Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air
Climate change (or crisis if you will) has finally become a mainstream discussion topic. There’s no denying the fact that human activities led to the current situation, but what to do about it is not clear. In his book, David MacKay explores topics around energy production and consumption, and what would take to replace fossil fuel with various non-fossil fuel means of production. He’s explicit about not writing about climate change and how to tackle it; he wants to educate readers, and he does a fantastic job. All examples are scaled to one average person to make it easier to compare how much wind turbines you would need to run for a year to take one transatlantic flight (hint: a lot), or if solar power can replace fossil fuels to keep your home and water warm. After reading the book, you’ll have a more informed opinion and expanded vocabulary about energy management, both of which you’ll need for the uncomfortable climate conversations we’ll have in the following years. Note: the book is free if read online or downloaded as PDF.
John Carreyrou broke the story of Theranos in The Wall Street Journal several years ago, where he works as an investigative journalist. The book is a full timeline of the Silicon Valley’s startup darling that wanted to revolutionize blood testing—from its inception by the disturbing founder Elizabeth Holmes and the company’s spectacular rise to its even more spectacular fall after deception and malpractice started to surface. It’s one of those books that is hard to put down after you start reading it.
The size and weight of this 800-page hardcover tome is a good metaphor for two things: how hard it is to read and how much information you’ll get when you finally read it. Robert Sapolsky writes about how human biology at different scales works together over different periods (milliseconds to decades) to influence human behavior. The book consists of loosely connected chapters, and each forms a narrative through many, many scientific findings. Sometimes the book is hard to read because there isn’t a clear message or because the author jumps from topic to topic. However, if you manage to go through it, and I highly recommend it, you’ll leave with a much better understanding of how humans work.
The Manager’s Path
If you’ve ever thought about starting a career in people management in tech, Camille Fournier wrote a book that will give you descriptions of responsibilities and common pitfalls you’ll encounter at each level of the management role. It starts from pre-management stages of mentors and tech leads and goes all the way to executive roles like VP and CTO. The book is exceptionally well structured and easy to read.
The Order of Time
Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist whose work is mainly in the field of quantum gravity. The Order of Time is his popular science summary of everything we know about time from historical interpretations to today’s scientific discoveries. It’s a short book that will give you more questions than answers (in a good way) and twist your brain in exciting ways. Benedict Cumberbatch reads the audio version if you’re into that.
If you think of the airplane instead of the band when you hear U-2, and if just a mention of F-117 or SR-71 makes you smile, you’ll love this book. Ben Rich led the Skunk Works division of Lockheed that designed and built the aforementioned legendary airplanes. The book is a behind-the-scenes look at how a small operation, and its particular way of working, changed the balance of power during the Cold War.
Tara Westover grew up in a large survivalist family far from any urban environment. In her gripping memoir, she shares her journey from no school at all to teaching herself enough that she can enroll in and graduate from Cambridge and Harvard. But even more than following her academic path, this book is about how questioning and curiosity can lead to personal transformation. However, every significant change is a compromise—new relationships are created and old ones are tested.
Can’t Hurt Me
The first time I heard about David Goggins was in a book Living with a SEAL (from my 2016 list). There, David helps the author Jesse Itzler get in shape and push through self-imposed limits and discomfort. In Can’t Hurt Me, David tells his own life story, from the rough and painful childhood to successes and failures in his military career and athletic accomplishments. Highly recommended if you want to be inspired and motivated by how an ordinary person can achieve extraordinary things through sheer determination.
Stories of your life and others
A diverse collection of short sci-fi stories by Ted Chiang. Each story explores one more profound question about humans or the world we live in. For example, how would individuals react if we could increase our intelligence to superhuman levels, how would the world look like if angels were real but not kind, or how would we communicate with an alien species that has an entirely different concept of language and communication. The latter was a starting point for the Oscar-nominated science-fiction film “Arrival.”
Why We Sleep
Sleep was a mystery for a long time. What is so important about it that it occupies one-third of our life? Well, it turns out that sleep is so essential to our physical and mental health, and our day-to-day performance, that we would die in a matter of months without it. Matthew Walker is a professor of neuroscience and psychology, and he synthesized decades of sleep research to answer questions about phases and types of sleep, how sleep affects recovery and learning, how lack of it jeopardizes our health in genuinely horrific ways, and how our daily life (like consuming alcohol and coffee) influences our sleeping patterns. If you have to choose to read only one book from this list, read this one as it has the potential to have the most significant impact on your life.
UPDATE on 2020-01-07: After I published this post, a critique of the book was brought to my attention. The article exposes some ways in which the author either omitted or changed some facts to fit his narrative. It doesn’t invalidate everything in the book, but it casts doubt on its conclusions.
UPDATE on 2020-01-28: I found what seems like the response from the author. In terms of evidence, it’s a weaker reply then the original critique, but still worth reading as it clarifies some points of confusion from the book.
You can find lists of recommended books from all years on my reading and books page.