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Book log

Factual books I’ve read, mostly high-quality popular science. I love a good pop science book because it gives you the insights that I have so often missed in my university courses.

Very highly recommended

  • The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins)
    If you want to learn about modern evolutionary biology, this is the place to start. Whatever you think of Dawkins as a person, he’s a phenomenally gifted writer and one of the sharpest thinkers around. You must not miss this book.
  • The Language Instinct (Steven Pinker)
    Ah, Pinker is a giant writer. He’s so good at writing. And this book must remain his masterpiece, despite many fantastic successors. This one is a true expert’s introduction to the fascinating world of how we learn language.
  • The Elements of Eloquence (Mark Forsyth)
    Immensely fun. A grand tour and analysis of the workings of so-called figures of speech (rhetorical tricks) in the English language, an exposition of how the great writers have used these tricks to make their writings be remembered. I loved the author’s wit, read it in 2 days.

Very good

  • The Signal and the Noise (Nate Silver)
    You want to do machine learning? You’d better read this book. It is not a technical book! It’s a lovely grassroots account of what can go wrong when you try to predict stuff that you don’t understand. I think this is a very important book to show the limits of our statistical prowess. It’s also a declaration of love to Bayesian statistics.
  • The Music Instinct (Philip Ball)
    Very nice book, focussing on how we perceive music, and why we like it. Also introduced are essential concepts like scales, tunings, all written in a very accessible style.
  • The Meme Machine (Susan Blackmore)
    Susan Blackmore gives a fascinating account on how it may be that culture evolves by looking at it from the culture’s point of view, the meme’s point of view. I love it because, unlike many other cultural evolution experts, Blackmore stays firmly in the cultural domain, doesn’t get distracted by supposed biological survival advantages. However, it is a subject in flux, so I expect many of her claims will have to be refined.
  • Mutants (Armand Leroi)
    By now, Armand’s a friend of mine, so I’m biased. The strange world of mutants is eerily inviting, greatly enhanced by Armand’s formidably storytelling skills. Most importantly, the book highlights what we can learn from mutants: the effects of genes gone wrong reveal what those genes are for.
  • The Unfolding of Language (Guy Deutscher)
    This book was a revelation to me: I hadn’t realised quite how much linguists know about how language changes. Absolutely fascinating. Also, while written for a general audience, it’s not the easiest read; you’ll need your brains.
  • How Music Works (David Byrne)
    Great beginning. Highly interesting when he talks about his own experiences in music. A bit patchy towards the end when he tries to unravel the science of music mainly by namedropping scientists he knows.
  • Everything is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer (Duncan J. Watts)

Books I Do Not Recommend

  • The Science Delusion (whatever his name was)
    Boy, such an interesting topic; such a shallow, self-indulgent treatment.