One of the first things I discovered when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, was how little knowledge I had of most things biological. As a math major in college, I was placed into a physics-chemistry track. And as a grad student not even that.
A while ago I discovered the Oxford University Press series Very Short Introductions. These books are perfect for shelter-at-home reading, they have helped me catch up and understand things like R0. I am not trying to become a specialist, or even proficient, just to understand the basic concepts and the terminology of sciences and fields that I have relegated, forgotten, or didn’t have time to explore before. These introductions, as the series name indicates, are short, most about 150-pages long, and self-contained. I can read one a week, finishing just before I get subject-fatigue or bored.
Why 50 books? Most books in the list can be read in a week, so for me is a year long project. That’s one of the criteria that I used to select the books. A few may need some more time, but even then you can parallel read a couple, or just give each book the time you want and keep them as separate projects. Some need to be studied, rather than just read, but the idea here is to give them a quick initial read and that’s why I have included them in my list.
Another great series represented here is the Princeton Foundations of Contemporary Philosophy series. The books are more scholarly than the Oxford series, and longer, but they are great reads and fit the idea of this list. I wish some publisher will come out with the same idea for mathematics: 150-page or less introductions that you can read to get a a foundational idea of a field. Notice that I said “read”, this implies, good examples, solved problems if necessary, but no problem solving required from the reader.
I hope this shelter-in-place thing won’t last a year, but I am banking on this habit sticking for longer than the virus. I got a head start on the list, so I am on book 20 or so. There are some disappointing volumes on the VSI’s series, the ones I had the misfortune of enduring I have kept out of this list. This list is a work in progress, so about half the books in the list are aspirational, I haven’t read them.
Of course, this list is based on my interests within the fields of mathematics, music, philosophy, and science. I share them in case they can help someone learn something new, like they helped me. The biology books that head the list are presented in a suggested reading order, the rest don’t follow any particular order. I am posting the first 25 books, hopefully the other 25 soon. Stay healthy and stay safe. Happy reading!
- Aysha Divan and Janice A. Royds, Molecular Biology: A Very Short Introduction
- Terence Allen and Graham Cowling, The Cell: A Very Short Introduction
- Jonathan Slack, Genes: A Very Short Introduction
- Paul Klenerman, The Immune system: A Very Short Introduction
- Dorothy H. Crawford, Viruses: A Very Short Introduction
- Marta Wayne and Benjamin Bolker, Infectious disease: A Very Short Introduction
- Christian W. McMillen, Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction
- Michael J. Benton, The History of Life: A Very Short Introduction
- Brian Charlesworth and Deborah Charlesworth, Evolution: A Very Short Introduction
- Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, Causation: A Very Short Introduction. I must say that I am a bit disappointed with this volume. While it is true that Hume had a great influence on the causation debate, the authors spent, IMHO, too much time around Hume’s ideas, and too little on more contemporary issues on causation and science. There is zero mention of causation and quantum theory.
- Peter Godfrey-Smith, Philosophy of Biology.
- Odo Diekmann, Hans Heesterbeek, et al., Mathematical Tools for Understanding Infectious Disease Dynamics. This volume is the opposite of a very short introduction, it’s a 1000-page behemoth. However, you can get a good idea of infectious disease modeling from the first part, that’s about 300+ pages. Not a short read/study but I think is worth the effort.
- Adrian Bardon, A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time. One of my favorite books in this list. Here is a nice review .
- Richard A. Muller, Now: the Physics of Time
- Samir Okasha, Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. I really enjoyed this volume, except for the choice of “The problem of biological classification” as the one problem in the philosophy of biology to highlight. Classification problems in science are usually technical, most are only relevant to specialists and practitioners, and generally boring. This one is no exception. There are so many problems in the philosophy of biology that are much more appealing to non specialists (the book’s target audience). Missed opportunity.
- Frank Close, Nothing: A Very Short Introduction. Great volume. If you want to follow up with a longer technical presentation on the quantum vacuum, I am enjoying Peter Milonni’s The Quantum Vacuum: An introduction to Quantum Electrodynamics.
- Franck Close, Particle Physics: A Very Short Introduction.
- Geoff Cottrell, Matter: A Very Short Introduction.
- Mike Goldsmith, Waves: A Very Short Introduction.
- Stephen J. Blundell, Magnetism: A Very Short Introduction.
- Timothy Clifton, Gravity: A Very Short Introduction.
- Ian A. Walmsley, Light: A Very Short Introduction.
- Russell Stannard, Relativity: A Very Short Introduction.
- Peter Coles, Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction.
- Katherine Blundell, Black Holes: A Very Short Introduction.
If after reading the books on gravity, particle physics, magnetism, relativity, etc. you are hungry for some of the mathematics behind the physics, there are two accessible books that you can check. The first is Thomas A. Garrity’s, Electricity and Magnetism for Mathematicians: A Guided Path from Maxwell’s Equations to Yang–Mills, is a short and clear exposition that takes you from the vector calculus formulation of Maxwell’s equations to their formulation using connections and curvature. If you have familiarity with the math, is a painless and quick affair. The second book is John Baez and Javier P Muniain’s, Gauge theories, knots and gravity. This is a longer more thorough book. The first part has a similar scope as Garrity’s book, but is more detailed, and superbly explained. John Baez is my favorite exponent of physics and mathematics, with a great ability to bring home the most arcane ideas, and explain the connections among things that may seem disparate. Unlike Garrity’s book, this book goes deeper into Yang-Mills and applications of knot theory to gauge theories. The third part of the book wraps it up with an expositions of Einstein’s general relativity. That’s where I am now. Again is worth the effort, and worth considering.