Big Ideas Reading Group Bookshelf 2020

This is the January 2020 ballot for our next round of reading. the next round of reading. By February 15, please send Chris Boyd your completed ballot.

Below are the nominations listed alphabetically, neglecting “The”, with descriptions. We had 5 carryover nominations and 26 new nominations for a total of 31 nominations. I would like to take the top 12 for our new list and have 6 carryovers, giving all books a little better chance.

Just when you think it might be difficult to find more interesting books, there is another BIRG avalanche of great books. It’s nice once again to have so many great options. Thanks for all your nominations.

The book list includes page counts and publication dates at the bottom of each listing. The ballot is below the book list with directions. Please fill it out, cut and paste to email, and send to me by February 15. Please mail ballots to me directly only, and not to group.

The Book List

AIQ: How People and Machines are Smarter Together, by James Scott and Nick Polson

AIQ has what everyone needs to know to understand how artificial intelligence is changing the world and how we can use this knowledge to make better decisions in our own lives. It will teach you a little bit of the mathematical language spoken by intelligent machines—but in an unconventional way, anchored in stories rather than equations. You'll see how these same ideas are playing out in the modern age of big data and intelligent machines—and how these technologies will soon help you to overcome some of your built-in cognitive weaknesses, giving you a chance to lead a happier, healthier, more fulfilled life. 261 pages Pub 2018

At the Edge of Time: Exploring the Mysteries of Our Universe’s First Seconds, by Dan Hooper

Scientists in the past few decades have made crucial discoveries about how our cosmos evolved over the past 13.8 billion years. But there remains a critical gap in our knowledge: we still know very little about what happened in the first seconds after the Big Bang. At the Edge of Time focuses on what we have recently learned and are still striving to understand about this most essential and mysterious period of time at the beginning of cosmic history. P. 248 Pub 2019

The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things With Money, by Carl Richards

As a financial planner, Carl Richards grew frustrated watching people he cared about make the same mistakes over and over. They were letting emotion get in the way of smart financial decisions. He named this phenomenon-the distance between what we should do and what we actually do-"the behavior gap."

It's never too late to make a fresh financial start. As Richards writes: "We've all made mistakes, but now it's time to give yourself permission to review those mistakes, identify your personal behavior gaps, and make a plan to avoid them in the future. The goal isn't to make the 'perfect' decision about money every time, but to do the best we can and move forward. Most of the time, that's enough. p. 192 Pub 2012

Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity, by Denis Noble

Denis Noble formulates the theory of biological relativity, emphasising that living organisms operate at multiple levels of complexity and must therefore be analysed from a multi-scale, relativistic perspective. Noble explains that all biological processes operate by means of molecular, cellular and organismal networks. This humanistic, holistic approach challenges the common gene-centered view held by many in modern biology and culture. 302 pages Pub 2017

The Doomsday Calculation: How an Equation That Predicts the Future is Transforming Everything We Know About Life and the Universe, by William Poundstone

Thomas Bayes devised a theorem that allowed him to assign probabilities to events that had never happened before. Now, as the foundation of big data, Bayes' formula has become a linchpin of the digital economy. It can also be used to lay odds on the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence; on whether we live in a Matrix-like counterfeit of reality; on the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum theory being correct; and on the biggest question of all: how long will humanity survive? Drawing on interviews with thought leaders around the globe, it's the story of a group of intellectual mavericks who are challenging what we thought we knew about our place in the universe. p. 320 Pub 2019

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg

Here, for the first time, former high-level defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg reveals his shocking firsthand account of America's nuclear program in the 1960s. From the remotest air bases in the Pacific Command, where he discovered that the authority to initiate use of nuclear weapons was widely delegated, to the secret plans for general nuclear war under Eisenhower, which, if executed, would cause the near-extinction of humanity. Ellsberg shows that the legacy of this most dangerous arms buildup in the history of civilization--and its proposed renewal under the Trump administration--threatens our very survival. No other insider with high-level access has written so candidly of the nuclear strategy of the late Eisenhower and early Kennedy years, and nothing has fundamentally changed since that era.

Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate, by Vaclav Smil

When will the world run out of oil? Should nuclear energy be adopted on a larger scale? Are ethanol and wind power viable sources of energy for the future? Vaclav Smil advises the public to be wary of exaggerated claims and impossible promises. The global energy transition will be prolonged and expensive―and hinges on the development of an extensive new infrastructure. Established technologies and traditional energy sources are persistent and adaptable enough to see the world through that transition. Energy Myths and Realities brings a scientific perspective to an issue often dominated by groundless assertions, unfounded claims, and uncritical thinking. Before we can create sound energy policies for the future, we must renounce the popular myths that cloud our judgment and impede true progress. p. 232 Pub 2010

Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds, by Gina Rippon

We live in a gendered world, where we are ceaselessly bombarded by messages about sex and gender. Drawing on her work as a professor of cognitive neuroimaging, Gina Rippon unpacks the stereotypes that surround us from our earliest moments and shows how these messages mold our ideas of ourselves and even shape our brains. By exploring new, cutting-edge neuroscience, Rippon urges us to move beyond a binary view of the brain and to see instead this complex organ as highly individualized, profoundly adaptable and full of unbounded potential. P. 448 Pub 2019

Good Economics for Hard Times, by Banerjee and Duflo

Figuring out how to deal with today's critical economic problems is perhaps the greatest challenge of our time. In this revolutionary book, renowned MIT economists Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo take on this challenge, building on cutting-edge research in economics explained with lucidity and grace. Original, provocative, and urgent, Good Economics for Hard Times makes a persuasive case for an intelligent interventionism and a society built on compassion and respect. It is an extraordinary achievement, one that shines a light to help us appreciate and understand our precariously balanced world. p.432 Pub 2019

Heavenly Errors:Misconceptions About the Real Nature of the Universe, by Neil Comins

One of the great paradoxes of modern times is that the more scientists understand the natural world, the more we discover that our everyday beliefs about it are wrong. Astronomy, in particular, is one of the most misunderstood scientific disciplines.

In the course of correcting misconceptions, Neil Comins explains that some occur through the prevalence of pseudosciences such as astrology and UFO-logy and some enter the public conscience through the "bad astronomy" of Star Trek, Star Wars, and other science-fiction movies.. Perhaps most important, Professor Comins presents the reader with the methods for identifying and replacing incorrect ideas—tools with which to probe erroneous notions so that we can begin to question for ourselves... and to think more like scientists. p. 288 Pub. 2003

How to Change Your Mind What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, by Michael Pollan

Pollan’s natural skepticism and wry humor is a good match for the detailed accounts he includes of mind-blowing, trip-induced revelations. Can magic mushrooms be used more broadly for “the betterment of well people”? Readers who begin reading Pollan’s book feeling doubtful about the responsible use of psychedelics may find their own minds changed by his engaging, enlightened, and persuasive combination of personal and journalistic research. p. 480, Pub 2018

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

Nothing is harder to do these days than nothing. But in a world where our value is determined by our 24/7 data productivity . . . doing nothing may be our most important form of resistance. So argues artist and critic Jenny Odell in this field guide to doing nothing (at least as capitalism defines it). Odell sees our attention as the most precious—and overdrawn—resource we have. Once we can start paying a new kind of attention, she writes, we can undertake bolder forms of political action, reimagine humankind’s role in the environment, and arrive at more meaningful understandings of happiness and progress.

Far from the simple anti-technology screed, or the back-to-nature meditation we read so often, How to do Nothing is an action plan for thinking outside of capitalist narratives of efficiency and techno-determinism. Provocative, timely, and utterly persuasive, this book is a four-course meal in the age of Soylent. p. 241 Pub 2019

Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe, by Stephen Strogatz

Without calculus, we wouldn’t have cell phones, TV, GPS, or ultrasound. We wouldn’t have unraveled DNA or discovered Neptune or figured out how to put 5,000 songs in your pocket. Though many of us were scared away from this essential, engrossing subject in high school and college, Steven Strogatz’s brilliantly creative, down‑to‑earth history shows that calculus is not about complexity; it’s about simplicity. It harnesses an unreal number—infinity—to tackle real‑world problems, breaking them down into easier ones and then reassembling the answers into solutions that feel miraculous. p. 384 Pub 2019

Lifespan: Why we Age -- and Why We Don’t Have To, by David A. Sinclair, Ph.D.

As he writes: "Aging is a disease, and that disease is treatable." This eye-opening and provocative work takes us to the frontlines of research that is pushing the boundaries on our perceived scientific limitations, revealing incredible breakthroughs-many from Dr. David Sinclair's own lab at Harvard-that demonstrate how we can slow down, or even reverse, aging. The key is activating newly discovered vitality genes, the descendants of an ancient genetic survival circuit that is both the cause of aging and the key to reversing it. Lifespan will forever change the way we think about why we age and what we can do about it. p. 432 Pub 2019

The Math of Life and Death: 7 Mathematical Principles That Shape Our Lives, by Kit Yates

In this eye opening and extraordinary accessible book, mathematician Kit Yates illuminates hidden principles that can help us understand and navigate the chaotic and often opaque surfaces of the world. Yates takes us on a fascinating tour of everyday situations and grand-scale applications of mathematical concepts, including exponential growth and decay, optimization, statistics and probability, and number systems. Along the way he reveals the mathematical undersides of controversies over DNA testing, medical screening results, and historical events such as the Chernobyl disaster and the Amanda Knox trial. Readers will finish this book with an enlightened perspective on the news, the law, medicine, and history, and will be better equipped to make personal decisions and solve problems with math in mind. p. 288 Pub 2020

Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction, by Timothy Gowers

The aim of this book is to explain, carefully but not technically, the differences between advanced, research-level mathematics, and the sort of mathematics we learn at school. The most fundamental differences are philosophical, and readers of this book will emerge with a clearer understanding of paradoxical-sounding concepts such as infinity, curved space, and imaginary numbers. The first few chapters are about general aspects of mathematical thought. These are followed by discussions of more specific topics, and the book closes with a chapter answering common sociological questions about the mathematical community (such as "Is it true that mathematicians burn out at the age of 25?") It is the ideal introduction for anyone who wishes to deepen their understanding of mathematics. p. 160 Pub 2002

None of Your Damn Business: Privacy in the United States from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age, by Lawrence Cappello

Every day, Americans surrender their private information to entities that claim to have their best interests in mind, in exchange for a promise of safety or convenience. This trade-off has long been taken for granted, but the extent of its nefariousness has recently become much clearer. As Lawrence Cappello’s None of Your Damn Business reveals, the problem is not so much that data will be used in ways we don’t want, but rather how willing we have been to have our information used, abused, and sold right back to us. The wide range of the debates and incidents presented here shows that, despite America’s endless rhetoric of individual freedom, we actually have some of the weakest privacy protections in the developed world. None of Your Damn Business is a rich and provocative survey of an alarming topic that grows only more relevant with each fresh outrage of trust betrayed. p. 352 Pub 2019

On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right When You're Not, by Robert Burton, M.D.

You recognize when you know something for certain, right? You "know" the sky is blue, or that the traffic light had turned green, or where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001--you know these things, well, because you just do. Neurologist Robert Burton challenges the notions of how we think about what we know. He shows that the feeling of certainty we have when we "know" something comes from sources beyond our control and knowledge. Because this "feeling of knowing" seems like confirmation of knowledge, we tend to think of it as a product of reason. But an increasing body of evidence suggests that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain, and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. The feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen. Bringing together cutting edge neuroscience, experimental data, and fascinating anecdotes, Burton explores the inconsistent and sometimes paradoxical relationship between our thoughts and what we actually know. p. 284 Pub 2008

Permanent Record, by Edward Snowden

Spanning the bucolic Beltway suburbs of his childhood and the clandestine CIA and NSA postings of his adulthood, Permanent Record is the extraordinary account of a bright young man who grew up online―a man who became a spy, a whistleblower, and, in exile, the Internet’s conscience. Written with wit, grace, passion, and an unflinching candor, Permanent Record is a crucial memoir of our digital age and destined to be a classic. p. 352 Pub 2019

The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, by Merve Emre

First conceived in the 1920s by the mother-daughter team of Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, a pair of devoted homemakers, novelists, and amateur psychoanalysts, Myers-Briggs was designed to bring the gospel of Carl Jung to the masses. Drawing from original reporting and never-before-published documents, The Personality Brokers takes a critical look at the personality indicator that became a cultural icon. Along the way it examines nothing less than the definition of the self--our attempts to grasp, categorize, and quantify our personalities. Surprising and absorbing, the book, like the test at its heart, considers the timeless question: What makes you, you? p.336 Pub. 2018

Plato's Camera: How the Physical Brain Captures a Landscape of Abstract Universals, by Paul Churchland

In Plato's Camera, eminent philosopher Paul Churchland offers a novel account of how the brain constructs a representation--or 'takes a picture'--of the universe's timeless categorical and dynamical structure. As even Plato knew, to make singular perceptual judgments requires that we possess an antecedent framework of abstract categories to which any perceived particular can be relevantly assimilated. How that background framework is assembled in the first place is the motivating mystery, and the primary target of Churchland's book. His account draws on the best of the recent philosophical literature on semantic theory, and on the most recent results from cognitive neurobiology. P. 304 pub 2012

The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths, and the Dangerous Illusions that Shape Our World by, Ziya Tong

We are blind in comparison to the X-rays that peer through skin, the mass spectrometers that detect the dead inside the living, or the high-tech surveillance systems that see with artificial intelligence. And we are blind compared to the animals that can see in infrared, or ultraviolet, or in 360-degree vision. These animals live in the same world we do, but they see something quite different when they look around. With all of the curiosity and flair that drives her broadcasting, Ziya Tong illuminates this hidden world, and takes us on a journey to examine ten of humanity's biggest blind spots. Fast-paced, utterly fascinating, and deeply humane, The Reality Bubble gives voice to the sense we've all had -- that there is more to the world than meets the eye. p.361 Pub 2019

The Remarkable Life of the Skin, by Monty Lyman

In prose as lucid as his research underlying it is rigorous, blending in memorable stories from the past and from his own medical experience, Monty Lyman has written a revelatory book exploring our outer surface that will surprise and enlighten in equal measure. Through the lenses of science, sociology, and history―on topics as diverse as the mechanics and magic of touch (how much goes on in the simple act of taking keys out of a pocket and unlocking a door is astounding), the close connection between the skin and the gut, what happens instantly when one gets a paper cut, and how a midnight snack can lead to sunburn―Lyman leads us on a journey across our most underrated and unexplored organ and reveals how our skin is far stranger, more wondrous, and more complex than we have ever imagined. p. 304 Pub 2020

Six Impossible Things: The Mystery of the Quantum World, by John Gribbin

In this concise and engaging book, astrophysicist John Gribbin offers an overview of six of the leading interpretations of quantum mechanics. Gribbin calls his account “agnostic,” explaining that none of these interpretations is any better—or any worse—than any of the others. Gribbin presents the Copenhagen Interpretation, promoted by Niels Bohr and named by Heisenberg; the Pilot-Wave Interpretation, developed by Louis de Broglie; the Many Worlds Interpretation (termed “excess baggage” by Gribbin); the Decoherence Interpretation (“incoherent”); the Ensemble “Non-Interpretation”; and the Timeless Transactional Interpretation (which theorized waves going both forward and backward in time). All of these interpretations are crazy, Gribbin warns, and some are more crazy than others—but in the quantum world, being more crazy does not necessarily mean more wrong. p.104 Pub 2019

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, by Naasim Taleb

In his most provocative and practical book yet, one of the foremost thinkers of our time redefines what it means to understand the world, succeed in a profession, contribute to a fair and just society, detect nonsense, and influence others. Citing examples ranging from Hammurabi to Seneca, Antaeus the Giant to Donald Trump, Nassim Nicholas Taleb shows how the willingness to accept one’s own risks is an essential attribute of heroes, saints, and flourishing people in all walks of life.

As always both accessible and iconoclastic, Taleb challenges long-held beliefs about the values of those who spearhead military interventions, make financial investments, and propagate religious faiths. Among his insights. p. 254 Pub 2018

Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime, by Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist and one of this world’s most celebrated writers on science, rewrites the history of 20th century physics. Already hailed as a masterpiece, Something Deeply Hidden shows for the first time that facing up to the essential puzzle of quantum mechanics utterly transforms how we think about space and time. His reconciling of quantum mechanics with Einstein’s theory of relativity changes, well, everything. p. 368 Pub 2019

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, by Richard Feynman

Feynman provides a classic and definitive introduction to QED (namely, quantum electrodynamics), that part of quantum field theory describing the interactions of light with charged particles. Using everyday language, spatial concepts, visualizations, and his renowned "Feynman diagrams" instead of advanced mathematics, Feynman clearly and humorously communicates both the substance and spirit of QED to the layperson. p. 192 Pub. 2014

The Uninhabitable Earth-Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells

An “epoch-defining book” (The Guardian) and “this generation’s Silent Spring” (The Washington Post), The Uninhabitable Earth is both a travelogue of the near future and a meditation on how that future will look to those living through it—the ways that warming promises to transform global politics, the meaning of technology and nature in the modern world, the sustainability of capitalism and the trajectory of human progress. p. 320 Pub 2019

We Have the Technology: How Biohackers, Foodies, Physicians, and Scientists Are Transforming Human Perception, One Sense at a Time, by Kara Platoni

How do we know what's real? Sensory science is increasingly finding that we don't perceive reality: we create it through perception. The author introduces us to researchers who are changing the way we experience the world, whether creating scents that stimulate the memories of Alzheimer's patients, constructing virtual limbs that approximate a sense of touch, or building augmented reality labs that prepare soldiers for the battlefield. These diverse investigations not only explain previously elusive aspects of human experience, but offer tantalizing glimpses into a future when we can expand, control, and enhance our senses as never before. p.304 Pub 2015

What the Future Looks Like: Scientists Predict the Next Great Discoveries―and Reveal How Today’s Breakthroughs Are Already Shaping Our World, by Jim Al-Khalili (Editor)

Every day, scientists conduct pioneering experiments with the potential to transform how we live. Yet it isn’t every day you hear from the scientists themselves! Now, award–winning author Jim Al–Khalili and his team of top-notch experts explain how today’s earthshaking discoveries will shape our world tomorrow—and beyond. They cover.genomics, robotics, AI, the “Internet of Things”, synthetic biology, transhumanism, interstellar travel, colonization of the solar system, teleportation, and much more. Will we find a cure to all diseases? The answer to climate change? And will bionics one day turn us into superheroes? The scientists in these pages are interested only in the truth—reality–based and speculation–free. The future they conjure is by turns tantalizing and sobering: There’s plenty to look forward to, but also plenty to dread. And undoubtedly the best way for us to face tomorrow’s greatest challenges is to learn what the future looks like—today. p. 240 Pub 201

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, by David Reich

Reich allows readers to discover how the human genome provides not only all the information a human embryo needs to develop but also the hidden story of our species. Provocatively, Reich’s book suggests that there might very well be biological differences among human populations but that these differences are unlikely to conform to common stereotypes. Drawing upon revolutionary findings and unparalleled scientific studies, Who We Are and How We Got Here is a captivating glimpse into humankind—where we came from and what that says about our lives today. p. 368 Pub 2019


We use the Borda system of voting. This means you give your favorite book, in this case, 31 points, your second favorite 32, your third 31, ... your least favorite 1. All books are assigned a number from 31 to 1, favorite to least favorite.

For new members, common mistakes:

When there are this many books one simple method I use is to select the top three, assign them 28, 27, 26. Take the next top three and then assign numbers 25,24,23, take the next three, etc. It is sort of a double filter that simplifies. You may have your own methods. There are only approximately 3 x 10^29 ways to sort these. So tree trimming simplifiers help. Any questions? Email me.

Please enclose your numbers in the brackets, then cut, paste and email to me. I hope to get all ballots back by January 18.

[ ] AIQ [ ] At the Edge of Time [ ] The Behavior Gap [ ] Dance to the Tune of Life [ ] The Doomsday Calculation [ ] The Doomsday Machine [ ] Energy Myths and Realities [ ] Gender and Our Brains [ ] Good Economics for Hard Times [ ] Heavenly Errors [ ] How To Change Your Mind [ ] How To Do Nothing [ ] Infinite Powers [ ] Lifespan [ ] The Math of Life and Death [ ] Mathematics: Short Intro [ ] None of Your Damn Business [ ] On Being Certain [ ] Permanent Record [ ] The Personality Brokers [ ] Plato’s Camera [ ] The Reality Bubble [ ] The Remarkable Life of the Skin [ ] Six Impossible Things [ ] Skin in the Game [ ] Something Deeply Hidden [ ] QED [ ] The Uninhabitable Earth [ ] We have the Technology [ ] What the Future Looks Like [ ] Who We Are and How We Got Here

The 2019 Bookshelf

The 2018 Bookshelf

The 2017 Bookshelf

The 2016 Bookshelf

The 2015 Bookshelf

The 2014 Bookshelf

The 2013 Bookshelf