Tuesday, February 09, 2010

An alternative BBC list for the "educated" mind

So there's this little blurb going around on Facebook in which the BBC has listed 100 books written over the last 200 years or so and asked people how many they and their friends have read. The books are diverse and include everything from Jane Austen to J D Salinger to Harry Potter.

Obviously the BBC thinks this list is important in some way or that people who have read some of these books are educated or well-informed. There is a note informing us that most people would have read only 6 out of those 100 books. Perhaps this is startling.

But what is startling by orders of magnitude is that this list of 100 books does not include a single scientific work. Now of course people would not be expected to have read The Principia. But what about Darwin's "The Origin of Species"? Or, looking at something more modern and still pivotal, Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions"? These volumes are comparable to many of the books listed by the BBC, certainly in terms of comprehension, and also almost certainly in terms of importance.

Most prominently, what about C P Snow's "The Two Cultures" which lamented the rift between science and the humanities? You want to see a classic example of this rift? WItness the BBC list! Snow would have nodded his head vigorously, especially and most ironically because the exclusion of his own volume from the list makes his point resoundingly clear.

So, dear BBC, if I were to draw up my own short and admittedly limited list of scientific works that surely deserve as much of a place in the "educated" man's mind as the august books you present, I would cite the following. I haven't read all of these works; but with all I have a passing familiarity and some I have read more seriously. Let's even forget Newton's "Principia" for now and focus on the last 200 years as the BBC mostly has, and even just on the 20th century. Of course some of the following are more important than others; some are popular treatments while others are defining and fundamental volumes for their respective fields. But one can still come up with a highly readable list, which in my opinion would enrich the mind of any human being.

1. The Origin of Species- Charles Darwin

2. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions- Thomas Kuhn

3. The Logic of Scientific Discovery- Karl Popper

4. Silent Spring- Rachel Carson

5. Science and the Common Understanding- J. Robert Oppenheimer

6. Principia Mathematica- Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead

7. Physics and Philosophy- Werner Heisenberg

8. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions- Edwin Abbott

9. On Growth and Form- D'Arcy Thompson

10. What is Life?- Erwin Schrodinger

11. Men of Mathematics- E T Bell

12. Microbe Hunters- Paul De Kruif

13. The Mismeasure of Man- Stephen Jay Gould

14. The Selfish Gene- Richard Dawkins

15. Sociobiology- E O Wilson

16. Mr. Tompkins- George Gamow

17. The Double Helix- James Watson

18. The Nature of the Chemical Bond- Linus Pauling

19. Chaos- James Gleick

20. Advice to a Young Scientist- Peter Medawar

and finally

21. The Two Cultures- C P Snow

Consider the diverse and varying importance of these works. Kuhn and Popper are defining volumes in the philosophy of science. Darwin needs no explanation. Schrodinger inspired a generation of physicists like Francis Crick to change fields and initiate a revolution in biology. E O Wilson's book started a fierce chapter in the "nature vs nurture" debate whose ramifications can still be felt. In one fell swoop Gould demolished the foundations of scientific racism and eugenics. Pauling's book is one of the most important scientific works of all time and redefined chemistry. D'Arcy Thompson's beautiful volume established the mathematical foundations of developmental biology. Bell and De Kruif both inspired dozens of famous scientists like Andrew Weil and John Nash who went on to do groundbreaking work and win Fields and Nobel medals. Russell's book was a landmark event designed to provide a foundation for all of mathematics. Watson's book is considered the archetype of how real science is done, warts and all. Carson became the godmother of the modern environmental movement. On a more limited but important level, Gleick, Gamow and Dawkins made chaos theory, quantum physics and selfish genes comprehensible to the layman. And Medawar, Oppenheimer and Snow wrote deeply thoughtful volumes on the relationship between science, society and culture.

Now I suppose it would not be too presumptuous to ask the question; how many of these have the BBC list-makers read?

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Anonymous S M Rana said...

You have glaringly missed out Infeld/Einstein's "Evolution of Physics. Are you seriously suggesting Russels Principia for lay readers or Bell's "Men of Mathematics" for a lay reader who knows Gilbert better than Hilbert?

One can do without science but not without humanism. Not having seen the BBC list, I would readily empatise if the bias is towards the humanities. There is enough deification of Science!

4:56 AM  
Blogger Wavefunction said...

Not the Principia, but Men of Mathematics, certainly! And of course, Infeld/Einstein. Good pick.

-One can do without science but not without humanism

And is there a reason why science cannot teach humanism? One needs both in any case.

7:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fine list. But I'd add:
"A Mathematician's apology" by G.H. Hardy, with a foreword by C.P Snow.

For this book blurs the line between science and humanities, and even though it is an essay on why mathematics is valuable, it is ultimately more than that.

It is the most eloquent defence of the pursuit of beauty for its own sake that I have ever seen.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

A fine list. Alas, I am ashamed to say that I have read only 'The Selfish Gene' and Chaos in it. I will be the first one to lay claim to the epithet of "well-educated" and "well-read" for myself but No, not even 'two cultures' made it to my reading conquests (I hang my head in shame!)

Selfish Gene is my favourite book and Dawkins is my favourite author. His book got me very excited about mathematical Biology and I have no doubt that if I had read it 10 years earlier I would have switched to that field. I have tried reading 'The origin of Species', but could not keep up with the victorin style of writing and resorted to Dawkins' ouevre to clear up evolution in my mind.

I have had nursed a desire to read many of the books in your list and some others (Popper, Wilson, and Snow are at the top in my list). May be when I am 60, I can revisit your page and tick some of the members off it.

Have you read Daniell Dennet's 'Conciousness explained'. Despite its grandiose title I have heard that it approaches the complicated subject of Conciousness with humility and logic. What is your opinion?

8:09 AM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

Hi Ashutosh,

The bomb blast in Pune is all over the news. I hope everything is fine at your home.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Wavefunction said...

@musefree: How could I forget the apology?! Thanks for reminding me of it. I have indeed read it (the nice Canto version) and as you say, it's a uniquely eloquent of pure thought.

@Vivek: Even if you have not read all of these volumes, you have at least heard about them and that's not bad at all! I have also not read things like Popper from cover to cover but I am familiar with the salient arguments in the book.

Thanks for the concern by the way. My family in Pune is fine. Although jarred, as is everyone else.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Wavefunction said...

I have actually not read Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" although it's on my list. I have read his other two popular volumes.

7:51 PM  

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