After a flurry of book reviews earlier this year, I have gone largely silent on this count. Not that I became suddenly too busy or stopped reading books. Rather, I decided to go ahead and clear out some backlog that I had in my personal reading list. Here are brief notes about each of them – I hope one or more of these catch your fancy.

None of these books are particularly ‘PrimeInvestor’ topic – relating to personal finance or FinTech. Nevertheless, I thought I’ll share my thoughts on these books – 4 of them – in a brief note. Some of these books are quite popular, and all of them are worth your time, if the topic interests you.

“A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson

Although this book was neither short (running to more than 500 dense pages) nor about history in the traditional sense of the word, it made for a fascinating read. It does cover ‘nearly everything’ though – starting from the big bang and finishing up a few years after the millennium. The book gives a history of science and scientific discoveries across the spectrum – from cosmology (where it starts) through palaeontology, geology, and the modern physical sciences. There is a lot of stuff about the lives and quirks of scientists which can be occasionally distracting from the flow of the science in the book, but nevertheless quite engaging.

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People who went to school in the 80s (like myself) or even the 90s, will likely find out that a lot of stuff they learnt in school are outmoded now thanks to newer discoveries. The book is a good refresher on science for everyone. Non-science folks, especially, will find this book a good, friendly guide to the realms that they are likely not familiar with.

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“From Socrates to Sartre” by T Z Levine

This book, written in mid-80s, presents a survey of western philosophy from a historical perspective. There are 6 main sections covering individual philosophers through the ages – Plato, Descartes, Hume, Hegel, Marx, and Sartre. Not to say that these are the only philosophers or schools of thought covered – there are quite detailed accounts of Aristotle (obviously), Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and more. The sections on Hegel and Marx are especially strong and relevant to this day. And, of course, existentialism, in a completely different sense, captures the personal ennui of modern existence. So, the book provides a macro perspective that can be helpful to make sense of our contemporary quotidian existence.

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The language is quite simple and the writing style fluid, which makes for fluent, if not easy, reading. You can expect to come out of the reading with a bird’s eye view of the western philosophical landscape, up until relatively recent times. Indian readers may be disappointed by the lack of any mention of oriental, leave alone Indian, philosophical thoughts and how they compare with the occident.

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“Godel, Escher, Bach – An Eternal Golden Braid” – Douglas Hofstadter

This is a book that I started reading in college, but never got around to finishing until recently. It’s a most remarkable book – even saying that it’s a work of staggering intelligence would be underselling it.

Bach was a genius composer from the 18th century. MC Escher was a graphic artist from early 20th century. Kurt Godel was a logician and mathematician from the same period as Escher. What the works and findings of these three have in common is the subject matter of this book. Using concepts such as recursion, strange loops, self-reference, and self-replication, the author spins a web of connections between the seemingly disparate fields of art, music, science, and mathematics. The chapter on Zen koans provides for a delightful excursion into the world of meanings and meaninglessness. The exposition of Godel’s famous incompleteness theorem is the most lucid and patiently developed among the handful of explanations I’ve read on the topic. The extrapolation of the concepts of recursion and replication into the world of cellular genetics is eye-opening.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid: Douglas R. Hofstadter:  9780140055795: Books

For those uninitiated into the music of Bach, this book will provide great motivation to get into it. And for those with a passing familiarity (like myself), it would likely take them into unexplored territories and provide great insights. For example, I discovered ‘Crab canon’ and this ingenious depiction and play of the piece on a mobius strip.

The later chapters on artificial intelligence provide a good grounding on the fundamental questions in the field, but can be underwhelming for those who have followed the developments in the area over the past four decades since this book was published (in the early 80s).

Overall, the book is not an easy read – although the author makes strenuous effort to keep it engaging with motivating dialogues that precede every chapter. The book runs into 750+ large format pages, and definitely not for casual reading. However, for those that commit and apply to get through it, there are rewards aplenty.

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“Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” – By Carlo Rovelli

After reading the Hofstadter’s tome, I definitely needed something smaller and this book let me go all the way to the other end of the spectrum in that aspect. ‘Seven brief lessons’ is almost a tenth of the size of GEB, coming in at 80 pages. But it makes for a thoughtful read nevertheless.

This book, published in 2015, brings readers up to speed (or up to 2015) on various advancements in physics. Covering topics like general relativity, quantum theory, quantum gravity, gravitational field, particle physics, and thermodynamics, it presents a bird’s eye view of what the current state of knowledge is in these disciplines. The language and style are masterful and easy to follow.

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Of course, short 10-15 page essays on these topics hardly do justice to these vast areas of study, and leaves the reader wanting to know more. And that might precisely be the aim of the book.

The last ‘lesson’ of the book is a wonderful and reflective – almost meditative – essay that provides perspective on how human beings are situated in the vast cosmos and what our eternal quest has been.

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I chose these four books not as a group, but individually for different reasons. One of these books was recommended to me by a friend while I was reading the others.

But, I could easily see the recurring themes in all these books. No theory – be it physical or philosophical – is final. No finding is absolute. No ‘truth’ is unchallengeable. It is both humbling and invigorating at the same time.

The pursuit of knowledge embodied in each of these books is remarkably similar and provide a rather encompassing insight about humanity’s earnest endeavors over time. But this pursuit may never end, and our body of knowledge is likely to be ever ‘incomplete’.

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