The best books on making reality

Harry Collins Author Of Gravity's Kiss: The Detection of Gravitational Waves
By Harry Collins

Who am I?

The big question that was the basis of my career was ‘When someone says “hello” to you, how do you know you should say “hello” back?’ Ever since I heard that question as a young student, I have been trying to understand the answer. The question has taken me through philosophy, sociology, and the most exciting, detailed studies of scientific research. What more could one want in terms of an interesting life?  I hope that if you read Gravity’s Kiss, you’ll see that it is answering a philosophical question as well as a scientific question.

I wrote...

Gravity's Kiss: The Detection of Gravitational Waves

By Harry Collins,

Book cover of Gravity's Kiss: The Detection of Gravitational Waves

What is my book about?

This is a real-time account over the half-year it took to confirm the discovery of the first gravitational wave. It is the climax of my 45-year immersion in the field and follows my 3 previous books on the development of the field and its controversies. But I study the detailed workings of science as exemplars of the way we make our reality.

So, these studies of this remarkable process of discovery, with all its larger-than-life characters, heartbreaks, and events that are stranger than fiction, are set in the context of my Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice and The Golem: What You Should Know About Science, which cover a series of cases. My recommendations refer to this wider, more philosophical, perspective, from which it grew.

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The books I picked & why


By Jorge Luis Borges,

Book cover of Labyrinths

Why did I love this book?

This is fiction by the famous South American writer. It is a collection of short stories playing around with our notions of reality. It is good to read but also an introduction to the problem of what we think of as real.  In order to understand the problem and get somewhere with it, you have to detach the mind from everyday reality so as to make yourself puzzled about how that reality exists. Borges is an entertaining way of getting away from the everyday.

By Jorge Luis Borges,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Labyrinths as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The groundbreaking trans-genre work of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) has been insinuating itself into the structure, stance, and very breath of world literature for well over half a century. Multi-layered, self-referential, elusive, and allusive writing is now frequently labeled Borgesian. Umberto Eco's international bestseller, The Name of the Rose, is, on one level, an elaborate improvisation on Borges' fiction "The Library," which American readers first encountered in the original 1962 New Directions publication of Labyrinths.

This new edition of Labyrinths, the classic representative selection of Borges' writing edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby (in translations…

Book cover of Fact, Fiction, and Forecast

Why did I love this book?

The philosophical key to getting yourself estranged from the everyday is the famous ‘problem of induction’, which goes back to the philosopher David Hume, and asks why we expect things to carry on in the same way: might my garden be a fiery pit next time I open the front door? 

Nelson Goodman invented a new version of the problem – ‘the new riddle of induction’. This book might come across as a bit technical, but the general drift of the new riddle is that every bit of evidence and experience we have for the grass being green is also a bit of evidence and experience for it being ‘grue’ – roughly ‘green every time I’ve seen it but blue tomorrow;’ think about it!  You can extend this argument as much as you like, and Goodman takes us through the counterpart colour ‘bleen’. Goodman thinks our expectations of stability are based in our language and it is, indeed, hard to see why it should be that we live in a blue-green world rather than a grue-bleen world – after all, we live in a world in which our expectations are formed by words like ‘deciduous and mortal’ – those are my examples.

By Nelson Goodman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fact, Fiction, and Forecast as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Here, in a new edition, is Nelson Goodman's provocative philosophical classic-a book that, according to Science, "raised a storm of controversy" when it was first published in 1954, and one that remains on the front lines of philosophical debate.

How is it that we feel confident in generalizing from experience in some ways but not in others? How are generalizations that are warranted to be distinguished from those that are not? Goodman shows that these questions resist formal solution and his demonstration has been taken by nativists like Chomsky and Fodor as proof that neither scientific induction nor ordinary learning…

Book cover of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Why did I love this book?

Said to be the best-selling academic book of the Twentieth Century, this is a bit more technical in so far as it deals with the history of science. Kuhn introduced the idea that science isn’t just a collection of facts but undergoes periods of radical cultural change – the most well-known example is the switch from Newton’s to Einstein’s view of the physical world. Kuhn said these ‘paradigm shifts’ involve ‘incommensurability’ – you cannot experience both ways of seeing the world at once and they cannot be translated into one another. It is an enormously influential idea.

By Thomas S. Kuhn,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A good book may have the power to change the way we see the world, but a great book actually becomes part of our daily consciousness, pervading our thinking to the point that we take it for granted, and we forget how provocative and challenging its ideas once were-and still are. "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" is that kind of book. When it was first published in 1962, it was a landmark event in the history and philosophy of science. And fifty years later, it still has many lessons to teach. With "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", Kuhn challenged long-standing…

Book cover of Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

Why did I love this book?

Wittgenstein is the key philosopher of how what we do and what we think combine to give us a view of the world and a set of things we take for granted – our ‘form of life’.  It is almost impossibly hard to read his book, Philosophical Investigations and, in any case, philosophers disagree about what it means.  But Monk entertainingly and interestingly explains his ideas through his biography: he makes Wittgenstein’s later philosophy readily comprehensible. 

By Ray Monk,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ludwig Wittgenstein as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Great philosophical biographies can be counted on one hand. Monk's life of Wittgenstein is such a one." The Christian Science Monitor.

Alan Turing: The Enigma

By Andrew Hodges,

Book cover of Alan Turing: The Enigma

Why did I love this book?

Here his famous ‘Turing Test’ for intelligence is described. It was inspired by a parlour game in which men pretended to be women and vice versa; Hodges suggests this interest arose out of Turing’s homosexuality and that is how he came to invent the Turing Test. The deep point is that Turing is really looking at different cultures in imitation games and whether someone from one can pretend to be someone from another – see how it goes back to Kuhn? And see how Goodman, Kuhn, and Wittgenstein are really all about cultures – and so are the big problems of artificial intelligence.

By Andrew Hodges,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Alan Turing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER The official book behind the Academy Award-winning film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) saved the Allies from the Nazis, invented the computer and artificial intelligence, and anticipated gay liberation by decades--all before his suicide at age forty-one. This New York Times-bestselling biography of the founder of computer science, with a new preface by the author that addresses Turing's royal pardon in 2013, is the definitive account of an extraordinary mind and life. Capturing both the inner…

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