Looking back on 2022, I’m grateful for so many amazing books that introduced me to new perspectives and questions that I never thought of before. I wouldn’t say that I’m a great engineer today, but without these books, I would’ve been much worse. I hope you enjoy these books as much as I did. I’d love to hear your recommendations on similar books that I should read!
- Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life (John H. Miller & Scott E. Page, 2007)
- The Society of Minds (Marvin Minsky, 1986)
- Profiles of the Future : An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible (Arthur C. Clarke, 1962)
- Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Martin Gardner, 1952)
- Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (Nassim Taleb, 2001)
- How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking (Jordan Ellenberg, 2014)
- Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas are Born (Denise Shekerjian, 1991)
- The Design of Everyday Things (Don Norman, 1988)
- From One to Zero: A Universal History of Numbers (Georges Ifrah, 1985)
- Just My Type: A Book About Fonts (Simon Garfield, 2010)
- The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Richard Rhodes, 1986)
- Chaos: Making a New Science (James Gleick, 1987)
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot, 2011)
- The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet (David Kahn, 1996)
Here’s the a more detailed review of each book.
Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life (John H. Miller & Scott E. Page, 2007)
I spend a lot of time thinking about modeling computational systems, and this book introduced me to modeling social systems. A system consists of 3 components: elements (e.g. neurons, employees in a company), interconnections (e.g. neuron connections, how an employee/citizen’s action can affect another), and a purpose (e.g. minimizing loss, maximizing profit).
The first half is my favorite. The second half is more about how computation tools (e.g. simulation) can be used for research, which might have been novel in 2007, but pretty much accepted today.
A book on a similar topic that some of my friends prefer: Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Donella H. Meadows, 2008)
The Society of Minds (Marvin Minsky, 1986)
I found this book in my friend’s list of “books I love that less than 1% of my friends have read”. It was written by an AI pioneer Marvin Minsky, who received the Turing Award in 1969 for his work on perceptrons, which laid the foundation for neural networks today.
This book was Minsky’s theory for how natural intelligence works: how the mind can emerge from mindless components of our brain.
Profiles of the Future : An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible (Arthur C. Clarke, 1962)
Clarke is best known for his science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey), but his science nonfiction is fascinating too. This book introduces a framework to think about the future. Given a certain technology (e.g. escaping gravity, high speed travel, satellite communication), Clarke discussed where it was, what would be needed for it to happen, and how it would change society.
Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Martin Gardner, 1952)
Billed as “a study in human gullibility”, the book explored common fads (e.g. anti-vax, flat earth, dowsing) and why people believed in them. Despite being written 70 years ago, the book is still insanely relevant today.
The book posed a question: how do we differentiate between a genius and a crackpot? Sometimes, a person can be both! Think Alfred Lawson, a pioneer of the US aircraft industry, who was also a total crackpot.
Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (Nassim Taleb, 2001)
Taleb’s way of writing probably upsets a lot of people, but if you can get over it, it’s definitely worth a read. The book discusses the human tendency to underestimate randomness in real life.
One example is “hindsight bias”: when an event happens, we think of it as the only thing that could happen, while, in fact, it’s just one of many events that could’ve happened (due to probability). This bias causes us to over-index on that event when predicting the future.
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking (Jordan Ellenberg, 2014)
A wonderful, easy-to-read introduction to applied math and probability. Ellenberg discussed many case studies such as:
- The survivorship bias example using airplanes from world war 2
- Target, based on a teenage girl’s recent purchases, began sending her baby product coupons
- How the famous French writer Voltaire amassed his fortune by hacking state lottery
- Nate Silver’s predictions
Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas are Born (Denise Shekerjian, 1991)
A collection of interviews with 40 recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship (the genius award) gave me a different perspective on the creative process. It’s easy to recognize genius in hindsight, but what does it look like when it’s in the making? How can a person gain confidence in their idea and motivation to continue pursuing it? \
The Design of Everyday Things (Don Norman, 1988)
A must read for anyone who cares about functional design, from the first User Experience Architect at Apple.
The books below can be considered history books: they tell the story of how something was discovered, invented, or created.
From One to Zero: A Universal History of Numbers (Georges Ifrah, 1985)
No, I didn’t misspell “From zero from one”. This book takes us through the thousand-year journey to create the mathematical foundation that so many people take for granted.
Just My Type: A Book About Fonts (Simon Garfield, 2010)
How did Helvetica become so popular? Why do people prefer sans serif? Why do people hate Comic Sans so much, and what does its creator have to say about it?
We know that fonts can influence how we perceive that text. This book explains why and how we can better utilize this power.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Richard Rhodes, 1986)
A lengthy but fascinating book on the development of nuclear weapons, which has a lot in common with the development of AI today.
Chaos: Making a New Science (James Gleick, 1987)
We’ve all heard about the butterfly effect: the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon can cause a tornado in Texas. This is the book that introduced me to the scientific field that studies this effect: chaos theory. I remember being blown away the first time I read the book.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot, 2011)
The story behind the woman whose cells were “vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.”
An amazing overview to the history of cryptography.
Related post: The books that shaped my decade (2019)