The best books on the biggest questions

Steven E. Landsburg Author Of Can You Outsmart an Economist?
By Steven E. Landsburg

Who am I?

As far back as I can remember, I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about things like why there is something instead of nothing, why we can remember the past but not the future, and how consciousness arises. Although I’m a professor of economics, I take such things seriously enough to have published some papers in philosophy journals, and even a whole book about philosophy called The Big Questions. These are some of the books that sharpened my thinking, inspired me to think more deeply, and convinced me that good writing can render deep ideas both accessible and fun.

I wrote...

Can You Outsmart an Economist?

By Steven E. Landsburg,

Book cover of Can You Outsmart an Economist?

What is my book about?

Can you outsmart an economist? Steven Landsburg, an acclaimed author and professor of economics, dares you to try. In this whip-smart, entertaining, and entirely unconventional economics primer, he brings together over one hundred puzzles and brain teasers that illustrate the subject’s key concepts and pitfalls. From warm-up exercises to get your brain working, to logic and probability problems, to puzzles covering more complex topics like inferences, strategy, and irrationality, Can You Outsmart an Economist? will show you how to do just that by expanding the way you think about decision-making and problem-solving. Let the games begin!

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of What Is the Name of This Book?: The Riddle of Dracula and Other Logical Puzzles

Why did I love this book?

This book is out to trick you. It presents itself as a compendium of charming puzzles and brain teasers that will make you scratch your head until you suddenly yell “Aha!”. But far greater trickery lies ahead, because these riddles are devilishly constructed to lead you --- with no additional effort --- to the most profound discovery in the history of mathematical logic. That discovery is Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which says that mathematics (and indeed even just arithmetic) defies logical description and therefore transcends mere logic. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your logical reasoning.

You could understand Godel’s Theorem by reading Godel, but that’s hard. Reading Smullyan is easy. It’s better than easy; it feels like playing a wonderful game against a bright and very funny opponent.

As a side note, this was the book that inspired me, decades after I’d read it, to imagine that I could teach economics through a series of brain teasers in my own book, Can You Outsmart an Economist? Smullyan died just as that book came out. I wish I could have sent him a copy.

By Raymond M. Smullyan,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked What Is the Name of This Book? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The most original, most profound, and most humorous collection of recreational logic and math problems ever written." — Martin Gardner, Scientific American
"The value of the book lies in the wealth of ingenious puzzles. They afford amusement, vigorous exercise, and instruction." — Willard Van Orman Quine, The New York Times Book Review
If you're intrigued by puzzles and paradoxes, these 200 mind-bending logic puzzles, riddles, and diversions will thrill you with challenges to your powers of reason and common sense. Raymond M. Smullyan — a celebrated mathematician, logician, magician, and author — presents a logical labyrinth of more than 200…

Book cover of Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value

Why did I love this book?

Would you guess that the average daily temperature in San Francisco is above or below 558 degrees Fahrenheit?

I'm going to assume you guessed "below", because that's the right answer and absolutely everybody gets it right.

Now---what would you guess is the actual average daily temperature in San Francisco? If you are like just about everybody, your guess right now is quite a bit higher than the guess you’d have made a minute ago, before you saw my first (entirely ludicrous) question. This well-documented effect persists even when subjects are told about it and warned not to fall prey to it.

Perhaps I’m overestimating, but I believe this book contains about 14 billion equally fascinating and weird facts about how human minds process information. But although these facts are quirky, they are not quirks --- they are central to the working of the human mind, not just little mistakes we make around the edges.

Poundstone is a great storyteller and he regales us with one extraordinary experimental result after, but he doesn't stop there. Instead he invites us to ponder the implications for how we live our lives and how we understand the world. The tone is light-hearted; the subject is essential.

By William Poundstone,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Prada stores carry a few obscenely expensive items in order to boost sales for everything else (which look like bargains in comparison). People used to download music for free, then Steve Jobs convinced them to pay. How? By charging 99 cents. That price has a hypnotic effect: the profit margin of the 99 Cents Only store is twice that of Wal-Mart. Why do text messages cost money, while e-mails are free? Why do jars of peanut butter keep getting smaller in order to keep the price the "same"? The answer is simple: prices are a collective hallucination.

In Priceless, the…

A History of Pi

By Petr Beckmann,

Book cover of A History of Pi

Why did I love this book?

The number Pi, of course, has no history; like any other number, it is what it is and exists outside of time and space. But the human understanding of Pi has a rich history indeed, beginning with the discovery that the circumference of a circle is more than three times, but less than four times, its radius. The centuries brought better estimates, better ways of discovering new estimates, the discovery that Pi is irrational, the recognition that it has a habit of popping up in areas of mathematics that appear to have nothing to do with circles, and a slew of curious and beautiful formulas like this one.

Of course, a lot of other things were happening during those centuries, not all of them mathematical. Beckmann has not failed to notice this. His fascination with pretty much everything comes alive as he uses the history of Pi as a sort of jumping-off point from which to digress into four millennia of world events, all narrated from a unique personal perspective that I found thoroughly endearing. One minute you’re reading about how Wallis discovered that beautiful formula I mentioned, the next you’re reading about Wallis’s role in the English Civil War, then you’re on to some side comments comparing the English, French and Russian revolutions, a few words about Charles II (who “loved women more than he loved power”) and full circle back to Pi again.

It’s like that all the way through.

By Petr Beckmann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A History of Pi as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The history of pi, says the author, though a small part of the history of mathematics, is nevertheless a mirror of the history of man. Petr Beckmann holds up this mirror, giving the background of the times when pi made progress -- and also when it did not, because science was being stifled by militarism or religious fanaticism.

Time and Chance

By David Z. Albert,

Book cover of Time and Chance

Why did I love this book?

I vividly remember reading this book some years ago. You probably don’t remember it at all, even if you’re going to take my advice and read it tomorrow. That’s pretty odd when you think about. Why should we remember the past but not the future?

It does no good to echo platitudes like “the future hasn’t happened yet”. You could as well say “the past is already over”, which is equally true and equally irrelevant. The laws of physics tie the past to the present and the future to the present in exactly the same way. Any process that can run one direction in time can run in the other. So if the past can leave imprints on our memory, why can’t the future?

David Albert wants to make you appreciate the question, and then he wants to tell you the answer. Albert is that rarest of birds: A philosopher of science who both fully understands the science and has figured out how to explain it in a way that is clear, engaging, and not at all watered down.

Along the way to his big reveal, Albert illuminates a lot of modern physics. His unique philosopher’s perspective means that even professional scientists will learn something new. His unique prose style means that even those with no scientific background can grasp what he’s saying. No matter where you’re starting from, you’ll understand the universe better after you read this book.

By David Z. Albert,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Time and Chance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is an attempt to get to the bottom of an acute and perennial tension between our best scientific pictures of the fundamental physical structure of the world and our everyday empirical experience of it. The trouble is about the direction of time. The situation (very briefly) is that it is a consequence of almost every one of those fundamental scientific pictures--and that it is at the same time radically at odds with our common sense--that whatever can happen can just as naturally happen backwards.

Albert provides an unprecedentedly clear, lively, and systematic new account--in the context of a…

Consciousness Explained

By Daniel C. Dennett,

Book cover of Consciousness Explained

Why did I love this book?

Daniel Dennett is another of the handful of philosophers who combine a deep understanding of science with a prose style that draws you in and does’t let you go. His topic here is consciousness --- what it is, how it works, and how it’s possible. Dennett flits from psychology to neurology to computer science to philosophy, with punch lines coming every few pages. If you read the pages in random order, you’ll keep learning new facts you can't wait to tell your friends about. But that’s the wrong way to read this book, because Dennett is slowly building to a grand and coherent explanation of what consciousness is and how it’s possible. That destination alone makes the book a must-read; the fact that the journey is so enjoyable is icing on the cake.

By Daniel C. Dennett,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In Consciousness Explained, Daniel C. Dennett reveals the secrets of one of the last remaining mysteries of the universe: the human brain.

Daniel C. Dennett's now-classic book blends philosophy, psychology and neuroscience - with the aid of numerous examples and thought-experiments - to explore how consciousness has evolved, and how a modern understanding of the human mind is radically different from conventional explanations of consciousness.

What people think of as the stream of consciousness is not a single, unified sequence, the author argues, but 'multiple drafts' of reality composed by a computer-like 'virtual machine'.

Dennett explains how science has exploded…

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