Analog Angle Blog

My summer (re)reading list

It's customary among editors and writers (who are often so self-centric) to talk about their summer reading lists, so I figured I should do the same. (Note to those of you in the Southern Hemisphere: we are sensitive to your complementary seasonal situation, so either consider this as your winter reading list, or just put it aside for a few months.)

My preferred non-professional reading includes a variety of topics and genres, but most of it focuses on the history of science and engineering. I especially like to read about “projects” rather than conventional, “linear” histories.

But unlike many people, I also enjoy re-reading these books, and the ones that I enjoy the second and even third time around are ones that give me the most satisfaction.

Here, in no special order, are a dozen books that I have read, re-read, and re-re-read, and from which I still get a lot of insight and enjoyment. Some are newer, some are older, but I am sure you can get any one of them via an online search, even if it is “out of print” (which is already becoming a quaint, archaic phrase):

•Roving Mars: spirit, opportunity, and the exploration of the red planet , by Steven W. Squyres, the principal investigator on the Mars missions that landed the rovers Spirit and Opportunity in 2004; great insight into the technical challenges and constraints, and how they were overcome.

•Voyager: seeking newer worlds in the third great age of discovery , by Stephen J. Pyne, a lengthy but fascinating look at the 30+ year dual missions (launched in 1977, and recently  officially concluded) to the edge of our solar system, and beyond.

•From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, by Sean Carroll, a Caltech theoretical physicist looks at the meaning of time, entropy, and much more. Doesn't talk or dumb down. Really made me stop and think.

Einstein's Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics , by John Stachel, has English translations of the actual papers that radically changed physics, but also a lengthy introduction and explanation of each one which adds both technical and historical perspective.

Apollo: The Race to the Moon, by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox, is the best book about the Apollo program I have read; it combines big–picture perspective with details, and insights into the people, technology, and challenges.

Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight, by David A. Mindell, focuses on the computers and programming of the various Apollo computers; after you read this, you will never complain about insufficient memory, CPU speed, or tools.

Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance, by Donald Mackenzie, a  well-written book which combines history, technology, personalities, and political context of the development of guidance,  from earliest gyro systems to advanced missile units. Every other book I have read on guidance systems cites this one as a key reference.

Skunk Works: A Personal Recollection of My Years at Lockheed , by Ben R. Rich explains how clandestine super-aircraft (U-2, SR-71, as examples) were conceived and developed, and gave rise to a whole new way of developing major projects on the “sly.”

Tube: A History of Television by David E. Fisher and Marshall Jon Fisher is a clear, readable history of this invention which changed our world in so many ways, the people who made it happen, the internal corporate and technical battles, and the challenges that had to be overcome in both prototype and mass production.

•Makers of the Microchip: A Documentary History of Fairchild Semiconductor , by Christophe Lecuyer and David C Brook; this book was a real treat and window into one of the companies and its brilliant, hard-working people that made semiconductors real and manufacturable in volume. Also has images (facsimiles) of meeting notes, and typed memos—some are quite riveting and prescient.

•The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage, by Clifford Stoll, is a first-person account of the lengthy, frustrating hunt for a computer hacker who broke into a computer at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL).

The universe in a mirror: the saga of the Hubble Telescope and the visionaries who built it , by Robert Zimmerman, tells of the fifty-year struggle to build the first space telescope; how many of the telescope's advocates sacrificed careers and family to get it launched, and how hopes and reputations were shattered when its mirror was found to be flawed.

That's it. . . and please, I welcome your own “favorites” in the Comments section.  ◊

Marshall Jon Fisher (Author)

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