The best books to understand what big data is and how it impacts us

Roger Highfield Author Of The Dance of Life: Symmetry, Cells and How We Become Human
By Roger Highfield

Who am I?

I’m the Science Director of the Science Museum Group, based at the Science Museum in London, and visiting professor at the Dunn School, University of Oxford, and Department of Chemistry, University College London. Every time I write a book I swear that it will be my last and yet I'm now working on my ninth, after earlier forays into the physics of Christmas and the love life of Albert Einstein. Working with Peter Coveney of UCL, we're exploring ideas about computation and complexity we tackled in our two earlier books, along with the revolutionary implications of creating digital twins of people from the colossal amount of patient data now flowing from labs worldwide.

I wrote...

The Dance of Life: Symmetry, Cells and How We Become Human

By Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, Roger Highfield,

Book cover of The Dance of Life: Symmetry, Cells and How We Become Human

What is my book about?

The Dance of Life is the autobiography of a scientist – Magda Zernicka-Goetz – whose research on early human development was partly inspired by challenging events in her personal life. But our book is more than that, providing a biography of all human life, explaining the extraordinary events that turn all the information held in our DNA into flesh and blood, and showing how a newly fertilized egg becomes 40 trillion cells that ‘know’ how to make a human, from lips to heart to toes. In short, we describe how the body builds itself and the extraordinary implications of this new understanding.

The books I picked & why

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Dear Data

By Giorgia Lupi, Stefanie Posavec,

Book cover of Dear Data

Why this book?

Over a single year, Giorgia Lupi, an Italian living in New York, and Stefanie Posavec, an American in London, exchanged hand-drawn postcards to chart the granular details of their lives using clusters, plots, and graphs. We featured the outpourings of these talented “information designers” in a 2016 Science Museum exhibition on big data and these striking images, in turn, paved the way for their book, Dear Data, which provides a remarkable portrait of these artists. An intimate and human take on big data that invites us all to ponder how to represent our own lives.   


The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World

By James Shreeve,

Book cover of The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World

Why this book?

This might not look like a big data book but, for me, the race to read the human genome marks the birth of big data in biology, in the form of a tsunami of DNA sequencing data. I edited Craig Venter’s A Life Decoded, the first genetic autobiography, which explored the implications of becoming the first person to gaze upon all six billion ‘letters’ of their own genetic code. While working on Craig’s extraordinary story I came across The Genome War and thought James Shreeve did a brilliant job in describing the drama, rivalry, and personalities in the race to sequence the very first human genomes between government-backed scientists and Celera, Craig’s company.


Information is Beautiful

By David McCandless,

Book cover of Information is Beautiful

Why this book?

Big data can be beautiful and visualisations make for a wonderful coffee-table book. In Information is Beautiful, David McCandless turns dry-as-dust data into pop art to show the kind of world we live in, linking politics to life expectancy, women’s education to GDP growth, and more. Through colourful graphics, we get vivid and novel perspectives on current obsessions, from maps of cliches to the most fashionable colours. A testament to how the power of big data comes from being able to distill information to reveal hidden patterns and discern trends. 


Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

By Cathy O’Neil,

Book cover of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Why this book?

The more data the better? Not necessarily. Cathy O’Neil, an academic mathematician turned Wall Street quant turned data scientist, shows again and again how big data “threatens democracy." The ‘weapons of math destruction’ are models or algorithms that claim to quantify important human traits but can harm the poor, reinforce racism, and amplify inequality. Her glimpse of the dark side of big data shows how computers are only smart as the people who use them, the people who write their algorithms, the people who supply their data, and the people who curate all those data and algorithms. The old saw still holds true: garbage in, garbage out.


An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination

By Sheera Frenkel, Cecilia Kang,

Book cover of An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination

Why this book?

‘They trust me….dumb f*cks.’ This telling exchange from the Harvard days of Facebook co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg appears in An Ugly Truth, which shines a harsh light on the tech behemoth that, ultimately, is built on the data of billions of people. As Meta, Zuckerberg’s new business incarnation, wafts into the virtual worlds of the metaverse, the story of Facebook is far from over, which makes this engaging book a tad unsatisfying. Nonetheless, it is a vivid example of how with Big Data comes Big Responsibility.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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