Ten books for stimulating thoughts about science

May 9, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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‘Which books did you find helpful for thinking about science?’

Here’s my answer, off the top of my head: ten thought-provoking, intriguing, sometimes obstreperous works.

Note that they’re deliberately not science books, and some are only tangentially ‘about’ science. (Maybe I’ll try science books the next time I feel the need for a ‘top ten’ list.)

Note too that I don’t have images for all of them; this is because I borrowed some — a strategy I’d recommend if you’re not sure you’ll want to read and reread. If you do want to buy them, please consider either buying from an independent bookshop like Blackwells, or helping me out by going via my Amazon store. Thanks!

These books set readers a challenge: to think differently about science (and life), to see it from a new angle, and most of all to put it in a context. Even for professional scientists, it’s hard not to spend all your time and energy reading about research, doing it, teaching it, keeping up with the literature, coping with admin, etc. But that leaves no time for stretching and shaking up thought patterns.

“What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” the poet W.H. Davies asked. Each of these ten books can give you time, if you can make time for it, to stop and take a good clear look at science. Through the empathetic magic which only reading can offer, they also hold up different lenses with which to view a science-haunted world. All ten are fascinating reads, brim-full of ideas.

Two of them are, I must add, horrendous and gruelling, but this is a blog of suggestions, not instructions, and I trust my readers. You’re grown-ups, after all. You’ll know yourselves and act accordingly.

For some of these ten books, the connection with science is obvious (or blinding, since among them you’ll find several science-fiction classics). For others, the author’s targeting not science itself, but the assumptions which tend to accompany it. Science may seem a delight to people like me, but there are many who view it as harbouring some very nasty notions indeed, and some seriously old-fashioned prejudices too. To rebut the criticisms, you first have to acknowledge their existence, as some of the writers on this list certainly do.

Note that I’m not arguing for or against here, not recommending nor endorsing, just offering a list of books that challenged me with new ideas. Some I love; some were a real struggle. They aren’t books I necessarily agree with; where would be the fun in that? They’re books which made me think — one of the greatest services one mind can give to another.

May they do the same for you.


1) John Wyndham — The Midwich Cuckoos

Cover image of John Wyndham's book The Midwich CuckoosJohn Wyndham seems very out-of-fashion these days. So much for fashion. His ‘logical fantasies’, as he called them, are thoughtful, well-constructed, humane explorations which reward even frequent re-reading (my copies are falling apart from years of use). Best-known is The Day of the Triffids (which has been filmed, badly, and done on TV, also badly), but any of his other work is well worth a look. I’d love to see a good film version of The Chrysalids, The Kraken Wakes, or Trouble With Lichen, or even a good updating of Triffids or The Midwich Cuckoos. Wyndham’s fully aware of the powers and perils of science, and you feel he’s longing for humanity to wake up and really get to grips with it, but he also likes people, and that warmth makes The Midwich Cuckoos a wonderful read.

2) Julien Benda — The Treason of the Intellectuals (La Trahison des Clercs)

From fiction to another kind of insight. This slight but hugely thought-provoking book rages against the control-freakery, utilitarianism, and techno-optimism that can accompany the gift of higher education.

PP. 151-2: “the man who loves science for its fruits commits the worst of blasphemies against that divinity.”

PP. 153-4: “Let me also point out their devotion to the doctrine (Bergson, Sorel) which says that science has a purely utilitarian origin — the necessity of man to dominate matter, “knowledge is adaptation”; and their scorn for the beautiful Greek conception which made science bloom from the desire to play, the perfect type of disinterested activity.”

Science as play may not sit well with today’s economaniac ‘impact’ agenda, but studies of creativity suggest Benda might have a point.

3) Ludwig Wittgenstein — Philosophical Investigations

Cover image of Wittgenstein's Philosophical InvestigationsI said in one of my books that Wittgenstein should be required reading for all neuroscientists, and I think there’s a good case for extending that to all the sciences. There are few better antidotes to the disturbingly closed-minded arrogance that can, alas, come with feeling you have privileged access to reality. Wittgenstein teaches us to question. He’s elliptical, sidelong, infuriatingly tentative: the very opposite of dogmatically secure. A brilliant philosopher, and an outsider at least twice over, he reminds scientific colleagues that doubt, uncertainty and awareness of one’s cognitive limitations are part of the human condition — and that includes science.

4) Robert Lifton — The Nazi Doctors

This meCover image of Robert Lifton's book The Nazi Doctorssmerising, profound and deeply humane work, by a highly influential psychiatrist, is the darkest book on my list: unsurprisingly, given its terrible subject matter. It makes a point no scientist should forget — that science, which can be used to do such good, can also lead people into doing appalling harm. Lifton makes clear that the scientific approach was neither an add-on nor a cover for Mengele and his ilk; instead, it was key to their intentions. Though Nazi science was undoubtedly ‘bad science’ in the moral sense, we cannot say it wasn’t science at all.

That means we can’t just say, ‘Oh, that was then, it could never happen nowadays!’ and assume that all scientists are rational, beneficent angels. Instead we should say, ‘OK, ‘doing science’ is one of many excuses used to maintain unjust systems and even justify atrocities, so how do we make sure that can’t happen again?’

When I come across an especially maddening techno-optimist, blithely convinced that science knows best, that history and human nature are irrelevant, and that the right research can fix any problem (and, worse, that this means we don’t really need to worry about the problems), Lifton’s is the book I wish I could make them read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

5) Isaac Asimov — The Early Asimov

AsimovCover image of 'The Early Asimov' is best known for his ‘Robot’ stories and his Three Laws of Robotics, but I also like his early short-form work. It may be rougher, but it gives you a great sense of the fun in science, even though he’s not afraid to look at its moral implications. He’s one of the writers who did most to inspire my love of science — and I’m sure many other people’s too. I’m the lucky owner of a 3-volume edition of his early writings. A particular favourite is ‘The endochronic properties of resublimated thiotimoline’; a very academic joke, but great fun.

6) Sandra Harding — Science and Social Inequality

Sandra Harding is one of the most highly-regarded feminist critics of science, and her book asks some very awkward questions. Anyone who could find a way of making senior science men take her arguments on board would deserve a medal, especially as for ‘females’ one can easily substitute other minorities — in which most sciences are deplorably deficient. When was the last time you came across a publicly gay scientist, or one who was disabled and wasn’t Stephen Hawking? An argumentative book, this, and good to argue with. You don’t have to agree with everything Harding says in order to have your mind usefully stretched by her ideas. For example:

P. 10: “Conventionally, science has been thought of as fundamentally a set of statements or sentences — the laws of nature, observation sentences, and the like. Yet this way of conceptualizing it obscures how social and political values and interests seem to flow out of scientific work “behind the backs” of the scientists. The representation list account seems to absolve the scientific enterprise of any responsibility for the various politics that flow from its representations.”

P. 64: “Imagine if every science department contained the proportion of “science critics” to scientists that there are of literary critics to creative writers in English departments.”

7) Talking of mind-stretching, if you really want an intellectual workout, try M.R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker’s Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. If Wyndham’s a brief stroll and Benda a jogging mile, this is a marathon. The authors lay into the sloppy thinking found in far too many neuroscience articles, with the exemplary hope of persuading researchers to think better. Not much sign of it working, so far, but you can’t fault them for effort.

PP. 77-78: “The relationship between a (conscious) belief and an unconscious belief, for example, is not akin to the relationship between a visible chair and an occluded chair – it is not ‘just like a conscious belief only unconscious’, but more like the relationship between √1 and √-1.”

P. 209: “Emotions are neither brain states nor somatic reactions”.

And there’s plenty more where those two snippets came from.

8) A. E. van Vogt — The Weapon Shops of Isher

Alfred vCover image of works by A. E. van Vogtan Vogt, like Asimov a giant from US sci-fi’s golden age, fell out of the mainstream years ago.  No one I’ve asked lately has even heard of him. Yet his books, such as Slan, The World of Null-A and The Pawns of Null-A, are fast-paced thrillers which also ask riveting questions about the relationships between technology and power. They brim with technological wonders: totipotency, similiarisation, mind control and much besides. His voice is distinctive, and his politics, for a British kid growing up in a soft-liberal household, were eye-opening; they’re especially clearly set out in The Weapon Shops.

9) Donatien de Sade — Justine

Yes, nonCover image of works by the Marquis de Sadee other than the notorious Marquis de Sade, so be warned, if you attempt this monster of a book you’ll have to wade through a good deal of sexual and other violence, including rape, paedophilia and murder. The best that can be said about Justine‘s delight in human perversion is that 120 Days of Sodom is worse.

But … in among the tediously revolting depictions is one of the clearest, most honest, and most challenging presentations ever seen of the doctrine of nihilism. Sade takes modern secular arguments — including some which underpin such central scientific ideas as evolution — to their logical extreme, and says sardonically, ‘Is this really what you meant?’ He’s disgusting, sure, but he’s also smart. Unfortunately, the philosophy’s so embedded in the crud that you can’t easily skip the one to get to the other.

“One must never appraise values save in terms of our own interests. […] there is no rational commensuration between what affects us and what affects others; the first we sense physically, the other only touches us morally, and moral feelings are made to deceive; none but physical sensations are authentic”.

“virtue is not some kind of mode whose value is incontestable, it is simply a scheme of conduct, a way of getting along, which varies according to accidents of geography and climate and which, consequently, has no reality”.

“man has not been accorded the power to destroy; he has at best the capacity to alter forms, but lacks that required to annihilate them: well, every form is of equal worth in Nature’s view; nothing is lost in the immense melting pot where variations are wrought […] and whatsoever be our interventions in this process, not one of them, needless to say, outrages her, not one is capable of offending her. […] Why! what difference does it make to her creative hand if this mass of flesh today wearing the conformation of a bipedal individual is reproduced tomorrow in the guise of a handful of centipedes? Dare one say that the construction of this two-legged animal costs her any more than that of an earthworm, and that she should take a greater interest in the one than in the other? If then the degree of attachment, or rather of indifference, is the same, what can it be. to her if, by one man’s sword, another man is transspeciated into a fly or a blade of grass? When they will have convinced me of the sublimity of our species, when they will have demonstrated to me that it is really so important to Nature, that her laws are necessarily violated by this transmutation, then I will be able to believe that murder is a crime”.

So, realism about feelings + moral relativism + realism about nature = it’s OK to murder someone. Oops.  To defend science, we have to be able to answer Sade’s challenge.

(Meanwhile, ‘transspeciated’ is quite a word.)

10) Kurt Vonnegut — Galapagos

From Sade’s Cover image of Vonnegut's Galapagoscold, ferocious humour to this short novel — also brilliant, but far more humane. It’s Vonnegut, so it has his unmistakeable riotous style. It’s about evolution, sort of, but it’s also about human folly (a favourite theme of this particular author). It’s weird and zany and teasing, making you ponder as well as making you laugh. Plus the narrator’s a decapitated ghost. Enjoy.

Finally, if you’ve any suggestions for other stimulating books, do let me know.


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