Adam Rutherford & Hannah Fry's Favourite Reads
We are delighted to have award-winning geneticist Dr Adam Rutherford and mathematics guru Dr Hannah Fry - the authors of Rutherford and Fry's Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything and hosts of the much-loved BBC4 popular science show - reveal their top five books of 2021 with our readers.
As people whose worlds are shaped by data, we feel it’s important to quantify our annual achievements. Therefore, we have calculated that in the last year, between us we have started a minimum of 62 books, finished some of them, and on average, written 1.3 (to the nearest decimal place). Science is all about consensus and argument, and while we agree on much (the nature of free will, and the structure of space-time), we also disagree on certain key points - the relative merits of large bushy beards in scientific research (AR very pro, HF neutral/negative). Nevertheless, using a highly impenetrable algorithm, we have worked out which of those books made us happiest. Here are our combined recommendations.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Adam: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – the most extraordinary novel I’ve read in years. It’s almost impossible to describe without spoiling the unfolding mystery of who the narrator Piranesi actually is (for that is not his real name), where he is (an infinite house of uncountable rooms, some filled with water, others with albatrosses, and many with statues of minotaur and the neatly curated bones of past residents), and what is really happening, in his world or ours. Haunting is a terribly clichéd way of describing books with such enigmatic threads and mesmeric writing, but by the gods, you will dream about Piranesi awake and asleep, and forever.
Hannah: I didn’t get it. Too many classical references for this mathmo.
Exponential by Azeem Azhar
Hannah: Exponential by Azeem Azhar. Eight of the ten richest companies in the world are tech based, and they are hoovering up your personal data – most of which you voluntarily give up – at a rate of about 2.4 megabytes per minute. The growth of these companies is essential to their survival, and economic and political dominance. Exponential is all about how technology is accelerating away from society, and about how the people who understand that are poised only to exploit it, for good and bad, while the rest of us risk being left behind.
Adam: I didn’t get it. I think I got left behind already.
Here are three though that we fully agree on.
The Social Instinct by Nichola Raihani
The Social Instinct, by one of our brilliant UCL colleagues Nichola Raihani, is a perfect meeting of two of our areas of expertise. The existence of social insects – where most individuals are little more than flying sperm – was a big problem for evolutionary theory, as indeed were the questions of why meerkats look after the younglings of other colonies, and how and why wrasse punish each other for hurting fish from other species. The whole concept of the gene-centric view of evolution was formulated in the mid 20th century, and helped explain how competition and cooperation have shaped the evolution of life on Earth. But these aren’t just esoteric scientific ideas. They are also fundamental to how human societies evolved in the past, and operate in our societies today.
Being You by Anil Seth
Self-obsessed as we are (by this, we mean humans as a species, not actually us specifically), we love books that interrogate who we are, and why we are the way we are. The study of human consciousness has preoccupied philosophers, artists and thinkers for thousands of years, without necessarily providing many clear answers. In recent years, scientists have been keen to get in on the act, especially in the era of neuroscience, but arguably also haven’t painted a much clearer picture than musicians and poets. However, Being You by cognitive neuroscientist Anil Seth is the brightest picture yet on the science of consciousness. Why do things feel the way they do? How do we filter out all the endless noise of existence to create a version of reality that makes sense? Anil Seth is the clearest thinker in this incredibly messy yet fundamentally important field.
The Importance of Being Interested by Robin Ince
And finally, consciousness and the nature of reality are also two of the myriad topics in The Importance of Being Interested: Adventures in Scientific Curiosity: Robin Ince, the hardest working man in science comedy™ is back with his latest joy: it’s passionate, funny and showcases his unslakable thirst for knowledge, from how chimps talk to the Apollo missions to the moon, to befriending hedgehogs called Nigel. Happy days.
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