I like reading about things that completely blow my mind on a reality/existence/universal level - that allow me to contemplate the actual workings of reality and existence and space and time. You know the deal.
Obviously, Brian Green’s books were like catnip to me - accessible and readable books that still gave me some serious insight into the fundamental workings of reality and the cosmos. Mindblowing stuff!
I’m looking for more mindblowing science reading, especially stuff that works on a macro level this time around - maybe stuff that deals with the entire universe and puts our solar system into perspective with it, along with the other closest stars like Alpha Centauri and so on. I really want to feel and understand the scale of the cosmos and its workings.
Oliver Sacks The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
and V.S. Ramachandran Phantoms in the Brain:
Together they will (hopefully) make you doubt the ability of ANY human brain to develop anything like an accurate depiction of reality and impress you with the plasticity of human perception in general.
Stephen Jay Gould’s book “Wonderful Life,” while ostensibly about the way scientists interpreted and then reinterpreted tiny invertebrate fossils found in the Burgess shales in Canada, touches on broad questions having to do with the nature of evolution on our world and others that should give you some cosmic cuds to chew on.
Unfortunately, almost everything in this book has been shown to be wrong or has been superseded by later findings. In particular, Simon Conway Morris, who did the original study of the Burgess Shale, disagreed with many of Gould’s conclusions. In any event, all the original findings are now (16 years later) known to be largely wrong and much correction has been done.
Many others of Gould’s book are better in the science and the presentation.
Conway also has two books, which I have not read.
The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals.
Life’s Solution: Inevitable humans in a Lonely Universe.
A specific list of things he gets wrong would be nearly as long as the book. There are a few sites gently criticizing the book while soft-petaling because they buy into the notion that “anything that gets the public interested in science must be good, right?” General errors I spotted occur in regard to cosmology, abiogenesis, evolution, material science, et cetera. [post=8729648]Here’s a thread[/post] in which I list out a few of the many errors in the book. Perhaps I’ll pull a copy from the library and draft a thread with a comprehensive listing of errors. Not tonight, though.
I highly recommend these books, although at 1150 pages, The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe may not meet your accessibility requirement. It depends upon whether you know, or want to learn, mathematics.
Freeman Dyson has some very interesting books and lecture collections, such as Disturbing the Universe and Infinite in All Directions. He doesn’t focus on any one subject, being more of a 'how did we get where we are, how does it all fit together, and what are the limits of where we can go?" kind of writer.
Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s The Collapse of Chaos was also incredibly fascinating, while still keeping a very light tone (to give an idea, the critic’s blurb on the front cover is from Terry Pratchett). I’ve read a few of Stewart’s other books on math, and he’s pretty good.
Well, I think you’re overstating the case a bit. All of the original findings are not known to be wrong. Apparently, some of Conway’s co-researchers re-examined some of the Burgess animals and decided that some of them were actually arthropods rather than members of completely new phyla. There were others that are still classified as new phyla, and some of the new arthropods from the Burgess shales have proven difficult to place within any existing Arthropod subphyla according to the wikipedia entry on Arthropods.
It’s hardly what I’d call being “largely wrong.” What seems to bother Morris and others is that they feel that Gould’s conclusion that the Burgess animals support punctuated equilibrium is not supported by the fossil records as thoroughly and convincingly as Gould makes it seem. I’m OK with that. No one is arguing that the Burgess shales don’t contain a remarkable assortment of animals with some very different body plans than are now extant. And Gould’s “wrongness” about the Burgess organisms seems to be primarily derived from accepting the reclassification that Morris and the others did to correct Walcott’s inaccurate classifications. I mean, the dudes can’t make up their minds, apparently. Who knows what they’ll be calling the Burgess animals next … mammals?
In any event, the cosmic significance mostly has to do with some of Morris’ speculations on the rationale for the 2 billion year gap between the appearance of one-celled organisms on Earth, and the appearance of multicellular organisms. And I don’t know of anyone contesting the existence of that gap, though I haven’t read Conway and hence can’t know for sure.
I’m currently reading this book, as recommended to me by my Cognative Science professor last semester. I have to say, it’s much less impressive than everyone told me it would be. One of my friends summed up the entire book perfectly when he said that is was just Hofstadter saying “Oh! Recursion!” over and over. If you want real mind-blowing CS stuff, get a book like “Simply Scheme” or some other semi-formal introduction to a functional programming language and actually learn the language. I will say that GEB is very intricately done, and the writing style is very interesting from time to time, but I think that most of what he does is to give what are fairly mundane ideas in a very excited tone.
For good, mind-blowing stuff, you might always try taking some LSD (kidding). Or reading Hawking’s Universe in a Nutshell, which is illustrated beautifully and really helped me “get” certain ideas that I couldn’t before, and then use that knowledge in reading other books. The Whole Shebang by Timothy Ferris was an excellent book, although it might be just a bit dated by now. Any book on human perceptions and how they can go wrong (such as The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat etc) will definitely make you doubt yourself. I might also suggest trying some introductory linguistics reading, an intro textbook would work well. Learning about how humans aquire, use and creat language has been one of the most interesting things I’ve done in my college carreer.
Although they’re pretty old by now (and pretty hard to get hold of outside of used book stores and websites), the writings of Isaac Asimov are often wonderful introductions to different aspects of science. And things like his piece on Catalysts and Metaphors aren’t going to become obsolete for a long time, if ever.
Stephen Jay Gould’s been mentioned already – his collections of essays from Natural History are great.
James Burke’s books (the companion volumes to Connections and The Day the Universe Changed, plus the many he’s come up with since then) are eye-opening and interestingly presented, showing how discoveries were made, and with a lot of engineering thrown in.
Thanks for all the recs. It’ll obviously take some time to dig through them, but for a start, I’ve picked up Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is right on the money, and Sagan’s Cosmos.
I read almost exclusively fiction, but I gotta toss in one more Carl Sagan book, The Demon-Haunted World. It’s a wonderful treatise on why people think weird things. Also, it’s a page turning easy read.