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2013 in Books

(elkement. Created: 2014-01-04. Tags: Books, Reading, Philosophy. German Version.)

I read (many) books, and I often pick them in order to answer peculiar specific questions of mine. 2013 was dedicated to: Biographies of scientists, popular science, physics text books and essays that deny categorizing.

These are my top five books of last year:

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius 

by Graham Farmelo.

Dirac trained as an engineer and searching for a job without success. He was driven by a top-down approach to physics: by the beauty of mathematical equations that eventually match a model of reality. Dirac’s usage of mathematics and his way of inventing new symbols (Dirac said he invented the bra) was said to give proof of his engineering mindset.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

by Ray Monk.

It is a book for those interested solely in Wittgenstein’s life as well as for amateur philosophers who had tried to decode the Tractatus in vain (as myself). I am not sure if you grasp the combination of his logical analysis of language and his allusions to the mystical without knowing about Wittgenstein’s debut in philosophy as Russell’s mentee on the one hand and his desire to be given the most dangerous task in World War I, in search for a life-altering experience, on the other hand. Peter Higgs has recently stated that he would not have been successful in today’s academic system. The more we are flabbergasted by reading about Wittgenstein’s lifelong reluctance to publish anything. 

Farewell to Reality: How Fairytale Physics Betrays the Search for Scientific Truth

...a sensationalist title. In my opinion Jim Baggott gives a rather balanced account of the history of physics – I would recommend this book to anybody who wants to understand what the big questions in fundamental physics have been in the past 100 years.

Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking

by Susan Cain eye-opener. I am typically considered an extremely extrovert person by people who know me personally. Cain tells me otherwise, my reluctance of “social” company events gives proof of that. Probably I am a faker on a mission: Introverts are able to transcend their limits if they want to achieve their goals. I enjoyed Cain’s experiment of attending a Tony Robbins workshop for research purposes.

Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder

by Nassim Taleb.

This book belongs in a class of its own. In a nutshell, antifragility is the opposite of fragility. This definition goes beyond robustness. Taleb applies his ideas to very diverse aspects of life and work - from medicine (and detrimental iatrogenics), personal fitness, to politics and science / innovation. He has the deepest respect for small business owners and artisans - he is less kind to university professors, particularly those specialized in economics and employed managers, particularly those of banks. Some of Taleb’s ideas appear simple (to comprehend, not necessarily to put into practice), often of the What my grandmother told me variety – which he does not deny. But he can make a nerd like me wonder if some things are probably – simply that simple. In case you are not convinced he also publishes scientific papers loaded with math jargon. Taleb mischievously mentions that his ideas called too trivial and obvious have been taken seriously after he translated them into formal jargon.

Find my detailed post on more great books here. I have also blogged about Taleb's books and ideas in more detail  here, here, here, and here.

Personal website of Elke Stangl, Zagersdorf, Austria, c/o punktwissen.
elkement [at] subversiv [dot] at. Contact