased reader of The Singularity is Near.

Kurzweil’s worldview is self-consistent if you buy into his optimism, but it does not strike a chord with me. For reasons to be probably analyzed in future blog posts I rather picture myself as one of those subversive rebels in clichéd science fiction movies, those who live outside that utopian metropolis run on the latest technology.

Textbooks and Outlook

Having read Student Friendly Quantum Field Theory I plan to tackle more advanced textbooks in 2014.

But I will also return to ancient textbooks – books reflecting Dirac’s original ideas. I learned theoretical physics from Heisenberg’s last graduate student, Wilhelm Macke. He wrote six volumes on theoretical physics, published in the 1960s. I am looking forwarding to reading those again in 2014.

Theoretische Physik, Wilhelm Macke

Six volumes on Theoretical Physics, by Wilhelm Macke.

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32 thoughts on “This Year in Books: Biographies, Science, Essays.

        • I found this biography really interesting and entertaining – I picked it totally accidentally while on vacation near the place where Wittgensten spent some years as an elementary school teacher. I think it’s very accessible but also “correct” (The author is a philosophy professor). I feel Ray Monk has a gift of describing the mood and feelings characteristic for a place at a certain time in history – as end-of-19th-century Vienna….but also the Jewish community in New York (in his Oppenheimer book).

          • I will return to this post … now needing sleep (preferably 6 hours) 🙂 … philosophical dreams might ensue … ‘what is the purpose of meaning’ from Dexter’s laboratory 🙂

    • I have considered myself a fairly average reader – the benchmark is Shane Parrish, author of the formidable farnamstreet blog. He has a day job as a consultant, too, and reads more than 10 books a month… and he really reviews most of them! http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/reading/
      Or blame on my lack of other hobbies! I read a few hundred pages every day, mainly in the evening. I read less in the morning but I tackle the harder stuff in the morning (textbooks).
      In case it still sounds impressive – I could only attribute it to the fact that I am reading rather fast and I recall that as extremely important in any job I ever held so I believe I have honed that skill a lot (in particular it was imperative when troubleshooting under pressure and still having to plow through technical standards and still digesting and understanding what you read – you can’t full-text search anything…).

      • I’m not sure why I have never been much of a reader. Perhaps I am ADD but I find that I absolutely cannot sit still for the extended periods of time required to digest texts appropriately. My mind wanders. My loss! D

  1. Reading this post, as well as the one you tweeted out earlier today it occurs to me that we have very similar tastes in reading material. I imaging that, like me, the best pleasure you get from books is the opportunity to dig fairly deep into someone else’s understanding of a topic and, from that, to pull from it the parts that you need most in your own understanding. Every so often, though, we encounter a Black Swan book (I, too, enjoyed NNT); one that makes us view things rather differently.
    I, too, read mostly non-fiction but it’s not because I don’t enjoy fiction. It is, rather, that I always have a long list of books ahead of me that I want to read. When I do go into fiction, though, I often find the mind-shift even more profound. I am guessing it’s due to my natural preference for type one thinking. Stories always move me more than does data, even though I know that data generally carries the more correct interpretation.
    Through the years I have tried to discipline myself to stick with Type II but I keep getting pulled back. I’m just now in the middle of planning a series of blog posts for the next few months–on eLearning, of course–and it occurs to me that much of the reasoning is based on Type I reasoning. As a result I’m having to make some changes.
    Here’s looking forward to another interesting year!

    • I am looking forward to your posts and Type I and II! As far as I recall pyschologists say that all people are captivated by data wrapped in narratives – so I wonder if there are people who crave for pure data?
      I have also wondered if and how my pick of books is incluenced by the things I “had to” read. Scrolling down my own list I realize for example that those peaks in fiction – Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Adams, Dick – coincided with a heavy workload as a moonlighting student. I believe I had enough of reading tedious wooden tech prose both in my job and as a student. But on vacation I turn to textbooks.

  2. Wow, this is what you read in a year? Closer to what I read in a decade (excluding all my ‘academic’ reading). You’re definitely a well-read person! By the way, I’ve heard from many sources that Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein is excellent. I’ll have to check it out. As a card-carrying introvert, I’ve also been meaning to read Susan Cain’s Quiet. And we’re both Taleb fans. Happy New Year!

    • Thanks, Dan – but this was only a subset of books 🙂 If you are impressed by this list you should stand in awe when checking out Shane Parrish’s reading list: http://www.farnamstreetblog.com//reading/ I highly recommend his blog – he is a Taleb fan, too, and a great “curator”.
      I, the “subversive Luddite”, hate to say it but I might owe it to amazon. Since I have a Kindle I have been reading much more than ever before.

      I literally stumbled on Wittgenstein’s biography accidentally because I was on vacation in a village next to the ones where he worked as an elementary school teacher. Now there is a Wittgenstein School though back then he could not get along so well with the villagers. Since I had no computer with me and couldn’t google I wanted to read a detailed biography – Monk’s book was number 1 on Kindle search.

      Monk had specialized on Wittgenstein as an academic and I think it shows. His Oppenheimer biography is great as well – but not as stellar. This might be due to Oppenheimer’s enigmatic personality (he hadn’t left any personal writings) or due to the fact that Monk isn’t a physicist but covers physics in detail though. I am comparing with Farmelo’s Dirac biography and there is a – probably only very subtle – difference … and Farmelo is a physicist.

  3. I was thinking last week about the movement of my own thoughts as they can be traced through the books I read this past year. Perhaps I’ve become more sensitive to this consideration, due to Taleb’s insights on confirmation bias, so I can’t help but ask myself if I’ve been challenged to see the world in new ways in the texts. (Despite my shared innate human tendency to look for attitudes and ideas in others that reflect the ones I already hold.) What do you think? Has your reading moved your thinking from where it was a year ago?

    • A good question! I believe Taleb has influenced me most – I guess you can judge the level of impact by the number of posts and tweets. In a sense I found in his philosophy the missing link connecting different things that interest or bother me. On the other hand some things obviously never change so I would not re-read some of the books so often.
      Happy New Year, Michelle!!

  4. Elke,

    A fascinating mix of interests and sources here.

    So many great pieces of work. Many I have read, but most are new to me.

    Thanks for sharing and best wishes to you for each precious moment of existence.

    Tom

  5. Elke this is a gold mine of references for which I am most grateful. Like you I don’t read much fiction, and I’m always interested in new areas to delve into, so your recommendations are very handy. I look forward to reading them in 2014 – happy new year and thanks for entertaining and enthralling us so much, keep it up 🙂

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