The best books on grand, unifying ideas about how the world works

Luke Heaton Author Of A Brief History of Mathematical Thought
By Luke Heaton

Who am I?

I am a scientist and inventor, who has always been drawn to grand, overarching narratives, and unifying ideas. I have degrees in Mathematics and Architecture, a PhD in Biophysics, and spent 11 years studying fungal networks at the University of Oxford. I am currently working with the award-winning architect Ben Allen, to commercialize a patent for making POMB (poly-organic mycelium blend): a light-transmitting, thermally insulating, carbon-negative building material.

I wrote...

A Brief History of Mathematical Thought

By Luke Heaton,

Book cover of A Brief History of Mathematical Thought

What is my book about?

A Brief History of Mathematical Thought, by Luke Heaton, is concerned with the big transitions in mathematical thinking, and the connection between developments in mathematics and the broader reality of human experience, from pre-historic rituals to the age of computation. 

The great edifice of mathematical theorems has a crystalline perfection, and it can seem far removed from the messy and contingent realities of our daily lives. Nevertheless, mathematics is a product of human culture, which has co-evolved with our attempts to comprehend the world. Rather than picturing mathematics as the study of pre-existing ‘abstract’ objects, we can describe it as a poetry of patterns, in which our language brings about the truth that it proclaims: a world of inter-related symbols, that we can put to work.

The Books I Picked & Why

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The Book of Why

By Judea Pearl, Dana MacKenzie,

Book cover of The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect

Why this book?

When our descendants look back and ask, “Which scientist’s work changed the way we think, around the year 2000?”, I am prepared to bet that Judea Pearl will be top of the list. Before Pearl, statisticians refused to allow any model of the world into their analysis, thinking it wise to say “correlation does not imply causation,” while remaining scrupulously blind to the reasonableness of some models over others. But the fact that cockerels crow at dawn really is evidence that sunrise causes crowing, and does not constitute any kind of evidence that crowing causes sunrise.

By including such background knowledge in a systematic, graph based manner, Pearl has developed an operational definition of “causation”. This helps to clarify what big data can and cannot deliver, and provides a methodology for establishing the strength of causal connections where we cannot conduct blind trials (like with smoking, or exercise). A very readable, popular science guide to an epoch-defining set of insights.

The Righteous Mind

By Jonathan Haidt,

Book cover of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Why this book?

It is hard to look at human history without concluding that people will always angrily shout, “How dare they consider themselves the good guys!” Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes with admirable clarity about the empirical evidence for similarity and difference between the moral judgments of various groups, and if you are interested in understanding why certain comments or behaviors are so thoroughly enraging, I highly recommend this book. In particular, it does a great job of showing why it is a terrible idea to assume that something is only “truly immoral” if “actually does harm”: a philosophical stance that totally ignores the fact that human judgment is and always will be deeply symbolic. 

The Human Swarm

By Mark W. Moffett,

Book cover of The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall

Why this book?

Moffett is a leading specialist on social insects, and the core of his penetrating insight is that we ought to clearly distinguish between collective behavior and social behavior. Our ability to see that one stranger belongs to our society, while another stranger does not, is utterly crucial, and Moffett speaks with authority when he claims that humans are the only animals where different societies merge over time. In particular, he correctly notes that time and time again there has been a fusion between human societies under the heel of a conquering force. By carefully considering our bee-like nature, as well as our chimp-like nature, The Human Swarm reveals how mankind has created sprawling civilizations of unrivalled complexity and provides some valuable insights into what it will take to sustain them.

The Pyrocene

By Stephen J. Pyne,

Book cover of The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next

Why this book?

Surprisingly enough, our planet has been home to horse-shoe crabs for longer than it has had fire. After all, you cannot have fire without atmospheric oxygen (a product of photosynthesis), and until the evolution of land plants, there was no fuel for lightning sparks to ignite. As Stephen J. Pyne eloquently describes, humanity’s exceptional relationship to fire has literally shaped our world, from the development of small guts and big heads through cooking food, to climbing the food chain by cooking landscapes, to harnessing the world-changing fire-power of fossil fuels. This insightful overview of human history puts forward the compelling idea that human actions (including prehistoric actions) have moved our planet from an ice age to a fire age.

The Age of Wood

By Roland Ennos,

Book cover of The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization

Why this book?

It is easy to imagine that in the Stone Age, stone tools were the critical thing, that in the Bronze Age, bronze tools were the critical thing, and so on. The truth is that right up until very recent times, most of our technology was made from wood. Even before modern humans evolved, we were deeply shaped by the physical realities of wood, and the challenges and opportunities it provides. Large animals that live in trees need big brains and spatial awareness to avoid falling to their death, and the habitations of early humans were surely closely related to the nests made by non-human primates. Stone tools enabled improvements in wood handling and wood tools, bronze-enabled wooden wheels, and many of the long-term trends in human history make a lot more sense from a wood-centric perspective.

In short, this charming and unique history of humanity casts a familiar and often overlooked material in a deeply revealing new light.   

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