If I were to list all the things I don’t know, we’d be here all day. I could write a book about this, but that little scamp Lawrence M. K. Krauss beat me to it with his The Known Unknowns: A Brief Account of What We Know and What We Don’t Know About the Cosmos.
This book is divided into five chapters, each tackling a towering topic: (1) Time, (2) Space, (3) Matter, (4) Life, and (5) Consciousness.
I was proud to discover that I already didn’t know pretty much all of Lawrence’s Known Unknowns. Of course, not knowing all this stuff (that is, knowing all the stuff I don’t know) didn’t come easy. I’ve had to read a lot of books to get where I am.
A few titles I would recommend if you should happen to be interested are as follows:
- The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli
- In Search of Time: The History, Physics, and Philosophy of Time by Dab Falk
- Reinventing Gravity: A Physicist Goes Beyond Einstein by John W. Moffat
- Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli
- Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos by Peter M. Hoffmann
- Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell by Dennis Bray
- Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith
As a somewhat tangentially related topic, I’m currently reading All the Knowledge in the World: The Extraordinary History of the Encyclopedia by Simon Garfield. In addition to telling us about many other offerings of an encyclopedic nature (“…from modest single-volumes to the 11,000-volume Chinese manuscript that was too big to print…”), Simon’s story largely focuses on the creation of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Of course, this makes me think of another book I really enjoyed: The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs. This tome documents the daunting task A. J. set for himself, which was reading all thirty-two volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
In turn, this reminded me of another of A.J.’s offerings: The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. As part of this, A.J. reads the Bible cover-to-cover, listing all of the rules and laws, then he attempts to obey theses edicts as literally as possible for one full year. As we read on the back cover, “His beard grows so unruly that he is regularly mistaken for a member of ZZ Top. He immerses himself in prayer, tends sheep in the Israeli desert, battles idolatry, and tells the absolute truth in all situations—much to his wife’s chagrin.” The back cover also notes, “The resulting spiritual journey is at once funny and profound, reverent and irreverent, personal and universal and will make you see history’s most influential book with new eyes.” I totally agree.
Last, but certainly not least, if you enjoy discovering the history of the Encyclopedia Britannica, then another “must read” is The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. This documents the creation of the OED, which can lay claim to being one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As the back cover tells us: “The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary—and literary history.” All I can say is that this was a real page-turner.
How about you? Do you have any “must read” titles you would care to add to this list?