August 1, 2013 1:44 AM Subscribe

I am looking for books where master scientists or engineers describe their philosophy of the field they are working in or/and treat semi-technical topics in a playful, essayistic manner. Examples inside.

One example everyone knows are Feynman books, some other of my favourites include Hamming's "The Art of Doing Science And Engineering", Ulam's "Adventures of a Mathematician", HBS Haldane's essay "On Being The Right Size", Lewis Thomas "Lives of a Cell", Korners "Pleasures of Counting", Courant's "What is mathematics?". I am especially interested in mathematics, physics, biology and engineering. I had taken calculus and linear algebra, you can also assume I have taken introductory university physics and biology courses and am willing to learn new vocabulary or work things out if necessary, it just should not be boring or too textbook-like.
posted by jarekr to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

One example everyone knows are Feynman books, some other of my favourites include Hamming's "The Art of Doing Science And Engineering", Ulam's "Adventures of a Mathematician", HBS Haldane's essay "On Being The Right Size", Lewis Thomas "Lives of a Cell", Korners "Pleasures of Counting", Courant's "What is mathematics?". I am especially interested in mathematics, physics, biology and engineering. I had taken calculus and linear algebra, you can also assume I have taken introductory university physics and biology courses and am willing to learn new vocabulary or work things out if necessary, it just should not be boring or too textbook-like.

Since you are including mathematics (which is not really sience), you absolutely need to read Hardy's *A Mathematician's Apology*.

posted by Dr Dracator at 2:22 AM on August 1, 2013

posted by Dr Dracator at 2:22 AM on August 1, 2013

You can't go wrong with anything by

- Oliver Sachs, neurologist, author of many such books including "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat"

- Feynman, physicist, ponderer, teacher of undergrads, start with "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!"

- Stephen Pinker, cognitive scientist, start with "The Language Instinct", maybe less outright funny and more makes-you-go-huh. Read even if you disagree with his thoughts on psychology or linguistics.

posted by whatzit at 3:06 AM on August 1, 2013

- Oliver Sachs, neurologist, author of many such books including "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat"

- Feynman, physicist, ponderer, teacher of undergrads, start with "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!"

- Stephen Pinker, cognitive scientist, start with "The Language Instinct", maybe less outright funny and more makes-you-go-huh. Read even if you disagree with his thoughts on psychology or linguistics.

posted by whatzit at 3:06 AM on August 1, 2013

You may know this already, but Korner has written some other books. "Naive Decision Making" is probably the nearest in spirit to "Pleasures of Counting", but his book on Fourier Analysis has quite a lot of discursive asides too.

If you're interested in foundations of mathematics you might like Michael Potter's "Set Theory and its Philosophy" but it doesn't pull any punches on either the set theory or the philosophy.

posted by crocomancer at 4:48 AM on August 1, 2013

If you're interested in foundations of mathematics you might like Michael Potter's "Set Theory and its Philosophy" but it doesn't pull any punches on either the set theory or the philosophy.

posted by crocomancer at 4:48 AM on August 1, 2013

If you will stretch to medicine, Atul Gawande's books of essays are great.

posted by crocomancer at 4:50 AM on August 1, 2013

posted by crocomancer at 4:50 AM on August 1, 2013

For biology: E.O. Wilson's "Letters to a Young Scientist" or Robert Sapolsky's "A Primate's Memoir."

posted by Empidonax at 6:16 AM on August 1, 2013

posted by Empidonax at 6:16 AM on August 1, 2013

The Existential Pleasures of Engineering by Samuel C. Florman.

posted by Rob Rockets at 6:24 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by Rob Rockets at 6:24 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Real World of Technology, by Ursula Franklin isn't full of yuks, but it is a careful study of science, society and society, and the society of science. You can still stream her 1989 CBC Massey Lectures which were expanded into the book.

For engineering, pretty much anything by Henry Petroski.

posted by scruss at 7:42 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

For engineering, pretty much anything by Henry Petroski.

posted by scruss at 7:42 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Feynman. Youtube some of his long lectures too.

posted by humboldt32 at 9:46 AM on August 1, 2013

posted by humboldt32 at 9:46 AM on August 1, 2013

For materials engineering, there's Ivan Amato's Stuff or Philip Ball's Made to Measure.

posted by blurker at 11:02 AM on August 1, 2013

posted by blurker at 11:02 AM on August 1, 2013

There is a collection of essays by engineers edited by the late Jim Williams called The Art and Science of Analog Circuit Design, which is surprisingly accessible, and which even contains a short piece by Feynman.

posted by balberth at 11:24 AM on August 1, 2013

posted by balberth at 11:24 AM on August 1, 2013

My software engineering reading group at work read Coders at Work a couple of years back and really enjoyed it. I thought it contained some really deep insights into what it takes to write code at a world-class level. Honestly, I think it sort of helped me understand why I'm probably not ever going to code at that level, and accept that. I wasn't expecting to derive that kind of profound life lesson from a book like this, so I was pretty impressed.

The ratio of male to female interview subjects is also depressingly true to life!

posted by town of cats at 1:15 PM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The ratio of male to female interview subjects is also depressingly true to life!

posted by town of cats at 1:15 PM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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posted by empath at 2:09 AM on August 1, 2013 [2 favorites]