Christmas Book Recommendations

Book recommendations, organized by category.


Hidden Unity in Nature's Laws by John C. Taylor

This is an excellent overview of theoretical Physics. It is not pop science, but it is readable and it does not assume that you have a background in the sciences, just that you are intelligent and can handle a few equations. It goes over all the major theories of physics and shows how they fit together into the conceptual framework of modern physics.

QED by Richard Feynman

This is a really good introduction to quantum theory. It discusses the observations that quantum theory explains, and then it shows how quantum theory explains those observations. It gives you the empirical basis for quantum theory in everyday observations and simple experiments. If you want a basic understanding of quantum theory, read this book, not some pop-science book on the "multiverse".

Chaos by James Gleick

This is a book I read when I was around 20 years old, and I really enjoyed it. It is a bit pop sciency, but not too much. It discusses various ideas that have come to be known as "Chaos Theory" (a bit of an oxymoron). Chaos theory deals with how very simple, ordered processes can generate chaotic results. It deals with very general notions of how things come to be, including macroscopic physical phenomena such as clouds, storms, turbulence, the growth of plants, the meandering of rivers, population fluctuations, etc. If you want to understand reality, you have to understand not just things that can be isolated in laboratories, but large-scale phenomena that occur in the real world. Chaos theory is part of what I would call "systems theory", which means trying to understand complex wholes, not just isolated parts.


The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins

This book takes you an a pilgrimage back in time along pathways of genetic descent, from a leaf on the tree of life (you) back to the origin of life. As you travel down the tree of life, you are joined by other pilgrims from other branches, and you hear their stories.  It is loosely based on The Canterbury Tales, by Chaucer. Telling the story in this way, backwards in time, emphasizes that evolution is not a ladder of progress, but rather a process that generates an explosion of complexity: the tree of life.
This book contains a lot of fascinating information and it is an easy read, so I highly recommend it. I think it is the best book ever written on the story of life.

Rare Earth by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee

The point of the book is that the Earth is probably a very unusual planet, and that complex life is probably very rare in the cosmos. It deals with the physical conditions that are necessary for the biosphere, and there are a lot of them. The planet must be in the right orbit around the right kind of star, in the right part of the galaxy (not in the center). The planet should have enough metals to sustain geological processes and generate a magnetic field. The planet must be the right temperature. It must have some water, but not too much. There must be no sterilizing impacts or other global catastrophes, such as runaway global warming or cooling. Read this book and ponder the rarity of the Earth and complex life in the Universe.

I also recommend a series of podcasts by Christian Shorey on Earth Science:

podcast folder

Lectures 43 - 51


In Search of the Indo-Europeans by J. P. Mallory

This book is an overview of the linguistic, archaeological and historic evidence regarding the Indo-Europeans. It mainly deals with the mystery of where they came from.

At some time around 3000 BC, there was a culture of people living somewhere in Eurasia, who spoke a language called "Proto-Indo-European". That language is the ancestor of almost all the languages of Europe and many languages in Asia, including the Latin languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Romanian, etc.), the Baltic languages (Latvian and Lithuanian), the Germanic languages (German, Dutch, English, Swedish, etc.), the Celtic languages (Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Breton), the Slavic languages (Russian, Czech, Bulgarian, etc.),  Greek, Armenian, the Iranian languages (Persian, Tajik, Pashto), the Indo-Aryan languages (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, etc), and some extinct languages once spoken in Asia, such as Tocharian and Hittite.

We know from linguistic evidence that these languages came from a common root language, called PIE, that was spoken by people living in some relatively small part of Eurasia. In the distant past, before recorded history, speakers of Indo-European languages spread from their ancestral homeland and occupied most of Europe, India, and large parts of W. Asia. They were mixed agriculturalists who kept cattle and horses, had wheeled vehicles and some metal-working ability. They probably were the first domesticators of the horse. It is somewhat speculative where they originated, but the most widely accepted theory is that the Indo-European homeland was on the Eurasian steppe region north of the Black Sea, in what is now part of Ukraine and Russia.

As for why and how they spread, I think it was probably due to some new disease that they were relatively immune to, perhaps because it came from livestock. This is just a guess, but I think a disease depopulated the landscape ahead of them, allowing them to rapidly expand into new areas. Something similar happened in the Americas after European contact in the 1500s, which brings me to my next book.

1491 by Charles C. Mann

This book is about the Americas before Columbus. It argues against the conventional view of the Pre-Columbian Americas as a sparsely populated wilderness. Instead, it makes the case that most of the Americas were quite densely populated. The popular conception of the native Americans as hunter-gatherers living in a wilderness little affected by humanity is simply false. The flora and fauna of the Americas were profoundly impacted by the arrival of human beings roughly 15,000 years ago. I made a video about that called "A Mastodon in Every Pot", in which I explained how the population of the Americas grew rapidly after its initial discovery by human beings. Many large animals went extinct in the Americas after the arrival of human beings, including horses, saber tooth cats, mammoths and mastodons, giant beavers, ground sloths, giant armadillos, etc. After its initial population explosion, the human population of the Americas stayed at or near the carrying capacity of the environment for their food production methods. Agriculture emerged quite early in the Americas, at least 6000 years ago. Most of the Native Americans were farmers, not hunter-gatherers. Even those who practiced hunting and gathering did not simply wander around in the wilderness looking for food. They managed the landscape, mostly with fire, to make it more productive, and used various methods to reliably harvest wild foods.

Some parts of the book are a bit speculative or exaggerated, but its basic point is true and important: the Americas were fairly densely populated prior to European contact, and they were rapidly depopulated by disease between 1500 and 1700. The die-off of the human population created the wilderness that later explorers (but not early explorers) encountered. Even prior to the modern era, human beings had profound effects on landscapes.


Ecological Imperialism by Alfred W. Crosby

This book tells the story of the recent spread of Europeans, especially the conquest of the Americas, from an ecological perspective. It is a like a better and shorter version of "Guns, Germs and Steel". It describes how European colonizers brought an entire ecological package with them, which included diseases, crops, animals and various other hitchhikers, and how this changed the ecology of the colonized areas, especially the Americas. It was not just white people who settled in the Americas, it was also cattle, pigs and horses, earthworms and honeybees, wheat and peaches. The landscape of the Americas was profoundly changed by the introduction of new species. This book also spends quite a bit of time talking about the European development of wind power and sailing technology, which was a necessary prelude to world conquest. Europeans learned how to use the trade winds to navigate around the world in sailing ships. Without tapping into this natural energy source, long distance trade would not have been economical, and Europeans would not have colonized the New World. But they did, and now the Americas, Australia and New Zealand are "Neo-Europes" ecologically and culturally.

The Enemy at the Gate by Andrew Wheatcroft

This book tells the story of the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683. It also goes into quite a bit of detail on the preceding expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Europe, and the subsequent reconquest of Eastern Europe, which was led mainly by the Austro-Hungarian alliance. It is very readable and fascinating. One thing I found very interesting is the way they fought in those days, with a combination of guns, bombs, swords, spears, trenches, tunneling under fortress walls to blow them up, horse charges and even a precursor to barbed wire: a movable fence with boar spears sticking out of it. It also tells a fascinating story of the clash between Islam and Europe, and how the different sides used different strategies and tactics.

The Turks tried again and again to breach the walls of Vienna by tunneling underneath and exploding bombs. Vienna was defended by a small force of determined men, fighting in the rubble of their defensive walls. The climactic final battle of the siege involved German foot-soldiers marching down a hillside and fighting entrenched Turks with swords and muskets, while a Polish cavalry force struggled down a wooded hillside onto an open plain, and then charged into a hail of gunfire and arrows, smashing into the Turkish host with their lances. It's a great story.

Political Fiction

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

This book deals with the personal and the political. It shows that the political debates and struggles of our time are not that different from those that occurred over a century ago. It is set in London in the early 1900s, before WWI. It centers on a group of anarcho-communist revolutionaries plotting to carry out terrorist acts. It deals with the underlying motives of political action, which are personal and rather mundane. It deals with the hypocrisy and self-deception of human nature. It is a very dark, tragic book, in which there are no good guys and no glory, just people motivated by varying degrees of self-interest and hatred.

If you are interested in Ted Kaczynski you should know that this was one of Ted's favorite books and he modeled himself on a character called "The Professor". The professor is working on a perfect detonation device, and goes around wired to explode at a moment's notice, should the police choose to arrest him. He is an interesting character, although peripheral to the story. The professor is inspired almost entirely by nihilistic hatred, with only a thin veneer of ideology.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

This is a comedic novel set in the early 1960s in New Orleans. It also deals with the intersection of the personal and the political. The main character is Ignatius Reilly, a fat NEET in revolt against the modern world. He lives with his mother and spends his time writing philosophical treatises. His mother wants him to get a job, and the book tells the story of his misadventures dealing with reality. He has a long-distance love-hate relationship with a New York Jewish communist girl named Myra Minkoff. He is fedora man and she is an SJW. The book demonstrates that these stereotypes do not depend on the internet. Both characters are self-absorbed and almost completely oblivious to reality. They are spoiled children who failed to grow up, and instead live in a fantasy world in which they are heroic rebels, fighting on opposing sides. It's a very funny book.

Sadly, the author killed himself before his book was published, and it was his mother who finally got it published.

Philosophical Fiction

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

I'm a big Lewis Carroll fan. His books are often considered to be children's books, but adults will get more out of them. Lewis Carroll used the format of a children's story to play with ideas, including problems of philosophy and psychology. In Wonderland the presuppositions of ordinary life and ordinary discourse are not assumed, and so almost every conversation or situation involves some sort of philosophical conundrum.

I anticipate some people saying that Lewis Carroll was a pedophile. Of course, that wouldn't affect the merits of his writing, but I thought I would address it anyway. He might have been a pedophile in some sense, although there is nothing that conclusively demonstrates that, and there is no evidence he ever molested or harmed anyone. He did befriend several young girls. (Cultural norms were different in those times.) The Alice character was based on a young girl, Alice Liddell, who was 10 at the time he wrote the first story. The details of his inner life are unknown, but he was a shy, boyish man who never married.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Series by Douglas Adams

This is another work of philosophical/absurdist fiction, but in this case it is science fiction. It is a trilogy of 5 books that tells the story of Arthur Dent, an ordinary Englishman, who finds out one day that his best friend is from Betelgeuse and the Earth is about to destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. He escapes with his friend by sneaking aboard one of the destroyer ships, and they go on to have various random adventures throughout space and time. Randomness is a big part of the story, and it is one of the recurring themes of the book.

Douglas Adams conceived of the idea for the story when he was on a hitchhiking trip around Europe. He was lying in a field one night, somewhat drunk, looking up at the stars, and he wondered what it would be like to hitchhike through space. Hitchhiking is a metaphor for a random journey. The story is a random journey through time and space. It is also a random journey through ideas.

In a way, it is like an existentialist novel, such as "The Stranger" by Camus, or "Nausea" by Sartre. It deals with the absurdity of life and the human condition: that we are thrown into existence without an explicit raison d'etre or instruction manual. We exist and we have to deal with existence. Arthur Dent is lost. He is lost in space and time. He has no home to go back to, and nowhere else to go. He is just wandering around. He has a guidebook, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is something like Wikipedia as an e-book. (Douglas Adams anticipated both the eBook and Wikipedia.) However, the Hitchhiker's Guide doesn't tell you where to go or what to do. It just provides you with some information about where you are and various places you could go.

I think that the main theme of the story is nihilism: the absence of a rational basis for existence, meaning, truth or value. The nihilism of Adam's worldview is seen in the running joke about the question to the ultimate answer of life, the universe, and everything. The joke is that the answer is known to be 42, but no one knows the question to the ultimate answer. The story begins as an absurdist comedy, and ends as an absurdist tragedy. Or perhaps it starts as a tragic comedy and ends as a comic tragedy. I think that is the natural arc of nihilism. When you are young nihilism can be liberating and fun, but eventually the absence of ultimate answers, or questions, leads to despair.

The story is also a satire on human nature and modern society. Adams makes fun of human self-importance, bureaucracy, politics, religion, technology, academia, and many other things. It is a very funny book.

Douglas Adams started writing the books in his mid twenties, and he finished the last book when he was 40. To some extent, you can trace the outline of his life in the story. He died when he was only 49. I remember hearing about his death and being stunned and saddened by the news. I grew up reading his books.