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February 22, 2007
An undergraduate reader sends along this request:
I was wondering if you had some recommended readings for a second year student, eg books that you have read and made a palpable impression on you when you were my age.
That's a good question, despite the beard-lengthening qualification of "when you were my age". The books that I would recommend aren't the sort that would require course material that a sophomore hasn't had yet, but rather take a wider view. I would recommend Francis Crick's What Mad Pursuit, for one. It's both a memoir of getting into research, and a set of recommendations on how to do it. Crick came from a not-very-promising background, and it's interesting to see how he ended up where he did.
Another author I'd recommend is Freeman Dyson. His essay collections such as Disturbing the Universe and Infinite in All Directions are well-stocked with good writing and good reading on the subject of science and how it's conducted. Dyson is a rare combination: a sensible, grounded visionary.
Another author to seek out is the late Peter Medawar, whose Advice to a Young Scientist is just the sort of thing. Pluto's Republic is also very good. He was a fine writer, whose style occasionally comes close to being too elegant for its own good, but it's nice to read a scientific Nobel prize winner who suffers from such problems.
I've often mentioned Robert Root-Bernstein's Discovering, an odd book about where scientific creativity comes from and whether it can be learned. I think the decision to write the book as a series of conversations between several unconvincing fictional characters comes close to making it unreadable in the normal sense, but the last chapter, summarizing various laws and recommendations for breakthrough discovery, is a wonderful resource.
Those are some of the ones that cover broad scientific topics. There are others that are more narrowly focused, which should be the topic of another post. And I'd also like to do a follow-up on books with no real scientific connection, but which are good additions to one's mental furniture. I have several in mind, but in all of these categories I'd like to throw the question open to the readership as well. I'll try to collect things into some reference posts when the dust eventually clears.
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