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Feb 27, 2017 01:01PM ● By Michael Harris

I've always loved math and science. As a kid, I remember watching the TV series Watch Mr. Wizard, starring Don Herbert. Every week, he would do mesmerizing experiments that fascinated this would-be scientist. As a vision researcher, I am still inspired by what I saw on that show. So, it should come as no surprise that I cherish books about math and science. Here are some of the best I've read recently.


All life starts with the gene in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History. Understanding the scientific discoveries of an obscure 18th-century monk working with peas or the unraveling of the DNA double helix may be technically difficult, but Mukherjee unfurls the mysteries of life with such clarity that even a nonscientist will enjoy what has been called “the greatest detective story ever told.”


Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures is the true story of the black female mathematicians who helped America win the Space Race. These "human computers" were so gifted that they could calculate the trajectory of rockets with nothing more than "pencils, slide rules, and adding machines." They were so accurate that NASA depended on them even after the advent of computers. In fact, John Glenn would not blast off into orbit until this all-black computing group verified the computers’ calculations. Set against the background of the civil rights movement, Hidden Figures is a powerful story of unlikely heroes.


Two terrific books detail the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over the invention of the light bulb and the 19th century war to electrify America. Jill JonnesEmpires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World is a non-fiction version of the story, and Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night is a fictional version.


Both tell the basic story of the rivalry between these geniuses. Jonnes’ book is more accuracy, but I found Moore's account much more captivating.  Here we see the rivalry through the eyes of untried attorney Paul Cravath, hired by Westinghouse to sue Edison over the patent for the electric light bulb. A minor character in the real battle, Cravath comes to life in Moore's novel as both a hero and a victim. A great read for everyone who likes a good story well told.


Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics discusses another challenging subject with such skill that even laymen will understand and appreciate the science of physics. These short lessons start with Einstein’s theory of relativity and end with black holes. They were “written for those who know little or nothing about modern science” but want to get a quick overview of the modern physics revolution. And that’s exactly what they do. The book also shows us the extent of what is still unknown.


Which brings me to Chuck Klosterman’s But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Was The Past. The premise of this book is simple: “Most of what we believe is likely to be wrong.” In the 15th century, everyone thought the world was flat. We now know that’s wrong.  Klosterman cleverly questions our so-called modern beliefs in the same way we question those of our ancestors.


George Orwell once said: "Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it." Klosterman asks us not to take today’s scientific truths for granted. What we think is true could be proven entirely wrong by future generations. We must “think about the present as if it were the distant past.” Scientist or not, you will find this book fascinating and enlightening.