Science + Engineering + Math Book Reviews

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Science, Engineering, Technology, Math/Medicine

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★★★★★★★ (7/7) (life-changing)

 Why We Sleep  by Dr. Matthew Walker –  Sleep review + notes 

My vote for most important book of the century, no hyperbole.  An engaging exploration of the fascinating science of sleep; sleep deprivation is destroying the health and productivity of 70% of adults (and the vast majority of adolescents).  Mental models include: sleep, structural problem solving, culture / status quo bias, local vs. global optimization, cognition / intuition / habit / stress, and memory.

 Polio: An American Story  by David Oshinsky –  PaaS review + notes 

A fascinating exploration of the triumph of science over the childhood scourge of polio in the mid-1900s; highly educational and a rip-roaring story that won the Pulitzer Prize.  Mental models include: salience, multicausality, incentives, ego, a/b testing, trait adaptivity, opportunity costs, and n-order impacts.

Internal Time  by Till Roenneberg –  IntTm review + notes 

Peter Thiel often asks: “tell me something true that nobody agrees with you on.”  My answer: chronotypes matter.  This is a fascinating exploration of the science of our internal clocks – why some of us are early birds and some are night owls, and what it means for our health and productivity. Mental models include: sleep, culture / status quo bias, trait adaptivity, local vs. global optimization, and utility.

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith –  OthM review + notes

Intelligence is convergent – it evolved multiple times, and one of the most fascinating examples is the octopus.  What can we learn from octopus cognition and consciousness about our own?  Mental models include: trait adaptivity, n-order impacts, feedback, tradeoffs, scientific thinking, agency, social connection, nonlinearity, and bottlenecks.

★★★★★★ (6/7) (standout for its category)

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman – Bird review + notes

A book that is as delightful as it is educational: Ackerman explores avian intelligence and its implications for our own.  Mental models include: culture / status quo bias, social proof, tradeoffs, trait adaptivity, utility, product vs. packaging, novelty-seeking, fairness, and hyperbolic discounting.

Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman –  Rust review + notes

Rust: about as sexy as mold – thus often overlooked, despite costing us billions per year.  Waldman explores rust and how we fight it in one of the best-written nonfiction books I’ve read.  Mental models include: culture / status quo bias, humans vs. econs, empathy, local vs. global optimization, incentives, salience, margin of safety, nonlinearity.

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver – SigN review + notes

Data alone can’t solve our problems – we imbue our numbers (and occasional pair of wayward underwear, too) with meaning.  Mental models include: Bayesian reasoning, sample size, survivorship bias, nonlinearity, utility, precision vs. accuracy, overconfidence, and probabilistic thinking.

To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski –  TEiH review + notes

The premise of engineering is the obviation of failure – which resonates far beyond CAD drawings of skyscrapers and bridges.  In a thoughtful, well-written analysis, civil engineer Henry Petroski explores: margin of safety, bottlenecks, n-order impacts, humans vs. econs, salience, and structural problem solving.

How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg – HNW review + notes

Where should you put armor on fighter planes, and why is it all your cute dates are mean and your nice dates are plain?  Mathematician (and novelist) Jordan Ellenberg takes an engaging journey through models like: dose-dependency, availability bias, survivorship bias, sample size, prior probabilities, utility, and opportunity costs.

Scale by Geoffrey West –  SCALE review + notes

Hidden “power laws” – of a mathematical, rather than sociopolitical nature – underlie much of our lives, at both the cellular and community level.  Former Santa Fe Institute President Geoffrey West engagingly and accessibly explores models like: scaling, complexity, exponential growth, disaggregation, and emergence.

Deadly Choices by Dr. Paul Offit –  VAX review + notes

Decades of rigorous science demonstrate that vaccines are perhaps the safest, cheapest, and most effective intervention in medical history – so what psychological follies lead well-intentioned parents to endanger their kids (and the rest of us) by falling for conspiracy theories?  Models include salience, feedback, n-order impacts, storytelling, and correlation vs. causation.

★★★★★ (5/7) (solid for its category)

The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman –  TVR review + notes

How could a single cell culture supply enough raw material to make vaccines for hundreds of years – and why did well-educated scientists stubbornly dig in their heels and fight its use tooth-and-nail?  Mental models in this fascinating story include:  exponential growth, confirmation bias, envy, trait adaptivity, inversion, and tradeoffs.

The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean –  TVT review + notes

How does our DNA genetic code pull the strings of our everyday life?  Kean explores fascinating – and unintuitive – lessons from genetics through the ages.  Mental models include: trait adaptivity, utility, disaggregation, feedback, luck, complexity, margin of safety, and tradeoffs.

Bellevue by David Oshinsky –  BV review + notes

Why did it take a dead President to get doctors to believe in Germ Theory, why didn’t hospitals update their backup infrastructure post-Katrina, and why is routine infant circumcision widespread in the US today?  Surprising answers to those can be found in this 300-year medical history, covering salience, scientific thinking, incentives, selection bias, and more.

Intelligence by Stuart Ritchie –  Intel review + notes

Why do smart people paradoxically dismiss IQ – and what lessons are there to learn from our cognition?  Models covered here range from correlation vs. causation to the availability heuristic, base rates, memory, multicausality, and trait adaptivity.

Curious by Ian Leslie –  C review + notes

Humans are uniquely curious, making the seemingly evolutionarily maladaptive decision to seek out information with no utility – but why?  In an exploration that is at first fascinating (and later off-track), Ian Leslie covers some infrequently-encountered concepts and hits mental models like: memory, empathy, confirmation bias, novelty-seeking, and more.

“The Anatomy of Love” by Helen Fisher

A fascinating exploration of how love is a neurological “addiction that distorts our cognition as powerfully as cocaine, heroin, or other hard drugs – and why humans, from hunter-gatherer days through the modern era, have supplemented monogamy with extramarital pursuits.

★★★★ (4/7) (acceptable for its category)

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn –  Kuhn review + notes

The landmark classic that brought the term “paradigm shift” into our vocabulary.  Kuhn’s analysis is dense, dry, repetitive, and difficult to read, but it does contain some interesting and useful conclusions that hold true many decades later.  Mental models include: product vs. packaging, sunk costs, confirmation bias, and more.

“The Gene” by Siddhartha Mukherjee (N&A)
A 500 page book on genetics that mixes science with an unfortunate dose of the author’s politics.

★★★ (3/7) (mediocre)

“Thinking in Systems” by Donella Meadows
Mediocre and uninsightful; too elementary to be of any real interest or use.

“Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” by Carlo Rovelli
An extremely brief book that doesn’t help the reader learn very much.

“The Joy of X” by Steven Strogatz
Not useful and at times babyish.  Too elementary to be of any real interest or use.  Instead see something like How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg.

“The Information” by James Gleick
Learning-rich but written in a highly technical, inside-baseball tone that makes it extremely difficult for lay readers to understand any of the insights.

★★ (2/7) (meaningfully flawed)

None at this time, thankfully!

★ (1/7) (run, Forrest, run!)

None at this time, thankfully!