Some books I read in 2015

Some of the books I read (and liked) in 2015, and my impressions of them. Previously: 14, 13, 12, 11.

John Maynard Smith, Eörs Szathmáry:
The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language

A very clear explanation of evolution from the chemical basis up to “cultural evolution”. Updated version of older book “Major transitions…” of same authors. Describes evolution at the level of genes, individuals and groups. Often takes an “information-theoretic” view. Doesn’t give the “full picture” of life and evolution but gives a flavour of the forces at work, and the messiness, in some cases arbitrariness of local details, of conflicts and co-operations, etc. Together with work of Dawkins, some of the clearest explanations of evolution.

While at it, I opened Darwin’s original and skimmed about a third of it. The first impression of “The Origin of the Species” is how readable and accessible it still is almost 160 years after its writing. It is organized in a logical way, starting with a wealth of examples, building up evidence until the inevitable conclusion almost presents itself. Especially interesting is the frankness with which Darwin discusses possible objections to his theory. One must agree with the reviewer who writes about the Origin of Species that it “makes me proud to be a human being”.

Ha-Joon Chang: Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism

Funny and accessible book with critique of globalization and mainstream economic theories. Main thesis could be summed up as: countries that are rich today became rich through policies and strategies that are in many ways the opposite of what they propose as development strategies for poor countries. Many contrarian ideas (e.g. corruption not automatically bad, etc.), most of them well argued. Enjoyed chapter that ridicules “culturalist” views in economics.

Douglas R. Hofstadter, Daniel C. Dennett:
The Mind’s I: Fantasies And Reflections On Self & Soul

Charming collection of essays and short literary works loosely around the topics of the mind, consciousness, identity, etc. The essays are from various sources, including fiction authors like Stanislaw Lem or Jorge Borges, or the authors themselves, who also comment on the essays of others. Favourites: Hofstadter’s tortoise and achilles dialogues, “A Conversation With Einstein’s Brain”, Smullyan’s “Is God a Taoist?”, etc.

Bertrand Russell: The Conquest of Happiness

Lighthearted essays — sometimes surprising opinions (e.g. praise of boredom, etc.), tries to understand the sources of happiness and unhappiness. Reaches a similar conclusion as Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow”-theory, his “recipe” summed up as: skillful preoccupation – such as the exercise of a craft + a friendly interest and curiosity towards people and phenomena. Written almost 100 years ago, still timely, notices some changes in society that are even more profound today.

Randall Munroe: What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Bought as gift, but ended up reading it myself. Predictably funny and interesting.

Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities

Masterful, gigantic, complex, fragmentary, sometimes with quirky humor, etc. Have been reading it on and off for the whole year, and will be continuing it in 2016 as well :)
An enthusiastic review (apart from the first 5-6 mins):

David Nicolle: Ottomans: Empire of Faith.

Short history of the Ottoman Empire. Especially beautiful maps and illustrations.

R. Feynman: “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”: Further Adventures…

The first part contains anecdotes and letters in the spirit of “Surely you are joking…” and similar books, with some overlap. The second, more interesting part is about the Challenger space shuttle accident investigation in which Feynman was involved. The methodical inquiries and observations are fascinating, as well as the final report.

Sorin Mitu:
Transilvania Mea (English: My Transylvania)

A collection of articles and essays (in Romanian) about various aspects of the history of Transylvania and its inhabitants. Informative and beautifully written.

Elemér Kiss: Mathematical Gems from the Bolyai Chests

This book is the result of the in-depth study of the unpublished manuscripts of the mathematician János Bolyai, and his correspondence with his father, Farkas Bolyai. The book convincingly argues that contrary to popular opinion, Bolyai continued productive mathematical work throughout his life (after his early work on non-euclidean geometry), and working in isolation, he made independent observations esp. on number theory and the theory of complex numbers, some of which were only discovered later by others. (I read the Hungarian version.)


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