Big Ideas Reading Group Bookshelf 2023

This is the January 2023 ballot for our next round of reading. By February 20, please send Chris Boyd your completed ballot.

Below are the nominations listed alphabetically, neglecting “The”, with descriptions. We had 4 carryover nominations from last election and 30 new nominations for a total of 33 nominations, four more than last election. It is nice to have even more great options. Thanks for all your nominations!

I would like to take the top 12 for our new list and have 5 carryovers, giving all books a little better chance. 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 20. Please mail ballots to me directly only, and not to the group.

The Book List

AI Super-Powers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order, by Kai-fu Lee.

In this thought-provoking book, Lee argues powerfully that because of the unprecedented developments in AI, dramatic changes will be happening much sooner than many of us expected. Indeed, as the US-Sino AI competition begins to heat up, Lee urges the US and China to both accept and to embrace the great responsibilities that come with significant technological power. Lee predicts that Chinese and American AI will have a strong impact on white-collar jobs as well as blue collar. He provides a clear description of which jobs will be affected and how soon, which jobs can be enhanced with AI, and most importantly, how we can provide solutions to some of the most profound changes in the future of human history. Pub 2018 pages 354

Authoritarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Erica Frantz.

Erica Frantz guides us through today's authoritarian wave, explaining how it came to be and what its features are. She also looks at authoritarians themselves, focusing in particular on the techniques they use to take power, the strategies they use to survive, and how they fall. Understanding how politics works in authoritarian regimes and recognizing the factors that either give rise to them or trigger their downfall is ever-more important given current global trends, and this book paves the ways for such an understanding. An essential primer on the topic, Authoritarianism provides a clear and penetrating overview of one of the most important-and worrying-developments in contemporary world politics. Pub 2018 pages 200

The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal, by William Burns.

In The Back Channel, former CIA director and career ambassador William Burns recounts, with novelistic detail and incisive analysis, some of the seminal moments of his career. Drawing on a trove of newly declassified cables and memos, he gives readers a rare inside look at American diplomacy in action. His dispatches from war-torn Chechnya and Qaddafi’s bizarre camp in the Libyan desert and his warnings of the “Perfect Storm” that would be unleashed by the Iraq War will reshape our understanding of history—and inform the policy debates of the future. Burns sketches the contours of effective American leadership in a world that resembles neither the zero-sum Cold War contest of his early years as a diplomat nor the “unipolar moment” of American primacy that followed. Pub 2019 pages 424

Being and Time, by Martin Heidegger.

“What is the meaning of being?" This is the central question of Martin Heidegger's profoundly important work, in which the great philosopher seeks to explain the basic problems of existence. A central influence on later philosophy, literature, art, and criticism -- as well as existentialism and much of postmodern thought. Pub 2019 (Originally published 1927) pages 436

The Biggest Ideas in the Universe, by Sean Carroll.

Physics offers deep insights into the workings of the universe but those insights come in the form of equations that often look like gobbledygook. Sean Carroll shows that they are really like meaningful poems that can help us fly over sierras to discover a miraculous multidimensional landscape alive with radiant giants, warped space-time, and bewilderingly powerful forces. High school calculus is itself a centuries-old marvel as worthy of our gaze as the Mona Lisa. And it may come as a surprise the extent to which all our most cutting-edge ideas about black holes are built on the math calculus enables. No one else could so smoothly guide readers toward grasping the very equation Einstein used to describe his theory of general relativity. In the tradition of the legendary Richard Feynman lectures presented sixty years ago, this book is an inspiring, dazzling introduction to a way of seeing that will resonate across cultural and generational boundaries for many years to come. Pub 2022 pages 303

The Blank Slate, by Stephen Pinker.

One of the world's leading experts on language and the mind explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. With characteristic wit, lucidity, and insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits-a doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century-denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces objective analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of politics, violence, parenting, and the arts. Injecting calm and rationality into debates that are notorious for ax-grinding and mud-slinging, Pinker shows the importance of an honest acknowledgment of human nature based on science and common sense. Pub 2003 pages 200

A Brief History of Equality, by Thomas Piketty.

The world’s leading economist of inequality presents a short but sweeping and surprisingly optimistic history of human progress toward equality despite crises, disasters, and backsliding. A perfect introduction to the ideas developed in his monumental earlier books. It’s easy to be pessimistic about inequality. We know it has increased dramatically in many parts of the world over the past two generations. No one has done more to reveal the problem than Thomas Piketty. Now, in this surprising and powerful new work, Piketty reminds us that the grand sweep of history gives us reasons to be optimistic. Over the centuries, he shows, we have been moving toward greater equality. Pub 2022 pages 288

Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Mystery of Mass, by Frank Close.

On July 4, 2012, the announcement came that one of the longest-running mysteries in physics had been solved: the Higgs boson, the missing piece in understanding why particles have mass, had finally been discovered. On the rostrum, surrounded by jostling physicists and media, was the particle’s retiring namesake—the only person in history to have an existing single particle named for them. Why Peter Higgs? Drawing on years of conversations with Higgs and others, Close illuminates how an unprolific man became one of the world’s most famous scientists. Close finds that scientific competition between people, institutions, and states played as much of a role in making Higgs famous as Higgs’s work did. A revelatory study of both a scientist and his era, Elusive will remake our understanding of modern physics. Pub 2022 pages 374

The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization, by Peter Zeihan.

Peter Zeihan maps out the next world: a world where countries or regions will have no choice but to make their own goods, grow their own food, secure their own energy, fight their own battles, and do it all with populations that are both shrinking and aging.The list of countries that make it all work is smaller than you think. Which means everything about our interconnected world - from how we manufacture products, to how we grow food, to how we keep the lights on, to how we shuttle stuff about, to how we pay for it all - is about to change. A world ending. A world beginning. Zeihan brings readers along for an illuminating (and a bit terrifying) ride packed with foresight, wit, and his trademark irreverence . Pub 2022 pages 400

Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking, by Leonard Mlodinow.

You make hundreds of decisions every day, from what to eat for breakfast to how you should invest, and not one of those decisions would be possible without emotion. It has long been said that thinking and feeling are separate and opposing forces in our behavior. But as Leonard Mlodinow, the best-selling author of Subliminal, tells us, extraordinary advances in psychology and neuroscience have proven that emotions are as critical to our well-being as thinking. Using deep insights into our evolution and biology, Mlodinow gives us the tools to understand our emotions better and to maximize their benefits. Emotional explores the new science of feelings and offers us an essential guide to making the most of one of nature’s greatest gifts. Pub 2022 p.272

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker.

In this elegant assessment of the human condition in the third millennium Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, which play to our psychological biases. Instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West, but worldwide. This progress is not the result of some cosmic force. It is a gift of the Enlightenment: the conviction that reason and science can enhance human flourishing. Pub 2018 pages 454

Escape from Model Land: How Mathematical Models Can Lead Us Astray and What We Can Do About It, by Erica Thompson.

In Escape from Model Land, statistician Erica Thompson illuminates the hidden dangers of models. She demonstrates how models reflect the biases, perspectives, and expectations of their creators. Thompson shows us why understanding the limits of models is vital to using them well. A deeper meditation on the role of mathematics, this is an essential book for helping us avoid either confusing the map with the territory or throwing away the map completely, instead pointing to more nuanced ways to Escape from Model Land. Pub 2022 pages 275

Existential Physics: A Scientist's Guide to Life's Biggest Questionsby Sabine Hossenfelder.

Physicists are great at complicated research, but they are less good at telling us why it matters. In this entertaining and groundbreaking book, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder breaks down why we should care. Drawing on the latest research in quantum mechanics, black holes, string theory and particle physics, Existential Physics explains what modern physics can tell us about the big questions. This clear and yet profound book will reshape your understanding of science and the limits of what we can know. Pub 2022 pages 272

The Fight for Free Speech: Ten Cases that Define Our First Amendment Freedoms, by Ian Rosenberg.

Media lawyer Ian Rosenberg distills the spectrum of free speech law down to ten critical issues. Each chapter in this book focuses on a contemporary free speech question―from student walkouts for gun safety to Samantha Bee’s expletives, from Nazis marching in Charlottesville to the muting of adult film star Stormy Daniels― and then identifies, unpacks, and explains the key Supreme Court case that provides the answers. Together these fascinating stories create a practical framework for understanding where our free speech protections originated and how they can develop in the future. As people on all sides of the political spectrum are demanding their right to speak and be heard, The Fight for Free Speech is a handbook for combating authoritarianism, protecting our democracy, and bringing an understanding of free speech law to all. Pub 2021 pages 312

Fly Me to the Moon: An Insider's Guide to the New Science of Space Travel, by Edward Belbruno.

Belbruno devised one of the most exciting concepts now being used in space flight, that of swinging through the cosmos on the subtle fluctuations of the planets' gravitational pulls. His idea was met with skepticism until 1991, when he used it to get a stray Japanese satellite back on course to the Moon. The successful rescue represented the first application of chaos to space travel and ushered in an emerging new field. Part memoir, part scientific adventure story, Fly Me to the Moon gives a gripping insider's account of that mission and of Belbruno's personal struggles with the science establishment. Along the way, Belbruno introduces readers to recent breathtaking advances in American space exploration. He discusses ways to capture and redirect asteroids; presents new research on the origin of the Moon; weighs in on discoveries like 2003 UB313 (now named Eris), a dwarf planet detected in the far outer reaches of our solar system--and much more. Pub 2013 pages 159

The-Good-Life, by Robert-Waldinger and Marc Shultz.

The invaluable insights in this book emerge from the revealing personal stories of hundreds of participants in the Harvard Study as they were followed year after year for their entire adult lives. Relationships in all their forms—friendships, romantic partnerships, families, coworkers, tennis partners, book club members, Bible study groups—all contribute to a happier, healthier life. And as The Good Life shows us, it’s never too late to strengthen the relationships you have, and never too late to build new ones. With warmth, wisdom, and compelling life stories, The Good Life shows us how we can make our lives happier and more meaningful through our connections to others. Pub 2023 pages 352

Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, by Elinor Ostrom.

Elinor Ostrom here provides a unique body of empirical data to explore conditions under which common pool resource problems have been satisfactorily or unsatisfactorily solved. Dr Ostrom uses institutional analysis to explore different ways - both successful and unsuccessful - of governing the commons. In contrast to the proposition of the 'tragedy of the commons' argument, common pool problems sometimes are solved by voluntary organizations rather than by a coercive state. Among the cases considered are communal tenure in meadows and forests, irrigation communities and other water rights, and fisheries. Pub 2015 pages 296

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Discoveries We Need, by Bill Gates.

Gates not only explains why we need to work toward net-zero emissions of greenhouse gasses, but also details what we need to do to achieve this profoundly important goal. He gives us a clear-eyed description of the challenges we face. Drawing on his understanding of innovation and what it takes to get new ideas into the market, he describes the areas in which technology is already helping to reduce emissions, where and how the current technology can be made to function more effectively, where breakthrough technologies are needed, and who is working on these essential innovations. Finally, he lays out a concrete, practical plan for achieving the goal of zero emissions—suggesting not only policies that governments should adopt, but what we as individuals can do to keep our government, our employers, and ourselves accountable in this crucial enterprise. Pub 2021 pages 256

An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, by Ed Yong.

In An Immense World, Ed Yong coaxes us beyond the confines of our own senses, allowing us to perceive the skeins of scent, waves of electromagnetism, and pulses of pressure that surround us. We encounter beetles that are drawn to fires, turtles that can track the Earth’s magnetic fields, fish that fill rivers with electrical messages, and even humans who wield sonar like bats. We discover that a crocodile’s scaly face is as sensitive as a lover’s fingertips, that the eyes of a giant squid evolved to see sparkling whales, that plants thrum with the inaudible songs of courting bugs, and that even simple scallops have complex vision. We learn what bees see in flowers, what songbirds hear in their tunes, and what dogs smell on the street. We listen to stories of pivotal discoveries in the field, while looking ahead at the many mysteries that remain unsolved. Pub 2022 pages 464

Lessons in Stoicism: What Ancient Philosophers Teach Us about How to Live, by John Sellars.

In the past few years, Stoicism has been making a comeback. But what exactly did the Stoics believe? In Lessons in Stoicism, philosopher John Sellars weaves together the key ideas of the three great Roman Stoics -- Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius -- with snapshots of their fascinating lives, to show us how their ideas can help us today. In vivid prose, Sellars shows how the works of these three Stoics have inspired readers ever since, speaking as they do to some of the perennial issues that face anyone trying to navigate their way through life. Their works, fundamentally, are about how to live -- how to understand one's place in the world, how to cope when things don't go well, how to manage one's emotions and how to behave towards others. Pub 2020 pages 96

Lost in Math-How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, by Sabine Hossenfelder.

In this "provocative" book (New York Times), a contrarian physicist argues that her field's modern obsession with beauty has given us wonderful math but bad science. The belief in beauty has become so dogmatic that it now conflicts with scientific objectivity: observation has been unable to confirm mind-boggling theories, like supersymmetry or grand unification, invented by physicists based on aesthetic criteria. Worse, these "too good to not be true" theories are actually untestable and they have left the field in a cul-de-sac. To escape, physicists must rethink their methods. Only by embracing reality as it is can science discover the truth. Pub 2020 pages 304

The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, by Basil Mahon.

This is the first biography in twenty years of James Clerk Maxwell, one of the greatest scientists of our time and yet a man relatively unknown to the wider public. Approaching science with a freshness unbound by convention or previous expectations, he produced some of the most original scientific thinking of the nineteenth century ― and his discoveries went on to shape the twentieth century. Pub 2004 pages 256

The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything, by Matthew Ball.

Taking us on an expansive tour of the “next internet,” Ball demonstrates that many proto-Metaverses are already here, such as Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox. Yet these offer only a glimpse of what is to come. Ball presents a comprehensive definition of the Metaverse before explaining the technologies that will power it―and the breakthroughs that will be necessary to fully realize it. He addresses the governance challenges the Metaverse entails; investigates the role of Web3, blockchains, and NFTs; and predicts Metaverse winners and losers. Most importantly, he examines many of the Metaverse’s almost unlimited applications. The internet will no longer be at arm’s length; instead, it will surround us, with much of our lives, labor, and leisure taking place inside the Metaverse. Bringing clarity and authority to a frequently misunderstood concept, Ball foresees trillions of dollars in new value―and the radical reshaping of society. Pub 2022 pages 310

Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, by Richard R. Reeves.

Boys and men are struggling. Profound economic and social changes of recent decades have many losing ground in the classroom, the workplace, and in the family. While the lives of women have changed, the lives of many men have remained the same or even worsened. Our attitudes, our institutions, and our laws have failed to keep up. Conservative and progressive politicians, mired in their own ideological warfare, fail to provide thoughtful solutions. The father of three sons, a journalist, and a Brookings Institution scholar, Richard V. Reeves has spent twenty-five years worrying about boys both at home and work. His new book, Of Boys and Men, tackles the complex and urgent crisis of boyhood and manhood. Pub 2022 pages 256

Plugged In: The Past, Present, and Future of Brain Computer Interfaces, by Audrey Case.

A brain-computer interface (BCI) is exactly what it sounds like, a technology that acts as a go-between for the brain and a computer. This technology has huge potential to vastly improve the quality of life of those with central nervous system damage. Audrey uses her background in bio-engineering to weave the story of how the technology came to be and all the sometimes surprising turns it took to get to where it is today. Plugged In shares the stories of the past, present and future of BCI technology through a uniquely human lens. Pub 2020 pages 164

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, by Steve Pinker.

We actually think in ways that are sensible in the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives, but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning we’ve discovered over the millennia: logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation and causation, and optimal ways to update beliefs and commit to choices individually and with others. These tools are not a standard part of our education, and have never been presented clearly and entertainingly in a single book--until now. Rationality also explores its opposite: how the rational pursuit of self-interest, sectarian solidarity, and uplifting mythology can add up to crippling irrationality in a society. Collective rationality depends on norms that are explicitly designed to promote objectivity and truth. Pub 2021 pages 432

Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker.

Why is so much writing so bad, and how can we make it better? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do the kids today even care about good writing—and why should we care? In this entertaining and eminently practical book, the cognitive scientist, dictionary consultant, and New York Times–bestselling author Steven Pinker rethinks the usage guide for the twenty-first century. Using examples of great and gruesome modern prose while avoiding the scolding tone and Spartan tastes of the classic manuals, he shows how the art of writing can be a form of pleasurable mastery and a fascinating intellectual topic in its own right. The Sense of Style is for writers of all kinds, and for readers who are interested in letters and literature and are curious about the ways in which the sciences of mind can illuminate how language works at its best. Pub 2014 pages 368

The Skeptics Guide to the Universe-How to Know What’s Really Real In a World Increasingly Full of Fake, by Steven Novella.

It is intimidating to realize that we live in a world overflowing with misinformation, bias, myths, deception, and flawed knowledge. There really are no ultimate authority figures-no one has the secret, and there is no place to look up the definitive answers to our questions (not even Google). Luckily, The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe is your map through this maze of modern life. Here Dr. Steven Novella-along with Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein-will explain the tenets of skeptical thinking and debunk some of the biggest scientific myths, fallacies, and conspiracy theories-from anti-vaccines to homeopathy, UFO sightings to N- rays. You'll learn the difference between science and pseudoscience, essential critical thinking skills, ways to discuss conspiracy theories with that crazy co- worker of yours, and how to combat sloppy reasoning, bad arguments, and superstitious thinking. Pub 2019 pages 458

Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention--and How to Think Deeply Again, by Johann Hari.

Our focus has been stolen by powerful external forces that have left us uniquely vulnerable to corporations determined to raid our attention for profit. In Stolen Focus, he introduces readers to Silicon Valley dissidents who learned to hack human attention, and veterinarians who diagnose dogs with ADHD. He explores a favela in Rio de Janeiro where everyone lost their attention in a particularly surreal way, and an office in New Zealand that discovered a remarkable technique to restore workers’ productivity. Stolen Focus will transform the debate about attention and finally show us how to get it back. Pub 2023 pages 368

Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters, by Steven E. Koonin.

When it comes to climate change, the media, politicians, and other prominent voices have declared that "the science is settled." In reality, the long game of telephone from research to reports to the popular media is corrupted by misunderstanding and misinformation. Core questions—about the way the climate is responding to our influence, and what the impacts will be—remain largely unanswered. The climate is changing, but the why and how aren't as clear as you've probably been led to believe. Now, one of America's most distinguished scientists is clearing away the fog to explain what science really says (and doesn't say) about our changing climate. Koonin, former top science advisor to Obama, gives up-to-date insights and expert perspective free from political agendas. Pub 2021 pages 320

This Way to the Universe: A Theoretical Physicist's Journey to the Edge of Reality, by Michael Dine.

This Way to the Universe is a celebration of the astounding, ongoing scientific investigations that have revealed the nature of reality at its smallest, at its largest, and at the scale of our daily lives. The enigmas that Professor Michael Dine discusses are like landmarks on a fantastic journey to the edge of the universe. Asked where to find out about the Big Bang, Dark Matter, the Higgs boson particle—the long cutting edge of physics right now—Dine had no single book he could recommend. This is his accessible, authoritative, and up-to-date answer. With almost no equations, there is no better author to take you on this amazing odyssey. Pub 2022 pages 352

The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find our Place in the Universe, by Jeremy Lent.

Award-winning author, Jeremy Lent, investigates humanity's age-old questions – Who am I? Why am I? How should I live? – from a fresh perspective, weaving together findings from modern systems thinking, evolutionary biology, and cognitive neuroscience with insights from Buddhism, Taoism, and Indigenous wisdom. The result is a breathtaking accomplishment: a rich, coherent worldview based on a deep recognition of connectedness within ourselves, between each other, and with the entire natural world. It offers a compelling foundation for a new philosophical framework that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on a flourishing Earth. Pub 2021 pages 383

What We Owe the Future, by MacAskill.

The fate of the world is in our hands. Humanity’s written history spans only five thousand years. Our yet-unwritten future could last for millions more — or it could end tomorrow. Astonishing numbers of people could lead lives of great happiness or unimaginable suffering, or never live at all, depending on what we choose to do today. In What We Owe The Future, philosopher William MacAskill argues for longtermism, that idea that positively influencing the distant future is a key moral priority of our time. From this perspective, it’s not enough to reverse climate change or avert the next pandemic. We must ensure that civilization would rebound if it collapsed; counter the end of moral progress; and prepare for a planet where the smartest beings are digital, not human. Pub 2922 pages 352

[ ] AI Super-Powers [ ] Authoritarianism [ ] The Back Channel [ ] Being and Time [ ] The Biggest Ideas [ ] The Blank Slate [ ] A Brief History of Equality [ ] The End of the World [ ] Elusive [ ] Emotional [ ] Enlightenment Now [ ] Escape From Model Land [ ] Existential Physics [ ] The Fight for Free Speech [ ] Fly Me to the Moon [ ] The Good Life [ ] Governing the Commons [ ] How to Avoid a Climate Disaster [ ] An Immense World [ ] Lessons in Stoicism [ ] Lost in Math [ ] The Man Who Changed Everything [ ] The Metaverse [ ] Of Boys and Men [ ] Plugged In [ ] Rationality [ ] Sense of Style [ ] The Skeptics Guide to the Universe [ ] Stolen Focus [ ] Unsettled [ ] This Way to the Universe [ ] The Web of Meaning [ ] What We Owe the Future

The 2022 Bookshelf

The 2021 Bookshelf

The 2020 Bookshelf

The 2019 Bookshelf

The 2018 Bookshelf

The 2017 Bookshelf

The 2016 Bookshelf

The 2015 Bookshelf

The 2014 Bookshelf

The 2013 Bookshelf