Not the Best Books of 2011 list but…
It’s the last day of the year and tradition dictates a list of ‘Best books of 2011’. Apparently, however formulaic this kind of year-ending package may be, readers take to it like a dog takes to a hurled tennis ball. There’s something elemental about lists anyway. Add to that the qualitative tag of ‘Best’ and you’ve got a fix.
The usual practice is to get a bunch of celebrities, including some authors, to briefly name and talk about the titles that excited them most over the last year. We know that Arundhati Roy won’t really talk about Chetan Bhagat’s The Three Mistakes of My Life the same way that Bhagat won’t really talk about Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies — unless Ghosh has talked about Bhagat’s writings in his up and running blog. So the bulk of the list will be about John Abraham’s discovery of a “spiritually enriching” book — probably Paulo Coelho’s latest mumbo-jumbo dolled up as fiction, Aleph — and about Kiran Bedi’s delight in reading Ravinder Singh’s Can Love Happen Twice?
The purpose of a ‘Best Books of the Year’ list, I suppose, is to tell the reader what recent book he should read if he hasn’t read it already. But what overwhelmingly matters is who’s giving the suggestion. If British historian Simon Schama, for instance, recommends musician Keith Richards’ memoir Life that came out earlier this year — “he can do the words as well as the music” — I can’t see people really rushing to read the book. If I gush about Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka’s delightfully gambolling novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, chances are slim that people will take my word for it.
In any case, literate (sic) readers would have read most, if not all, the books earlier in reviews. So the list actually serves the function of throwing light on yet another aspect of the public personage’s character — in this case, reading taste — than about the book she or he is talking about. If Shah Rukh Khan states that he likes the writings of Franz Kafka — as he did two weeks ago when he came to this paper’s Delhi office and stated, “Sometimes I sit alone in a dark room and read Kafka and all” — most people are likely to try out the Czech master more than if, say, Pankaj Mishra did the same.
So in the spirit of churlishness and the belief that a ‘Best Books of 2011’ list serves even less purpose than if we had come up with the other con-job, ‘Books To Look Forward to in 2012’ (considering the big titles will be written about when the time comes), here’s a more scientifically approved list that isn’t about who’s reading what or confined to the titles that came out over the last 365 days. It’s for folks who read more than in-flight magazines and believe that reading isn’t just something that kids do but brings pleasure to grown-ups. You know the kind of pleasure you get when you curl up with great books on science.
…the 10 science books you should read in 2012
1. Quantum Manjit Kumar
Science writer Manjit Kumar’s book is a must-read not because it is hugely original (it derives from standard sources) but because it lets the lay reader side-step the minefield of mathematical complexities that mark quantum mechanics, to let them peer into the minds of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Planck and Paul Dirac, the key players and their attempts to explain the world.
2. The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins
It might have been prudent to rename his reformulation of natural selection as‘The Immortal Gene’, Dawkins remarked in 2006, 30 years after the book was published. No matter, it still remains a vital text on the gene-centred view of evolution.
3. One Two Three…Infinity George Gamow
Though somewhat dated now, George Gamow’s book, which has excellent illustrations, is still regarded as the best introduction to a world of scientific knowledge and understanding. It is said to have launched many illustrious careers in science.
4. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out Richard Feynman
This collection of 13 essays, interviews and addresses (including the Nobel Prize acceptance speech) by physicist Richard Feynman is informal and engaging, with Feynman’s characteristic humour.
5. The Language Instinct Steven Pinker
Language is an instinct and evolved out of natural selection, not a human invention, linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker argued in this 1994 book. The thesis, though, had its critics in Geoffrey Sampson and the late Stephen Jay Gould.
6. Fermat’s Last Theorem Simon Singh
French mathematician Pierre de Fermat’s teasing margin note—of a ‘marvellous proof’ of his theorem—kept mathematicians on tenterhooks for 350 years. Simon Singh reconstructs the intellectual struggle that ended with Andrew Wiles’ solution.
7. The Elegant Universe Brian Greene
Published in 1999, this book tried — and brilliantly succeeded — in peeling off the layers of obscurity surrounding string theory and super-string theory, using metaphors and analogies to explain how the universe works.
8. The Emperor’s New Mind Roger Penrose
This 1989 book by mathematical physicist Roger Penrose disputed the claims of artificial intelligence by arguing that human consciousness is non-algorithmic and its workings cannot be emulated by a digital device like a computer.
9. The Edge of Reason Anil Ananthaswamy
Anil Ananthaswamy, a consulting editor with The New Scientist, travels across the world —from the Chilean Andes to Antarctica to Lake Baikal in Siberia— collecting delightful anecdotes that reveal the human element in scientific processes.
10. Mutants Armand Marie Leroi
In this enlightening (and somewhat disturbing) account, Armand Leroi, a developmental biologist, explores genetic variability in human beings to arrive at an understanding of the human body. Leroi writes with flair, managing to inform and intrigue.
The original article is here.