Monday, February 21, 2005

Five books that changed my life - and more

(Hubris – even computer literate people, or at least this one, do dumb things – like composing a lengthy blog, this one, directly on the internet. It took about 45 min – after we had cleaned up from a great lasagna dinner – and when I went to post it, I received an HTML error. Salvage efforts failed and I must begin again.)

The discussion topic, before dinner, was life-changing books. This is a great way to begin a discussion with a professor. Ask him (or her) for the names of five – or more – books that have most influenced him personally, and why. Here are my top five.

Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial. This is a book about the epistemology of design and engineering or, more prosaically, it is about how engineers and designers think, even when the thinking is subconscious. Simon was one of my gurus before I read the book and even more so afterwards. One of Simon’s great skills is the ability to communicate complex ideas clearly and accessibly.

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn was a historian of science who wrote from the perspective of phenomenology. Because of this work, the term paradigm became a concept of common usage in the social sciences. Because most social scientists who used the term failed to get the point of Kuhn’s book, he died a disillusioned and bitter man…. Sad. Along with Robert Holt, I wrote one of the first articles that viewed a social science (Political Science – Comparative Politics) from the frame of Kuhn’s work. Most readers didn’t get the point of our article either, but I am neither bitter, nor disillusioned.

John Kemeny, A Philosopher Looks at Science. This book may be the clearest exposition of logical empiricist epistemology ever written. I always insisted that my doctoral students read it, even when it went out of print. Kemeny was Albert Einstein’s research assistant as a young man. Later he invented the first time-sharing computer and the BASIC computer language. He was President of Dartmouth College when it first admitted women.

Jay W. Forrester, Urban Dynamics. I have read virtually all of Forrester’s writings; like Kemeny and Simon he was a personal mentor and the one with whom I have worked most closely. Forrester invented the magnetic core memory that made modern computing possible and then developed a methodology and body of theory for representing and analyzing complex nonlinear differential equation models of social, economic and business systems. To learn more AU students can take my SIS course, Systems Modeling for Management, Development and the Environment.

Carl Lewellen and E. Adamson Hoebel, The Cheyenne Way, All of the above books are from mathematics and engineering. The Cheyenne Way is a classic ethnographic study by two of the giants in the field. One of them. Hoebel, was my teacher at the University of Minnesota. Along with economics, Anthropology was my dual minor as a doctoral student. It influenced my scholarly work less that the works cited above, but Hoebel’s work, along with other classics provided valuable field research and survival skills that were invaluable as I moved from one discipline to another in a somewhat unconventional academic career.


W. Ross Ashby, Introduction to Cybernetics

Donella Meadows and Jennifer Robinson, The Electronic Oracle: Computer Models and Social Decisions.

Mihalo D. Mesarovic, et. al., Theory of Hierarchical Multilevel Systems

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Herbert A. Simon, Administrative Behavior.

Looking over the list, here is what strikes me. Of the authors listed, I know (or knew) seven personally and worked with four - Meadows, Mesarovic, Hoebel and Forrester, closely. Forrester was the most influential, though Simon’s name appears twice (for different reasons). Virtually all of the works fall at the intersection of mathematics, the social sciences and philosophy (especially philosophy of science and epistemology), though my recent work has not emphasized these fields. I need to think about all of this.


Blogger PTJ said...

I'll post a book list of my own later this week, I hope. It's a great idea for academic bloggers.

Re: deletion and html errors -- this is one of the reasons that I prefer to use a client program to compose entries. My favorite is Ecto, which used to be Mac-only but now exists in a WinDoze (sorry, couldn't resist :-) version for an affordable shareware price. I can't recommend it highly enough.

4:35 AM  

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