Here are the 19 best books I read in 2014.
Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman The remarkable thing with physics is that it hasn’t progressed significantly since the 1960’s when Feyman lectured (this book is a compact compilation of his famous lectures). The basic concepts about atoms and molecules and light and relativity remained unchanged in the past half century – and because Feyman is the ultimate explainer of physics, this book is still a very good introduction.
Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik We take concrete and glass and steel for granted – they’ve become invisible in our world. But these materials are the result of a long quest for perfection. Fascinating stuff! It made me see the world with fresh eyes again. I find myself explaining material science to more people since I read this book. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing.
The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker This book is as much about psychology as it is about language. Pinker writes beautiful and playful prose, and explains how we can improve our writing by thinking better about the reader. The short answer is: when writing, assume you’re pointing things out to a friend.
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker Everyday we see violence reported in the media, but if we look at the long arc of history, violence is in a long and steady decline. There are in fact six independent ‘megatrends’ which are at work here, and Pinker does a great job in explaining them all.
BIOGRAPHY AND HISTORY
Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson Reading this excellent biography of Franklin, I realized that the best way to teach history may be through telling about the lives of interesting individuals. I’ve always found history a bit boring – but because I liked Franklin so much I wanted to know everything about the American declaration of independence.
A revolution of the mind by Jonathan Israel Before reading this book, I didn’t realize there was a radical and a ‘moderate’ enlightenment. Now I know – and I like the radical one better. Through this book I started to appreciate individuals such as Spinoza, d’Alembert and d’Holbach who kickstarted independent thinking and democracy in Europe.
ENVIRONMENT AND INNOVATION
Zero to One by Peter Thiel I read this book in a day, it is so well written and full of insight. (This may the only business book I have read in my life.) Thiel explains why entrepreneurs should strive for a monopoly, not competition. He has some great lessons on cleantech/energy innovation as well. Reading Thiel (who is born in Germany) is sometimes frustrating, but always exciting.
The Infinite Resource by Ramez Naam Simply the best book on the environment, resources and innovation. There’s nothing like this book – it both deeply acknowledges the ecological mess we’re in, and forcefully asserts our ability to innovate our way out of it. Naam is an exceptional summarizer of science and explainer of environmental history. Follow him on twitter @ramez – on many other subjects he’s the modern day equivalent of an enlightenment thinker.
Tomorrow’s table by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak A plant geneticist (Ronald) and organic farmer (Adamchak) explain the subtle science behind genetic engineering. This book is a great starting point for anyone who is interested in the facts and science behind genetic modification. And this book clearly shows why and how plant modification can significantly boost yields while lowering use of pesticides and fertilizer. Should be #1 on the reading list for everyone with an opinion on GMOs.
The Bet by Paul Sabin This book is a must-read for anyone in the environmental movement. It tells the story of the famous bet about the rise of resource prices between the ecologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon. It’s well written and nicely balanced between the Cornucopian worldview (who believe humans can solve all environmental problems) and the Malthusian worldview (who believe humans will self-destruct) so it can be read by free marketeers and environmentalists alike.
The Fastned Story This book came out in Dutch in december 2014 – I’m not sure if an English version will be available soon. It tells the story of one of the most ambitious Dutch startups, Fastned, through the eyes of it’s cofounder Bart Lubbers. Fastned is quickly building a network of fast charging stations for electric cars in The Netherlands, and this makes for an entertaining and energising read.
The Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser Cities are awesome. Ideas, innovations, wealth – everything is supercharged in a metropolitan environment. If you do not think cities are awesome, this book probably won’t convince you. If you do think cities are awesome, this book gives all sorts of cool reasons to justify your belief.
Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson Very well written, entertaining book about how new ideas come about. The key insight I got out of this book: as a good writer/thinker/engineer/creator you need two broad skills: wild creativity for new ideas, and tunnel vision to execute them.
Smarter than you think by Clive Thompson Subtle, balanced book about how internet is changing our lives for the better. The best thing here is that Thompson acknowledges the dark side of information distraction, but resists doomsday thinking. Thompson excels in reporting ‘from the ground’ – he just goes outside and starts talking to people.
Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham I discovered Paul Graham this year. He’s the boss of Y combinator, but he also finds the time to write beautiful essays about nerds, cities, startups and Silicon Valley. Paul Graham is an enigmatic personality and there’s nothing quite like his style. Highly recommended reading – if only to improve your essay writing capabilities (His blog on paulgraham.com/articles.html contains all his essays for free, by the way.)
AI AND TECHNOLOGY
How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil We can create an artificial mind in the near future – after reading this book, I know for sure. Ray Kurzweil explains better than anyone else how we are entering a new era of parallel computing, based on neural networks. And that’s actually easier to understand than you might think.
Smarter than Us by Stuart Armstrong Read this book if you want a short, concise, funny introduction to the future dangers of strong artificial intelligence. Strong AI – which has self learning capabilities – will happen, and we’re better of if we’re prepared for this event.
Our Final Invention by James Barrett Read this book if you want a long introduction to the danger of strong artificial intelligence. Barrett also interviews the key players in the AI scene. Even Elon Musk recommends this book.
What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelley This book is so rich with information, I’ll be rereading it in the years to come. Kelley shows how technology is a ‘force’ which cannot be stopped: most inventions happened simultaneously all over the world. There seems to be an innate pattern to human life which somehow has to emerge. This book made me think more about the future than almost any other book I ever read.