Steven’s Picks for Non-fiction 2014

I present my favourite books that I have read from 2013-2014. They are not ranked by order of preference or date of completion.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Rating 10/10

Much is to be learned from Rilke. I am a Rilke fan, so there’s bias. But I highly recommend it. Rilke’s letters teaches life lessons like being yourself, to how to be an artist, to challenging the norm.

Letters To A Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson

Rating 9/10

Letters To A Young Scientist is an honest personal account of an entomologist’s journey through science. Wilson writes with a humble tone and gives great advice for aspiring scientists. My only problem with this book is his ‘chase your dreams’ and ‘be a daydreamer’ attitude, which is characteristic of most great scientists. Unfortunately, the landscape of modern education is eroding with the rise of standardized testing, intense competition, and career driven attitudes at a young age (which he did mention in his book). This is making the “Wilson experience” difficult to have (speaking from personal experience). 

How to Solve It by G.Polya

Rating 10/10

Anybody interested in teaching mathematics, or teaching in general should read this book! This classic teaches people that anyone can do mathematics and problem solve –– all you need is clear thinking, patience and the right type of guidance (nature and/or nuture).

A History of Chinese Mathematics by Jean-Claude Martzloff

Rating 10/10

For those interested in mathematics in other cultures, this book is a perfect window into Ancient Chinese Mathematics. Concise but very informative, this book will open new mathematical eyes for laymen and experts alike.

Janos Bolyai: Non-Euclidean Geometry and the Nature of Space by Jeremy J. Gray

Rating 10/10

This book goes into the historical details of how Janos Bolyai’s obsession with Euclid’s Fifth Postulate ushered a new age of geometry. As a bonus, the book also comes with Bolyai’s groundbreaking dissertation on the Fifth Postulate.

Theoretical Concepts in Physics by Malcolm Longair

Rating 10/10

This book teaches undergraduate level physics well not because it is used widely across academic institutions (believe me, books that claim to be the ultimate textbook are not), but because it delivers the physics through the experience of famous physicists. This book introduces the elegant theories and experiments of notable physicists from Galileo to Planck. This book derives what is ultimately correct from thought experiments by the great minds in physics. Read this book not only to learn about physics, but to learn how science really works.

The well-polished theories of today were the product of lifelong thinking, terrible mistakes, flawed models, and plain ignorance. What is most impressive is how physicists circumnavigate their problems and make monumental discoveries.

Classical Mechanics: A Modern Perspective by V. Barger and M. Olssen

Rating 9/10

You want to learn mechanics, but most other texts are either too simple or too abstract. This modern method of teaching mechanics using interesting objects is certainly the book for you. The math is understandable for advanced high school students up to 2nd year undergraduate physics students, and the analysis of boomerangs and tippe tops are complicated enough to stimulate curious minds. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough exposition to Hamiltonians and Poisson Brackets.

Classical Mechanics by Herbert Goldstein

Rating 10/10

If you are finished with Classical Mechanics: A Modern Perspective but you want to learn more about Hamiltonian mechanics, Poisson Brackets, calculus of variations, and a rigorous treatment of special relativity, then you ought to read this book. This classic is definitely a lasting book on the shelves.

Elementary Number Theory in Nine Chapters by James J. Tattersall

Rating: 10/10

This is an excellent (and readable) intro text to number theory with proofs of many important number-theoretic formulas and theorems. Aside from theory, there is also an emphasis on applications such as calendrics, representations, and cryptography. From front to back, there are many interesting historical notes that connect the subject to several cultures (including Chinese, Islam and Indian). I highly recommend this text to anyone who enjoys challenging and enlightening problems.

The Works of Archimedes

Rating 10/10

Forget Euclid’s largely unnecessary and long treatments on trifles; Archimedes is the greater teacher. This book is very readable to the modern mathematician (unlike Newton’s Principia) despite being over 2000 years old. The math is rigorous and by no means elementary, though its archaic qualities will make one gasp at how brilliant this man was.

Ancient Puzzles: Classic Brainteasers and Other Timeless Mathematical Games of the Last 10 Centuries by Dominic Olivastro

Rating 10/10

This book is great for three reasons:

1) You learn a lot about problem solving in discrete math

2) It’s a fun read because the problems are presented in recreational and novel ways

3) The book introduces tons of ancient and medieval math outside the Greco-Roman tradition (which is a breath of fresh air)

Darwin’s Notebook by Jonathan Clements

Rating 10/10

I’ve read Newton’s Notebook by Joel Levy, which was very good, but Newton’s personal life was limited to semi-legendary anecdotes. Darwin’s Notebook is a collage-like compilation of Darwin’s life, thoughts and discoveries. Here you will learn of Darwin’s struggles with school, his love for collecting and recording stuff, and his gradual distrust in the Bible (as a scripture and source of beliefs). Most importantly, the reader will learn to appreciate Darwin as a man who lived for great adventure, sticking to the facts, and finding truths.

Thermal Physics by Charles Kittel and Herbert Kroemer

Rating 9/10

This book is worth reading. The exposition to thermal physics differs from traditional textbooks because it derives the definitions from basic principles, most notable entropy. I took thermal physics in second year, and from personal experience I would warn that the book is quite challenging for somebody with limited knowledge about statistical mechanics. The problems were difficult, for many of them were derived from actual physical research (including the authors’); hence, requiring higher abstraction and deeper thinking. The good thing about this book is what you learn. You read this book because you learn a lot more than most textbooks on thermal physics. In addition, this book also serves as an excellent primer on modern topics such as solid-state physics, quantum mechanics, and exotic states of matter. 


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