Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

eirenicon comments on Recommended reading for new rationalists - Less Wrong

27 Post author: XFrequentist 09 July 2009 07:47PM

You are viewing a comment permalink. View the original post to see all comments and the full post content.

Comments (158)

You are viewing a single comment's thread.

Comment author: eirenicon 14 July 2009 02:24:01PM 0 points [-]

This is not so much a recommendation as a request. Recently I stumbled on my well-thumbed copy of Carl Sagan's Cosmos. It was given to me when I was pretty young, and was, by and large, the first real book about science I ever read. It covers a great range of topics, from evolution and planetary chemistry to astrophysics and relativity, provides comprehensive historical background, and is written in a very personable style. It led me to Sagan's other work, which led to a broader interest in science and, along with a textbook on modern philosophical thought I chanced upon, sparked my own intellectual revolution that lifted me out of a deeply conservative religious upbringing. The notion of the Cosmic Calendar had a particularly electrifying effect on a boy who had been raised to believe the universe was merely a few thousand years old. The book, of course, was based on Sagan's television series of the same name. It's still an excellent read, and it's a joy to know that some of Sagan's dreams for the future, like that of a roving Mars lander*, have been fulfilled.

However, that illustrates the problem: Cosmos will be 30 years old next year. The number of discoveries, innovations and explorations that have been made since it was published is staggering. While a great deal of the book is still valid, many new chapters could be written. While there are certainly many good books on science being published today, few authors have the range and familiar writing ability of Sagan. While I would still want to be given Cosmos if I were growing up today, I would find much of it out-dated. What other book or books published recently could serve a similar purpose? That is, what modern book would you give someone with little scientific background if you wanted to expand their horizons not just to this or that field but to a great breadth of knowledge?

The beauty of Cosmos, I found, was that while it did not offer comprehensive knowledge of any one subject, it prompted interest in a great many. Furthermore, it was a textbook not written like one. Sagan's informal style made science accessible without insulting his audience's intelligence. Like the television show, it was almost as though he was tricking people into learning without dumbing down any of the material.

The popular equivalent these days (as in, non-fiction books by scientists that climb the bestseller lists) seem to be more philosophically oriented books like Dawkin's The God Delusion. That's all well and good, but what are the popular books on general sciences, books that reach a wide audience and encourage scientific thinking among the general public?

*Although his prediction that images from the lander would be delivered daily to the television sets of millions of enthralled viewers was unfortunately misguided.