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Here are some of the books I've read (Updated 2011-01-22)
I've stopped writing detailed reviews here, there are professionals out there who do a much better job at this. I've just listed some of the more memorable books in more or less chronological order
Why the West Rules the World - For Now (Ian Morris)
The Elephant's Journey (Jose Saramago)
Fragment (Warren Fahy)
The City and City (China Mieville)
Fred Hoyle's Universe (Jane Gregory)
Zima Blue (Alistair Reynolds)
My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk)
1421 (Ganin Menzie)
Pirate Latitudes, Prey, Next (Michael Crichton)
The Brooklyn Follies (Paul Auster)
Invisible, Travels in the Sciptorium (Paul Auster)
Payback (Margaret Atwood)
Amberville (Tim Davys)
The Great wall (Jon Man)
Voices (Ursula Le Guin)
Seeing Further (Bill Bryson)
Salt, Cod (Mark Kurlansky)
The Road to Reality (Roger Penrose)
Empire of the Stars (Arthur I. Miller)
The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde)
The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass (Philip Pullman)
The Swarm (Franz Schätzing)
Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-up Bord Chronicle, The Elephant Vanishes (Haruki Murakami)
The City and City (China Miéville)
Revelation Space (Alistair Reynolds)
Kraken (China Miéville)
False Economy (Alan Beattie)
The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Iain Mcgilchrist)
Freakonomics (S.D. Leavitt and S.J. Dubner)
DNA (James Watson)
Blotta Tanken (Peter Gärdenfors)
Akvedukten vid Zaghoun, Shumalmits väg, På Spaning efter folkviljan (Per Molander)
Tecken att Tänka med (Pehr Sällström)
The Making of the Atom Bomb (Richard Rhodes)
Neal Stephenson. The new book by
Stephenson takes place on a world called Arbre very similar to ours. The leading character Erasmus
is a Fraa, a sort of monk in a cloister where studies in natural science, mathematics and rational
and critical thought are encouraged and religion and superstition are not. The world is
separated into a an external "Saecular" (quasi religious) world and the "maths".
Erasmus is a "tenner", which means that every tenth year, he and his fellow Fraas in their math are
allowed in the external world, with a choice to
remain on the outside or continue to be a student of the maths. Suddenly one day, the local observatory is closed
and all astronomical observations are kept secret. Erasmus' mentor Fraa Orolo with deep insights into astronomy is
recruited ("vocated") by the Saecular world, and a fantastic story unfolds that forever changes the lives
of people on the planet Arbre.
Stephenson has invented parallell terms for the multitude of ideas that is being played with in the book, and it may be toughh reading the first 50 pages but a dictionary helps and soon most of the terms become familiar. My personal favourite Arbrian word is "bulshytt", the almost one-to-one equivalent to our existing corporate and management bullshit that keeps infesting languages in our industrialized world. I also liked his use of French in the book: Arbre = Tree, Laterre = Earth, etc, no doubt there to convey the idea that not all Earthlings are from New York. You will find references to General Relativity, Gödel, Plato and Everett's multi-world interpretation of Quantum mechanics, to mention a few. I for one thoroughly enjoyed the playfullness with which Stephenson toys with ideas in philosophy and science and gives them slightly new twists. If you liked Pynchon's Against the Day which I read last year, you will find the same great lucidity, humour and above all, a passion for ideas and creativity in Anathem. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and only wish I had lasted longer. My only reservation is that the "maths" seem to take very limited use of computers ("syndevs"), which is not very realistic when (for example) performing complex orbit calculations or studying perturbation theory. As a former Ph.D. student I would relish the thought of a university ("math") where curiosity for its own sake would be reason enough to fulfill academic studies, as opposed to today's very crass view of knowledge as a commodity.
The Terror by Dan Simmons. I for one am a sucker for good adventure story, I thoroughly enjoyed Björn Larsson's Long John Silver and a few month's ago I came across Dan Simmons book on a best seller shelf in my favourite book shop in Stockholm. I normally trust the taste of the employees of this shop, and besides who wouldn't fall for a title like the "The Terror". And after having finsished the book today, I put it down with remorse blaming my self for reading it too fast. Set in the Canadian archipelago in 1840:ies, the background story is the British explorer John Franklin's endeavour to find the North West passage. Franklin had hitherto not been an overly sucessful captain and was know as the man who ate his own shoes. Little is actually known what actually happened to the expedition, and here is where Simmons weaves a great story using historical facts and fascinating (but fake as far as I have understood) Inuit mythology. Simmons manages to tell a tight story of the incredible hardships of the crew of the vessel "The Terror", including (and historically accurate) the badly sealed canned food tin cans - that the admirality had purchased - that most likely slowly lead poisoned the whole crew. Add to that the terrible climate, a lurking terror of all teeth and claws on the ice, and a mysterious Inuit mute woman and you are nailed to the book until your eyes go sore. A highly recommened nailbiter, I ruined the nail of my left thumb in the process of reading it... (in all honesty that probably says more about me than the book).
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Yet another book by Dawkins, but I give no apologies here; this is recommended reading for anyone interested in a critical view of faith and religion. At high school we were a bunch of 4-5 youngsters who sometimes (strangely enough, without the influence of alcohol) talked about things like the origin of life etc, and sometimes we also touched in religion. I remember especially our notion of a "hook" upon which both basic concepts of science and religions hinges, and I was deligted to find the same metaphores in this book, but with a different twist. Dawkins' "Skyhook" is something supernational (like "God") whereas a "crane" is something with actually explains something. Even though I am an ardent atheist - with a very short agnostic period in the early teens - this book book is still a gem when it comes to dissecting the very concept of religion and why it exists. I firmly believe that Dawkins is on the right track when he says that it is most likely a by-product of a mechanism in the brain that has survived over the millenia. It might be related to the Placebo effect, and maybe also to the concept of altruism among small social populations; it is obvious there is a lot of room for research here. As expected by Dawkins, it is also a book of humour littered with quotes from the literature and films (From Victor Hugo to "Life of Brian") and it is obvious this is a book of passion. No direct assault is directed towards specific religious beliefs or texts, but given todays extreme views in both the United States and in the muslem world, both fundamentalsist Christians and Islamists are direct targets here.
I looked up some of the sites Dawkins' quotes in the book and indeed found some the alternatives to the 10 commandments, like this one. My personal favourites are:
"Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond. This is probably the most interesting book I have read in many years and a rewnewal of "Macro History" in the vein of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee and Edward Gibbons, but with ecology at the topical center. It is no less than an attempt to understand why human societies and civilisation developed more rapidly in some parts of the world than others. Diamond argues convincingly that geography, climate and biological factors were paramount in giving Europe and China a head start in the development of technology and culture. The fact that the continent of Eurasia is elongated in the east-west direction and the existence of the right animals and the right crops were the main reasons why Europe became a dominant player on the world scene. In the last chapter he argues that history as a research topic rightfully belongs not to the humanaties but rather to the sciences. The scope of the book is truly breathtaking and anyone who believes that history is just "one fact after another" should pick up this book and be awed. Any theory that grasps over so many topics will be open to healthy criticism, and a good review and critique is found here. His latest book "Collapse" is also compulsory reading if you are interested in the mechanisms of failure and success of ancient and recent societies, and the lessons we can learn today.
"Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: on the matter of the
mind" by Gerald Edelman. A fascinating account of a
theory of the workings of the brain, based on Darwinistic
selection on the neuronal level. Highly speculative, but
contains many interesting ideas on the micro and macro
levels, the most famous perhaps being his idea of "neural
Darwinism". Falls short on his criticism why computers cannot
simulate/emulate minds, but gives a great introduction to the
neuroscience of the brain.
"The Astonishing Hypothesis" by Francis Crick (1916-2004). A book about how to attack the problem of consciousness, and an update on the latest developments in the search for the principles of information processing in the brain. More book reviews on epistemplogy, consciousness and mind can be found here.
"Myrorna" (Les Fourmis) "Le Jour des Fourmis" et "La Révolution des Fourmis" par Bernard Werber. Voilà un extrait du son page du Web: "Le temps que vous lisiez ces lignes, sept cents millions de fourmis seront nées sur la planète. Sept cents millions d'individus dans une communauté estimÉe à un milliard de milliards, et qui a ses villes, sa hiérarchie, ses colonies, son langage, sa production industrielle, ses esclaves, ses mercenaires... Ses armes aussi. Terriblement destructrices". Des livres charmants sur la communication entre des hommes et des fourmis, et qui posent la question si l'intelligence des hommes est plus puissante que celle des myriades des insects dans notre planète.
"An Anthropologist on Mars", by Oliver Sacks. A fascinating and compassionate description of people/patients with different neurolological disorders. I had wanted to read his books for years, but was a bit sceptical about the ethics of disclosing information on "neurological freaks". After having read only a few chapters, I've entirely changed my mind and I can recommend it simply as bedtime reading, or on a more profound level, a book on the roots of "self" and "personality".
"The Club Dumas", by Arturo Perez-Reverte. A literary thriller about a mercenary/trader specializing in recovering old and rare books, who finds his life in peril after uncovering 3 copies of books that - with proper decoding - together hold secrets of unearthly powers. If you liked the "The name of Rose", you'll love this book which was recently turned into a film by Roman Polanski, "The Ninth Gate".
"Fermat's Last Theorem", by Simon Singh. A book about the remarkable intellectual achievement of many mathematicians, leading up to Andrew Wiles' final proof of Fermat's theorm, via the Shimura-Taniyama conjecture. The theorem itself is simply stated:
"There are no solutions of the equation xn + yn = zn for integers n > 2". This took more that 4 centuries of hard work to prove. The ultimate question is of course how Fermat himself (if indeed at all) managed to prove it. The book also contains several interesting anecdotes, and - to me at least - unknown facts, such as Fermat's influence on Newton leading the latter to the calculus of infinitesimals. Well worth reading even for people with a fear of numbers.
"The Mathematical Brain", by Brian Butterworth. It is well known that the brain has specially dedicated areas for higher sensory, motory, and cognitive faculties. For example, the primary visual areas are situated in the Occipital lobes. But what about the ability to perform number and mathematical operations? Is there a 'number module' in the brain? It turns out there is strong evidence for the existence of such a centre, and is it located somewhere in the left parietal lobe. It also turns out it is spatially close to the centre that controls finger movements. Thus it is not coincidence that we use our fingers when we count. This is fascinating book, full of facts and anecdotes, and also describes how ingenious experiments can be set up to reveal the secrets behind the number crunching parts of the brain.
"The Feeling of what Happens", by Antonio Damasio. During the last decade there have been several attempts to describe the origins and workings of human consciousness in sciences as diverese as Philisophy (Daniel Dennet), Artificial Intelligence (Douglas Hofstadter, John Holland), Neurophysiology (Gerald Edelman, Francis Crick, Jean-Pierre Changeaux), and Cognitive Science (Patricia Churchland). Antonio Damasio became well-known to the general public with his book "Descartes' Error", which describes the "Cartesian theatre" fallacy that dominated brain science until the latter part of this century. The current book takes a different standpoint from most other books: what is it like to feel consciousness? What would it be like _not_ to have a feeling of consciousness? The following quote gives the essence of Damasio's thoughts here: "The nonconscious neural signaling of an individual organism begets the proto-self which permits core self and core consciousness, which allow for an autobiographical self, which permits extended consciousness. At the end of the chain extended consciousness permits conscience." Probably the most interesting book I read in 2001!
"The Scar" . China Miéville's third novel is set in the same world as the appraised "Perdido Street Station", which has won several well-deserved awards. For those of you not yet familiar with the dark fantasy world of the gothic Megapolis of New Croubzon, you're about to enter a great adventure. Being a film addict myself, I immediately found references to the movie screen: Imagine a hybrid of "Waterworld" and "The army of the Twelve Monkeys"; then you get an idea what the world you find yourself in (the stories otherwise have nothing in common). I fell for the combination of low and high tech gadgets, the world populated with archaic species and humans, and most of all, the fleshy and eloquent language. You get to smell the sordid smells of a wounded Avanc, the frantic hunger of a buzzing mosquito woman, the strange life forms populating the floating pirate city "the Armada", admire the many-talents of the New Croubzon spy Silas Fennec, and feel for the many sorrows of the main character Bellis Coldwine. Is it fantasy or science-fiction? Who really cares..
"The Dream of Scipio" by Iain Pears. A novel about the fate of three men in Provence in southern France, spanning 1500 years of European history: the period just after the murder of the Roman emperor Majoran during the realm of the Visigoth king Euric, Avignon during the Black Death (recent research has cast some doubt whether it really was the bubonic plague or some other disease), and the period just before and during the German occupation of France in WWII. I especially liked the way he interweaved the fate of the characters by having them work out moral dilemmas in their own different ways. The book gave me the feeling of what life was really like in historical times, and how similar the problems of modern life are to those of historic times. The title alludes to a scripture by Cicero "The Dream of Scipio" about the importance of maintaining a high moral when keeping a public office. If you like this book then don't miss "An Instance of the Fingerpost" a thouroughly researched book about a (fictious) murder mystery in Oxford just after the deatch of Oliver Cromwell, starring real historical characters like mathematician John Wallis and antiquary Anothony Wood.
"Mathematics in Nature: Modeling Patterns in the natural World" by John A. Adam. This is a delightful book about topics that we almost never get to study in university graduate or under-graduate courses. The book has 14 chapters with topics ranging from how to obtain order-of-magnitude estimates of physical quantities, to the maximum height of trees, non-linear waves (such as bores and solitons), and the Fibonacci structure of meandering rivers. The approach is that of a modeler who wants to give examples of how relatively simple mathematics can yield surprisingly acccurate correct estimates of the "real thing". Unfortunately, in my edition there are a number of mistakes and typos, so the book should be read with caution. For example, on page 53 in the derivation of the volume of a crater from a surface explosion, the T2 in the first factor should be T-2. And, on page 279, the Airy equation (31) d²θ/dξ² ± ξ θ = 0 should be defined with a minus sign to yield the results in the text. I also sometimes found the derivations hard to follow, so it helps repeating some of the arguments with paper and pencil. For those of you who abhore any kind of forumla, there are very readable chapters that cover the essence of each subject in words.
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