Tag Archives: philosophy

Walking and reading during a staycation

I am on vacation this week though, due to the restrictions on our movement imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, it will a be staycation in our house.  We usually go to the Lake District at this time of year to walk and read; so, I might make another virtual expedition [see: ‘Virtual ascent of Moel Famau’ on April 8th, 2020], perhaps to climb Stickle Pike and Great Stickle this time.  I was asked recently about books I would recommend prospective science and engineering students to read in preparation for to going to university.  It is not the first time that I have been asked the question.  This time I thought I should respond via this blog since the disruption brought about by the pandemic probably means that many prospective students will have more time and less preparation prior to starting their university course.  So, here are six books that are all available as ebooks, and might be of interest to anyone who is staying home to counter the spread of coronavirus and has time to fill:

[1] It is hard to find good novels either written by an engineer or about engineering [see ‘Engineering novelist‘ on August 5th, 2015]; however, Nevil Shute’s novel ‘Trustee from the toolroom‘ [Penguin Books, 1960] satisfies all of these criteria.

I have more than 40 years experience of engineering science so I am not the best person to ask about books that will appeal to young people just starting their journey in the field; however two books that have been popular recently are: [2] ‘Storm in a teacup: the physics of everyday life‘ by Helen Czerski [Penguin Books, 2016] and [3] ‘Think like an engineer‘ by Guru Madhavan [One World Publications, 2016]

Regular readers of this blog might have spotted some of my favourite science books in the lists of sources at the end of posts. Perhaps my top three at the moment are:

[4] Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe, Penguin Books Ltd, 2014. [see: ‘Converting wealth into knowledge and back to wealth‘ on January 6th, 2016; ‘Trees are made of air‘ on April 1st, 2015; ‘Is the Earth a closed system? Does it matter?‘ on December 10th, 2014 & ‘Tidal energy‘ on September 17th, 2014]

[5] Susan Greenfield, A Day in the Life of the Brain, London: Allen Lane, 2016 [see: ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016; ‘Gone walking‘ on April 19th, 2017 & ‘Walking through exams‘ on May 17th, 2017].

[6] Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Penguin, 2019 [see: ‘We inhabit time as fish inhabit water’ on July 24th, 2019 and ‘Only the name of the airport changes‘ on June 12th, 2019].

Of course, I should not omit the books that I ask students to read for my own first year module in thermodynamics:

Peter Atkins, A very short introduction to thermodynamics, Oxford: OUP, 2010.

Manuel Delanda ‘Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason‘, London: Continuum Int. Pub. Group, 2011 [see: ‘More violent storms‘ on March 1st, 2017; ‘Emergent properties‘ on September 16th, 2015 & ‘Emerging inequality‘ on March 5th, 2014].




Knowledge is power

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

“The list of things that I believe is, if not infinite, virtually endless. And I am finite.  Though I can readily imagine what I would have to do to obtain evidence that would support anyone of my beliefs, I cannot imagine being able to do this for all of my beliefs.  I believe too much, there is too much relevant evidence (much of it available only after extensive, specialized training); intellect is too small and life is too short.”

These words are a direct quote from the opening paragraph of an article by John Hardwig published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1985. He goes on to argue that we can have good reasons for believing something if we have good reasons for believing that others have good reasons to believe it.  So, it is reasonable for a layperson to believe something that an expert also believes and that it is even rational to refuse to think for ourselves in these circumstances.  Because life is too short and there are too many other things to think about.

This implies a high level of trust in the expert as well as a concept of knowledge that is known by the community.  Someone somewhere has the evidence to support the knowledge.  For instance, as a professor, I am trusted by my students to provide them with knowledge for which I have the supporting evidence or I believe someone else has the evidence.  This trust is reinforced to a very small extent by replicating the evidence in practical classes.

More than 30 years ago, John Hardwig concluded his article by worrying about the extent to which wisdom is based on trust and the threat to “individual autonomy and responsibility, equality and democracy” posed by our dependence on others for knowledge.  Today, the internet has given us access to, if not infinite, virtually endless information.  Unfortunately, much of the information available is inaccurate, incomplete and biased, sometimes due to self-interest.  Our problem is sifting the facts from the fabrications; and identifying who are experts and can be trusted as sources of knowledge.  This appears to be leading to a crisis of trust in both experts and what constitutes the body of knowledge known by the community, which is threatening our democracies and undermining equality.


Hardwig J, Epistemic dependence, J. Philosophy, 82(7):335-349, 1985.

Consensus is just a coffee break

milk in coffee‘Consensus is just a coffee break’ to quote Caputo. He argued that if consensus was the ultimate aim then eventually we would all stop talking. The goal of conversation would be silence and as he wrote that would be a strange outcome for a species defined by its ability to speak. It is differences that drive everything: innovation, progress and the processes of life.

In thermodynamics, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) observed that heat flows into the random motion of molecules and is never recovered, so that eventually a universe of uniform temperature will be created. When heat flows between matter at different temperatures we can extract work, for instance, using a heat engine. No work could be extracted from a universe of uniform temperature and so nothing would happen. Life would cease and there would be cosmic death [see my posts entitled ‘Will it all be over soon‘ on November 2nd, 2016 and ‘Cosmic Heat Death‘ on February 18th, 2015].

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the crew of the Heart of Gold contemplated whether relationships between people were susceptible to the same laws that governed the relationships between atoms and molecules. The answer would appear to be affirmative in terms of dissonance being necessary for action.

So, we should celebrate and respect the differences in our communities. They are essential for a functioning, vibrant and successful society – without them life would not just consist of silent conversations but would cease completely.


Caputo JD, Truth: Philosophy in Transit, London: Penguin 2013

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, London: Picador, 2002.