Good Minds Suggest: Lisa Randall's Favorite Books that Help Explain the WorldPosted by Goodreads on November 11, 2015
Did dark matter kill the dinosaurs? And could dark matter cause another mass extinction event anytime soon? If you're fuzzy on what dark matter is—invisible matter that cannot be observed yet nonetheless maintains the equilibrium of the universe...yeah, that stuff—don't worry, Lisa Randall is here! The influential Harvard professor studies theoretical particle physics and cosmology, including string theory and extra dimensions, and in her spare time writes books that demystify physics for nonphysicists, such as Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions and Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World. Her latest work, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe, discusses how dark matter may interact with our known universe and places our wee little planet Earth in the vast context of space. If you're feeling small, try reading Randall's favorite books that help make sense of our world, and you'll find yourself pondering everything we know for sure and everything we don't.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
"I've written about the fundamental nature of matter in my books Warped Passages and Knocking on Heaven's Door, but Bill Bryson is doing the same with a light, less in-depth, but always entertaining touch. And he gets the science right. It's not about how we figure things out, but it does tell a lot about some of the elements of the world we inhabit. It's a good introduction to, well, 'nearly everything.' "
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
"This is not the most obvious choice perhaps (though my public school, PS 179, was also named the Lewis Carroll school for some still-obscure-to-me reason), but Alice in Wonderland is about many things, including how we look at the world and how it can present infinite possibilities that can sometimes deceive us, often surprise us, and (when we pay enough attention) engage and inform us. The book also teaches us how in our thoughts we can go beyond our immediate vicinity to imagine alternative worlds. But the book is primarily about play and mind play and how that can enrich everything we experience and try to understand."
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
"This is a funny choice, too, but to me this book is about how people relate to each other and the world in complex ways and also about how big a part art and literature can play in appreciating the world. It features a young girl who is a budding writer and tells us how she sees the world, and also how she sees the set of complicated (and realistic) characters who surround her. I loved this book because of its honesty. Not everything has a simple happy ending, but that doesn't negate the value of an openness to nature and to a rich inner life."
Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner
"This is definitely a cautionary tale about how corruption and greed and overly rapid development can create new metropolitan areas but can do so in a dangerous, unsustainable way. It is about water in the American West: where it comes from and where it's going. Water is one of many environmental crises we are about to face. Understanding the roots of the problem in at least one place is a good start to approaching the problem in the future."
On Photography by Susan Sontag
"Though originally published in 1977, this book might resonate even more today in our selfie-driven culture than it did when it first appeared. When photographs are everywhere, we need to understand what they represent and their relationship to the underlying reality. Photographs can make things more memorable and even more meaningful, but they can also distort the underlying reality. Understanding the relationship of photographs to the world is one way to understand how human senses can be deceptive and why science can lead to a more objective view of reality and the difference between knowing how something looks and how something functions. Sontag was ahead of her time in recognizing that photographs were a way of recording a human landscape that is rapidly disappearing, which is true for the physical landscape today, too."
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro
"I am definitely prejudiced in this choice by my having grown up in Queens. This book, [which] explains one individual's (Robert Moses's) search for power, taught me about the nature of local politics, the state of New York City during Moses's time, how things can get done despite complicated and competing agendas, and also the origin of many urban issues that still plague us today. It furthermore explains why they didn't extend a train along the Long Island Expressway, which would have saved me a few hours a week in my commute to Stuyvesant high school, and why I grew up with what I found to be relatively boring playgrounds rather than more natural and beautiful parks I've now had the fortune to see elsewhere. In the context of understanding the world, it is a book about the formation of one of the world's most important cities—with lessons both good and bad for the future."
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
"I got introduced to this book after I returned from Africa, perplexed why written language arrived there only with the Europeans. Though not necessarily all equally rigorous, this book's speculations and ideas make clear how culture is a result of environment. Not only does our world rely on many accidental features, but so does the way humanity developed within it. Without animals that could be domesticated and crops that could sustain us, civilization would be very different. Not to mention the important role that geography plays as well."
The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz
"Understanding the Middle East and the enormous changes it has seen in the 20th century is probably one step toward a helpful antidote to today's turmoil. Malfouz's trilogy is remarkable for its insights into culture, religion, everyday life, the changing role of women (and men). But it is also a beautiful and sometimes wrenching reflection on the passage of time and the changes it brings. The trilogy tells the story of a world very different from my own, which is the beauty of good literature."
Vote for your own favorites on Listopia: Best Books to Frame Thinking