I’m always learning. It’s an important part of my personality that I’ve come to embrace. Ok, it wasn’t that hard to embrace it. Learning is fun! But I did discover over the last year or so just how important learning is to me. If I’m not learning, I feel stagnant and unfulfilled. But if I am learning something interesting and valuable, exploring something that’s new to me, I’m fueling my curiosity, pushing myself to grow, and generally feeling better about life.
This means, among other things, that I’m always working my way through some book or other. As I’ve started thinking and writing about the intersection of the Bible, theology, physics, and space exploration, my reading list has predictably focused on these things. I thought it would be good to share the books I’ve read this year and the ones I’m currently reading, in case you find them interesting and want to read them too. So here are the books that have made their way from my large and optimistic “gonna read soon” stack to my not quite as large, but growing, “already read” stack so far in 2018.
The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol. 1, by Richard Feynman. So this one took me a while. It’s volume 1 of a college-level textbook by the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman, based on introductory physics lectures he gave at Cal Tech in the 1960s. The full text of the lectures, with illustrations, are available for free at Cal Tech’s website, a great gift for independent learners everywhere. Feynman has a great ability to explain the concepts of physics in a way that makes them understandable and shows how they relate to one another. I started this in November of last year and finally finished it in March. And that’s only Volume 1. But it was well worth the effort, and I hope to tackle Volume 2 before 2018 is over.
Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?, by David Weintraub. A friend recommended this book to me and it was quite interesting. The author, an astrophysicist at Vanderbilt University, attempts to predict how various world religions, including Christianity, might react to the discover of extraterrestrial life. His speculations are based on the sacred texts of those religions as well as what historical and contemporary thinkers in those traditions have written in the past. The book is speculative and doesn’t go into too much detail in any single religious tradition, but it’s an intriguing thought experiment to ask what might happen.
The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, by Steven Weinberg. A short but intense read. Weinberg is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who contributed substantially to developing the Standard Model of particle physics. In this book, he describes the first 3 minutes of the Universe after the Big Bang, where conditions would have looked a lot like the high-energy, ultra-small-world of particle physics. His description of the first 3 minutes (actually he goes through the first 380,000 years) is both fascinating and accessible. It and the next book on this list sparked a reflection of mine on the Big Bang and what it means to ask about what came before that.
God and the Astronomers, by Robert Jastrow. This is a wonderful introduction to the astronomical discoveries of the early 1900s that led to the realization that the Universe is expanding, and all the implications that came with it. I especially appreciated how Jastrow saw the idea of the Universe’s beginning as a point of connection between the worlds of physics and theology.
After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, by N.T. Wright. This one has been on my shelf for a while (I’d guess 6 years or longer), but I only just now got around to reading it. Wright explores the idea of virtue in the Christian life from the perspective of a New Testament scholar, showing how the Bible encourages concrete practices and attitudes to shape the Christian life and character. It’s got me paying more attention to the way my life is shaped (or not) by Christian virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas that Reveal the Cosmos, by Priyamvada Natarajan. The author outlines the major scientific discoveries of astronomy and astrophysics, from Galileo’s first look at the sky with a telescope to the cutting-edge, collaborative work in the field of astronomy today. I especially appreciate how she emphasizes the human aspect of scientific discovery, which has both its benefits and its drawbacks, and shows how these factors are at play in the exploration of the Universe.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline l’Engle. This is a classic that children’s book that I read again because it came out as a movie this spring. I still have not seen the movie, but I enjoyed the book on a second time through.
The Cosmic Web: Mysterious Architecture of the Universe, by J. Richard Gott. Gott, a Princeton physicist who specializes in cosmology, walks through the various theoretical ideas and observational evidence that lead us to understand the formation of the large-scale structure of the Universe. He does a good job of showing how the theory comes to line up with observation, step-by-step and sometimes leap-by-leap.
Relativity, The Special and the General Theory, by Albert Einstein. This is a popular work describing Einstein’s theories of relativity for non-experts. I first read this when I was in high school, and re-read it a few months ago. It’s a short read, but it will certainly make you think. If you want an introduction to relativity, you could do worse than this book from the man himself.
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. This novel imagines that gods exist for as long as people believe in them and worship them. It tells the story of a war among the old gods like Odin, brought to America when the country was young, and new gods like TV who have arisen more recently. In addition to being a fascinating look at the things we worship, it’s also just a really good, entertaining story.
The Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, by Neil deGrasse Tyson. This book captures the author’s reflections on space based on previous essays and articles he’s published. A great read, treating a broad range of topics about space from a technological and political standpoint. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an engaging writer and speaker, and he does a great job of reaching the non-expert.
Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour, by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott. I was moving along at a quick pace of nearly a book a week until I ran into this tome. This isn’t quite a textbook, but it’s close. As an introduction to astrophysics, it’s very broad in scope, with a good bit of detail in each chapter. It developed out of an astrophysics class for non-physics majors that the authors taught at Princeton University for a number of years, and their expertise and teaching experience enriches the book. You also get a good sense of each author’s distinctive voice and personality. And it has full color photographs and illustrations, which really set this book apart.
18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, by Peter Bregman. This is a book I read recently for work that’s sort of about time management. I say “sort of” because its starting point is how to discover the things that are most important to you and prioritize those things. So rather than help you “get it all done,” it helps you get the important things done. It has a number of good take-aways that I’m applying to my work, my personal life, and my ongoing learning endeavors.
The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, by Fritjof Capra. A coworker recommended this book to me, and it’s fascinating. The author identifies the ways in which the worldview suggested by modern physics resonates with eastern mystical traditions.
Deep Down Things: The Breathtaking Beauty of Particle Physics, by Bruce Schumm. I’ve only just started this one, but I am already enjoying it. The author has a great writing style, with clear explanations of difficult material and occasional humor and wit to provide levity. As an editor myself, I understand the difficulty of explaining challenging material and tough concepts in an accessible yet accurate way. This author strikes that balance quite nicely.
Next on my list are, in no particular order:
The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson, by Stanley Hauerwas
Ripples in Spacetime: Einstein, Gravitational Waves, and the Future of Astronomy, by Govert Schilling
Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe, by Roger Penrose
How about you? What do you like to learn? What’s on your reading list?