Gene Expression

One book to educate them all

OK, a question. Imagine that you are the only adult left in the world and everyone else is under the age of 6. Assume helper robots obviate the need to micromanage the lives of the children, toddlers and infants in your care. You can choose one book from each of the disciplines of humanity to educate these children. Ignoring your own field of specialization, which book would you choose for “science”? You have 30 seconds!

My answer: I initially considered The Principia by Isaac Newton, but upon 15 seconds of reflection concluded that that might be too high of a level and the tome might turn into a “sacred” text which blocks rather than spurs intellectual development. The greatest minds of England in Newton’s own age had great difficulty with his ideas. So, the second choice which I settled upon The Elements by Euclid because of its use of axiomatic methods in mathematics.


  1. #1 Corkscrew
    February 19, 2006

    Riley, Hobson and Bence. The biggest, most extensive textbook on the mathematical foundations of physics that I’m aware of. Once they’ve got that grounding in maths, they can probably figure out most of the rest for themselves given enough time.

    Disclaimer: I’m a maths student, with nothing but respect for a book that, despite being aimed at engineers, still manages to cover group theory and representation theory among others.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    February 19, 2006

    I think I’d go with another obvious one — Darwin’s Origin of Species. The key here is that he give so much DATA. He’s not just spouting a theory, he’s offering the facts to back them up, and shows a method doing science.

  3. #3 coturnix
    February 19, 2006

    6-year olds? They can barely read “Go, Dog, go!” If the book was to be used as a teacher’s manual by me (as opposed to reading material for the kids), I would get something as big and comprehensive as possible, like a huge encyclopedia or texbook, not a classic text.

  4. #4 coturnix
    February 19, 2006

    If they were 12-year olds, or I could wait for them to grow older before assigning the reading, I would also most definitely go with the Origin. The book is a step-by-step, word-by-word lure into the deep understanding of the scientific method, nature, ecology, behavior and evolution, not to mention that selection is applicable to much more than just organic world – from chemistry to society. And it is so much fun to read. I first read it when I was 13 and it was one of the first books I have read in English – a second language to me – right after the biography of Bruce Lee.

  5. #5 razib
    February 19, 2006

    courtnix, i should have constrained the sample space perhaps, but you are right…as for big textbooks or something, the problem is that i worry that it would become ‘sacred’ like some of aristotle’s works became. that is also the issue i have with ‘high level’ books that are collections of facts like the origin of species. i selected euclid because of its emphasis on a few spare assumptions and working out of inferences from propositions. if i had longer than 30 seconds, i probably could have done better…but wanted to know what ‘popped’ out of my head. corkscrew, again, my concern is that if you start too high people will view it as an inscrutable text of hidden Truths and starting getting hermeneutical!

  6. #6 razib
    February 19, 2006

    re: courtnix & origin, the analogy i might use is that in programming you (used to) start out with BASIC, as opposed to something more rich and “fun” like C or even Perl. science is more than deductive inference, but, to some extent i think empiricism comes more naturally that mathematic modeling or axiomatic proofs, so simply picked the lowest probability ‘innovation.’

  7. #7 Corkscrew
    February 19, 2006

    Yeah, I see what you mean. In some sense, it would be more useful to give them a book relating to a “work in progress” area of science, so they could see how real scientists do it. Problem is, by the time the scientific method as we understand it today was formalised, most of the new research was already out of the reach of the average person.

    What do you think of the idea of giving them a popular science book? One with limited coverage of the actual science, but with broad coverage of how the process of scientific discovery works, maybe.

    Can anyone think of a popular science book that’d fit that criterion? I’m currently reading Science Of Discworld, which is excellent at this sort of thing, but I’m probably biased by my love of Terry Pratchett.

  8. #8 Alan
    February 19, 2006

    I think Asimov’s “New Guide to Science” (currently out of print and out of date, unfortunately). It’s book akin to Bill Bryson’s “A short history of nearly everything” but much thicker, more technical, yet still as amusing and accessible.
    It tells the history of science, with anecdotes, many, many references and great flair. It really gets across the wit, energy and sheer luck involved in doing science, as well as the key ability to draw the correct conclusion (or any conclusion) from the “wrong” result.
    If there were to be a new issue I think it would be a killer text. It does, however, lack maths (apart from layman’s descriptions).
    Otherwise, perhaps what is required is a real “Young Ladies Illustrated Primer” (as in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”).

  9. #9 John Wilkins
    February 19, 2006

    I’d probably suggest Aristotle’s Historia Animalium (OK, it’s three “books” but it’s considered a single volume from the 13th century on).

    Why? Not because Aristotle is correct, or because he understands scientific method, but because if you have this out there, it practically forces people to engage with the real world, and eventually find out how limited he is, depsite his apparent uuniversality. Thus will science be reborn…

    Lest you think this is all imagination, that’s pretty much how it happened. Michael Scot translated the HA at Avicenna’s Toledo seminary (Islamic scholarship then being of a high calibre), and immediately people like Frederick II, Albert the Great, and so on started a tradition of natural history, which developed, once the Reformation unpleasantness was out of the way, into full blown biology.

    It’s readable, and interesting and you could summarise it for 6 year olds.

  10. #10 Socialist Swine
    February 20, 2006

    I would probably agree with Alan, Asimov’s book is quite good. Though, I might go on an entirely different track and instead of suggesting a book from within science, I’d suggest a book about the scientific method. Perhaps something by Karl Popper or Imre Lakatos.