30 of my favorite books

A reader named Shozab writes:

Scott, if you had to make a list of your favourite books, which ones would you include?
And yes, you can put in quantum computing since Democritus!

Since I’ve gotten the same request before, I guess this is as good a time as any.  My ground rules:

  • I’ll only include works because I actually read them and they had a big impact on me at some point in my life—not because I feel abstractly like they’re important or others should read them, or because I want to be seen as the kind of person who recommends them.
  • But not works that impacted me before the age of about 10, since my memory of childhood reading habits is too hazy.
  • To keep things manageable, I’ll include at most one work per author.  My choices will often be idiosyncratic—i.e., not that author’s “best” work.  However, it’s usually fair to assume that if I include something by X, then I’ve also read and enjoyed other works by X, and that I might be including this work partly just as an entry point into X’s oeuvre.
  • In any case where the same author has both “deeper” and more “accessible” works, both of which I loved, I’ll choose the more accessible.  But rest assured that I also read the deeper work. 🙂
  • This shouldn’t need to be said, but since I know it does: listing a work by author X does not imply my agreement with everything X has ever said about every topic.
  • The Bible, the Homeric epics, Plato, and Shakespeare are excluded by fiat.  They’re all pretty important (or so one hears…), and you should probably read them all, but I don’t want the responsibility of picking and choosing from among them.
  • No books about the Holocaust, or other unremittingly depressing works like 1984.  Those are a special category to themselves: I’m glad that I read them, but would never read them twice.
  • The works are in order of publication date, with a single exception (see if you can spot it!).

Without further ado:

Quantum Computing Since Democritus by Scott Aaronson

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by himself

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin by himself

Altneuland by Theodor Herzl

The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism by Bertrand Russell

What Is Life?: With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches by Erwin Schrödinger

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science by Martin Gardner

How Children Fail by John Holt

Set Theory and the Continuum Hypothesis by Paul Cohen

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (specifically, the middle third)

A History of Pi by Petr Beckmann

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein

Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges

Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman

The Book of Numbers by John Conway and Richard Guy

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Gems of Theoretical Computer Science by Uwe Schöning and Randall Pruim

Fashionable Nonsense by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont

Our Dumb Century by The Onion

Quantum Computation and Quantum Information by Michael Nielsen and Isaac Chuang

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch

You’re welcome to argue with me in the comments, e.g., by presenting evidence that I didn’t actually like these books. 🙂  More seriously: list your own favorites, discuss your reactions to these books, be a “human recommendation engine” by listing books that “those who liked the above would also enjoy,” whatever.

Addendum: Here’s another bonus twenty books, as I remember more and as commenters remind me of more that I liked quite as much as the thirty above.

The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel

A Mathematician’s Apology by G. H. Hardy

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg

Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

Adventures of a Mathematician by Stanislaw Ulam

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman

Mathematical Writing by Donald Knuth, Tracy Larabee, and Paul Roberts

A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar

An Introduction to Computational Learning Theory by Michael Kearns and Umesh Vazirani

The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose

The Nili Spies by Anita Engle (about the real-life heroic exploits of the Aaronsohn family)

Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach by Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig

The Princeton Companion to Mathematics edited by Timothy Gowers

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

Fear No Evil by Natan Sharansky

The Mind’s I by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett

Disturbing the Universe by Freeman Dyson

Unsong by Scott Alexander

132 Responses to “30 of my favorite books”

  1. Sanketh Says:

    Sir Roger Penrose?!?!

    Also, does a joint work exclude works by the individual authors, because Papadimitriou’s computational complexity! (wait a second, be honest, did you read it before you were 10?)

    Let’s see, my some of my favourites not mentioned above include:

    Donald Knuth. The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 1 (You said one had to finish reading it first!)
    Michael Kearns and Umesh Vazirani. An Introduction to Computational Learning Theory
    Christopher A. Fuchs. Coming of Age with Quantum Information (I am weird…)
    Noga Alon and Joel H. Spencer. The Probabilistic Method
    John Watrous. The Theory of Quantum Information (obviously)

  2. Atreat Says:

    Here’s my instantaneous list in reaction to yours without much thought behind it (and unordered):

    The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

    The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose

    Insight into Emptiness by Jampa Tegchok

    Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

    A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

    QED and the Men Who Made It by Silvan S. Schweber

    The Illuminatus! Trilogy

  3. Atreat Says:

    Ooops, hit submit too soon.

    The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

    The Art of Dreaming by Carlos Castaneda

    Principia Discordia by Malaclypse the Younger

    The Book of Lies by Aleister Crowley

  4. Shozab Says:

    Thanks for this Scott! Really appreciate it! 😀 I must admit, its really exciting to be featured in a separate blogpost by ones favourite author! After finishing QC since D, I read your ‘Why Philosophers should care about computational complexity’ and then proceeded to download your PhD thesis from which I take a peek every now and then!

    I quite like the ground rules for setting up your list. I’ll try to follow them except the order of publication date one 🙂

    – Quantum Computing Since Democritus by (I think we all know the author)
    – Quantum Computation and Quantum Information by Nielson and Chuang
    – Thus spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
    – Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman by Richard Feynman
    – Tractatus Logico Philosophicus by Wittgenstein

    The other stuff I’ve read didn’t really have an impact comparable to the five books above so I haven’t included it. At the moment, I’m struggling through Ulysses but I really like it so I’ll probably include that in my list at some point as well 🙂 I quite like reading beautiful prose which contains multiple meanings (one of the many reasons I like Nietzsche) so Joyces streams of consciousness technique makes him very enjoyable.

    I’m curious about one thing, exactly which part of David Deutsch’s thought influenced yout? Was it some kind of particular technique or idea that he advocates?
    For instance, the idea that really inspired me in QC since D (and pretty much everything else you’ve written) is the idea behind applying computational complexity to a large range of problems. I do remember a previous blogpost in which said you prefer the many-world interpretation – so is that what inspired you? 🙂

  5. Bob Strauss Says:

    My favorites:

    Time Machines, by Paul Nahin. A broad scientific overview of time travel that manages to incorporate nearly every time-travel short story ever written. The most fun science book I’ve ever read.

    The Road to Reality, by Roger Penrose. No one can ever accuse Penrose of talking down to his readers. I couldn’t understand half of it, and I’m skeptical about his conclusions, but it feels like the entire universe packed into a single book.

    The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, by John Barrow and Frank Tipler. My first introduction to anthropic reasoning in the mid-1980’s, and another whole-universe-in-a-book book.

    Intelligent Life in the Universe, by Sagan and Shkovskii. One of the first science books I ever read, when I was 13 years old. (Honorable mention to everyone’s favorite, One, Two, Three, Infinity, by George Gamow, which was probably THE first science book I ever read.)

    The Fabric of Reality, by David Deutsch. Worst cover design ever, but I think one of the most important philosophy-of-science books ever written. (I wasn’t quite as fond of The Beginning of Infinity, though.)

    Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, by Daniel Dennett. I had always been skeptical of Dennett, based on the things I’d read about him, but this book is excellent. (Also, too, The Concestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins, which is kind of like the evolutionary version of the movie Memento.)

    There are plenty of others, but I’d need to review my library to recall them. And just for fun, the single worst science book I have ever read in my entire life:

    A New Kind of Science, by Stephen Wolfram. Don’t get me started… (I should also mention Rupert Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life, which in a momentary lapse of judgment I thought was actually about science, and Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe (ditto).

  6. Bob Strauss Says:

    Brief digression about Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science: When I was studying Russian at Cornell, my professor procured (I don’t remember how) an epic 40-page prose poem written by Immanuel Velikovsky, held by his estate in Israel, and suggested I translate it as a thesis project. I did, but then Velikovsky’s estate refused permission to publish it. I’m not sure the poem sheds any light on his worlds-in-collision crackpottery, but it might have been at least a minor footnote to the world’s encyclopedia of knowledge. It’s stuffed in a box somewhere in my house.

  7. Scott Says:

    Sanketh #1: Papadimitriou’s Computational Complexity was in my first draft of this list, but it got knocked out because of my one-work-per-author rule and because I really wanted to include Logicomix.

    Penrose’s The Road to Reality could easily have been there, but I’m not sure which of the 30 to knock out for it, and 30 is too round a number. 🙂

  8. jonathan Says:

    Very interesting! But no works of fiction?

    Incidentally, why did you like The Beginning of Infinity better than Enlightenment Now? You mentioned in your review of the latter that they seemed comparable. Or was the exclusion of EN just a result of your “one book per author” rule plus the inclusion of the Blank Slate?

    p.s. what did you think of Bostrom’s Superintelligence? Were you going to write something about that at some point?

  9. Joe Fitzsimons Says:

    Can’t fault you on Galileo. I proposed to my wife over a first edition (well, a first Latin edition) of that book in Merton library.

  10. Shozab Says:

    Sanketh comment #1

    I didn’t know about John Watrous’s book but I just looked it up. Looks pretty good! If you’re interested in the mathematical side of quantum information, I think you’ll appreciate “Alice and Bob meet Banach” by Auburn and Szarek. Though your tastes in quantum information would be influenced by your mathematical tastes 🙂

  11. Scott Says:

    jonathan #7: There are several works of fiction in there (look again!). And works of biography that read like fiction.

    Yes, Enlightenment Now was sadly knocked out by the 1-work-per-author rule. In addition, while that book is extremely important and I meant all the good things I said about it, Beginning of Infinity was arguably more daring, with more thoughts that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.

    Bostrom’s Superintelligence is obviously the most important book on that topic, and a must-read if you want to debate it from any side. And there’s nothing else like it, since much of the material previously only existed scattered across Internet forums. Honestly, though, if I had to pick just one book by Bostrom, I’d probably pick his earlier Anthropic Bias, which threw me for a loop when I read it as a beginning grad student.

  12. Steve E Says:

    I can’t believe I’ve read over half the books on that list, despite the fact that I don’t read that many books. Scott, you’ve got great taste!

  13. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    “The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (specifically, the middle third)”

    A lot of people like this novel; one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of people seem to like exactly one of the three sections and not like the other two nearly as much.

    “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei”

    I’m a little surprised this got on the list (and would also be curious what your preferred translation is). It is well written, but the consensus seems to be that the book didn’t really address the actual concerns at the time that were legitimate. For example, Galileo basically doesn’t address the Tychonic system https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tychonic_system even though it was a very popular one at the time. To some extent, Galileo is beating up on ideas which are already rejected.

  14. Daniel Harlow Says:

    Not big on fiction, are you?

  15. Shecky R Says:

    I recently linked to this Twitter feed (I think interesting) that had folks post 5 books that best represented their “worldview” (a bit different from “favorite” books):

  16. anon Says:

    As an academic scientist, I’ve always most appreciated the first third of “The Gods Themselves” for its spot-on, humorous description of the equal parts hapless and arrogant – soon to be famous scientist. I’ve wondered whether the character was modeled on someone Asimov had encountered in his own academic.

  17. Scott Says:

    Joshua #12: Well, Galileo’s Dialogues were apparently still controversial enough, at the time he wrote them, for him to be forced to recant them by the Inquisition under threat of torture. So, I dunno … would you write something that controversial? 🙂

    As for the content, I’d say that Salviati offers the clearest statement of the scientific outlook that existed anywhere at that time, and also the clearest defense of Copernicanism. And the book introduces Galilean relativity, a contender for the most important idea in the history of physics (and something laypeople often mistakenly attribute to Einstein). And it has possibly the first clear discussion anywhere of the effect of errors on scientific measurements.

    In terms of impact, I’d pick this as the single book that did the most to jump-start the scientific revolution, ahead even of Newton’s Principia—a great work that everyone knows is world-historically important but hardly anyone has actually read.

    Finally, despite being written 400 years ago for a radically different culture, Galileo’s Dialogues remain an easier, clearer, and more fun read than most pop-science books written today, and are often even laugh-out-loud funny.

    So yeah, they make the list.

  18. Daniel Seita Says:

    Did I see an invitation to post our favorite books?

    Heh that’s easy for me! 🙂 Unfortunately there surprisingly isn’t that much overlap with your *favorite* book list despite how I almost exclusively read non-fiction. Hmm…. at least Alan Turing’s biography made it.



  19. Steve F Says:

    Scott, if you haven’t read it, you’ll love

    A Mathematician’s Apology by G. H. Hardy.

    I also read and enjoyed

    The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel.

    Don’t be put off if you thought the movie was just meh.

  20. Scott Says:

    Daniel #13: On reflection, there are many, many works of fiction besides the few I listed—from children’s books like Bridge to Terabithia, to A Confederacy of Dunces, to the hard SF of Greg Egan—that I loved at the time and that I’ll be excited to share with my kids once they’re old enough. It’s just harder than with nonfiction to point to the lasting effect that any of it had on my worldview. Great novels, for me, are more like great amusement park rides; most of the enjoyment is derived while you’re still on them.

  21. fred Says:

    When it comes to unwrapping the mysteries of relativity:


  22. Scott Says:

    Steve #18: I’ve read both (of course, how could I not have?), and both could’ve easily made the list. Are there any books that either of us can recommend that the other hasn’t already read? 🙂

  23. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    Dear Scott,

    Bad luck!

    Given your tastes, you don’t seem to have run across (listed in no particular order): Morris Kline (Maths and the Physical World, History of Western Maths), Kolmogorov (ed., Mathematics: Its Content, Methods and Meaning), or the “Upanishad”s (but if you get interested in these, do ask me for a reco on a right kind of a precis for you before you dive straight into any of those competing and poor English translations of the original Sanskrit, and I sure will juggle up my memory a bit). Also, Ayn Rand (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd edition).

    Good luck!


  24. Scott Says:

    Ajit #22: I’ve read a fair amount of Ayn Rand, including Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, Anthem, and some books of essays. Unlike some of the other books we’ve been discussing, their exclusion from my list was deliberate. 🙂

  25. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    Scott # 23:

    As it so happened, I began Ayn Rand with the Epistemology book, when I was 19. Wish you had begun Ayn Rand with that one too.

    When someone mentions Ayn Rand, from all that she wrote/said, it’s this book, esp. the summary section from the 1st edition, and certain passages from the text as well as from her seminar (which appear only in the 2nd edition, not the 1st) which still spring back as being more alive to me than any other writings by her. (OK, Anthem may be an exception, at times, though I read it comparatively later.) … May be that’s how I am; may be that’s the way I always have been.

    But do keep the other books I mentioned too, somewhere at the back of your mind.

    Just one more word. Just as I do recommend the Upnishad’s to you (with a tip to better begin approaching them with a right sort of a precis—if you at all do), similarly, I also do summarily un-recommend the “Geeta”. This may be shocking to a lot of Indo-philes, both here in India and there in the US, but that’s just the way I am. (And may be, that’s the way I always have been.)

    Anyway, let me sign off for today. (It’s almost 11:00 PM here.)

    Thanks for caring to reply, and bye for now.



  26. Jair Says:

    Well, as long as we are listing books… for a technical work, I would have to go with Richard Stanley’s magnum opus, Enumerative Combinatorics. For nonfiction, I suppose I would choose Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature. For fiction, I’ll pick The Brothers Karamazov. And for memoirs I will mention Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home”.

  27. Ashley Says:


    How long would you (and guys like you 🙂 ) take to read, say, the one by Nielsen and Chuang cover to cover?
    And how do you do that so fast? (Of course you are doing it quite fast.) You would have any any advice, like go slow to go fast, take a lot of notes all the time, or something – especially if one is doing self study? What do you do when there are no worked out solutions at the back?

  28. Scott Says:

    Ashley #27: OK, so like, I haven’t actually read Mike & Ike cover to cover. I think I read more than half of it, though, and have spent enough time in quantum computing that I could spout off for a while on any topic that it covers, whether I read the chapter or not. 🙂 I didn’t do most of the exercises. So I don’t know the answers to your questions—if you figure it out, let me know!

    If you want a book that I actually worked through cover to cover, trying to do each exercise, that would be Gems of Theoretical Computer Science. 10/10 would recommend.

  29. Michael Says:

    Why String Theory? by Joe Conlon.
    String Theory and the scientific method by Richard Dawid.

    Both provide excellent insight into the scope of string theory research as well as a robust explanation/justification for the dominance of stringy ideas in theoretical physics. Both are very insightful, and engagingly written.

    The strangest man by Graham Farmelo – maybe the best scientific biography I have ever read, about Paul Dirac.

    Algorithmics – by David Harel.

    Privides a simply brilliant high level overview of the theory of algorithms, from design/complexity analysis. The books scope is rather impresive.

    Princeton companion to mathematics by numerous authors.

    Unique in its breadth and depth. Covers the basics of most areas of mathematical research in a surprising amount of detail. Has a great chapter on comptational complexity.

    A guinea pigs history of biology by Jim Endersby.

    A very entertaining and interesting book on the history of biological research, particularly genetics.

  30. Scott Says:

    Michael #29: I haven’t yet read Algorithmics by David Harel, but it’s the book that drew my wife Dana into theoretical computer science when she was a teenager.

  31. Shecky R Says:

    One of my own favorites that I feel doesn’t get enough attention is Alan Sokal’s “Beyond the Hoax” (similar to Sokal’s “Fashionable Nonsense” cited by Scott, but I think richer/better/longer).
    And at the link I gave earlier, one of the works mentioned several times is Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Rationality: from AI to Zombies” — I’ve never read it, but am surprised it hasn’t shown up yet among this crowd (maybe Scott or someone will comment on it).

  32. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Scott #17,

    No, certainly not. The particular thing that bothers me I guess is that at a young age I had a similar reaction to you to that book and then when I got older I realized that in many ways Galileo ignored the strongest arguments of people who disagreed with him and essentially completely ignored the Tychonian system which was one of the major contenders at the time. It made me sort of disappointed in the book and him.

  33. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    The Making of the Atomic Bomb – Richard Rhodes (probably the best work of non-fiction I have read, and in my opinion one of the best books ever written: easily parallels Shakespeare or the Greek tragedies as an epic work of horror and glory)

    Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy (probably the best work of fiction I have read; the imagery, violence and profound depth are simply stunning and without parallel)

    Paradigms Lost – John Casti (probably the best work of general science I have read. Six great problems of modern science – the origin of life, nature vs nurture, language acquisition, artificial intelligence, quantum reality and extraterrestrial intelligence are tackled in the form of a courtroom case with wit and brilliance)

    Disturbing the Universe – Freeman Dyson (probably the best autobiography I have read)

    Chaos – James Gleick (I know of no other book which speaks so vividly of a science on the cusp of explosive progress)

    The Beginning of Infinity – David Deutsch (mind-expanding)

    Gödel, Escher, Bach – Robert Hofstadter (mind-expanding)

    The Emperor’s New Mind – Roger Penrose (mind-expanding)

    Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! – Richard Feynman

    Naturalist – E. O. Wilson (ranks with Dyson’s book as the most sincere set of self-reflections I have ever seen penned by a scientist)

    Waking Up – Sam Harris (probably the best and clearest argument in favor of secular meditation I have read)

    Complete works of T.S. Eliot – T.S. Eliot

    The Dragons of Eden – Carl Sagan (a lot of people rightly recommend Sagan’s other books, but I found this one to be his boldest and most imaginative volume – and it won a Pulitzer)

    The Time Machine – H. G. Wells

    The Story of Civilization – Will and Ariel Durant (A ten volume magnum opus; probably all you need to read for a grand dive into Westerrn Civilization)

    Why I am Not A Christian – Bertrand Russell (brimming with trenchant wit and provocative juices).

    The Man Who Loved Only Numbers – Paul Hoffman

    A Beautiful Mind – Sylvia Nasar (an amazing exploration of both mathematical brilliance and mental illness)

    My Family and other Animals – Gerald Durrell

    King Solomon’s Ring – Konrad Lorenz

    Stories – Anton Chekhov (no one can turn words so simply as Chekhov)

    The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – William Shirer (an unsurpassed epic full of horror and triumph)

    The Longest Day – Cornelius Ryan

    Begone Godmen! – Abraham Kovoor (a rare volume: Kovoor was an Indian rationalist who bravely took on spiritual and religious frauds and exposed their ‘miracles’ long before it was fashionable to do so)

    In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat – John Gribbin (a book which would inspire anyone to study physics)

    Manhunt – James Swanson (edge of your seat account of the 12 day hunt for John Wilkes Booth)

    The Second Creation – Robert Crease (the best history of particle physics)

    The Eighth Day of Creation – Horace Freeland Judson (the best history of molecular biology)

    The Double Helix – James Watson (science with all its warts)

    My World Line – George Gamow

  34. Michael Says:

    Scott #30

    Algorithmics is the best book I’ve thus far encountered for gaining a broad overview of CS theory. An ideal introduction before one begins the study of CS proper, or otherwise useful for gaining a big picture perspective without the technical details.

  35. Douglas Knight Says:

    Why 30? Doesn’t clickbait teach us never to use round numbers? Why force yourself to exclude some books?

    Scott gave his answer, which is that the debate isn’t the point. But even if we restrict to the debate, there’s a lot to be said for it. It isn’t perfect. It cheats a bit and it isn’t encyclopedic. Bellarmine is encyclopedic, but is too fragmentary, compared to the coherence of Galileo. Both Galileo and Bellarmine confuse the issue of rotation with revolution. Rotation is the key issue. Galileo argued for rotation. Galileo was tried for rotation (if there was any coherence to the charges). If you accept rotation, you reject the Tychonic system. You could have a rotating Tychonic system, but if the Earth rotates fast, why not revolves even faster? The only thing going for a rotating Tychonic system is lack of parallax, and I don’t think it was that popular.

  36. Sebastian Oberhoff Says:

    A few books I haven’t seen mentioned yet that were important for me:

    [Thinking fast and slow](https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman/dp/0374533555)


    [The Nature of Computation](https://www.amazon.com/Nature-Computation-Cristopher-Moore/dp/0199233217)

  37. Mike Williams Says:

    I’ve read about half your list, and a snatch of the above reader offerings. So without duplication, here’s my offering:

    James Thurber: The 13 Clocks
    Thomas A Bass: The Eudaemonic Pie
    Temple Grandin: Animals in Translation
    Bertrand Russell: Autobiography
    James Blish: Cities in Flight
    John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar
    Graham Robb: The Discovery of France
    Stanislaw Lem: The Cyberiad
    Dennett & Hofstadter: The Mind’s I
    Ronald W Clark: J.B.S.: The Life and Work of J.B.S.Haldane
    Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics
    Barry Hughart: Bridge of Birds

  38. Carl Wolfson Says:

    This list leaves out some of my top ten or fifteen favorites (for example Blank Slate, Selfish Gene, and Beginning of Infinity), but behold a sequence of books from the philosophical and political angle that led humanity out of the darkness and into the happy state described by Pinker in Enlightenment Now. The last two chart the process, while the preceding are embedded in its DNA.

    De Rerum Natura – Lucretius
    Leviathan – Hobbes
    Ethics, Theological-Political Treatise, Correspondence – Spinoza (Spinoza is too important for me to limit him to one book)
    The Federalist Papers – John Jay, Madison, Hamilton
    On Liberty – Mill
    Radical Enlightenment – Jonathan Israel
    Nature’s God, the Heretical Origins of the American Republic – Matthew Stewart

  39. Carl Wolfson Says:

    Addendum to #32

    Note Lucretius is one of our best sources on Democritus.

  40. SilasLock Says:

    To my chagrin, I’ve read only 3 of Scott’s list cover to cover, and had to return to the library a few of the other titles before I could finish them. A ton of the books I hadn’t even heard of before today. =(

    On the plus side, I have some interesting reading to look forward to! I’ve been meaning to devour Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems for some time now, its such a classic scientific smackdown that its practically criminal that I’ve procrastinated reading it for this long. =P

  41. Scott Says:

    SilasLock #40: If you haven’t read most of these 30 (or now 50) books, that’s good news, not bad news. It means you’ve got a lot to look forward to. 🙂

  42. mjgeddes Says:

    There’s a twitter thing happening at the moment,

    Here were the 5 non-fiction books I listed that had the greatest impact on my world-view:

    1) ‘The Fabric Of Reality’ , David Deutsch

    A brilliant presentation of an integrated world-view or philosophy of rationalism, strong arguments for MWI of QM

    2) ‘The Beginning Of Infinity’, David Deutsch

    Inspiring optimism, teeming with ideas, further expositions towards a fully integrated philosophy of a rationalist world-view

    3) ‘Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman’ , Richard Feynman

    A really fun book of semi-autobiographical anecdotes. Creative genius , spirit of thinking outside the box

    4) ‘Pale Blue Dot’, Carl Sagan

    Inspirational philosophy for space exploration as well as lots of fascinating facts! Great pics and photos

    5) ‘The Stuff Of Thought’, Steven Pinker

    Have you read Pinker’s ‘The Stuff Of Thought’ Scott? If I would recommend one book of Pinker’s it would be that one, since it’s all about knowledge representation and a putative ‘language of thought’ (upper ontology), which has always been my main fascination.

    I understand knowledge representation waaaay better now, and in fact, I now think that KR is equivalent to ‘Machine Psychology’ and the solution to the AI Control problem is there! There’s 3 level’s here: Linguistics, Ontology Engineering and World Models (Epistemology). (See link my wiki-book earlier in thread).

    Any way, I think Pinker’s book is highly relevant to this! Ironically, Pinker has actually written some brilliant insights into machine psychology there, he just doesn’t know it 😀

    Honorable mentions have to go to:

    ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’, ‘Shadows Of the Mind’ and ‘Road to Reality’ by Roger Penrose. I think his ideas on consciousness are nonsense of course, but there’s no doubting he’s a brilliant mathematician with extremely interesting things to say!

    ‘The Case For Mars’ by Robert Zubrin, great stuff on engineering and space expoloration

    ‘Science: Good, Bad and Bogus’ by Martin Gardener, almost instantly cured me of any lingering belief in the paranormal!

  43. Scott Says:

    mjgeddes #42: Yes, The Stuff of Thought is phenomenal! As is almost everything Pinker has ever written. (I’ll confess, though, that I couldn’t make it all the way through his book on irregular verbs.)

  44. Brendan Dolan-Gavitt Says:

    Throwing in a recommendation for American Prometheus – a really phenomenal biography of Oppenheimer, who turns out to have been a fascinating person. Did you know he tried to poison his advisor in grad school? (Admit it, we’ve all been there…)

  45. sim Says:

    I’m going to go with just five relatively recent ones:

    * How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain; https://www.amazon.com/How-Emotions-Are-Made-Secret/dp/1328915433

    * Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy; https://www.amazon.com/Our-Robots-Ourselves-Robotics-Autonomy/dp/0525426973/

    * Psychology of the Digital Age: Humans Become Electric; https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/110756994X/

    * Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future; https://www.amazon.com/Trees-Mars-Our-Obsession-Future/dp/1609806379/

    * The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us; https://www.amazon.com/Outer-Limits-Reason-Science-Mathematics/dp/026252984X/

  46. Don McKenzie Says:

    I usually feel too stupid to comment on this blog, but I can’t resist here. Plus my overlap with you all may be slight, and diversity is good here. In no particular order, but fiction the first three.

    Lord of the Rings: J.R.R. Tolkien
    The Glass Bead Game: Hermann Hesse
    The Chronicles of Amber: Roger Zelazny

    Reinventing the Sacred: Stuart Kauffman
    Toward a Unified Ecology: TFH Allen and T. Hoekstra
    The Carlos Castañeda opus (10 books)
    Everest: the West Ridge: Thomas Hornbein
    The Road to Reality: Roger Penrose (great choice everyone!)
    Complexity and the Arrow of Time: Lineweaver, Davies, & Ruse (eds)
    The Practice of the Wild: Gary Snyder

    OK and I can’t resist a comment about Deutsch’s book, the Beginning of Infinity, since I see that many like it. I really liked his exposition about the topics where he has expertise, and the emphasis on explanation in general, but when he started talking about ecosystems and other things farther up the reductionist chain, he came off to me (full disclosure – I’m an ecologist) as arrogant and uninformed. Obviously he’s a genius, much smarter than I am, but that was my personal take.

  47. Scott Says:

    Don #46: Yeah, I also found the application of Deutsch’s axiomatic optimism to environmental questions possibly the weakest part of The Beginning of Infinity.

  48. Don McKenzie Says:

    Scott #47: That’s a better way of stating it, the weaker part of a strong book. thanks

  49. Mr Person Says:

    Kind of a shame Russell’s slot got taken up by politics, though on the other hand I think he probably would have wanted as much.

    Incidentally, have you read any Norbert Wiener? If so, I’d be interested in your opinion, or if not, I’d highly recommend either The Human Use of Human Beings, or his autobiography.

    On the mathy front, Smullyan’s textbooks are real gems: I really can’t recommend Diagonalization and Self-Reference enough.

  50. Sanketh Says:

    Shozab #10: John Watrous’s book is not as mathy as Auburn and Szarek, or even as much as Holevo. I have taken a look at Auburn and Szarek, but haven’t read it yet, thanks for reminding me. On a side note, if you are looking for mathy mathy QI, you should check out Tensor Categories by Etingof, Gelaki, Nikshych and Ostrik. Its connection to traditional QI is a bit subtle but the theory itself is really beautiful.

  51. pku31 Says:

    I found “The Gods Themselves” Asimov’s worst book (that I’ve read). Mostly because of the third part, but the first two are also not that interesting. (I’d go with Forward the Foundation for best, because it’s powerfully emotional, contains a bit of everything, has a hella dramatic real-life backstory, and was the first one I read).

  52. asdf Says:

    In order of their popping up in my mind:

    Computer Lib/Dream Machines, by Ted Nelson

    Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand et al

    Calculus (Mike Spivak)

    TAOCP (Knuth)

    Software Tools (Kernighan and Plauger)

    Towards Distant Suns (T. A. Heppenheimer)

    A Fire Upon The Deep (Vernor Vinge)

    The Human Use of Human Beings (Norbert Wiener)

    (Hmm that’s 8, I’m sure I can come up with 2 more but will stop now).

  53. Shozab Says:

    Sanketh #50: I tend to smile whenever I hear the word category. I’ll definitely check it out, thanks for the tip! I presume you already know about categorical quantum mechanics – if not, I think you might like it.

  54. Richard Gaylord Says:

    “I’ll only include works because I actually read them and they had a big impact on me at some point in my life”. how did “The Mind-Body Problem” impact you? i consider it to be one of the great ‘scientist’ novels – see also “The Search” by C.P. Snow (the scene where he admits and comes to accept that he is past doing the creative work that has defined him (to himself) as a human being was the most impactful for me since i had to go through the same experience (note: it reminds me of the cimematic versions of this experience shown in “Good Will Hunting” in the scene where a graduate student consoles o professor whose life work has bee rendered valueless by Will’s work and in the scene where the Professor scrambles to save a written proof that Will has set ablaze. i see many colleagues who refuse to accept it when this creative, inventive part of their career is over. also, have you have read the novels of Ayn Rand? 99.9% of the people who express an intense dislike for her characters have either not read, or at least not understood, these characters (Rand uses the term altruism in a non-traditional sense involving the sacrifice of oneself, not in the sense of helping others ).

  55. Scott Says:

    Richard #54: We already discussed Ayn Rand’s novels in the comments above. Yes, I read them, and was deeply influenced by The Fountainhead at age 14—but was already over it by 15, not coincidentally the same age when I started seriously learning math and science. You can read more about “me and Ayn” in my old post The Complement of Atlas Shrugged.

    As for The Mind-Body Problem: it’s my favorite novel of all time. I read it in 2004 or 2005, toward the end of the decade-long depressed / borderline-suicidal phase of my life. I can’t prove causality, but, besides being beautifully written, entertaining, philosophically deep, and filled with insights about various worlds that I knew well (math, physics, Orthodox Judaism, suburban New Jersey…), I think the novel also played a major role in getting me out of my depressed phase.

    The reason is personal, but since I’ve always believed in bend-over-backwards, damn-the-consequences honesty … it went something this. If a straight female author (Rebecca Goldstein) could write a straight female protagonist (Renee Feuer) who thought and reasoned as Renee did, then maybe I wasn’t condemned to die alone, separated from the women around me by an unbridgeable mental gulf, because of the unusual way my brain worked. One of the central functions of fiction, I think, is to expand our circles of empathy, of whose shoes we can imagine ourselves into, and that’s what The Mind-Body Problem did in my case. Like, obviously I’d had thousands of conversations with female friends before I encountered the book, and had consumed hundreds of other fictional works by and about women. I didn’t live in a cave. But this was the first time I felt like I had enough transparency into a female mind (which wasn’t my mom’s or whatever) that I could satisfy myself that the mind didn’t, or wouldn’t, secretly despise me. It was easy to imagine that, if I’d been born a woman, I’d have the same kinds of thoughts that Renee had, and would respond to situations much as she did. And had I been she, I could even imagine wanting to date men who resembled the original male version of me. Or at least: if that’s what Renee apparently wanted, then given how well I understood all her other thoughts and desires, I could sort of accept that one as a brute fact, even if I couldn’t fully reconstruct it on my own mental hardware.

    (For those who haven’t read it, the novel charts the course of Renee’s courtship and marriage with an otherworldly nerd named Noam Himmel, a math professor at Princeton and former child prodigy. As you’d expect from a novel, the relationship suffers severe setbacks, but no matter. That’s exactly what I wanted out of life: to have the same sorts of ‘severe setbacks’ that other people had.)

    I then read most of Goldstein’s other work and was similarly moved—after The Mind-Body Problem, probably my favorite was The Late Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind. (This was before she’d written 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, Plato at the Googleplex, or her biographies of Spinoza and Gödel, which are phenomenal as well.)

    Anyway, it was maybe six months after I finished The Mind-Body Problem that I entered my first relationship (again, no proof of causality). After various other relationships, I then met Dana, the fellow math/CS person who I ended up marrying. One of the first things I did was to give her The Mind-Body Problem to read. Dana was a postdoc at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton at the time, just as I was when I first read the book. So entering the world depicted in the novel was as easy as walking outside.

    Years after I’d read The Mind-Body Problem, one of the great privileges of my life was for me and Dana to become friends with Rebecca Goldstein when we lived in the Boston area. She’s pretty much the way you’d imagine she’d be if you’ve read her books.

  56. gentzen Says:

    Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson

    The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami

    The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

    Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

    A Cultural History of Physics by Károly Simonyi

    The Chemistry Book: From Gunpowder to Graphene, 250 Milestones in the History of Chemistry by Derek B Lowe

    Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science by Werner Heisenberg

    Discrete Algebraic Methods: Arithmetic, Cryptography, Automata and Groups by Volker Diekert,‎ Manfred Kufleitner,‎ Gerhard Rosenberger‎, Ulrich Hertrampf

    The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why it Had to Be Reborn by Lucio Russo

    Midnight’s Children: A Novel by Salman Rushdie

    The Stranger by Albert Camus

    The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Oriented Deliberation in View of the Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin by Søren Kierkegaard

    Game Changers: Stories of the Revolutionary Minds behind Game Theory by Rudolf Taschner

    Sewer, Gas and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy by Matt Ruff

    Defying Hitler: A Memoir by Sebastian Haffner

    A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
    Ulysse from Bagdad by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt. Le roman a été traduit en albanais, allemand, arabe, bulgare, castillan, catalan, chinois mandarin (caractères complexes et caractères simplifiés), coréen, grec moderne, italien, néerlandais, polonais, portugais et russe.

    Origins and Foundations of Computing by Friedrich L. Bauer. I have not read this book. The one which I have read is Historische Notizen zur Informatik by Friedrich L. Bauer.

    Wow, I never knew that I am really such a stranger here. Not a single one of the authors of my list of books matches any author named here. OK, I trimmed down my list be removing books which had already been mentioned, but Douglas Adams, Roger Penrose, Carl Sagan, Christos Papadimitriou and Douglas R. Hofstadter are still a pretty small overlap.

  57. Scott Says:

    gentzen #56: The Kite Runner was great. Some of your other books have been on my to-read list at various points but I never got to them.

  58. GASARCH Says:

    This may be the only list of books that has both
    Huck Finn
    Set theory and the continuum.

    Both great books! but usually not on the same list.

    This is caused by having both fiction and non-fiction books on the same list, which is … aweseom! Both can be influential.

    I’ll just mention a few of mine:

    Essence of Descision by Graham (about the Cuban Missile Crisis)

    Collapse by Jared Diamond (it could happen to us!)

    The Mathematical Coloring book by Soifer (a history of coloring theorems including Ramsey Theory but also more.
    I reviewed it in this column:


    And lastly – I don’t know which one, but I read one of Martin Gardners’ collection of articles when I was 11 (just over Scott’s cut off of 10) and read the theorem that (in modern terms) G is Eulierian iff every degree is even. First proof I learned outside of a classroom.

  59. Atreat Says:

    Some more great books I haven’t seen mentioned that have had an impression on me:

    The Dragon Book by Aho, Lam, Sethi and Ullman

    Lord of Light

    All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

    Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

    In the Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi

    The Nexus Trilogy by Ramez Naam

    The HoTT book by Univalent Foundations Program

    Foundation by Isaac Asimov

    Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

    Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

    The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

  60. Atreat Says:

    “One of the central functions of fiction, I think, is to expand our circles of empathy, of whose shoes we can imagine ourselves into…”

    Incredibly enthusiastic +1!

  61. fred Says:

    Rand would have been really happy to live in our age of clean coal and the hyperloop… not mentioning equating reason and rationality with being certain one is right!

  62. Richard Gaylord Says:

    The analysis of “Atlas Shrugged” in your blog entry “The Complement of Ayn Rand” is superb. Although i hung out with “Randians” from the Nathaniel Branden Institute when i was in college at Brooklyn Poly Tech (where incidently, Murray Rothbard taught my economics course, although his teaching gave no indication that he was the founder of modern day Libertarianism and the leading scholar of the Austrian school of economics) and when i was a member of a ‘Students of Objectivism’ Study Group while in graduate school at Syracuse University, i never understood how a person professing a belief in radical individualism (such as myself) could surrender his intellectual independence to the teachings of a cult leader – unless it was a reaction to being raised in a religious belief system that emphasizes both irrationality and self-sacrificial altruism (being raised as a non-believing reform/conservative jew [my great-great-great uncle, Rabbi David Einhorn was one of the two founders of Reform Judaism] i was not subjected to those doctrines; only to the view that all non-jews are inherently antisemitic. and i don’t know how any person (male or female) can read past the romanticized presentation of the horrific crime of rape and should call in any other views of the author into serious question.
    btw – in addition to “The Search”, the 1934 first novel by C.P. Snow which is one of the best ‘scientist’ novels i have read, i’d recommend the 1972 novel “The Case History of Comrade V” as a novel about the mind (thanks goodness for Amazon from which you can still get copies of older books).

  63. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    Curious Wavefunction #33:

    Yes, there were quite a few pop-sci books involving QM that I had at least browsed, before I ran into John Gribbin’s “Cat” book.

    But if today, after almost exactly 3 decades, if I have to blame any one single person for pushing me towards “spoiling” my life with so much “obsession” with QM, then I would have to point the finger straight only at John Gribbin. Not even at Feynman, but only at Gribbin. (In fact, the second guy standing in my “blame-queue” again happens to be a Brit, Alastair I. M. Rae, for his “Illusion or Reality” book, but again, only for the first edition.) (BTW, yes, it’s neat that you didn’t mention the “Kitten” version of Gribbin’s book.)

    The omission of “Chaos” (James Gleick) from Scott’s list was a bit surprising to me. … Scott?


    Talking of others’ lists, it really was surprising to me that none has had Kline or Kolmogorov on his list. OK. Any one rooting for V. I. Arnold here? And how about Tim Poston (Catastrophe Theory)?

    May be the trends in what people read have come to change. Or, may be, it’s just that the group here has a different sort of concerns on their minds, a different set of interests.

    Anyway, time to sign off for today. … I would come back tomorrow and check out this thread.

    Bye for now and best,


  64. Craig Says:

    Comprehensible Cosmos by Victor Stenger is the best book on physics that I have ever read.

  65. Scott Says:

    Craig #64: I’d urge some caution with Stenger. I remember reading a book by him where he claimed that the initial state at the Big Bang was a maximum-entropy state—and that, despite appearances, that doesn’t contradict the Second Law of Thermodynamics because the universe then rapidly expanded, which lifted the ceiling on entropy even higher. Though it sounds superficially plausible, that’s something that almost no physicist believes, since it would mean that the Hilbert space dimension of the observable universe would change with time. Rather, the prevailing view is that the initial state was just as special and non-generic as the Second Law suggests, and that we’ll need a quantum theory of gravity to tell us more about it.

  66. Craig Says:

    Scott 65,

    The theme of the Comprehensible Cosmos is as he says in the introduction:

    “I will show that the laws of physics are simply restrictions on the ways physicists may draw the models they use to represent the behavior of matter. These models describe scientific observations of an objective reality that surely exists independent of human thoughts. However, their specific forms depend very much on those thoughts. When this fact is recognized, many of the so-called mysteries surrounding modern physics melt away.”

    This is what changed the way I think about physics. I don’t agree with everything Stenger says, but what he says is food for thought.

  67. Sanketh Says:

    Shozab #53: Yup, but I find it to be lacking in the sense that it is not useful prove anything useful about quantum information and computation (sorry!). Tensor categories on the other hand, allow one to prove useful things via the theory of topological quantum computation.

  68. Shozab Says:

    Sanketh #67: I agree, the generally simpler language for expressing concepts is much more useful compared to the categorical approach. I’ll be sure to Tensor categories out since you’ve recommended it so highly! I haven’t gone too deeply into topological quantum unfortunately – I spend most of my time learning different approaches to error correction. I’ve downloaded Pachos’s intro to Topo QC but I have yet to sit down properly and read it with pen and paper handy. But thanks for the addition! 🙂

  69. Douglas Knight Says:

    Scott 65,
    I haven’t read Stenger, but your description sounds unfair. Doesn’t the effective dimension depend on the cosmological constant? So doesn’t inflation predict that it changed? It would be very odd to say that the actual dimension changed, but that’s your language, not his, so aren’t you creating a straw man?

    Also, don’t most physicists hold that the actual dimension is infinite? I think you are right to defy that consensus (perhaps deferring to the consensus of a smaller community, like QI), but don’t falsely describe it.

    Your last sentence sounds like a better criticism. Surely Stenger is not saying that we know enough about fundamental physics to understand inflation, just that if we take it as a given and model the time before and after in terms of the theories we do know, then we can talk about entropy in terms of those theories. But there is certainly risk of confusion about different concepts of entropy in such an analysis, and presumably there was something low-entropy about the starting state that triggered inflation, though probably something only interpretable in terms of a theory we don’t have. (and that would be a theory of inflation, not just a theory of quantum gravity)

  70. William Hird Says:

    “Steal This Book” by Abbie Hoffman. Essential reading for the Radical Chic of any generation. 🙂

    “The Holy Science” by Swami Sri Yukteswar. The supreme treatise on metaphysics for the metaphysically challenged. 😉

    “Golf in the Kingdom” by Michael Murphy. All golfers must read this before they die. 🙂

  71. John Sidles Says:

    Tonight, in Seattle, composer John Luther Adams will premier his new nature-themed composition Become Desert. As Adams said in a recent radio interview:

    Obviously, we’re in a desperate situation. And I’m not just talking about the current situation in Washington DC … I’m talking about the larger picture of human presence on earth.

    We need new ideas. We need them fast. And new ideas are not going to come from politics. Sorry. They rarely, if ever, do. If we look at history, we see where new ideas come from. They come from culture … they come from art … they come from literature … they come from music … they come from science. This is where the answers that we need are going to come from.

    I was a passionate activist. And I’m still passionate about those things that made me an activist. But I made a decision, years ago, that I could do more with my life in music than I would in politics. And I’ve tried to make good on that ever since.

    Shtetl Optimized readers at this premiere are invited to introduce themselves to the white-haired guy who is wearing a quantum-themed bowtie.

    A personal intention, that I have for this work, is to meditate upon Adams-relevant “new ideas” in three works that, in three separate spheres, have substantially influenced my own thinking:

    (1)  Spinoza, Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione (circa 1661–1677)

    (2)  Karen Smith, An Invitation to Algebraic Geometry (2000)

    (3)  Landau & Lifshitz, Course of Theoretical Physics (3rd edition, 1951–1980)

    None of these four works — including Adams’ Become Desert as one of the four — references the other three; neither are their four putative subjects entangled in respects that are immediately evident (to me anyway). Still I will undertake to reflect, this evening, whether bridging the seeming independence of these works presents significant opportunities for sustained 21st century Enlightenment, along the lines of the “new ideas” that John Luther Adams calls for.

  72. Sid Says:

    Here are a few knee-jerk favorites, in no particular order, and some that were very influential then, but I may not endorse now.

    1. The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins.

    2. Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, Iddo Landau.

    3. Sequences, Eliezer Yudkowsky.

    4. Time and Chance, David Albert.

    5. One, Two, Three… Infinity, George Gamow.

    6. Gödel’s Proof, Ernst Nagel and James Newman.

    7. The Emergent Multiverse, David Wallace.

    8. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe.

    9. Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro.

    10. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré.

    11. Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time, Tim Maudlin.

    12. Violence: A Micro-sociological theory, Randall Collins.

    13. The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth.

    14. Quantum Computation and Quantum Information, Nielsen and Chuang.

    15. Stories of your life and others, Ted Chiang.

    16. Anthropic Bias, Nick Bostrom.

    17. Emotion Focused Therapy, Leslie Greenberg.

    18. Deep Work, Cal Newport.

    19. Metaphors we live by, George Lakoff.

    20. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral mind, Julian Jaynes.

    21. The Left Hand of the Electron, Isaac Asimov. (And everything else by Asimov.)

    22. Cosmos, Carl Sagan.

    23. The Character of Physical Law, Richard Feynman.

    24. Roger Federer as Religious Experience, David Foster Wallace. (Not a book; an essay.)

    25. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach.

    26. The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse.

    27. Freedom from the Known, Jiddu Krishnamurti.

    28. Sailing Alone Around the Room, Billy Collins.

    29. Impro, Keith Johnstone.

    30. Tales from the White Hart, Arthur C. Clarke.


    31. Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism, Paul Boghossian.

    32. You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier.

    33. Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges.

    34. Quantum Information Theory & the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, Christopher Timpson.

    35. Flatland, Edwin A. Abbott.

  73. Sid Says:

    I know, I know. I already listed 35 books. But I just couldn’t resist. Here are a few more.

    36. Organic Chemistry, Morrison & Boyd.

    37. Introduction to Electrodynamics, David J. Griffiths.

    38. C Programming Language, Kernighan and Ritchie.

    39. Problems in General Physics, I.E. Irodov.

    40. Tales About Metals, S. Venetsky.

    41. Plane Trigonometry, S.L. Loney.

    42. Physics, Resnick and Halliday (1st ed. only; the later ones were not as good.)

    Interesting observation: Many of the influential textbooks were from my high-school or college days. In grad school, I find that I’m not reading textbooks, except for particular chapters or sections, any more.

  74. Uncle Brad Says:

    Scott #30

    Ditto. Between Algorithmics and Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder and I was all-in CS-wise.

    Glad to see Billy Collins here and would like to add Mary Oliver.

    Also Dances With Trout by John Gierach.

  75. sf Says:

    A few that weren’t mentioned yet:
    William James The Principles of Psychology,

    The Major Transitions in Evolution by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry

    Feynman, R.P.: QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter

    Too recent to judge, but worth a provisional listing:
    In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

    Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind by George Makari

    Deep Learning by Ian Goodfellow and Yoshua Bengio and Aaron Courville
    Very clearly written. It could give Russel and Norvig a run for their money; they discuss AI more generally than the title suggests, but maybe at a less introductory level.

    Too short a tale to be in a book list, but can’t resist including it:
    The Emperor’s New Clothes, by Hans Christian Andersen

    Already listed by others, and read many decades ago, but seconded here:

    Midnight’s Children: A Novel by Salman Rushdie

    Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

    Also worth mentioning, if you like the subject:
    Wetware – A Computer in Every Living Cell by Dennis Bray

    Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña by David Hajdu

  76. sf Says:

    A few more that come to mind, when putting the memory to work harder.

    The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, 1985 Oliver Sacks

    John Dos Passos — U.S.A. trilogy

    The Powers That Be, 1979, by David Halberstam

    Underworld USA Trilogy James Ellroy
    Didn’t finished this one (yet?). Same for W. James.

    CREATION By Gore Vidal,
    actually more as an enjoyable book then something that will change your life.

    The Folly of Fools by Robert Trivers.
    More meant for the most depressing book list, but a necessary read for anyone debating modern day politics. The writer is a star in the evolutionary biology world.

    Other more recent strongly recommendable books,

    Tim Wu (2016) The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

    Tim Wu, 2010, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

    The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World by Michael Lewis

    John Anderson Kay – Other people’s money – the real business of finance

    Laughlin, Robert B. (2005). A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down

    Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, 1998 V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee

  77. Jon K. Says:


    I’m interested in your thoughts on “The Mind’s I”. I got halfway through Hofstadter’s “I am a strange loop”, which I think has a similar focus, but I wasn’t getting as much out of it as I had hoped.

  78. Mike Williams Says:

    I was trying to recall a couple more titles that thankfully some of the commenters above yielded up. I’ve listed those plus a few others that they disturbed in my memory:

    Freeman Dyson: Disturbing the Universe
    Carl Sagan: The Dreaming Dragons + Broca’s Brain
    Weinberg: The First Three Minutes
    Peter Medawar: Advice to a Young Scientist
    Isaac Asimov: Biographical Encyclopaedia of Science and Technology
    Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise

  79. Tim Maudlin Says:

    Five books by authors who are mysteriously absent so far…..

    J. S. Bell, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics

    Nelson Goodman, Fact, Fiction and Forecast

    Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost

    Imre Lakatos, Proofs and Refutations

    Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

  80. Domotor Palvolgyi Says:

    I’m just curious what “big impact on me at some point in my life” was for you in the case of Logicomix.

  81. Scott Says:

    Domotor #80: OK, there wasn’t really, but the book would have had a big impact on me had it been available when I was a kid or teenager. In addition, Papadimitriou’s Computational Complexity really did have a big impact on me, and so did Ray Monk’s 2-volume biography of Russell, from which I learned the basic story covered in Logicomix. But while it’s an apples/oranges/pears comparison, I regard Logicomix as possibly the most enduring masterpiece of the three—at any rate, certainly the most accessible. Given these circumstances, I figured it was OK to bend the rules.

  82. Chris Says:

    I’ll chip in a couple:

    Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman. Despite being written in the 80s it is very relevant to the twitter generation.

    I am surprised nothing by Kafka came up. Take your pick but my favourite is still The Trial.

    Borges did come up, Labyrinths is a great collection. I think the Library of Babel, Funes the Memorious, and perhaps Pierre Menard are my favourites and the most relevant to the audience of this blog.

    Talking of short stories, There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury is brilliant and should be of interest to anyone interested in AI etc.

    I’m off to read The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism.

  83. Shecky R Says:

    I’ll cave and add more I’ve not seen cited much if at all:

    The Night Is Large  – Martin Gardner
     Pilgrim At Tinker Creek  – Annie Dillard  
    Metamagical Themas – Douglas Hofstadter 
     Natural Prayers  – Chet Raymo
    How Mathematicians Think  – William Byers
    One person noted The Outer Limits of Reason by Noson Yanofsky, my favorite book of the last several years, especially for folks not familiar with such topics

    OHHH!, and definitely a large compendium of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons!

  84. Scott Says:

    Jon K. #77: I was a teenager when I read The Mind’s I, so my memory of its contents isn’t fresh, but I remember one thought-provoking essay after the next, and I remember liking Dennett’s and Hofstadter’s commentaries as much as the essays themselves. I also remember it being my favorite work by Hofstadter. You have to be in a certain mood to read him—he’s a phenomenal writer but extremely loquacious, self-referential (of course) and self-indulgent, and has only become more so over the decades.

  85. JimV Says:

    “The First Circle” by Solzhenitsyn is great. That scene in which the Minister wants to know why the phone-encryption project is behind schedule and the zek scientist wants to explain using Fourier Analysis is burned into my brain.

    The first chapter was very confusing the first time I read it – a bunch of crossing conversations between newly arriving zeks at the science camp and older residents, with no names or identifications given to track who was talking to whom. The second time I read the book, I knew who everyone in the first chapter was and whom they were talking to!

    I liked “Chaos” by James Gleick (also his biographies of Feynman and Newton).

    I just bought “A Confederacy of Dunces” based on your recommendation.

    “A Deepness In the Sky” by Vernor Vinge might be my favorite fiction book of all time.

    I started “Unsong” but didn’t finish it. The ideas are creative but I didn’t connect with the characters.

  86. Sanketh Says:

    Shozab #68: I have fallen for TQC just cuz of its mathematical beauty (Not the practicality (error correction, getting a job at MSR…)). I have heard some great things about Pachos but it was out of my library so I started with Wang’s monograph (CBMS 112) after his Bull. AMS article which got me into this mess in the first place.

  87. Sanketh Says:

    Scott #81: Now I am curious, why The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism over anything else by Russell?

  88. Joe Mahoney Says:

    1. Ulysses – James Joyce. Arbitrarily talented prose stylist w/ Shakespeare-level jokes
    2. Lectures on Government and Binding – Noam Chomsky. Definitive criteria for any explanatorily adequate theory of language
    3. Road to Reality – Roger Penrose. A ridiculous book.
    4. Philosophical Troubles – Saul Kripke. Off the charts; penetrating and creative; every essay mind-bendingly beautiful
    5. Middlemarch – George Eliot. The most human of philosophical novels
    6. Chance and Necessity – Jacques Monod. How does the code get executed? Allostery.
    7. Critique of Pure Reason – Immanuel Kant. I don’t even think it’s debatable who the greatest western philosopher is.
    8. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding – David Hume. Gimlet-eyed assessments of prevailing epistemology; then and now.
    9. Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoevsky. Feels like reading a book that’s on fire.
    10. Feynman Lectures on Physics – Richard Feynman. I can just pick this up, open any page, and go somewhere incredible. What an authorial “voice”.

  89. wolfgang Says:

    off topic: Scott what do you think about quantum neural networks and the connection to black holes proposed by Gia Dvali ?

  90. Scott Says:

    wolfgang #89: Hadn’t heard about it.

  91. Scott Says:

    Sanketh #87: Because it’s the book where Russell deploys philosophical reason to foresee the failures of Soviet Communism in 1921—breaking from his leftist friends, saying something wildly unpopular in his place and time, purely because of what he sees on his tour of the new USSR and what he thinks. He gets a private audience with Lenin and, rather than being wowed by his own access to power, is repulsed by Lenin’s dogmatism, though he says so in his typically British way:

      He laughs a great deal; at first his laugh seems merely friendly and jolly, but gradually I came to feel it rather grim. He is dictatorial, calm, incapable of fear, extraordinarily devoid of self-seeking, an embodied theory. The materialist conception of history, one feels, is his life-blood. He resembles a professor in his desire to have the theory understood and in his fury with those who misunderstand or disagree, as also in his love of expounding, I got the impression that he despises a great many people and is an intellectual aristocrat … When I suggested that whatever is possible in England can be achieved without bloodshed, he waved aside the suggestion as fantastic. I got little impression of knowledge or psychological imagination as regards Great Britain. Indeed the whole tendency of Marxianism is against psychological imagination, since it attributes everything in politics to purely material causes … He described the division between rich and poor peasants, and the Government propaganda among the latter against the former, leading to acts of violence which he seemed to find amusing … I think if I had met him without knowing who he was, I should not have guessed that he was a great man; he struck me as too opinionated and narrowly orthodox. His strength comes, I imagine, from his honesty, courage, and unwavering faith—religious faith in the Marxian gospel, which takes the place of the Christian martyr’s hopes of Paradise, except that it is less egotistical. He has as little love of liberty as the Christians who suffered under Diocletian, and retaliated when they acquired power. Perhaps love of liberty is incompatible with whole-hearted belief in a panacea for all human ills. If so, I cannot but rejoice in the sceptical temper of the Western world.

    In short, this is a book that puts the lie to the idea that reason is always and everywhere a slave to political self-interest—and also puts the lie to the idea, which we saw in the comments section of the last post, that “rational, pro-Enlightenment” people fell head over heels for Bolshevism, thereby revealing a failure of rationality and Enlightenment ideals themselves. In 1921 Russell, you see what a scientific temperament actually looks like—not the caricature of the people who use the word “scientism,” but the thing itself—and you see why it only takes one trip to Russia for a person of such a temperament to figure out the truth, even when so many literary and humanist intellectuals wouldn’t figure it out for another 70 years or more.

    And this scientific temperament really is a matter of the toolset you choose to apply—not merely of immutable personality traits, or of some mysterious gift of discernment granted to some people and not others. Russell himself, late in his long life, would abandon the scientific temperament that we see in this book (or maybe just grow senile, and let himself get manipulated by his secretary Ralph Schoenman), and start embracing every murderous tinpot dictator he could find. But in 1921, he’s still at the height of his powers, and we see him do something truly impressive—impressive enough to make a pretty good case for the enterprise of philosophy itself (at least for “analytic” philosophy, Russell’s kind), and to make one curious what this man who reasoned his way to one of the main moral lessons of the 20th century, decades before others, might have to say about other, more abstruse topics.

  92. Sanketh Says:

    Scott #91: Sometimes I just cannot believe my ignorance and this is one of those times. On a slightly closer look, it seems that even his then girlfriend (?) Dora really liked Bolshevism.

    “After a time, I began to get letters from Dora, brought out of Russia by friends, and to my great surprise she liked Russia just as much as I had hated it” (p. 152 of Russell’s Autobiography)

    “She regarded my objections to the Bolsheviks as bourgeois and senile and sentimental. I regarded her love of them with bewildered horror.” (p. 153)

    Since you mentioned Ralph Schoenman, which biography of Russell do you recommend? I think the answer is Ray Monk’s as you mentioned in Not the critic who counts.

  93. Shozab Says:

    Sanketh #86: When I hear the word ‘practicalities’ I usually take it to mean physical implementations and methods for doing so.

    While I share your aesthetic sense on theoretical matters, I think the ‘practicalities’ – by which I specially mean experimental implementations and methods to protect systems from decoherence, are extremely important endeavours and quite aesthetic in their own rights as well. I don’t know how much open quantum theory or error correction theory you’ve studied (decoherence free subspaces, dynamic decoupling or topological codes) but from a physicists perspective, that theory is beautiful as well. I’m guessing from your areas of interest that you’re either a comp sci or math major?

    Ah right, I didn’t know about that. Will definitely take a look!

  94. sf Says:

    Scott #91, #81, Domotor #80: While I also greatly admire Bertrand Russell, I think it’s not only his rationality that played a role in his attitude to Lenin, but the fact that he had a fantastic sense of humor, which Lenin apparently did not. And his humor somehow goes beyond what we can get at rationally. I don’t know how people fit humor in as part of enlightenment values, but probably it has a role there too, possibly in grasping the limits of rationality.
    In fact one lesson that Logicomix may carry is that pushing too hard for strict consistency can drive you mad, if the time is not yet ripe for such things. The point is that you need the right ontology, to apply reason to a given problem, and sometimes its just not available right away. This is the sort of thing that scientific revolutions in physics has resolved from time to time.
    As to how this fits in with Russell’s family history of madness, I can’t say that I can make sense of it all. But I don’t think they try to either in Logicomix.

  95. SayHelloToYourMom Says:

    “Blindsight” by Peter Watts. Available for free on his website:


  96. Scott Says:

    sf #94: Russell’s rationality and his sense of humor had nothing at all to do with each other, and I’m even offended that you would make such a frivolous suggestion. The Enlightenment values that I advocate do NOT include humor; quite the contrary, actually. You are banned from this blog for 2 years—-until April 1st, 2020.

  97. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    Dear Scott and other readers of this blog,

    Since I mentioned the “upnishad”s above, and since the ‘net is so full of the reading material which isn’t so suitable for this audience, let me leave you with a right kind of a reco.

    If it has to be just one short book, then the one which I would pick up is this:

    Swami Prabhavananda (with assistance of Frederick Manchester), “The Spiritual Heritage of India,” Doubleday, New York, 1963.

    A few notes:

    1. The usual qualifications apply. For instance, I of course don’t agree with everything that has been said in the book. And, more. I may not even agree that a summary of something provided here is, in fact, a good summary.

    2. I read it very late in life, when I was already past my 50. Wish I had laid my hands on it, say, in my late 20s, early 30s, or so. I simply didn’t run into a copy, back then.

    3. Just one more thing: a tip on how to read the above book.

    First, read the preface. Go through it real fast. (Reading it faster than you read the newspapers would be perfectly OK—by me).

    Then, if you are an American who has at least some smattering of a knowledge about Buddhism, then jump directly on to the chapter on Jainism. (Don’t worry, they both advocate not eating meat!) Also, vice-versa.

    If you are not an American and have never come across any deeper treatment on any Indian tradition before, then: still jump on to the chapter on Jainism. (It really is a very good summary of this tradition, IMHO.)

    Then, browse through some more material.

    Then, take a moment and think: if you have appreciated what you just read, then think of continuing with the rest of the text.

    Else, simple: just call it a book! (It’s very inexpensive.)

    Bye for now, and best,


  98. sf Says:

    Dear Scott,
    I didn’t only mean “sense of humor” in the frivolous sense of jokes, but rather in the more important and broader sense of keeping a perspective on things. Probably I didn’t make it very clear though. Either way the ban is fine if that’s how you feel, its your blog.

    In fact “sense of humor” has a lot to do with an appreciation of the absurd, but this doesn’t mean that its got “nothing at all to do with” ‘rationality’, namely its opposite.


  99. Nicholas Teague Says:

    Hey Scott thanks for sharing looking forward to digging into some of these as well as those in the comments section. Since one good turn etc recently published a list of book recommendations from my blog thought I’d share as is on topic (a bit of overlap as well).

    *apparently links not allowed in these comments will just have to defer any interested to looking me up on twitter I suppose.

  100. Scott Says:

    sf #98: Check the date.

  101. Sanketh Says:

    Shozab #93: CS and Math 🙂

    In retrospect, I phrased my comment very badly. (Sorry about that.) What I meant to say was that TQC—to me—was worth studying even if it did not have huge applications (which it clearly does). To draw a parallel, in his SA interview, Scott says that one of the most underrated parts of quantum computing is quantum proofs of classical theorems (cf. this wonderful survey by Andrew Drucker and Ronald de Wolf). In a similar way, TQC gives us some more tools to better understand run-of-the-mill quantum computation.

    Regarding error correction and open quantum systems, my knowledge of them is tiny (and for EC struck in 1997) but I think I can still appreciate the magnitude of awesomeness that is coming out of these fields of late.

  102. Sanketh Says:

    Scott #100: You also mentioned it in the post (“[…] until April 1st, 2020.”) Not fair!
    Also, apparently Stephen Hawking wrote a post-mortem paper!

  103. dosp Says:

    Thank you Scott for this quite interesting post! I would like to suggest three fictions that had great impact on me:

    1) One hundred years of solitude: Gabriel (Gabo) Garcia Marquez

    2) The unbearable lightness of being: Milan Kundera

    3) Blindness: Jose Saramago

    I hope you all can have the same pleasure/feeling when finish reading these books.

  104. Shozab Says:

    Sanketh 101: Definitely shows 🙂

    I completely agree with you on that front. I don’t think any theoretician studies a topic for its applications (well maybe?). And that probably goes for all theoretical fields. There is a certain joy associated with purely knowing and appreciating theoretical results for their own sake. With regards to more underrated parts of the field – there does appear to be a heavy bias which is rather unfortunate. And that extends to other fields as well. I suppose that is in part due to what is considered more fashionable at a particular point and what is thought to bring out more ‘practical’ results.

    Ah yes, that was quite a wonderful paper. I think you might enjoy the paper on Holographic quantum codes and the Ads/CFT correspondence by Preskill et al its quite a wonderful paper to read and its very aesthetic! I personally find the link between quantum information and quantum gravity to be quite exciting. I don’t know if you’re into Physics outside of QC but I think you’ll probably appreciate applications of computational complexity to physics. Like Susskind’s Comp complexity and black hole horizons paper. I actually recall Susskind once said that he learnt computational complexity from Scott.

  105. irony is dying Says:

    HAHAHAa that was a fun april-joke..

  106. Pierre Lebourrife Says:

    @ Joe Fitzsimons, comment #9: Why did you offer your future wife a Latin translation of Galileo’s book, which was written in Italian?

  107. say hi Says:

    @sf: april fools, I assume.

  108. Craig Says:

    Every scientist should know something about the art of magic, how easy it is to get fooled. And the best way to learn this is through Tarbell’s Course in Magic, by Harlan Tarbell. This is according to most magicians the greatest encyclopedia of magic ever written. Every principle of magic is in there.

  109. Sid Says:

    Scott #91:

    Thanks for that wonderful explication of Russell’s brilliance in his analysis of Soviet Communism! The fact that he was able to perceive Lenin’s intellectual bankruptcy so quickly is breathtaking.

    Apropos of your remark about Russell’s perceptiveness helping to make the case for analytic philosophy, it seems appropriate that you also include Mill’s The Subjection of Women. That’s also a brilliant example of someone looking at the world around them, and instead of accepting what everyone deems obvious, thinking things through very carefully and arriving at radically different conclusions. Conclusions that, moreover, stand the test of time, and that, after a century or so of reflection, we now deem obvious.

    Recently, Will MacAskill, Oxford philosopher and cofounder of the Effective Altruism movement, in an excellent interview with 80000 Hours, remarked that one of the best arguments for utilitarianism was that it made the right predictions. Here’s a quote from the interview.

    Robert Wiblin: Alright, straight out. What are the arguments for classical utilitarianism?


    Will MacAskill: One that I think doesn’t often get talked about, but I think actually is very compelling is the track record. When you look at scientific theories, how you decide whether they’re good or not, well significant part by the predictions they made. We can do that to some extent, got much smaller sample size, you can do it to some extent with moral theories as well. For example, we can look at what the predictions, the bold claims that were going against common sense at the time, that Bentham and Mill made. Compare it to the predictions, bold moral claims, that Kant made.

    When you look at Bentham and Mill they were extremely progressive. They campaigned and argued for women’s right to vote and the importance of women getting a good education. They were very positive on sexual liberal attitudes. In fact, some of Bentham’s writings on the topic were so controversial that they weren’t even published 200 years later.

    Robert Wiblin: I think, Bentham thought that homosexuality was fine. At the time he’s basically the only person who thought this.

    Will MacAskill: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. He’s far ahead of his time on that.

    Also, with respect to animal welfare as well. Progressive even with respect to now. Both Bentham and Mill emphasized greatly the importance of treating animal… They weren’t perfect. Mill and Bentham’s views on colonialism, completely distasteful. Completely distasteful from perspective for the day.

  110. Pierre Lebourrife Says:

    How many different books have ever been written? I’m sure some participants in this most interesting thread will be able to rise to the challenge of this Fermi-type problem. Part of the fun of course is to address the question of what the question exactly means. For example : are a book and a translation to be considered different? Need I add that dismissing the problem as ill-posed will not be considered as completely satisfying?

  111. sf Says:

    OK, I guess i’ll have to start taking April fool’s day more seriously.
    Otoh there could be a parallel universe where this wasn’t the story.
    Which one are we in?
    Only one way to know for sure, here goes…

  112. arch1 Says:

    I read decades ago that Library of Congress had every book printed (for some definition of ‘every’ and ‘book’) and that it had about 1E7 books. So my first guess is 1E8 books have ever existed (allowing for growth, exaggeration of ‘every’, written > printed, e-books, etc).

    Another angle: I guess that ~2E10 people have lived during the past 3-4 centuries (during which essentially all books were written) and that 1 in 1000 of them authored a book, averaging 2 books per author. That comes to ~4E7 books.

    The back of my envelope is full now:-)

  113. Ashley Says:

    Scott and others,

    How much math and physics could one really learn from The Road to Reality? I remember understanding complex analysis years ago from it (I had the subject in college, which, as usual, I passed and nothing else). But then I somehow sort of got lost and did never invest much time into reading further.

  114. Sanketh Says:

    Shozab #104: I’ll take that as a complement! 🙂

    I did stare at Fernando Pastawski, Beni Yoshida, Daniel Harlow and John Preskill’s paper for a while; as I mentioned earlier, my knowledge of error correcting codes is practically zero. Most of what I know about this paper comes from Fernando Pastawski’s talk at the IQC and Beni Yoshida’s talk at Kavli (I found a video).

    I too find the recent explicit connections between high energy physics and quantum computing exciting. I stared at the original Hayden-Preskill, Harlow-Hayden and Aaronson-Susskind (At Aaronson’s Barbados notes, to be precise) for quite a while (before I almost failed out of undergrad!). In fact, my only paper on the arXiv (1801.08967 [cs.CC]) was inspired in part by me trying to simultaneously understand the arguments of Harlow-Hayden and Aaronson-Susskind. One of the corollaries not stated in the paper is the existence of a relativized world where P=QSZK but P≠UP∩coUP—implying the existence of one way permutations* (see this paper of Christopher M. Homan and Mayur Thakur). The proof is almost the same as the one employed in section 4 of the older classic of Lance Fortnow and John D. Rogers, except replacing their use of BBBV’s result with our Main Lemma.

    *—> These no not imply the existence of injective one-way functions which Aaronson assumes.

    Yes, this correspondence takes one to really meaty problems in quantum circuit lower bounds (in a sense, the holy grail of quantum complexity), for instance, see this thread of Dave Bacon and Micheal Nielsen (and me?).

  115. Scott Says:

    Ashley #113: I’d say there’s an unbelievable amount of mathematical insight that you can gain from The Road to Reality—yes, especially about complex analysis and its relation to physics. The whole business about complex functions like log having not one value but an infinite “spiral staircase” of values, with which stair you’re on depending on how many times you’ve looped around the origin—Penrose has the clearest explanation I’ve seen anywhere. Nothing presupposed, nothing left unremarked upon, as if it’s one extremely precocious 10-year-old who just learned the story explaining it to another precocious 10-year-old. On the other hand, The Road to Reality—a bit like Quantum Computing Since Democritus 🙂 —is so idiosyncratic that it’s not obvious how well it can be used as a textbook. But it seems to me that using it as a supplement to a more traditional text would be a powerful combination.

  116. Shozab Says:

    Sanketh #114: Anytime 🙂

    Ah yes I think I know the one you’re referring to. Another good introduction was the Gottsman talk at IQC if you’re interested. (Videos are available on youtube).

    Ah I’ll definitely take a look at it 🙂 my research so far has been on superconducting circuits (Transmon circuit QED to be precise). I really enjoy working with open quantum systems but then I started to get into TCS. Right now I’m trying to find some way to juggle the two. But it gets a bit strange at times because I really like math as well. I was pretty obsessed with functional analysis and C* algebras for a while actually. Mostly because I was concerned with Von Neumann’s mathematical formulations of quantum mechanics and I was wondering whether one could somehow apply operator algebras and/or quantum logic to quantum information. A number of people have managed to find applications of C* algebras (Slofstra and Videck for instance). But its hard to find what will connect with what. I actually spent about a month slogging through Kreyszigs book on functional analysis wondering at what point I was going to hit something useful. I think I would’ve been happier if I spent that time learning math with more direct applications to quantum information.

    It’s interesting because my liking for a particular field of math is purely aesthetic. Despite being a physics major who works with Q functions (Husmi Q distribution) for transmon qubits – I have to say, partial differential equations aren’t really to my aesthetic appeal :p and neither is much of analysis to be honest. Though as a physicist, what I’ll say is this: You may not be aware of the finest mathematical tools, but if you stick enough mathematical duck tape to a theory, you can be pretty sure it’ll work. 😀

    My tastes went completely to the discrete side after that run in with functional analysis. Scott has that one quote in QC since D, “Even there, something inside me (and, I suspect, inside many other computer scientists!) is suspicious of those parts of mathematics that bear the obvious imprint of physics, such as partial differential equations, differential geometry, Lie groups, or anything else that’s “too continuous.” which has in fact been resonating with me for a while. As a math major I suppose you have strong aesthetic tastes as well? If so, what are they?
    P.S. Algebra camp or analysis camp?

  117. peter Says:

    Whether you hate them or love them, the influence of Marx and Freud on the 20th century are way too important for serious intellectuals to ignore their work.

  118. Scott Says:

    peter #117: OK, but doesn’t mean I need to list them among my “favorites.”

  119. Job Says:

    Maybe i will check out one of these books.

    You do have Twain’s Huck Finn in there, so there’s a chance you’ve actually enjoyed reading them.

    There were two books i’ve checked out based on your blog. Nielsen and Chuang’s QCQI and some terrible title by Ayn Rand.

    The first is a useful reference book, the other was garbage.

    Your “Quantum Computing since Democritus” is a great read though.

  120. Jay Says:

    Permutation city not there… you read it before the age of 10?

  121. peter Says:

    Scott #117: Fair enough, it’s very nice that you compiled this list and shared it on your blog. There are many great suggestions!

    The point was mostly to counterbalance the disproportionate appearance of Ayn Rand’s name in this thread with more serious canonical authors.

    Side note: I also enjoyed Logicomix quite a lot, in some sense the book is close to perfection. They manage to make many foundational concepts of TCS accessible to a large public and construct the narrative structure using these very concepts. Almost everything is explained though tragic human tales which is itself a device justified by the Greek roots of the field and the authors. It’s a beautiful work of art.

  122. Pierre Lebourrife Says:

    @arch1,#112: Fantastic estimates! Congratulations on brilliantly taking up my challenge.

  123. Sanketh Says:

    Shozab #116: My to-watch list includes all the lectures of the IQC – Quantum Error Correction class taught by Daniel Gottesman and Beni Yoshida (pirsa).

    A few months earlier, I would’ve said algebra for life. But recently, I am beginning to appreciate the power of analysis. In quantum information, for instance, we talk about Haar random matrices all the time. And in complexity theory, we talk about random oracles and randomness. I think one is alienating oneself from a lot of questions and answers if one swears allegiance to a single camp.

    I think you are in the right field if you want to do TCS, Math and Physics.

    I don’t know much functional analysis or operator theory (or any analysis really) so I cannot comment on that. The tiny bit I know comes from Vern Paulsen’s A Survey of Functional Analysis Methods for QIT and the first few chapters of his book Completely Bounded Maps and Operator Algebras. If you like analysis and TCS, you might also appreciate Ryan O’Donnell’s Analysis of Boolean Functions.

    Like any other (amateur) computer scientist, I struggle with the continuum. If you read QCSD you know the argument. Also, it is not just mathematicians who struggle with it but also physicists. See, for instance, Struggles with the Continuum by John C. Baez.

  124. Scott Says:

    Job #119: To clarify, while you’re welcome to read an Ayn Rand book because it was discussed on this blog, you “do so at your own risk”! I’ve obviously been extremely critical of her. Although, Peter #121, I don’t regard her as having been any more wrong than Marx or Freud were. 🙂

  125. Scott Says:

    Jay #120:

      Permutation city not there… you read it before the age of 10?

    LOL, the opposite, alas. I only read it a few years ago, even though I’d previously read and enjoyed some of Egan’s other work (like Quarantine and Zendegi). I’m sure Permutation City would’ve had a huge influence on me if I had read it in or around adolescence.

  126. alberto_ol Says:

    I am surprised the nobody has mentioned the best books ever written by a mathematician:
    Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,
    Through the Looking-Glass,
    The Hunting of the Snark

  127. Shozab Says:

    Sanketh #123: Good choice!

    I do agree with you on the fact that constricting oneself to one style of thinking can be harmful since it hinders the adaptations of other methods which might be useful. Having said that, I definitely think everyone should at least master a few methods to a high degree of proficiency. For instance, Norbert Weiner was a master at Fourier Transforms, John von Neumann (well, a number of methods) had an intuitive “feel” for mathematical theories (Stainslaw Ulam pointed out other proficiencies).

    Be a bit weary to study functional analysis :p at least as a physicist, I found it to be very pedantic. Though I feel like analysis gets easier as you go deeper. And it does give explanations to certain questions that one encounters with quantum mechanics (most of which can be condensed up though!). I found real analysis to be a bit tricky but complex analysis easier.

    The continuum can be very murky ground indeed! Interestingly, most of my friends from Physics are people who don’t really care about differential geometry and the like (hard-core experimentalists or people whose research interests just don’t involve curved spacetime) In my experience, people who are into GR and the like tend to be more on the mathematical side of things.

  128. Aaron G Says:

    Hi Scott. I saw your list of recommended books, and I’m surprised that you recommended Mind’s Eye by Hofstadter, but not included Godel, Escher, Bach (given the importance of that book as inspiration for both theoretical CS and AI).

    Also, somewhat off-topic, are you familiar with the web page of Cosma Shalizi (currently Stats professor at CMU, with a background in physics)? He has a section on book reviews, and he’s reviewed a number of books on your list (specifically, the book on computational learning theory by Kearns & Vazirani).


  129. Job Says:

    To clarify, while you’re welcome to read an Ayn Rand book because it was discussed on this blog, you “do so at your own risk”!

    And the same goes for every other author really.

    It’s not like there isn’t tons of bad fiction out there – i’ve read others.

    I guess i just didn’t expect it to be that bad (Anthem it was, i think).

    Have you ever considered authoring a fictional work?

    You could use it to criticize society without the direct repercussions you’ve experienced on your blog. In a passive aggressive sort of way.

    At worst, it’s just bad fiction. The story is its own author, it goes where it wants.

  130. Scott Says:

    Aaron #128: GEB is a true classic, and some of its dialogues with Achilles and the Tortoise even rise to the level of great literature. I think my problem is simply that I came to GEB too late, and already “knowing too much,” to appreciate it way it’s meant to be appreciated. I.e., I no longer had the patience for hundreds of pages on Gödel and Turing’s world-shaking insights when I already knew the punchlines and could reach them myself with a hundred times fewer words. Had I discovered GEB as an 11-year-old, it would almost certainly have made my list.

    (How do I reconcile this with the presence on my list of Logicomix, a work that I similarly “came upon too late”? Simple: with Logicomix, the human drama grabs your interest and holds it throughout even if you already know the math.)

    Yes, I’ve been familiar with Cosma Shalizi’s website since the ancient days of Web 1.0. Every single time I go there, I find whatever he has to say penetrating and insightful whether I agree with it or not. Given the extent of our nerdy overlap, it’s sort of weird that he and I have never actually talked to each other; hopefully I’ll have some occasion to remedy that.

  131. Scott Says:

    Job #129:

      Have you ever considered authoring a fictional work?

      You could use it to criticize society without the direct repercussions you’ve experienced on your blog. In a passive aggressive sort of way.

    Right! As they say, I’ve written at least 20 timeless novels in the shower—each of them so moving that anyone who reads even a single chapter will spend the rest of his or her life fighting for truth and goodness, and extolling the moral courage as well as the sexual irresistibility of the introverted nerd. We’ll see whether any of these great works make it onto the page before I die. 🙂

  132. Job Says:

    We’ll see whether any of these great works make it onto the page before I die. 🙂

    If you ever do, channel your inner Dostoevsky.

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