Best Books of 2020 List

2020 was a miserable year of assassinations, impeachments, plagues, riots, wildfires, locust swarms, and a lot of nastiness.  I thought it was a weak year for me as I had a tough time focusing and so read less than normal, but overall, I did find some thought-provoking books, which I share below.  Note that these could have been published in any year, but 2020 was the year I read them and gave my thumbs up.

BEST BOOK OF 2020: Roger Penrose, “The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe.”  I started reading this 3 years ago and just finished the first 440 or so pages, where Penrose just lays out the math that one needs to jump into some serious physics.  I also dove into other parts of this book, the work of a deep thinker who won the Physics Nobel prize in 2020 for his black hole research.  I think I understood about 30-40% of the math, but wow, what a journey!  My favorite parts were on the Riemann sphere (8.3 & 18.5), hypercomplex numbers (11), different sizes of infinity (16.3), Turing machines and Godel’s theorem (16.6), spacetime (17), entropy (27.3), and the big bang and black holes (27.7-8).  This book is a classic and it will go by my night shelf along with lifetime favorites like “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”, the “Bhagavad Gita,” “Novum Testamentum Graece,” & “Essaies de Montaigne.”  Be prepared to be amazed at math and nature, while feeling like an idiot before their mystery and the depth of Penrose’s intellect.

Ian Ross, “The Life of Adam Smith.”  A dense and detailed account of the life of the great, Scottish Enlightenment thinker who wrote two treatises that still resonate today:  The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) and The Wealth of Nations (TWN).  TMS, with its standard of an impartial observer and feelings of emotional compassion that greatly influenced John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, may likely be the greater work.  Adam Smith was way ahead of most of his contemporaries (he thought racial discrimination and slavery were foolish, unlike most of his contemporaries and even scholars like Hume).

Trevor Noah, “Born a Crime.”  A stunningly original and painful memoir of the comedian and late night show hosts’ early life, growing up in urban poverty in South Africa.  I listened to the audio book version on a road trip and was still moved by it days later.

Richard Westfall, “Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton.”  The definitive biography of the discoverer of modern physics and optics (in the Principia and Opticks).  Newton later became a respected civil servant as the Warden and Master of the Royal Mint and the President of the Royal Society, which he invigorated.  Westfall also delves in Newton’s deep and pointless research into alchemy and his love of theology (John Locke considered Newton one of the most learned experts on the Bible).  If you have the stomach for it, there’s an 80-page chapter on the priority dispute on who invented calculus, arguing for Newton over Leibniz.

Amartya Sen, “The Idea of Justice.”  A learned response to Rawls’ own theory of justice and a majestic, philosophical approach to a topic that I find more appealing than Michael Sandel’s work.  I particularly appreciated his proposal of social choice theory as the foundation of moral reasoning, Akbar as the origin of secular tolerance, and the global origins of democracy (it’s not just ancient Greece, folks!).

Aurelie Geron, “Hands on Machine Learning.”  Probably the simplest book to start with for a solid, “get your hands dirty” education on ML.  I know a decent amount of ML as I work with production systems all day and did some great courses with Andrew Ng, Emma Brunskill, and others; I still learned a bunch and Geron is a skilled teacher.

Michael Oldstone.  “Viruses, Plagues, and History.”  The most relevant book for 2020, given COVID-19.  It begins with a fantastic set of opening chapters on virology and then a range of historical episodes on prior viruses.  We always underestimate the powers of viruses and wars, the real levelers of human hubris and ego.  Honestly, it was quite painful to read this well-researched book.

Denning and Tedre, “Computational Thinking.”  This is the most important, under-taught skill in modern times for K-16 students. Not just coding, but the computational approach to problem solving and then using technology (hardware and software) to solve key problems in society, science, and engineering.  To me, it’s as important as reading and writing, and often the basis behind math and science.  Coding is just the entree to computational thinking, just as writing is the first step for basic, critical thinking.  In second place, I also enjoyed Maeda’s “How to Talk Machine” but found it slightly harder to read.

Sean Carroll, “Something Deeply Hidden.”  This is Carroll’s serious attempt to make a case for Everett’s many world’s interpretation of quantum physics.  I also had fun trying Susskind’s Quantum Mechanics, The Theoretical Minimum, which was still hard, but not as fun as his lectures on black holes and information theory.  I found this to be one of Carroll’s harder general interest books, but oh so fascinating.

McFadden and Al-Khalili, “Life on the Edge.”  A solid book arguing that numerous biological systems rely on quantum processes (photosynthesis, respiration, etc).  My sense is that we are in the first few decades of a 500 year investigation of this field.  The earlier chapters are better; the later ones are more speculative, offering less evidence.  This has been part of my explorations into quantum mechanics and QIT, as I think we’ve just scratched the surface on understanding them and what they can do (the discovery of anyons this year was quite exciting!).

Vaclav Smil, “Energy and Civilization.”  This book is a gem – civilization is just a function of more efficient energy generation and usage.  It reads beautifully and I found myself highlighting large passages (Max Tegmark takes the argument further in Life 3.0 that we need to push the physics of energy generation even further).  “Making the Modern World” is decent too, but a dry book by an intrepid scholar, going into detail about materials usage and dematerialization.  Chapters 3 and 5 are the best.  The book could be better written (too many details bury the main argument).

Christopher Chapple, “Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions.”  One of the best studies I’ve read on the principle of non-violence, and how it spread from Buddhist and Jain sources to Hinduism and the modern world (e.g. Gandhi, MLK, etc).  A fascinating 6th chapter is about sallekhana, the obscure Jain practice of fasting to death at the end of a virtuous life (the old culling themselves with wisdom and humility, as opposed to our current practice of life extension at shockingly high costs).

John Gertner, “The Idea Factory” (Bell Labs).  An organizational history of one of the most productive R&D organizations in human history, which developed the transistor, information theory, satellites, and a talented group of researchers – the best corporate, industrial lab from 1930 till 1970.  It hosted star researchers like Claude Shannon, John Bardeen, and William Shockley.

Isaac Asimov, “The End of Eternity.”  A lesser-known, intriguing novel by the sci-fi legend about time-traveling gatekeepers who manage humanity to reduce risk and suffering, and what the unintended consequences are of technocratic interference.  It’s on par with his Foundation series and the robot stories.

Richard Hamming, “Art and Science of Doing Engineering.”  Parts of this book are dated, but the parts that aren’t are just so on point – some things about engineering don’t change:  the nature of computing, simulations, creativity, quantum mechanics (which we are very early in applying), how to deal with experts and data problems, etc.

Ed Kleinbard, “We Are Better Than This: How Government Should Spend Our Money.” A book by a smart tax lawyer is packed with facts and data.  His main argument is that we spend too much time arguing about taxes (how to raise money and who pays) while accepting a dogshit fiscal policy on how to spend resources.  This needs to be rethought in an age of abundance, automation, and fast changing skills premia.  He makes a convincing argument that we need more infrastructure and education investments, but of course, the devil is in the details of what types have good ROIs.  I’m less convinced by his argument for single payor national health insurance, unless it’s like the German or Swiss type with private providers.  Finally, a surprising fact is that countries with regressive tax systems, like the EU with its VAT, do a better job of reducing equality because they raise more in taxes and then spend it better to reduce inequality (but not necessarily to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship).

Wendy Doniger, “The Hindus.”  An engaging and witty tome (it’s like a brick) about the history of the Hindu peoples.  I started this years ago and just finished it.  The most striking image was of the Hindu religion as a series of overlapping ellipses, with nothing in the middle – no central dogma, belief, or so on – but a variety of cultures, beliefs, worldviews, etc shared on the subcontinent.  The religious right tried to ban this book in India because they didn’t like where the scholarship went.

Bhu Srinivasan, “Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism.”  An engaging book that shows the development of early industries (whaling, forestry, etc) into the Industrial Age and then the digital age.

Paul Nahin, “An Imaginary Tale, The Story of sqrt(-1).”  An intellectual history of the imaginary number i, which was despised and maligned for centuries until it became accepted and then central to disciplines like complex analysis, quantum physics, and digital electronics.  Lots of math in here, and unfortunately the use of i in physics and engineering is downplayed.  Fun facts:  1^pi has an infinity of distinct complex values (really any whole number to an irrational power) and pi = (2/i) ln(i)

Aaron Roth and Michael Kearns, “The Ethical Algorithm.”  A concise overview of some issues around algorithmic ethics – I enjoyed the chapters on differential privacy and fairness. If you care enough, check out Rachel Thomas’s course on “Data Ethics” and Aravind Narayanan’s “21 definitions of fairness.”

Isabel Wilkerson, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”  A painful, detailed, narrative history of the internal migrations of 6 million black Americans from the 1920s to 1960s, escaping the bigoted Jim Crow south for slightly less bigoted Northern and Western cities.  Between 1880 and 1950, an African-American was lynched more than once a week for some perceived breach of the racial hierarchy.  This is the story of those who left for better societies.

Alvin Lucier, “Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music.”  This was a treat to learn the history of some fantastic experimental music – you need to read this with a music streaming account like Spotify or Amazon Music.  In a close second place and a lot of fun was Alex Ross’s history of contemporary classical music, “The Rest is Noise.”

Richard Crandall, “Prime Numbers, A Computational Perspective.”  A focused text on a computational approach to primes, covering number-theoretical tools, exponential and sub-exponential factoring algorithms, and elliptical curve arithmetic across use cases such as cryptography, random number generation, quantum computation, large integer multiplication, and more.  Bit wonky, and a fun approach to prime numbers.

Julius Caesar (translated by Jim O’Donnell), “The War for Gaul” [Bellum Gallicum].  Julius Caesar’s commentaries about waging war for political gain and profit in the Roman hinterlands of Gaul, Germania, Britannia, etc.  A masterpiece of political rhetoric from the evil genius of that time, with adamantine prose and veiled threats of violence to the Roman Senate hidden throughout the pages.  This translation, from a Latin professor I studied with, is a gem.

Eric Topol, “Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again.”  Topol is a talented doctor and researcher who writes masterfully about how digital tools and AI will reshape medicine, with specific references to projects and papers.  This is a must read for anyone who cares about health care or health policy – we have a rare opportunity to make primary health care cheap, high-quality, and universal (like Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ combined).  Honorable mention to an older memoir:  Loxtercamp, A Measure of My Days (the memoirs of a Country Doctor).

Seth Lloyd, “Programming the Universe.”  One of the most interesting books about quantum computers and computation I’ve read since Danny Hillis and Charles Petzold (on classical computation).  Lloyd makes the argument that the universe is a quantum computer, that “it” comes from qubits, and he speculates on the ultimate computational limits of a laptop to the universe, which are functions of mass and energy.  Lloyd also throws in some interesting speculations about his theory of quantum gravity.

Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel, “The Telomere Effect.”  A simplified summary of the research that Blackburn, a Nobel-prize winner, has done on telomeres and their importance to aging and mammalian health.  The co-author has added some nice chapters with practical tips on how to reduce the stress that leads to aging and shorter telomeres, such as defusing ego threat, distancing, unitasking, getting better sleep, surfing cravings, etc.

Here is my “Best Books of 2019” list (Twitter-only):

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