Favorite Layperson's Science and Math Books

  • Billions & Billions by Carl Sagan
  • The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins [ This is a terrific explanation and defense of Darwinian evolution. However, I found Dawkins' atheist overtones distracting and at times illogical. Those aside, I loved it. Refutes many "irreducible complexity" arguments, like those put forth in Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe (actually pre-refutes, since Behe's book is quite recent). ]
  • Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick
  • Complexity by M. Mitchell Waldrop
  • Dancing Naked in the Mind Field by Kary Mullis [ This is not so much a "layperson's science and math book" as it is a collection of entertaining essays written by a famous scientist. Mullis is, as advertised, a bona-fide eccentric. While I remain skeptical of many of the things he claims to believe (astrology, alien abductions, etc.), it's interesting to hear support (if sketchy) for these things coming from someone so obviously (otherwise?) intelligent. ]
  • The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman
  • Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick
  • Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos [ This should be required reading, especially if you gave up math as soon as academically possible (as I did). Enjoyable, engaging, and enlightening. ]
  • The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
  • Probability 1 by Amir Aczel [ While I don't think it adequately responded to Fermi's famous "where is everybody?" question, this was a good read on why intelligent life must be common (I disagree, but a good read nonetheless). An interesting argument framed around Drake's Equation. ]
  • What's Going on in There? by Lise Eliot
  • Your Memory by Kenneth Higbee [ Wonderful book not only about mnemonics (for which there are a million gimmicky titles, but about how your memory works, and how effective mnemonic techniques are. ]

I couldn't make an entire list, but I have 2 or 3 I'd like to mention, if I may.

First, anything that Richard Leakey has written is *excellent* -- specifically, The Sixth Extinction and Origins Revisited come to mind.

Second, Carl Sagan has a way with science. Some of it's a bit touchy-feeley, but I particularly liked The Dragons of Eden.

All the above are about human evolution.

I forgot about Carl Sagan! Thanks for the reminder. Billions & Billions is the only book of his I've read, but I thought it was excellent. I'm looking forward to gradually tackling his entire oeuvre (I'll probably start with A Demon-Haunted World).

I really enjoyed "Chaos", but I found "Genius" far too ponderous and boring. It was a real disappointment for me.

Hmm . . . It didn't really have that effect on me (obviously). Perhaps because it was my first exposure to Feynman, and he was such an interesting individual.

If you want a good read, try "The third culture" by John Brockman, it's a collection of conversations with some of the most intriguing scientists and thinkers of today including Dawkins, Pinker, Gould, Gell-Mann, Schank, Doyne Farmer, Dennet, Margulis, Hillis, etc. It is particularly interesting to read what they have to say about each others theories.

I will definitely have to check that out, thanks! I'll post once I've read it (could be years at my current reading rate, though (I'm a new homeowner, and it--and this site--are taking all my free time)).

Another recommendable book by Sagan is "Pale Blue Dot".

Thanks! Man, my to-read list just keeps getting longer. The next science book I'm going to read (if I get it for Christmas) is: What's Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Eliot. Any comments on this one?

I am think about reading The Myth of the First Three Years by John T. Bruer as a counterpoint to What's Going on in There? and Rare Earth by Peter Douglas Ward and Donald Brownlee as a counterpoint to Probability 1. Anybody think these books are worth checking out, especially in relation to what I've already read?

Jim, I tried to read Dawkin's Unweaving the Rainbow and found his style to be supremely condescending to those who aren't 100% pure hard science people. Is The Blind Watchmaker in a similar style? Is that when you mean about his atheist overtones?

I didn't find him particularly condescending to laypeople, but he was certainly condescending to theists. It was unnecessary and distracting (and in my opinion, misguided (and I'm agnostic, fer cryin' out loud)). But I still recommend it. The chapter where he describes the complexity of echolocation in bats is just incredible.

Jim, thanks muchly for the two links attached to Probabilty 1. There's an excellent quotation (variously attributed) that goes with Fermi's Question: "Either we are alone or we are not, each alternative is mind-boggling."

Thanks! I hadn't heard that quote, and it's a good one. Sums it all up beautifully. I'm currently reading Rare Earth which takes the opposite stance from Probability 1. It's very good, and quite persuasive (and I'm only halfway through).

Jim, my own tendancy is to distrust the assumption that in the universe not only must life be inevitable and common but so must intelligent life. We just don't know enough to justify those assumptions. On the other hand, it's possible to prove X exists by finding X (or being found by X) and bringing back a specimen of X for study, but it isn't possible to prove X doesn't exist (unless X's existence would involve a logical impossibility). And because the non-existence of X can't be proven, there will always be those willing to believe in X despite the complete absence of evidence for X - and, indeed, for all we know, they may well be right.

I agree. You should definitely read Rare Earth. The authors argue (or rather, are building the argument, since I'm still only halfway through) that simple extremeophilic life (like what lives around deep sea vents) might be common (and may even exist in our solar system), but that complex life is probably MUCH more rare. I don't know yet if they believe that complex life is unique in the universe, but they don't rule it out (and so far in the book they're just talking about complex life (plants, animals), they haven't discussed the rarity of intelligent life in a universe where complex life is already rare). They pull from lots of disciplines to make their case.

"Etremeophilic" - extreme-loving - nice neologism. Yes, good point: even if life is chemically inevitable, given certain extreme but non-rare conditions, it might still be the case that life in those conditions could only develop to a comparatively low degree of complexity. And so life beyond that degree of complexity would be rare. On the other hand, one of the things life does (or has been able to do on this planet) is bring about changes in its environment and adapt to those changes, gradually becoming more complex. But, on the third hand, life didn't make all the changes that have occurred on this planet: it may be that biochemical evolutionary changes, favorable astronomical conditions, and large-scale geochemical changes, are necessary preconditions of non-extreme environments in which complex life can develop. So it is indeed an important question: just how rare is Earth?

And here's another: what moral implications would follow from each of the alternatives: alone / not alone? I think the 'alone' case is the more interesting, philosophically. I wonder if anyone has published any thoughts on it. I'll see what I can find.

Yeah, and Rare Earth makes all kinds of extrapolations from what we know (or assume) about how life arose on this planet to how rare we can expect that event to be in the universe. There's the Cambrian Explosion, and how perhaps it was a very specific set of "before" and "after" environmental effects that allowed the sudden proliferation of animal forms. Then there's the notion that complex life seems to have only appeared once in our history (and there's no guarantee it would appear again if an ill-timed comet came by) and that intelligent life has only appeared once (and that there's no guarantee it would appear again if an ill-timed comet came by). And I haven't even gotten to the end where I'm sure they'll tie all these arguments up for me.

I too find the "alone" case more interesting.

Ok, I'm curious as to why you and bertie find the alone case more interesting, from a moral or philosophical point of view. Is it because of what it implies to you about the nature of the universe, about why we exist, about the spiritual nature of things?

I guess, to me, from a moral point of view, it doesn't seem to make any difference, but I think that would depend on what a person assumes about how the universe was created and how we were created. If, from a scientific point of view, we are alone just because we got lucky and a freak chance created us, it seems the same as if the odds were better and there were more cases of intelligent life out there. However, if we assume a higher power created us, then it does seem to make a difference on if we are alone or not.

Just curious as to what you both think.

Well, I'm agnostic (I don't know if there's a God; I haven't heard any compelling arguments from the theists or atheists). I figure that if out of the billions and billions of planets in the universe, there are even two with intelligent life, that doesn't really say anything one way or another. But if we are truly unique (not only currently, but in the history of the universe), that suggests divine intervention. At least, that is what it would suggest to me. Unfortunately, we certainly won't be able to determine our uniqueness during my lifetime, so I'll likely remain agnostic. :-)

That's from a religious point of view. My morality is not driven by a belief in God or other religious teachings (except where those teachings have permeated society and have thus influenced me), so "alone" vs. "not alone" wouldn't really affect my sense of morality.

I see. I think I was looking at it from the opposite point of view as you were. I was taking my assumptions and looking at what the alone/not alone answer would mean within those assumptions, while you are using it to test your assumptions. I hadn't look at it that way, thanks for making me. :)

I think that what you said makes sense, that if we are unique, if life only has ever existed once in the universe, then it would weigh heavily in favor of some kind of divine intervention.

Assuming that it could be known, somehow, that we are unique (which seems to me to be a very nearly impossible thing to know, as we'd have to explore the entire universe for signs of life and not find any anywhere), and that implies the existence of a divine, would that change your moral beliefs? You said that right now they are not predicated on the belief of the divine, but if you suddenly thought the divine definitely did exist, do you think that would change everything?

I don't think so. Proving that a God exists doesn't narrow down which God exists, so I wouldn't know which manual to read. :-) That's a fairly tongue-in-cheek response, but I think it's actually quite close to the truth. I feel I'm a fairly moral creature, but given my agnosticism I'm not sure from what authority my morality is derived (or even if such an authority is required). From what I know of the various world religious, I tend to stay pretty true to their central lessons (minus the faith). So I'm not really sure what I'd do differently.

Also, even though I'm agnostic, I have a pretty good idea of the type of God I'd believe in if I had faith one existed. My God was bored being alone in the universe, so (S)he created life and nudged it towards intelligence. (S)he was tired of not being surprised, so made us unpredictable. Rather than build a universe/world based on lots of complicated rules that constantly needed adjustments, (S)he just created a few rules and particles of infinite simplicity out of which infinite complexity could arise (which allows for the existence of God, physics, and evolution in the same ball of wax).

If God exists, that is. I don't think knowing that a God exists would change much my perception of that God or how I live my life.

And I know I'm going to hell if various branches of Christianity are right and I'm wrong. But I'm not worried (yet). :-)

Hmmm. I'm going to have to resize my browser after responding to this so that the text is more than one word wide. :)

What you said makes sense. I just wonder what would happen if we could somehow prove that we were unique or that a divine presence exists. It seems that many people who are agnostic are partially that way because they don't see any clear choice amongst all of the religions that are there and not believing in one at all. But if they suddenly knew for a certainty that some divine exists, would they then scramble to try to figure out which one was right?

I mean, I don't see that truly religious people would be affected much, as they already have their reasons for believing in a god or goddess, but agnostics who are unsure or aethiests that don't believe in a divine, what would they do? Would they be able to continue as they are? Maybe an agnostic could, since the nature of the divine would be still be unknown. As you said, you still wouldn't know which manual to read. :)

This is a reply to jim and buber re. their above discussion.

I think the 'not alone' case would be less interesting for moral philosophy because two and a half millennia of thought (on and off) has already been devoted to the question(s) of morality between intelligent beings. Also, much thought has also been devoted to the question(s) of moralty between intelligent beings and other living, but non-intelligent, beings. So if we were to meet up with alien life, intelligent or not, elsewhere in the universe, our current moral thought will be quite able to take them into account.

Now, the 'alone' case. I have already argued above that it can never be proved for certain that we are alone: you can't prove X doesn't exist. But I want to suggest that, until and unless there is credible evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life, we can and should, for philosophical puposes at least, assume its non-existence and our own uniqueness (while at the same time keeping a prudent eye open for invading bug-eyed monsters, of course). So what follows, morally, from the assumption that we are alone and unique? An environmental ethic follows, I think. If terrestrial life is unique and valuable, we ought to treasure life and its environment somewhat more avidly than we do.

God (another X that can't be proved not to exist) is not necessary as a foundation for morality. Valuing life and selves is all that is needed. The analogy from valuing one's self to valuing each self is the rational foundation of morality.

I don't understand why you guys think uniqueness implies divine intervention. We are unique, so God exists? Non-sequitur.

Hi bertie, and thanks for your thoughts.

I wonder, on the 'not alone' case, what would happen if we encountered beings that were obviously superior to us in some sense (intelligence or scientific knowledge) since it seems that our morality has all been developed from the point of view of the highest link in the food chain. I realize that some of that is changing, with some groups placing other animals at the same level as humans, but it seems that this is still a minority view and that the majority of humans still view humans as the top. And some still view their sub-group as superior to other groups of humans. How would all of that change if we were clearly no longer the top?

I think that the reason Jim and I were saying that uniqueness implies a divine power is that, if life on Earth arose from chance, no matter how small, the universe is simply too big to not have that happen somewhere else also by chance. At least, that is how it seems to me. If we are truly alone, then that can't be by chance, it would have to be by some outside force that decided to make us alone. I just don't see an event allowed by the laws of the universe, to be so unique as to have only happened once.

For the 'alone' case, does it really change much then? It maybe reinforces some of our current beliefs and morality, maybe making it more imperitive to treat the sanctity of life, but I think that most of the morality we have had up to now has assumed this already. The Earth centered universe pretty much assumed the Earth was alone and our current morality arose from those assumptions (well, not the current morality, per se, but a lot of the fundamentals of Western thought, it seems).

It seems to me that meeting other life, especially intelligent, would do more to shake up our current belief system than some how learning that we are alone.

I'm sure you're right that our finding or being found by aliens we saw as superior would bring about a major intellectual reassessment. But my suggestion was that, for the field of moral philosophy, the aliens would simply be another group of persons. (Moral philosophers use the word 'person' to mean a sentient and rational being. In this sense most humans are persons (newborn babies are not, since they are not rational), but a person is not necessarily a human. It has been claimed by some that adult dolphins are persons, and if intelligent aliens exist they too are very probably persons.) And the question 'What are our moral obligations regarding persons?' is not a new one.

I still don't buy your argument that our uniqueness would be evidence for a divine being. Something so rare that it is unique, the only example of its kind, is merely very unlikely, not Impossible-Without-Divine-Intervention.

Let me suggest that 'the Earth-centered universe' did not involve the belief that we are alone, it involved the belief that the buck stopped with a Mega-Person, a very superior being, called God.

Regarding your second paragraph, I look at it this way . . .

Suppose there are a billion planets in the universe (a ridiculously low number, but then again all these numbers will just be for illustration purposes). We'll call this number "P" (total planets in the universe). Now suppose the chances of a planet harboring complex life is 1 in a million. We would expect to find around 1000 planets with complex life on them. Conversely, suppose the chances for complex life are 1 in a trillion. In that case, the presense of complex life anywhere would be quite surprising. For complex life to be unique, the odds have to match (more or less) 1/P. Only in that case would we expect uniqueness. Now consider that we are dealing with MUCH larger numbers than these. If the odds of complex life are better than 1/P we'd expect to find more than one planet with it (and anything less is fishy). If the odds of complex life are worse than 1/P, then the existence of animals on Earth is quite a surprise. On the other hand, if the odds for complex life equals 1/P, then we'd expect uniqueness. But that too is fishy! From a probability perspective the odds are MUCH higher that the chance of life arising is either *somewhere* greater than or less than 1/P rather than 1/P exactly. Considering the vast number of alternatives to the probability of life equaling 1/P, hitting it on the nose seems, quite frankly, next-to-impossible.

But I only have a layperson's understanding of probability. Maybe I've got it all wrong on the math end.

I think you are more or less right, Jim, except that, since these are probabilities, they only tell what is likely to happen. And I think looking at it in this way maybe is what Bertie is doing (Bertie, tell me if I'm wrong).

To make the numbers a little simpler to write, I'll use smaller numbers.

Assume that P=100. If the probability of life existing on a good planet is 50%, then in a large number of universes, on average each would contain 50 planets with life. But, it's possible that in any given universe, there is no life or all planets have life (or, just 1... ours?). Conversely, if the odds are 0.00001%, on average, we would find no life in the universes, but maybe one would have 1 planet with life (and all of the others none). So, maybe the odds are much smaller than the number of available planets, but we just got lucky?

If I understand correctly, this may be one form of the anthropic principle. We exist because the odds were such that we could exist.

I think that the point about probabilities, though, is that you have to conduct the experiment many times for them to be meaningful. For one universe, the probabilities aren't too meaningful in and of themselves.

Good post. Regarding the last question as to why I believe uniqueness implies divine intervention (note the word "implies" - I wouldn't go so far as to say "unique proves God exists").

My reason for feeling that way is perhaps a shallow one, but here's how I see it. There are billions and billions of stars, around which there are presumably even more planets. For me, I can readily envision a universe in which complex life fails to arise. And I can readily envision a universe in which complex life is rare, but nonethess arises more than once. But I can't imagine complex life being so "uniquely rare" that it would arise once and only once. That would imply that the probability of complex life arising is exactly one in whatever the exact number of habitable planets is (or somewhere in that ballpark). What a coincidence! So if we're truly unique, it seems to me we must have been "nudged" out of the primordial soup. Or maybe we're just a once-in-the-universe fluke, but that proposition seems fishy to me.

Jim, it seems to me that you and buber are potential devotees of The Anthropic Principle.

Mmm, not really. I understand the conundrum with The Anthropic Principle - of course the universe seems tuned to produce us, we're here to observe the phenomenon. Were it not, we wouldn't be here, but we are, so there you go. It's all rather circular.

Personally, all I really get out of The Anthropic Principle is that the universe seems to allow life. It says nothing about it's commonness or rarity. I'm afraid I don't really see how it relates to what I feel the implications for "uniqueness" might be. Can you help?

(I should add that I doubt Rare Earth makes the claim that we are unique in the universe - I'm guessing they will suggest that complex life arises rarely, and then it's only around for a relatively short period of time before some mass extinction wipes it out - the "unique in the universe" thing I've been mulling over it just mental gymnastics (not like the uneven bars - more like a basic somersault :-). If the odds of life appearing are exactly "1 in the number of planents in the universe", I'd find that too odd to let pass. Sure any given combination is just as likely as any other, but once you start looking for a particular combination, the odds are vanishingly remote.)

Jim, it seems to me that proponents of the Anthropic Principle are suggesting that the probabilty of Earth and human life being as they are = 1 because the universe (or this universe) was designed to make them inevitable. I do see that neither you nor buber have said that, which is why I speculated that you were 'potential' devotees.

One strong argument against a Designer of Universes was provided by the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume. He pointed out that the Designer Argument is an analogy and a very weak one. The Designer Argument boils down to:

1. Some objects have the appearance of having been designed.

2. We know those objects have a designer, because we humans design them.

3. Animals, habitats, indeed the world as a whole [Anthropic Principle], has the appearance of being designed.

4. Therefore animals, habitats, indeed the world as a whole, had a Designer.

This is a weak analogy because, in order to be considered strong, an analogy must compare two things (or groups of things) that have many properties in commom, but the Designer Analogy can only point to one property that human-designed objects and the world as a whole have in common: they have the appearance of having been designed.

Darwin showed that, for living things, the appearance of having been designed can be explained by the process of evolution by natural selection. But what of the universe as a whole? Are there species of universe, and do those species evolve? If so, what could the agent of selection be? God? The problem is that we only have evidence of one universe; we can't compare our universe with another, except in speculation.

Ah, I missed the significance of your use of the word "potential." With you now . . .

Bertie, I don't think I would consider myself a devotee of the Anthropic Principle. If I understand it correctly, which I'm never sure I do, the idea is that we exist because the universe is designed to make us exist. I don't feel that way. But, it's more that, if we exist, then one of two things are likely true: the laws of nature are condusive for life to appear and the probability for this to be true is non-negligible. Therefore, since we exist, it is likely that others exist as well. Or, we are unique and the universe was designed to make us unique. (Maybe this is the Anthropic principle again, though my understanding of the Anthropic principle is that the universe is designed to make life possible, but not necessarily unique.) It would imply to me that something caused the universe to be so designed as to make us unique. A non-designed universe, one in which there was no intent to gear it to create life uniquely, but in which life arose anyways, would lead me to believe that life is therefore not unique, as I have a hard time believing, as Jim states, that the odds are just 1 in the universe, that the probability of life appearing in a non-designed universe is just so that it only appears once.

I personally go more with the first statement, that we are likely not unique.

PS I just want to thank you both, bertie and jim, for a very interesting discussion. I think that this sharing of ideas and points of view, especially ones that don't mesh exactly with our own, is the best thing about the Listology.

And I hope anyone else with thoughts on this topic will feel free to jump in.

I'd like to pillage this list for my 2005 book challenge. Which were your favorites (excepting Blind Watchmaker - I'm already reading 3 or 4 evolution books), if you can remember?

Tough call, but I think Genius and Innumeracy are probably a cut above.

Thank you.

Thanks again, I loved Innumeracy!

So glad to hear it!