5 Great Books For Science Lovers and Other Geeks
Rushing outside to stare up at the moon, I couldn't believe that men were up there, walking around. It was the summer of 1969. The historic journey of Apollo 11 signified an extraordinary century of technological advancement, progress that has only accelerated with the arrival of personal computers, the internet and other wonders.
How did it all come about? Who made it happen?
Fortunately, there are some terrific new books that help to tell the story. Here are five worth investigating:
1. Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson. Inspired by Alan Turing, a British mathematician who envisioned a single machine capable of performing any calculation, the famed scientist John von Neumann (one of the architects of the atomic bomb) and his Princeton colleagues ushered in the digital age. Dyson's book chronicles their five-year push, carried out under the pressure of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race during the late 1940s, to create the first truly modern, programmable computer. The author captures the personalities and frenetic pace of those years while noting how far computers have evolved -- to a point that today's sophisticated machines now rival the complexity of living organisms, making it more and more difficult to fully understand them, reviewer Konstantin Kakaes notes in The Wall Street Journal. Marc Mohan of the Portland Oregonian calls the story riveting. "Dyson's description of the physical construction of the machine, with all its vacuum tubes, capacitors, and whatsits, is enough to make a layman's head spin at times," Mohan admits. "But he's clear enough that the basics get through, and when you stop to imagine that all these same electronic processes are going on all around us, trillion-fold, every second of the day, just much, much tinier, it's enough to make your head spin some more." The peer-reviewed web journal First Monday calls the book ambitious and exciting. "I literally could not put Turing's Cathedral down," writes reviewer Edward J. Valauskas.
Here's an interview with George Dyson in the British newspaper The Observer.
2. The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner. Long before there was a Silicon Valley, the best technical minds congregated at the New Jersey campus of Bell Laboratories to develop some of the century's greatest innovations -- radar, lasers, transistors, satellites, mobile phones and other miracles. During its heyday from the 1920s to the 1980s, the lab employed up to 15,000 people at a time. Thirteen of them would go on to win Nobel Prizes. "For a long stretch of the 20th century, it was the most innovative scientific organization in the world," author Gertner, who writes for The New York Times, notes in a column about his book. Bell Labs rivaled the Apollo program and the Manhattan Project in scale and gave virtually unlimited time and freedom to its scientists, resulting in amazing advancements across a range of fields. "One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries," says Julia Kirby of the Harvard Business Review, quoting Winnie-the-Pooh author A.A. Milne. The great research-and-development labs of yesteryear were hotbeds of creativity, a commodity often in short supply at today's stripped-down companies, Kirby says. "I loved this book," writes reviewer Stephen Mills on the website The Rat Race Trap. "The science and technology that came out of the labs during that period are mind-boggling."
3. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick. To hear Gleick tell it, information is the lifeblood of human society, and his sweeping narrative explores the increasingly sophisticated way information is viewed and shared. A key moment occurred in 1948, when mathematician Claude Shannon, writing in a Bell Labs technical journal, illustrated how information could be transmitted as binary digits. "Shannon's paper, published the same year as the invention of the transistor, instantaneously created the field of information theory, with broad applications in engineering and computer science," says reviewer Geoffrey Nunberg in The New York Times. Despite some quibbles with the book's semantics, Nunberg calls it "a prodigious intellectual survey" that deserves to be on any reading list. David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times agrees, praising the "wide-ranging, deeply researched and delightfully engaging history" that extends from the time of Homer to "our contemporary culture of downloads and data clouds."
For anyone not familiar with Gleick's works, I also strongly recommend his earlier books, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, about the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and Chaos: Making a New Science. The latter book, especially, will open your eyes to a new way of seeing the world.
4. Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science by Lawrence M. Krauss. Speaking of Feynman, he was a biographer's dream -- flamboyant, witty, a game-changing thinker who was an avid bongo player -- and plenty of writers wrote about him. In addition to Gleick's book, there's the autobiographical Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, as well as Jagdish Mehra's The Beat of a Different Drum and Christopher Sykes's No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, leading New York Times reviewer George Johnson to wonder if there's a need for yet another biography. However, Krauss, who's also a physicist, "emerges with an enlightening addition to the field," Johnson says. Feynman's role in shaping the past century is immense. Like von Neumann, he helped to create the atomic bomb, and made far-reaching contributions to quantum theory and others. Carl Rollyson of The Wall Street Journal says the book is stronger dealing with the physics than exploring Feynman the man. "Krauss certainly finds room to discuss Feynman's offbeat personality, but he refuses to speculate on how it might have influenced his science," Rollyson writes. "To be sure, Feynman disparaged the notion that his interests outside of science had anything to do with his physics. But such denial should serve to challenge the biographer."
5. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Isaacson's meaty biography, undertaken after Jobs was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that eventually killed him, was one of the biggest blockbusters of 2011 and is certainly worth reading if you haven't yet. Isaacson gives readers perhaps the best glimpse inside the secretive world of Apple, arguably the closest thing today to Bell Labs, and portrays Jobs the way friends and colleagues knew him -- a titan but not a saint. The book "lets us look into the abyss of a very dark soul indeed, and as repellent as parts of it may be, it still fascinates," writes James Strodes in the Washington Times. Richard Rayner of the Los Angeles Times says, "The saga of Steve Jobs is the Silicon Valley creation myth writ large: launching a startup in his parents' garage and building it into the world's most valuable company."
SecondAct asks: So what books are you enjoying? Share your recent reads in the comments field below.
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