April 11, 2019

A reading list for future Polymaths


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A recent comment in the LIS office escalated into an excited debate among team members over which books they would recommend to future polymaths.

Robert M Sapolsky’s book, ‘Behave’, was responsible for originating the discussion. Sapolsky makes the complex synthesis of psychology and neurobiology both accessible and entertaining…whilst referencing the Lion King, Lord Voldemort, and the Teletubbies on the way. Genius!

Intrigue got the better of us and we decided to turn to the Twitter community. We tweeted the following:

“We’re looking for suggestions of broad, #polymathic books for intellectually curious 17-20 year olds. Things like Sapiens, Thinking Fast and Slow, Brief Answers to Big Questions etc. If you were looking to recommend a book to someone around this age with #interdisciplinary interests, what would you suggest?”

Thank you to everyone who commented – the response was incredible. We received over 120 different book suggestions.

Here are 30 of the 120 books to get you started…

– Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (Paul Feyerabend, 1975)
Are there rules to doing science?

– The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas Kuhn, 1962)
How does science move forward

– Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (Stephen Jay Gould, 1989)
What is the role of contingency in evolution?

– Animal Liberation (Peter Singer, 1975)
Is the suffering of animals as important as the suffering of humans?

– What Does It All Mean? (Thomas Nagel, 1987)
Should the hard questions of philosophy matter to ordinary people?

– In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (Eric Kandel, 2006)
How does the brain create memories?

– Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness – (Peter Godfrey-Smith, 2016)
What does it mean that intelligence evolved not once, but twice?

– Gödel, Escher, Bach (Douglas Hofstadter, 1979)
How do systems acquire meaning, despite being made of ‘meaningless’ elements?

– The Mathematics of Love: Patterns, Proofs, and the Search for the Ultimate Equation (Hannah Fry, 2015)
Can you quantify love?

– Freedom Evolves (Daniel Dennett, 2003)
Is there really such a thing as free will?

– The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins, 1976)
How do humans evolve?

– The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (Richard Dawkins, 1986)
Can the fact of life be explained by science?

– The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (David Wallace-Wells, 2019)
What does the planet’s future look like?

– Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There (Rutger Bregman, 2017)
How can we build an ideal world?

– The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Jane Jacobs, 1961)
How should urban planners deal with the nuanced complexities of cities?

– The Righteous Mind (Jonathan Haidt, 2012)
Why does it sometimes feel as though half the population is living in a different moral universe?

– How the Mind Works (Steven Pinker, 1997)
Can evolution explain the quirkiness of our minds?

– Quantum Electrodynamics: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Richard Feynman, 1985)
What is light?

– Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray (Sabine Hossenfelder, 2018)
Are physicists too obsessed with beautiful theories?

– Tesosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds (Cordelia Fine, 2017)
Have men and women evolved to be different?

– Figuring (Maria Popova, 2019)
Why do we search for truth?

– God Created the Integers: The Mathematical Breakthroughs that Changed History (Stephen Hawking, 2005)
What are the most important works in the history of maths?

– On the Shoulders of Giants: The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy (Stephen Hawking, 2002)
What are the most important works in the history of physics?

– How Real is Real? (Paul Watzlawick, 1977)
What’s the connection between communication and reality?

– Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Carl Sagan, 1997)
What is our place in the universe?

– Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Karen Barad, 2007)
Is the world one big tangled web?

– Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics (Richard Thaler, 2016)
Are humans rational, economic agents?

– Prisoners of Geography (Tim Marshall, 2015)
How divisive is geography?

– Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari, 2011)
How have humans survived this well?

– Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (Hans Rosling, 2018)
How do instincts distort our perspective?

– The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility (Waqas Ahmed, 2018)
Why does society insist that people specialise?

– Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond, 1997)
Why has human history unfolded so differently across the globe?

– Silent Spring (Rachel Carson, 1962)
How do pesticides impact the environment?

– Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (Paul Hawken, 2017)
What can we do about global warming?

– The Map of Knowledge: How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found: A History in Seven Cities (Violet Moller, 2019)
How can we trace the ideas of Euclid, Galen, and Ptolemy over the past 1,000 years?

It is important to note that we have not read everything on this list. Nonetheless, we believe it is a great starting point for anyone who is intellectually curious and has interdisciplinary interests. Please do let us know if there are any books you’d like us to add to the list:

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