Guardian asks scientists to choose their best reads of the year

I’ve already mentioned somewhere that the New York Times‘s list of 2016’s 100 notable books had about 2 or 3 science books, and its shortened list of the 10 best books had no science books. Given the “two cultures”, one would expect more.

Our own Matthew Cobb noticed the same issue with the Guardian’s 110-best list (chosen by writers) , and tw**ted about it, showing that the proportion of science books was even lower than in the New York Times‘s list.

Well, the Guardian has taken steps to repair the situation, surveying 11 scientists and asking them what were their favorite reads of 2016 (“Favourite reads of 2016—as chosen by scientists“).

Here’s the intro to the Guardian piece, citing our already-famous Dr. Cobb and even showing his tw**t (click on screenshot to go to article):


The books chosen weren’t all published this year, and they include both fiction and nonfiction, so they serve as a cross-section of what scientists are reading. Most of the books, though, are nonfiction, with most of these at least tangentially about science, but Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon is also there.

The upshot: as I always maintain, scientists who read have a much more balanced selection, at least with respect to the Two Cultures, than do nonscientists. In other words, scientists know a lot more about the products of the humanities than scholars of the humanities know about the products of science. This is a sad situation, for in many ways science is more thrilling than fiction—because it’s real—and because all of us academic scientists are teachers who want others to be stimulated by our fields.


  1. George
    Posted December 9, 2016 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    I have not read it yet and am not sure if it is a science book (psychology anyone), but I am looking forward to “The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis. It is about the relationship between Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Anyone read it yet? Here is the NYT review:

    • George
      Posted December 9, 2016 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Yikes! Sorry about that. When did WordPress start embedding links – not just videos?

      Lewis’ latest book was not reviewed in the NYT until just now (Dec 9). The 100 books list came out on Nov 23 – so it missed the deadline.

      • Rupinder
        Posted December 9, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        This looks interesting! Daniel Kahneman’s classic “Thinking, Fast and Slow” was the distilled version of several years (decades?) of his collaborative research with Tversky. Thanks for the pointer!

    • Merilee
      Posted December 9, 2016 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      Just ordered it on Kindle today. Saw an excellent interview of Lewis on Charlie Rose last night discussing the book. The interview can most likely be found online. I opined to my bf that Lewis, who is currently ( or recently) a visiting scholar at Berkeley, would be a wonderful lecturer to have. Very articulate and engaging. I read Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast and Slow a few years ago and while the ideas were interesting, his presentation was pretty dry.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 9, 2016 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      “… not sure if it is a science book …”

      If it’s science, it’s the dismal one, inasmuch as Kahneman won the Nobel prize in economics.

      • Merilee
        Posted December 9, 2016 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

        He strangely won in economics despite being a psychologist.

        • Carl
          Posted December 9, 2016 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

          Not that strange – his Nobel was for recognizing the psychological aspects that can drive economic decisions.

  2. Carl
    Posted December 9, 2016 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    In other words, scientists know a lot more about the products of the humanities than scholars of the humanities know about the products of science.

    This doesn’t seem puzzling to me. It’s a lot easier to understand Huck’s feelings about Jim, than to understand general relativity.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted December 9, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      I agree. I try reading science stuff from time to time, but I often don’t understand what I’m reading. My education just isn’t up to the task. That doesn’t happen to a scientist reading a history book.

      WEIT is good because the lay person can understand it and it’s well written. That’s not that common though. More often, even if scientists are able to explain things to a layperson, they’re not that good at writing.

    • Posted December 9, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      This doesn’t seem puzzling to me. It’s a lot easier to understand Huck’s feelings about Jim, than to understand general relativity.

      Check your neurotypical privilege.


    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 9, 2016 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      Seems to me that scientists who are most into reading and writing (especially those who are the best-read and the most likely to write about their reading preferences) have a firm grounding in the humanities to begin with.

      So there’s a selection bias at work here.

  3. David Klotz
    Posted December 9, 2016 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Some years ago I read a comment by an MIT scientist (physics, I think) who stated that if for some reason the humanities faculty were unable to teach their classes, the science faculty members could still cover at least the gen-ed level classes. The reverse is decidedly not true.

    • Kevin
      Posted December 9, 2016 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      The landscape of science is, for different reasons, difficult to traverse. An experimental atomic/optical physicists will have a difficult time preparing cosmology students. Not undoable, but difficult.

      Likewise, imagine a course on how to make an iPhone from scratch. A physicist with some material science, computation and mechanical engineering background would stand well above a polymer chemist, not to mention a philosopher of bioethics (a field, I think, is still rather valuable).

    • eric
      Posted December 9, 2016 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      I think part of that is the significant difference between literacy and numeracy in well-educated people. Pretty much every white collar profession uses or requires reading and writing. But numeracy beyond the High School level isn’t really used in many humanities or social science professions. So, a physics professor is probably able to tell whether the philosophy 101 student is stringing together a coherent thought or not, but a philosophy professor may not be able to tell whether the physics 101 student has calculated force correctly. True, the physics professor may not be able to tell whether the philosophy student understood Plato correctly or is plaigerizing some other philosophy, because that takes subject matter knowledge beyond what he has. But he can do at least the minimal “laugh test” on an essay, where I would guess many philosophy professors can’t do the equivalent ‘laugh test’ on a page full of equations if they involve anything more than +, -, X, and /.

  4. RichardS
    Posted December 9, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Yes, I find that strange too. The Times Literary Supplement is especially bad, religion every week and even the rare occasional review of a science book more often than not done by someone with a religious bent. Yes it is a “literary” journal but we do live in the great age of science and many of these books are extremely important. I was a humanities major at the University of Chicago so it took me a long time to come to realize this, but I now tend to read mostly science related books. Easily the most interesting stuff being published.
    Thanks for the suggestions.

  5. Kevin
    Posted December 9, 2016 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    The Two Cultures meme is misleading or at least outdated. Our modern understanding of ‘other ways of knowing’ sets limits on how any form of knowledge or information is useful.

    Naturalism is empiricism. Science is what we call the relations we build to explain the phenomena we see in nature. Humanities, if it has knowledge, is based on empiricism. Humanities is being subsumed by naturalism and therefore science.

    • eric
      Posted December 9, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      I’m a chemist by training. Would you want to fly in a plane I designed and engineered? Would you want to watch a movie I wrote and directed? If the answer is “probably not,” then ‘subsumed’ is also probably not the right description between movie-making and engineering on the one hand, and science on the other. Sure, you can make up a philosophical hierarchy of disciplines where the most rigorously empirical sit at the top. But whenever a practitioner in one field needs different subject matter expert knowledge than a practitioner in another, its all just kind of empty bragging. “Biology is just chemistry” and “chemistry is just physics” makes for fine water cooler trash talk, but I don’t y know many scientists who really think the discipline of physics subsumes the discipline of biology. Or, likelwise, that the more general discipline of ‘science’ subsumes the disciplines of designing airplanes or making good films.

      • Kevin
        Posted December 9, 2016 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        Sean Carrol’s everyday equation is of little to no value to a person or organization that might discover a cure for Parkinson’s. Likewise, the person who composes the music for the next Marvel film has no requirement to know that we are made of atoms.

        Nevertheless, anyone who is going to contribute something to our world that is either innovative or an aesthetic advancement is applying critical thinking to empirically grounded knowledge.

        I think the fact that SMEs (subject matter experts) are becoming not only ubiquitous but invaluable is an illustration that empiricism guided by scientific methods of investigation are becoming the foundation for everything we know.

      • Posted December 9, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        You forgot about “Run the USA”. In that job, we apparently want a orange fraud with no experience.

        Sam Harris’s statement on elitism has never been more appropriate.

        It always surprises me how many people underestimate the complexity of good mechanical engineering design. People have this “garage logic” feel for basic mechanics and think this maps well to design.

        Which leads me to my favorite aphorism: An engineer can do well with one dollar what any fool can do poorly (and ugly) for two dollars.

        We use scientific methods all the time (for analysis). They help guide design; but design is whole different thing.

    • Posted December 9, 2016 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      The problem (/meme) is not obsolete, but remains a concern, evidently. The term in English comes from C.P. Snow. It is an even more pronounced in German (where this divide originates, thanks to German idealism).

      The problem here is not so much methodoly (which also isn’t that simple as you make it to be), but that humanities rule over the cultural domain and favour art, literature or fiction for the canon (what an educated person is supposed to know about), at the expense of science education. Alas, and I studied in humanities.

  6. Dominic
    Posted December 9, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Top person is my mate UCL’s Jenny Rohn who runs the Lab lit website – we read those for the Royal Institution ‘fiction lab’ that I go to regularly.

  7. Posted December 9, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Maybe it should be specified that all genres of books qualify. When people ask me about “books”, I assume that they mean fiction.

  8. Rupinder
    Posted December 9, 2016 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    I remember Ira Flatow talk about this year’s “bumper crop” of Science books on the latest episode of his show “Science Friday”. He and the guests on the show (Maria Popova @ Brain Pickings and Lee Billings @ Scientific American) gave some really good recommendations out of Science books published this year.
    It is disappointing how some of the best known media outlets give Science books a miss.

    Good to see that even Nature has a section in their latest issue on getting kids excited about Science through books, and have some cool recommendations. But I doubt that the average Joe subscribes to Nature 🙂

  9. Posted December 9, 2016 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Thnaks, Jerry. Though it should be pointed out that this isn’t “The Guardian”, which studiously ignored both my tweet and a letter I sent, but their science bloggers, who are scientists (and one historian of science). So it is on the Guardian website, but not in the printed paper.

    The mastermind of all this is Stephen Curry, to whom much thanks. Oddly enough, I bumped into him at the Wellcome Trust café in London yesterday evening, as he was making use of their wifi to upload precisely this article. We had a long and very pleasant chat!

  10. Merilee
    Posted December 9, 2016 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Damn ✔️✔️

  11. barn owl
    Posted December 9, 2016 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    I just pre-ordered Suzanne O’Sullivan’s It’s All in Your Head: True Stories of Imaginary Illness, mentioned in the Guardian piece, for my Kindle. On Amazon for USAians, the title is Is It All in Your Head, which might indicate some subtle cultural difference in attitudes towards psychosomatic illnesses. Maybe?

    I understand from some of my MD colleagues that patients with psychosomatic disorders (I think in DSM 5 they’re called somatic symptom disorders) can take up a great deal of a physician’s time. One of my psychiatrist friends is sometimes called to consult on such patients – of course xe is compassionate and respectful, but I think I’d find that difficult in such cases. Good thing IANAP, I guess.

  12. Diane G.
    Posted December 10, 2016 at 12:56 am | Permalink


  13. jaxkayaker
    Posted December 10, 2016 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    It’s not part of the natural sciences, but The Big Short was a good read.

  14. Posted December 10, 2016 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  15. bobkillian
    Posted December 10, 2016 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    For a science-y fun read, may I suggest the recently published “The Kafir Project” by Lee Burvine? It’s a didactic atheist work – artfully concealed in the suspense novel genre, full of international intrigue, ruthless assassins, hair-raising escapes, and so on. A page turner. But it’s science fiction, with abundant footnotes to peer-reviewed science references. It even includes a foreword by Lawrence Krauss, who admits he couldn’t put it down. Neither could I.

  16. Tim Harris
    Posted December 10, 2016 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    I largely agree with Jerry’s & Matthew Cobb’s sentiments, but it is surely more than an exaggeration to suggest that science is concerned with the ‘real’, whereas the humanities consists solely of novels. (‘This is a sad situation, for in many ways science is more thrilling than fiction—because it’s real…’). I also like the many thoughtful comments.

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