Nature of the Universe
November 25, 2004 12:39 PM   Subscribe

Given the deplorable state of our educational systems (at least in North America) and the terrifying news that half the population believes in absurdly anti-scientific/anti-logical crap, what books would you suggest an intelligent but woefully-uninformed person read in order to grasp the importance of scientific, logical thought and understand the nature of the world and universe?

These books would, of course, have to be accessible to the ordinary layman. I'm not sure if they should be "foundations of science" sorts of books, or "dummies guide to quantum mechanics" books.

They should be the sorts of books that make it clear why astrology, homeopathics, creationism, and so on are hogwash.
posted by five fresh fish to Science & Nature (36 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
feynman's "nature (or character?) of scientific law" (or similar) might be worth reading. it sketches out how physicists work quite nicely, and is very accessible.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:44 PM on November 25, 2004

Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything.
James Burke: Connections (good video series, by the way).
Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene.
Carl Sagan: Cosmos & Pale Blue Dot.
Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time.

Those are just some off the top of my head. Oh, and definitely Feynman, as the poster above said.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 12:47 PM on November 25, 2004

Bill Bryson as mentioned above is excellent, really written so that even a layman can grasp it, as opposed to Hawkings book that leaves you wondering if you're an idiot for not getting it.
posted by Keith Talent at 12:54 PM on November 25, 2004

I'll third the Bill Bryson suggestion. If you're not a reader, has an excellent unabridged audio book version.
posted by dobbs at 12:56 PM on November 25, 2004

"Godel, Escher and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstaedter.

I'm only partially joking. I just keep hoping that book gets in the wrong hands and someone's head actually explodes. On the other hand, it does a fine job of combining a sort of open-ended mysticism with science and logic, and generally leaves the reader even more bewildered and unsure about the universe after reading it then they were before. Which is how it should be, IMO.

Hofstaedter should have spent more than 2-3 pages on chaos theory and fractals, but that he went were he did - about the recursive nature of reality, and much, much more - without ever really relying on chaos or fractals is absolutely gorgeous and adept and just plain daft.

However, I guess that doesn't directly fall into the "make it clear why n is hogwash".

Look, I believe in science. I'm not a religious fundamentalist or anything orthodox at all. But I also believe pretty strongly that there's some sort of creative, intentional force at work in the universe that gives rise to spontaneously ordered complexity, among other phenomena. And it seems there are plenty of notably accomplished figures in the world of science that agree with this, on one level or another, and usually in a non-dogmatic, highly flexible fashion.

Science as we know it - for better or worse - wouldn't exist without religion. (Think about it. Religion/mysticism was the first to ask "why?", and also the first to try to explain the apparently inexplicable.)

And it seems to me that the farther you go trying to divide the two, the farther out on the tenuous limbs of faith you are, the very limbs you're attempting to disprove.

IMNSHO, mankind should be attempting to integrate science with religion/spirituality, as many of these weird phenomena that people experience that make them believers in one dogmatic system or another are probably quite valid, if misinterpreted or all too easily relegated to pure mysticism, when if we look hard enough there's probably a valid scientific explanation. It's the only way we're ever going to actually move forward into the next era of mankind.

Spirituality is part of the human experience. To deny it and suppress it is to deny our own humanity.
posted by loquacious at 1:14 PM on November 25, 2004

Dipsomaniac: I'd recommend his Universe in a Nutshell to a first-time reader. The graphics and style make it much more comprehensible to the neonate.

If the person is religiously oriented, The Mind of God by Paul Davies has lots of excellent content which is extremely scientific and rigorously challenging, but his ultimate thesis supports theistic conventions. Even if you're not religious many of his arguments require lots of analysis and reflection to counter. A good read all around.
posted by baphomet at 1:20 PM on November 25, 2004

Perhaps a bit out of fashion, but Loren Eiseley's books give an interesting perspective on human/nature relationships. as do most of the books by Rene Dubos.
posted by vers at 1:23 PM on November 25, 2004

Aren't we making the assumption that these people are interested in (or, even can) read?

/feeling snarky today

Seriously though, perhaps the Cartoon History of the Universe might be of use.
posted by C.Batt at 1:36 PM on November 25, 2004

nature of the world
The duality, scientific vs. non-scientific) is nailed, explained and slaughtered in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. The understanding of the 'nature of the world',he says, is hindered by believing in either one of those 'religions'.
posted by JohnR at 1:45 PM on November 25, 2004

Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World is aimed at the layman and does an excellent job of debunking all kinds of pseudoscientific beliefs and illustrating the importance of critical thinking.
posted by Deepspace at 1:54 PM on November 25, 2004

Atlas Shrugged. No, really. It demonstrates the long-term implications of reason, science, and technology, versus the implications of those who reject such.
posted by davidmsc at 2:40 PM on November 25, 2004

Oxford University Press do a line of Very Short Introduction books on a wide range of subjects. Some are more interesting than others and they generally are about 150 pages (although the one on the EU is 200 pages long).

A good book I've dipped into, but haven't sat down to go through, is Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos which goes through some of the basic facts about numbers and why numbers are not to be trusted (apart from the fact that all Maths teachers are evil).
posted by Navek Rednam at 2:47 PM on November 25, 2004

I would also like you to note that the books are very jacket-pocket friendly. :)
posted by Navek Rednam at 2:50 PM on November 25, 2004

Cartoon History of the Universe. Cartoon History of the Universe. Cartoon History of the Universe.

Just an amazing accomplishment. Incredibly thorough, intellectually credible, and very, very accessible.
posted by LairBob at 2:51 PM on November 25, 2004

posted by Grod at 2:51 PM on November 25, 2004

I hate Bill Bryson with a passion. You may like him, and I may have even like him if I'd read something other than his stupid USA travel book thing, but I'm bitter at him. Just a note.

I've heard Cartoon History of the Universe suggested by scientific people (mostly a cool Physics teacher who looks way too much like a Physics teacher). I should hope it's easy to understand, the library I work at carries it in the Young Adult section (then again, they carry things in weird sections).

I would encourage you to study biology, also. Biology is awesome and it seems to be where fundamentalism hits hardest. Any introduction to biology will give you an idea why the "just a theory" thing is crap, how natural selection really works, and why someone saying "well, there are major holes in Darwin's theory" doesn't matter, because there are, but most of them have been explained by other evolutionary biologists drawing on his work.
posted by dagnyscott at 3:58 PM on November 25, 2004

In terms of making sense of the world, there is also Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder. It's basically a brief history of philosophy, couched in fiction. It touches on the metaphysical aspects of existence.
posted by exlotuseater at 4:16 PM on November 25, 2004

The 'science for the layman' genre is really missing the point.

If You want to know the importance of scientific/logical thought you need to try some experiments (just the first link from google ). I'm sure there are lots of books out there...
posted by Chuckles at 4:23 PM on November 25, 2004

In the mid 80's I stumbled upon the non-fiction works of Issac Asimov... by chance the first was The Roving Mind.

Reading it again a week ago I found it to be as relevant as ever. It is a collection of short essays and you can view most of the first one here . The table of contents on that link offers a nice look at the subjects he talks about in the book.

One of, if not the, most prolific author of the twentieth century... if you have never had the pleasure... enjoy.
posted by Duncan at 5:05 PM on November 25, 2004

Response by poster: I found Sophie's World almost unbearable.

It strikes me that there is no good layman's Book Of Knowledge.

I'm not sure what such a book would look like. It'd have to cover the basics of logic (philosophy of logic?). Basics of the scientific approach. Basics of math. And geology. And biology. And, and, and... well. Maybe therein lies the problem: there's too much for one simple book.

I'm quite curious: how do people become well-informed if not by taking the sciences/maths stream in high school, and a sciences/arts stream in post-sec? That's what I did, and it has served me well. But if I hadn't... well, I've gone through periods of gorging myself on non-fiction, but I can't imagine I'd have got much out of those books if I hadn't already had the fundamentals.

We've got to make it possible for people to become well-informed, functional participants in science and technology without having to go to post-secondary school. I think our society is failing itself in this regard.

Anyway, thanks for the suggestions. I'll compile a list and pass it out to a few of the people I know who need some remedial learning.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:12 PM on November 25, 2004

Grod: maths = British for math. Derived, I suppose, from 'mathematics'.
posted by altolinguistic at 5:26 PM on November 25, 2004

The Passion of the Western Mind is an excellent place to begin. Highly recommended.
posted by orange clock at 6:53 PM on November 25, 2004

I realize I am repeating, but one more vote for anything by Carl Sagan. But especially 'Cosmos.' I read that book at a formative age and, more than anything else, I took away with me the true love for science that has informed the rest of my life.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:16 PM on November 25, 2004

But I also believe pretty strongly that there's some sort of creative, intentional force at work in the universe that gives rise to spontaneously ordered complexity, among other phenomena.

That's, uh, super for you and all, loquacious, but other than the unrequired recommendation of G,E,B you're not really answering the question; rather, you're sullying the discussion with some rather half-assed ideas about the nature of science.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest either or both Bunch and Tesar's Desk Encyclopedia of Science and Mathematics and Gribbin's Q is for Quantum. They're reference books: neither specifically debunks pseudoscience or mystical hogwash, but they provide an easily accessible source of verified data with respect to the current state of physics and chemistry and what have you.

Anything by James Randi is going to be a winner as well; I love that crotchety old man. As Deepspace said, absolutely first get Demon-Haunted World.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:41 PM on November 25, 2004

They're not at all about physics, and only indirectly about math, but two excellent, easily-accessible recent books are:

Non-Zero, by Robert Wright. It's a fascinating exploration of the nature (and trajectory) of human social interaction driving social progress.

Faster by James Gleick (author of Chaos, which I hear is also excellent but haven't read. A great examination of the impact of technology on society through the "efficiencies" it creates.
posted by mkultra at 10:38 PM on November 25, 2004

At the top of my fiction list for inculcating a rational worldview are The Fountainhead, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, and Dune.

Can't say enough good things about Feynman.

I found that reading Richard Dawkins (especially The Selfish Gene) to be enlightening in punching through all of the misinterpretations of evolutionary theory, although he's sometimes a bit dry.

But that doesn't really answer your question. The problem is that "astrology, homeopathics, creationism, and so on are hogwash" isn't really provable unless you start with some axioms. This concept is called "epistimelogical relativism", and it essentially boils down to "we can't prove anything, so everyone's entitled to their own opinion".

But that's a totally different discussion. I'd suggest that instead of looking at why these things are hogwash, you concentrate on examining why people think they're not, in the lack of any sort of experimental correlation. This will, I think, lead you to an examination of the differences between science and pseudo-science, and the differences between the schools of causality and faith. Taken this way, you may want to read some Hume, Kant, and especially Descartes, where you will find a stirring discussion of why "because I said so" does not qualify as a strong scientific foundation.

But above all, as Chuckles said, you absolutely need to do some real experiments. This is not idle curiosity - this is proving to yourself that gravity works, that springs store potential energy, that water really is made up of things that bear a strinking similarty to hydrogen and oxygen, and, you know, lots of other things you may take for granted. There's nothing like understanding the theory of theory by noticing that, oh yeah, these sometimes frighteningly complicated theories and equations do actually seem to model how I see things behaving in the world.

Hell, read some Mendeleev (or at least, about Mendeleev - on retrospect, I don't know if I've ever seen any of his writings, other than the table, in print). He was one clever bastard.

I'm rambling a bit. Does that help at all?
posted by Caviar at 10:55 PM on November 25, 2004

A third voice for Sagan's "Demon-Haunted Universe". I read it about once a year, and every time I read it I can't help but get caught up in the passion that Sagan has for science and the world around him.

That is one amazing book. I read it while I was studying to be a teacher, and it cemented the belief that even though I was an English teacher, not a Science teacher, I wanted to help adolescents strive for greater things. Now that I'm teaching, "Greater Things" means getting to shut them up for 5 minutes, but my undying love for Sagan sure hasn't changed.
posted by chronic sublime at 11:59 PM on November 25, 2004

I'll chip in with another plug for Cartoon History 1, 2 & 3.

They make great presents for other people to buy for you, should any present giving events crop up in the near future.
posted by ModestyBCatt at 1:50 AM on November 26, 2004

Good, accessible reading on biology:
The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas,
Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare: An Ecologist's Perspective by Paul A. Colinvaux
The Panda's Thumb, The Flamingo's Smile, Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen J. Gould
Ecological Vignettes by Eugene Odum
posted by hydropsyche at 7:09 AM on November 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

They should be the sorts of books that make it clear why astrology, homeopathics, creationism, and so on are hogwash.

I'd suggest Popper Selections. It's an introduction to the works of Karl Popper, one of the most influential philosophers (of science) of the 20th century. A big part of it deals with what can be called science and what not and is written in a very lucid, accessible style, without being dumbed down. Highly recommended.
posted by CKZ at 7:51 AM on November 26, 2004

I'd recommend An Incomplete Education, by Jones and Wilson. It's witty and fascinating for the curious (and people like me who have gaps in their intellectual foundations that one could drive a truck through).
posted by OneOliveShort at 8:13 AM on November 26, 2004

You would probably enjoy the work of Michael Shermer, especially 'Why People Believe Weird Things.' Timothy Ferris is worth reading, as is Thomas Kuhn's 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,' which I had forgotten about for years until someone mentioned it in another thread.

And I'll add my voice to the chorus for James Burke, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, James Gleick and James Randi.
posted by box at 9:54 AM on November 26, 2004

Response by poster: I think there's some level of misunderstanding here. I've read a metric shedload of non-fiction, including many of the ones that have been suggested.

My question is targeted at this: For those people who watched What the Bleep and thought it was great stuff, what book would you give them? For those that think homeopathics is anything more than placebo? For those that read the NYT and now think rabies is cured by prayer?

A lot of the suggested books require you to already understand scientific method and have a well-rounded education. It has become very apparent that most people aren't "there." What books do you give those poor people?
posted by five fresh fish at 10:48 AM on November 26, 2004

Wish I could help you more on the hogwash and placebos thing, but I'll share what I know. I think these books would give good intros to science (w/o the scientific method foreknowledge). The Wooden Books are pretty accessible, I think.

1) a GREAT book on physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters

2) Great small books on basic topics in science, the Wooden Books series. From some promotional material:

In years gone by, in all known cultures on the planet, wise men & women studied the four great unchanging liberal arts of number, music, geometry & cosmology, using them to inform the practical & decorative arts like medicine, pottery, agriculture and building. The metaphysical concerns of the liberal arts were thought to be beyond physics and religion, utterly universal. Today few people know them.
Books on the Pyramids, the Stars & suchlike are regularly top of the non-fiction best-seller lists but, till now, there were no clear, simple books available on this ancient knowledge. Based in a converted watermill on the Welsh borders,Wooden Books produce a series of small, clear & beautiful books which act as elegant introductions to timeless sciences & vanishing arts.

posted by Alt F4 at 11:19 AM on November 26, 2004

the character of physical law - which i repeat because (1) i just had time to track down a link (2) i had the name wrong and (3) it addresses the points you emphasised later (although perhaps not directly - it explains how and why science is as it is, but you still have to infer from that that the stuff in that film is not science because it is inconsistent with what the book explains - in other words, it educates, but doesn't debunk (although he may well include some examples that are pretty close, iirc)).
posted by andrew cooke at 1:40 PM on November 26, 2004

A lot of the suggested books require you to already understand scientific method and have a well-rounded education. It has become very apparent that most people aren't "there." What books do you give those poor people?
posted by five fresh fish at 10:48 AM PST on November 26

posted by orange clock at 8:30 PM on November 26, 2004

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