What is learning ? 7 Books every STEM major should read and Why it matters

The first semester of my graduate studies in biomedical sciences was a painful, difficult, and monotonous series of “core” coursework. However, I constantly would find myself bored and unmotivated to study the material for these classes despite the fact that they were topics that touched on the same subjects I would recreationally read about in books. During these many attempts to drudge through and study for the various biochemistry, cell biology, and biotechnology courses, my mind would frequently wander off to the same question again and again.

What is learning?

The conclusion I drew was that learning is best defined, and most productively implemented as the development and discovery of new theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Learning is not memorization, nor is it helpful for memorization to be the end goal.

For myself the development and construction of theoretical and conceptual frameworks with which to understand Science and Mathematics was NEVER obtained through taking courses taught by outdated, lazy, and unqualified professors who got their PhD’s long before the human genome project and have little to no experience in teaching

The reason why I view reading as so critical to the development of a strong framework is that books remove all of the excess “baggage” that one encounters as a student in any STEM course.
Understanding of central themes and patterns of a theoretical framework will never leave your mind; the pedantic underlying details will almost inevitably fade from your memory, therefore my advice for any would be professional scientist is to develop as many frameworks as possible. The following are my current book recommendations for doing so.

1. The Epigenetics Revolution + Junk DNA by Nessa Carey

Just for a reference of how powerful these books can be: I read the epigenetics revolution as a freshmen undergrad student. I would then be using these books again as a refresher for my developmental biology class as a junior, for my work in Cytogenetic testing (coupled with Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee). Then, again in grad school (almost half a decade since it was originally published) I would use it as a refresher for understanding Epigenetics and functional RNAs.

The content of Nessa Carey’s books has had a major impact on my life. I can’t really imagine my thought patterns and reasoning before I read her work. You will learn conceptually everything that a student learns in a higher level undergrad (and apparently even early level graduate) courses in genetics and biotechnology. I first learned about the difference between a description and an explanation thanks to her. The idea of correlation vs causation. How economics and our legal system effect the manner in which we do science. How British people spell “haemoglobin” and “foetus” and much more. All of this material hit me very hard as a freshmen student at the subpar university I was attending, and still to this day stays with me. These books are a must read for any student in the biological and/or biomedical sciences.

2. Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer has the special ability to write about complex things such as the immune system and parasites in such an easy to understand way. It makes you smarter without being overly technical. What separates his work from that of other great science writers is that he is a writer first and a science geek second. His books don’t just explain how a fetus uses its own endogenous retroviruses to shut down its mother’s immune system, or how malaria’s complex life cycle is laid out in the tropics. His writing style conveys an experience. When he wrote parasite rex, he captured what it was like to witness a young boy infected with sleeping sickness. Additionally, this book got me obsessively thinking about Parasitology as a goldmine of biodiversity and functional understanding. If discoveries made in prokaryotic pathogens can lead us to discovering gene editing technology like the CRISPR CAS system, imagine what we will discover in eukaryotic sexually reproducing pathogens. Parasite Rex opened up my mind to the incredibly complex bizarre and intense world of parasitology.

3. Scale by Geoffrey West

If there is one book on this list that you decide to read, please let it be Scale by Geoffrey West. I cannot imagine how my mind operated prior to reading this book. One of the most critical and important ideas for biomedical students: second only to evolution by natural selection is the idea of the complex adaptive system: what laws control it, regulates its growth, and lead to its collapse. If you have ever wondered what overarching patterns and abstract concepts there are to be learned in biology, you will understand it by reading this book. This book has not only made me understand science and mathematics better, but has given me one of the most powerful conceptual frameworks ever, the beauty of it is that it applies to more than just living systems. I cannot think about any system again without considering the concepts laid out in this book. Just to name a few things you will learn about: scaling, fractals and why they are prevalent in nature, how big data can be handled, how reasonable can we project our global population, and why companies die off.

4. Endless forms most beautiful by Sean B Carroll

It would seem that having the name Sean Carroll is a key component of becoming a successful scientist. Sean Carroll, the biologist not the physicist, lays out an incredible introduction to the science of Evolutionary Developmental Biology. Endless forms most beautiful was the book about things I wanted to learn about in Developmental Biology as opposed to what I actually learned about in that course. While I was aware of Hox genes from a brief discussion of my general biology courses I was not aware of the idea that certain genes can be utilized in the establishment of body planes and things sticking out of them… That was a completely mind changing concept for me, among other things I learned in this book. Sean Carroll does a great job connecting the boring and routine material of developmental biology to the central unifying theory of evolution.

5. Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Neil Shubin does to Anatomy what Sean B Carroll Does to Developmental Biology: Takes a long and boring subject rifled with a monotonous series of memorization and puts it into an incredible story of evolution. I wish I had read this book prior to taking any vertebrate evolution courses or Anatomy. He overlays biology well with geology and makes even the most avid bench nerds want to go out and start their own fossil expeditions.

6. Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark

One of the questions commonly posited in the Physics and Mathematics community is whether or not math is a description of reality or if math is reality. Prior to this book I had concluded on the former not the latter, usually citing the mathematically correct but physically incorrect epicycles and the probability wavefunction of quantum mechanics that magically collapses during an “observation”. However, after reading Max Tegmark’s book I have fully and completely changed my mind.
Mathematics is poorly conceptualized, even among my peers in the more ‘quantitative’ fields such engineering or chemistry. I myself didn’t really understand what math actually was prior to reading his work, foolishly viewing it as a tool and nothing more. This book is an absolute must for anyone who wants answers to the questions about reality as well as to establish a framework and understanding of mathematical structures, their properties, and the relationships they represent. If you can muscle past the ‘philosophical’ parts you will certainly gain a lot from it.

7. The Hidden Reality, Fabric of the Cosmos, and Our Elegant Universe by Brian Greene

I actually read these books prior to taking any physics classes at my university. The reason I am mentioning this is that through reading the works of Brian Greene I have developed an understanding of Newtonian mechanics, General Relativity, Special Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory. All explained through the use of analogies, thought experiments, and learning about real experiments. This was the book that introduced me to physics and mathematics, if you like having your definition of reality shattered you must read these books.

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