Recommended Books for the Inquisitive or for the fun of it

In summary, this book is dense and expensive, but it is an excellent source of information on the history of mathematics.
  • #1
gleem
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I started this thread since there doesn't seem to be one about books on various topics meant for the inquisitive but non-expert person. These books might fill small niches in one's knowledge of our world. Sometimes we find a book that is just a lot of fun.

I just finished "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson (2003). It is about how the knowledge of our world and some of the theories that help us understand it developed over time.

The interest and value of this book, as I see it, is not in the facts but in the processes and personalities of the scientists that discovered and evaluated the discoveries. A takeaway from the book is that a new idea is often criticized or ignored by the current authority. If it is valid then it may be deemed unimportant by the same. Finally, these new ideas are often forgotten for an extended time before universal acceptance and are sometimes attributed to the wrong person.

Some factual errors may be caught by the specialist or from verification of numerical data, but this is not a text for learning those sciences. A reviewer stated that the material was annoyingly free of errors. If the reader is interested, there is an online list of several dozen corrections.

This is the second book I have read from Bryson, the first being "The Body; A Guide for Occupants" (2019) which is basically a travel guide of the human body in and out and is also recommended.

Bryson is an excellent writer and witty. Bryson is noted for his travel books but has also written about language. Another of his books "A Walk in the Wood", based on his introduction to the Appalachian Trail, was made into a movie starring Nick Nolte and Robert Redford.

I am looking forward to reading his other books, especially on language.
 
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  • #2
gleem said:
I started this thread since there doesn't seem to be one about books on various topics meant for the inquisitive but non-expert person. These books might fill small niches in one's knowledge of our world. Sometimes we find a book that is just a lot of fun.

I just finished "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson (2003). It is about how the knowledge of our world and some of the theories that help us understand it developed over time.

The interest and value of this book, as I see it, is not in the facts but in the processes and personalities of the scientists that discovered and evaluated the discoveries. A takeaway from the book is that a new idea is often first excoriated and suppressed by the current authority. If it is valid then it is deemed unimportant by the same. Finally, these new ideas are often forgotten for an extended time before universal acceptance and are sometimes attributed to the wrong person.

Some factual errors may be caught by the specialist or from a verification of numerical data, but this is not a text for learning those sciences. A reviewer stated that the material was annoyingly free of errors. If the reader is interested, there is an online list of several dozen corrections.

This is the second book I have read from Bryson, the first being "The Body; A Guide for Occupants" (2019) which is basically a travel guide of the human body in and out and is also recommended.

Bryson is an excellent writer and witty. Bryson is noted for his travel books but has also written about language. Another of his books "A Walk in the Wood", based on his introduction to the Appalachian Trail, was made into a movie starring Nick Nolte and Robert Redford.

I am looking forward to reading his other books, especially on language.
@fresh_42 did a popsci insight on books for the lay person
 
  • #3
pinball1970 said:
@fresh_42 did a popsci insight on books for the lay person
Not really. I wrote a comment about real scientists contributing to popular science mainly on tv but also via books and magazines. It is more my personal view on the Kaku's, deGrasse Tyson's, Hawking's, and Lesch's in the world.

I own a few books that fit into this category here but they are written in German. This is probably the case for many members. You normally read such books in your native language. Even a little book by Martin Gardner that I have is in German.

E.g., I have a book (once won in a lottery!) about the history of mathematics between roughly 1700 and 1900 written by a French mathematician (Jean Dieudonné). My version is translated into German and I frequently quote from it. It's nearly 1,000 pages thick and includes dozens of short biographies of the mathematicians who occur in it. Since I try to list my references in my insight articles, I was searching for an English translation as a reference but couldn't find one. Unfortunately, because it is a really, really good book and can be read with little mathematical knowledge.
 
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  • #4
Since I visited Kitty Hawk on Saturday: "The Wright Brothers", by David McCullough. It is of course a biography/history boo, but the first section is by necessity largely description of their process.

"We had to go ahead and discover everything ourselves."
-Orville

Later sections have much on the literal/figurative politics of it. Speaking of which:
gleem said:
I just finished "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson (2003). It is about how the knowledge of our world and some of the theories that help us understand it developed over time.

The interest and value of this book, as I see it, is not in the facts but in the processes and personalities of the scientists that discovered and evaluated the discoveries. A takeaway from the book is that a new idea is often first excoriated and suppressed by the current authority. If it is valid then it is deemed unimportant by the same. Finally, these new ideas are often forgotten for an extended time before universal acceptance and are sometimes attributed to the wrong person.
Can you provide some examples from the book? I'm curious because that level of "politics" in the process sounds obsolete/like ancient history to me.
 
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  • #5
russ_watters said:
"We had to go ahead and discover everything ourselves."
-Orville
I was impressed when I heard that they invented the wind tunnel (which may or may not be true) in order to discover things themselves.
Pretty sophisticated for bicycle makers.
 
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  • #6
BillTre said:
I was impressed when I heard that they invented the wind tunnel (which may or may not be true) in order to discover things themselves.
Pretty sophisticated for bicycle makers.
Not true, but among the first, and agree it's impressive. You really do get the sense from the museum and book that they were approaching it much more scientifically/systematically than many of their contemporaries, who seemed to be taking shots in the dark or from "logic" without experimentation - which led them astray because some parts of it are counterintuitive. There are many other examples beyond just the wind tunnel where the prevailing wisdom was just plain wrong and they had to invent/discover the right way. Twisted propellers was another biggie.
 
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  • #7
russ_watters said:
There are many other examples beyond just the wind tunnel where the prevailing wisdom was just plain wrong and they had to invent/discover the right way.
As Feynman put it so well "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts". I too am greatly in awe of the brothers Wright and grew up just 20 miles down the road from Huffman Prairie (now Wright-Patterson AFB). Once Rode bicycle up the outer banks....wonderful spot. :smile:
 
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  • #8
gleem said:
I started this thread since there doesn't seem to be one about books on various topics meant for the inquisitive but non-expert person.
I am very fond of everything by John McPhee. Most particularly "The Curve of Binding Energy" about Ted Taylor .
 
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  • #9
BillTre said:
Pretty sophisticated for bicycle makers.

I have read that their advantage was use of calculus to make a more efficient propeller.

Automobiles and bicycles were the new hi tech back then. Just imagine the difficulty of building a bicycle from scratch if you can't buy the parts.
 
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  • #10
Hornbein said:
Automobiles and bicycles were the new hi tech back then. Just imagine the difficulty of building a bicycle from scratch if you can't buy the parts.
Yes, though if you have access to bicycle parts you may as well build an airplane from them, amirite!? Such as the drivetrain for the propellers, bicycle wheel hubs to guide the plane down the launch rail and spoke wires for the wing truss tensioners. You can see how their profession and general mechanical know-how played a role.
 
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  • #11
hutchphd said:
I am very fond of everything by John McPhee. Most particularly "The Curve of Binding Energy" about Ted Taylor .
I see that he is a prolific writer with an eclectic interest. Your suggestion is what I had hoped that this thread would generate. Thanks.
 
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  • #12
russ_watters said:
Can you provide some examples from the book? I'm curious because that level of "politics" in the process sounds obsolete/like ancient history to me.
Sorry about taking so long. The stories of various scientific theories are sometimes interwind and it took a while to tease out the relevant information.

One Theory that took a while to be accepted was the existence of an ice age and the geological effects of glaciers. A naturalist by the name of Jean de Charpentier in 1834 was told by a woodcutter in Switzerland that boulders were transported to their present location by Grimsel the local glacier. He presented the idea at a scientific meeting but it was dismissed. He shared his idea with a fellow naturalist Lous Agassiz. Agassiz took the ideas as his own to the dismay of de Charpentier. Agassix's mentor botanist Karl Schimper had proposed an ice sheet extending throughout the northern hemisphere and coined the term ice age. He lent Agassiz his notes then regretted it as Agassiz began to take credit for the idea.

Agassiz could not find support for this theory. The leading member of the Geological Society (England) did not endorse this theory. His theory was criticized at a meeting in Glasgow by another renowned Geologist Charles Lyell whose Geology text was widely used. Although Lyell came to eventually accept glaciation as a landscape-changing force but he still did not publically support Agassiz.
ily Agassizs upon going to America to give lectures was immediately given support for his theory and a professorship at Harvard. He must have had some charisma since after he died his theory fell out of favor it seems primarily because there was no good mechanism for accounting for an ice age.

Darwin's evolution theory is another example of the refusal of the scientific community to entertain his idea. Although the situation was more complex because of the conflict with religious ideas and lack of sound evidence not much attention was paid during his life. Even Mendel's genetic theory while key to evolution both Mendel and Darwin did not see the relationship[ between their theories even though they were aware of each other's theories.

gleem said:
A takeaway from the book is that a new idea is often first excoriated and suppressed by the current authority. If it is valid then it is deemed unimportant by the same. Finally, these new ideas are often forgotten for an extended time before universal acceptance and are sometimes attributed to the wrong person.
I have edited the above statement as the use of excoriated is a bit hyperbolic. However, IIRC paleoanthropology did develop some serious reactions. More generally these radical ideas tended to be criticized publically or ignored led by leading authorities.
 
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  • #13
russ_watters said:
Since I visited Kitty Hawk on Saturday: "The Wright Brothers", by David McCullough. It is of course a biography/history boo, but the first section is by necessity largely description of their process.
Sorry again that I missed this. David McCullough is a wonderful writer. I read his account of the building of the Panama Canal; "The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914"

 
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  • #14
1491 and 1493, the first is about the pre-Columbian Americas and the second about the Columbian exchange and its impact on Europe and China. Deals with topics like the 90%+ population decline from European diseases created a false impression of a pristine wilderness, when in fact the landscape was actively managed until the population collapsed, often before anyone actually saw a European. 1493 deals with the importation of first vivax and then falciparum malaria, which created the economic demand for malaria-resistant African slaves, also the guano trade and the 18th century population explosion in China, which was driven by corn and sweet potatoes which could thrive in hilly country unsuitable for rice or wheat. Great examples of what you can learn about history from science rather than period narratives
 
  • #15
gleem said:
Darwin's evolution theory is another example of the refusal of the scientific community to entertain his idea. Although the situation was more complex because of the conflict with religious ideas and lack of sound evidence not much attention was paid during his life. Even Mendel's genetic theory while key to evolution both Mendel and Darwin did not see the relationship[ between their theories even though they were aware of each other's theories.
I think the acceptance of Darwin's theory and its relation with genetics is a bit more complex.
My understanding is that it quickly gained acceptance from many biologists, except those with religious reservations. This seems to me of lack of acceptance in a specific subgroups.
Similar non-scientist people may have tended to fall into the second group, but there were also large public lectures on the subject, which many were able to understand (because its basically pretty simple conceptually).
In addition, taxonomies of species based on evolutionary and pre-evolutionary approaches matched up quite well. These greased the skids for moving professional biologists from pre-evolution to evolution thinking because their pre-existing knowledge would be easily transferred rather than having to be rebuilt.

The mechanism most cited as missing from Darwin's (and Wallace's) work was an explanation of inheritance. Mendel's work took till after 1900 to be rediscovered and appreciated.
Although, Darwin did have a copy Mendel's paper, I have read that there was no obvious evidence he read it (lots of stuff in the library?). Darwin (and many others) understood this lack of mechanism, which explains the rapid acceptance of Mendel's findings after their rediscovery. Darwin tried to come up with his own inheritance explanation, but it did not work out well.
About 20 or 30 years after the rediscovery of Mendel, and the blossoming of transmission genetics (transmission across the generations), Darwinan thinking was combined with the new understanding of genetics and population genetics in The Modern Synthesis (which is now old).
There remained issues of compatibility with generative processes (like developmental processes) which have been subsequently woven into new theoretical thought.
 
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  • #16
My short discussion of Darwin's theory left out a lot and the discussion of Bryson may have glossed over some details Darwin learned of Mendel's work from the publications of Wilhelm Olbers Focke. Mendel had a copy of Origens. Apparently, the Encyclopedia Britannica which was more influential at that time helped keep Mendel's work from sinking into obscurity.

It is interesting that two Important theories fell into a state of desuetude for nearly a half-century before they were united.
 
  • #17
"Even Mendel's genetic theory while key to evolution both Mendel and Darwin did not see the relationship[ between their theories even though they were aware of each other's theories."

Darwin's theory of natural selection was based on artificial selection. This was widely practiced and an indisputable fact. I don't see why the Darwin/Wallace theory needs to specify a mechanism for inheritability to be credible. Indeed the whole thing seems to be common sense. The only barrier was millenia of tradition, something not to be underestimated. Even Albert Einstein, whose thinking was as innovative and flexible as anyone's, fell victim to it by failing to notice that his theories forbade a static universe. He does have the excuse that he was distracted by even more substantial things. If he'd ever focused his attention on the issue he surely would have got it. That just goes to show that coming up with the questions can be the hard part, with the answer to the question being a simple matter.
 

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