July 06, 2012 | By David Christian
David Christian: Recommended Reading
Here’s a list of books recommended by David Christian. David is a member of the Australian Academy of the Humanities who originated the "Big History" online course, which surveys the past on the largest possible scales. David and Bill have been working together to make the course available to high school students and teachers.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, Viking, 2011. A famous Harvard psychologist and linguist does something historians should have done years ago: look for serious data about changing levels of violence in human societies. And his findings are stunning and in many ways unexpected. He finds that in the last two centuries, almost all forms of violence have declined drastically. Murder rates have plummeted in most parts of the world, domestic violence has declined sharply, but even the number of military casualties has declined, partly because the huge casualties of modern warfare were dwarfed by the even larger increases in total population. This is a very optimistic book about the gains of modernity.
Anders Aslund, How Capitalism was Built, Cambridge University Press, 2007: Anders Aslund, Russia's Capitalis Revolution: Why Market Reform Succeeded and Democracy Failed, Peterson Institute, DC, 2007; Anders Aslund, How Ukrine became a Market Economy and Democracy, Peterson Institute, DC, 2009. A fascinating, if somewhat partisan, trilogy of books on the transition from a command economy to a market economy in easter Europe after the fall of communism. Aslund's basic conclusion is that the transition to market economies has been pretty successful in 18 out of 21 post-Communist countries; in all these countries more than 50% of GDP now comes from the private sector, and, surprisingly, growth rates in the last decade have been highest in the former Soviet countries. (The three still in an economic time warp are Belarus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekisan.) But democratisation has been far less successful. It has largely succeeded in Eastern Europe and the Baltic republics, but most of the countries that belonged to the Soviet Union still have relatively to strongly authoritarian political systems, in which parliaments exist, but have little impact on government. Corruption levels and lack of respect for the rule of law remain high in most of the former Soviet countries. He also argues strongly that 'shock therapy' and rapid reform were essential because slower reforms merely allowed former elites to regain power over significant parts of the economy and skim off huge 'rents'.
Brian Cox, Jeff Forshaw, The Quantum Universe (And Why Anything that can Happen, Does), 2012; and Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, Why does E = mc2: (And why should we care?), 2009. I loved both these books, but I must confess, as a non-scientist, that I didn't understand the argument in full. Great to give you a sense of the thinking of modern physicists, but occasionally, despite the very clear explanations of the authors, I had to let the argument flow over me and enjoy it rather than understand it! Still worth it. Each time I have a go at quantum physics or relativity I'm convinced I've understood them a bit better, but please don't make me sit an exam on them!
Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon: And Other Trues Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, Little, Brown and Co., 2010. A wonderful and entertaining book on the periodic table of elements. It's not just on the periodic table, that wonderful document that helps us see the similarities and difference between different 'species' of elements. It's also on the discoverers of the elements (some wonderful tales here) and on the elements themselves. Elements that were used as poisons, from cadmium to mercury to thallium, the most deadly of all. Or silver, a wonderful disinfectant, which the astronomer Tychoe Brahe used to have a special nose made when his own was cut off in a duel. The title comes from a spoon made from Gallium, which has such a low melting point that the spoon will disappear as you start stirring your tea.
Jan Zalasiewicz, The Earth after Us: What Legacy will Humans Leave in the Rocks?, OUP, 2008 asks what traces we will leave behind us in 100 million times. As one of the pioneers of the idea that we now live in a new era, the Anthropocene, in which humans have become the most powerful force for change in the biosphere, he believes that we will indeed leave traces behind. But they won't be easy to decipher for alien palaeontologists in the distant future. One of the strangest might be the absence of a layer of limestone as our oceans get too acidic to allow its deposition.