Our Book Club Picks for March 2017

Popular Science and Technology: In the Shadow of Man

Given our current political climate, I could not think of a more perfect book to choose for this category than Jane Goodall's In the Shadow of Man. As scientists prepare to march on Washington, there have been arguments about whether or not it is appropriate for scientists to, well, humanize science - a debate that paints a picture of science as a cold, calculated endeavor. I'm reminded of my favorite chapter from E.O. Wilson's The Meaning of Human Existence, in which the great scientist proposes that if aliens ever visit Earth, it will not be our science that impresses them, but the humanities. He calls for a move within both science and humanities to bring the two fields together, to both humanize science and to preserve the things about our existence that make life and our history so precious. 

I think that the greatest scientists are those who bridge this gap between the sciences and the humanities, who bring their whole selves to their research. They bring their flaws, their relentless passion, their curiosity, their stubbornness - they bring all of the things that make them so wonderfully, brilliantly human. I can think of no other scientist who exemplifies this more than Jane Goodall. In the Shadow of Man is a scientific and literary triumph. It is the kind of book that will leave you both informed and changed. It is undeniably scientific, and it is unapologetically, beautifully human. 

- Susan

Classics, Old and New: The True Believer

When I was much younger, I was mystified by the Holocaust, why and how it had been allowed to happen, and I became fascinated by mass movements. I wondered why many people who participated in mass movements did bad things, and I couldn't wrap my head around it until I read Eric Hoffer's The True Believer. I've read and re-read this book countless times ever since, grabbing it off my bookshelf during the various "revolutions" that have happened over the past ten years, and have never been disappointed by Hoffer's insights into the mind and motivations of people who participate in mass movements. 

The True Believer has been an important part of my life during this past election cycle. It never ceases to serve as a way for me to check myself and my motivations before I jump toward supporting any sort of political (or otherwise radical) cause. It is a classic in every sense of the word, and will always be relevant. It is the perfect book to kick off the first month of our book club.

- Susan

Science Fiction and Fantasy: Stories of Your Life and Others

Anyone who has seen the wonderful movie Arrival knows the plot of Story of Your Life, the title story from this collection. The story itself is worth reading, however, not because of what was included in Arrival (the linguistic aspects) but what was left out (the physics). In fact, I found that the most fascinating storyline of Story of Your Life, which is based on various features of the laws of physics, was completely dropped out of the movie. 

I won't spoil it for you, but I have to admit that the abandoned half of the plot is so fascinating and wonderful that, from a physicist's point of view, it makes reading Ted Chiang's original Story of Your Life completely worthwhile. 

- Susan

Computer Science and Software Engineering: CODE

Charles Petzold's CODE begins with a simple thought experiment: you are a ten-year-old kid, and you want to secretly communicate with your friend who lives in a house across the street - how do you do this? From this incredibly simple idea, moving through various communication codes, to the telegraph, to logic gates, to computer memory, to microprocessors, to operating systems, and ending with computer graphics, he builds up to an entire modern computer without losing the reader at any step along the way.

One of the things that makes this book so effective in its mission is how well Petzold manages to communicate each topic along the way. Every single chapter has dozens of beautifully illustrated diagrams, charts, and tables to accompany the qualitative and quantitative descriptions. Each concept is described in terms that are simple enough for anyone to understand (even - or especially! - those without any previous knowledge on the topic), and yet still somehow manages to explain and present each thing in a brand new way that even experts will find illuminating.

- Susan

Philosophy: What Love Is and What It Could Be

Carrie Jenkins' What Love Is and What It Could Be is one of the most wonderful books I have read in a very long time. It is one of those rare books by a philosopher that is written so clearly, and with such academic and intellectual humility, that I believe anyone could read it and walk away a little wiser, able to see the most precious parts of their lives in brand-new ways. 

In What Love Is, Jenkins explores the metaphysics of love - that is, what love actually is, and what it might someday be. Her quest for understanding the nature of love is deeply personal, and it's her vulnerability and authenticity that makes her account of love so moving. It is beautifully written, thoughtful, hopeful, and practical in the way that great, lasting philosophy needs to be. 

Profoundly accessible yet intensely philosophical, What Love Is and What It Could Be is philosophy at its very best. 

- Susan

Physics: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Carlo Rovelli has a unique way of taking the things we all know about the laws of physics and making them beautiful and new in ways I don't think we would have expected. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is not quite filled with lessons as its title suggests (I would never recommend it to someone who was only beginning to learn about the field), but rather with seven short essays that read more like love songs than lessons. And that's exactly what his seven short essays are: they are love songs to and portraits of Einstein's equations, his search for quantum gravity, quantum mechanics, and more.  What a joy these songs, these portraits are to experience!

- Susan