Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Science books of the year 2012

These 7 lucky books are my best science books of 2012. I know what you're thinking: that these are the only ones I read. Hey! That's not fair. Well it's true that I didn't read too many more than this. But I picked them carefully in the first place, as you have to if you have a full-time job, two kids, and not nearly as much free time to read as you'd like. And as it turned out, how right I was! So, having dealt with that objection, let us now turn to important matters. Let us talk of books, like men.

Apart from the winner, I've decided to leave it as a flat list, just like the Royal Society Winton Prize. Obviously, I could pick some from the runners-up that are bigger in scope, more enjoyable, better written, anything, than others, but to start trying to sort all six places like that is meaningless, so they're all in second place.

Best science book of 2012: "The Better Angels of our Nature" by Steven Pinker

You know that phrase that you hear about some books? About how it will change the way you look at the world? This one probably will. That's because it'll persuade you to moderate the feeling that you probably have that the world is getting worse, nastier, and more violent all the time. I blame videogames. It turns out this pessimism largely stems from two things: we overestimate the amount of violence in the world simply because we see it frequently on the news or on YouTube (a bias called the "availablity heuristic", explained in my no.2 book in this list), and we know far too little about the past.

This is a huge book, as in your hand will get tired holding it, and that's relevant to any assessment of it. Not because manual fatigue is interesting per se, but rather because the ambitious scope of this oeuvre has to be acknowledged in any discussion about it. From an unforgettable opening couple of chapters reminding us of the sheer savagery in the bible, and an eye-popping exploration of medieval torture devices, things become slowly more civilized as time passes, leading ultimately to the society we enjoy nowadays, where groups that were hitherto oppressed - animals, children, women, and homosexuals - gradually acquire the same rights as white guys like me over time. Well, alright - nearly. The scope of this book is so wide that you could enjoy it as history, or as science. Either way, it'll change the way you look at the world.

"Thinking, Fast and Slow", by Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman looks like my father-in-law, but that's where the similarity ends I'm afraid. Wise and worldly as Papou is, Kahneman has a lifetime of sociological work behind him at this stage and his book, which is rather like a recap of his life's work to explain how people think, is a depressing litany of foibles and idiosyncrasies from which we all apparently suffer. The data prove it. I say depressing, because much as I love Tim Harford's hardline rationalism in 'The Undercover Economist' and 'The Logic of Life', if the concept of anchoring is true, well, it makes me weep for humanity.

Just so you know, anchoring is the business of influencing people subconsciously to choose a value you mention, even if just innocently, for example in a discussion on how long a piece of work might take to complete, by simply saying that value. That's it. No more than that. You might have just rolled a dice in front of everyone to come up with the value; it matters not. We are all prey to arbitrary suggestions, and that's simply depressing.

"A Universe from Nothing", 2012, Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss was one of the stars of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention. There were plenty of big names there, but even among them he cut a rock-star dash, pacing up and down on the stage running though his cosmological shtick once more. Cosmology is just mind-blowing, one of the few disciplines where you can talk about the really big questions and receive meaningful explanations. Mind you, you have to pay attention, really pay attention: this was the hardest book to follow in this list. The historical run though the decades leading up to Einstein, relativity, and quantum mechanics are enjoyable, but from then on things get plain weird. A lot of the concepts in this book, like dark energy, the cosmological constant, and whether the universe is open, closed, or flat (turns out it's open) are so abstract as to be something I need to read repeatedly to sink in. It both makes me feel stupid and exhilarates me.

I should have just queued up for a copy of this book, signed in person by LK, at #AtheistCon when I had the chance. The queue was long, but it was obvious then by the love it was getting that this was going to be one of those event books you're going to end up reading one way or another. So you may as well meet the author. Kicking myself.

"Everything is Obvious", 2011, Duncan J Watts

Quite similar to the Kahneman book insofar as it's mainly about sociology and the counterintuitive (or 'unobvious') and fundamentally unpredictable nature of social interactions. This emphasis on the unknowability of the future makes it a bedfellow of the famous "The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Speaking of Taleb, he's got a new book out called "Antifragile", which I'm predicting will be on my list for next year. Whoops - a prediction!

There are many subtle points in this book that you might miss if you read it in a hurry. I found myself rereading pages to make sure that I hadn't just wasted my time reading something blindingly obvious. That's the whole point of the book: that plenty of things that you hardly think about are in fact not what they seem. Narrative sentences are one example. These are cases that seem to be more-or-less neutral descriptions of some event , e.g. "Such and such a border skirmish took place on such and such a date, effectively starting the Iran-Iraq war" but often, strangely, end up being descriptions that would have made no sense to people living through the events because, in this case, the war hadn't happened when that event took place so the sentence is peering into the future, placing the event within some larger narrative. It's obvious, now. But not then. And it leads to some profound conclusions: history cannot be told while it is happening.

"Massive", 2010, Ian Sample

2012 was a big year for the the Large Hadron Collider in general and the Higgs boson in particular. To get a bit of historical perspective on the LHC, the biggest machine ever built by humans, I sought out this book by the Guardian Science Podcast's own Ian Sample. Although it now looks like there might be two Higgs bosons, back before the announcement in July this year, we didn't even have one. It's not nearly as difficult a read as the Lawrence Krauss book - in fact the overwhelming memory I have of it is of a genuinely affecting story of international cooperation in the name of science.

To read this book in the heady days of autumn (northern hemisphere) as I did, when it seemed the great European project was in trouble, when every day saw Europe enter "a dangerous new phase of the [Greek credit] crisis" as the journalists loved to say, was a powerful restorative against such hysterical pessimism. If you look at projects like CERN, ESO and ESA then you'd have to agree that Europe is more than capable of getting on with it. It's just those bloody Greeks*.

"The Rational Optimist", 2010, Matt Ridley

Between reading this and "The Better Angels..." I've never felt more positive about things. Don't believe everything you read (in the newspapers) - things are actually getting better all the time. Human ingenuity, industry and above all compulsion to trade have lifted us out of the subsistence that was the our station until a very short time ago, according to Ridley. This is an impatient, opinionated read, as befits someone who is taking the rather sensible position of saying enough with the usual platitudes about history, and its great figures and sacred cows.
"My education was utterly dominated by two stories: the Bible's and Rome's. Both were disappointing examples of history. One told the story of an obscure, violent, and somewhat bigoted tribe and one of its later cults, who sat around gazing at their theological navels for a few thousand years ... the other, the story of a barbarically violent people who founded one of the empires that institutionalised the plundering of its commercially minded neighbours, then went on to invent practically nothing in half a millenium ... nearly extinguishing literacy as it died. I exaggerate, but there are more interesting figures in history than Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar."
And that's just a footnote at the back of the book! I must say that for all the Latin I learnt as a kid, the overwhelming memory I have is declining the verbs to 'wage war', and 'set up camp'. Never 'to come up with an idea', or 'to achieve gains in trade'. Merchants and traders of any stripe are the heroes of this book, from the ancient Phoenicians to the modern Walmarts. Priests, chiefs, thieves and scaremongering greenies get served.

There it is - what the world has been waiting for: my inaugural science book list. In light of such a never-ending stream of mind-expanding popular science books, year after year, I just don't read too many novels any more. It feels like short-changing myself. But now that "Bring up the Bodies" has won the Booker, I do feel like tackling that and "Wolf Hall". And I did enjoy Umberto Eco's "The Prague Cemetery", and Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom". But I love my science books: next year's list starts here.
* And Irish, Portuguese, Italians and Spanish.