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Want to Get Smarter? Read Something on This List

Dominic Cummings’s Odyssean reading list might make you smarter.

Source: Pexels

There’s a lot of hope today that playing mindless brain training games will make you smarter. But instead of trying a quick fix, why not read something that will really work out your brain? It may not be easy, but perhaps you’ll actually learn something by wrestling with difficult material.

Dominic Cummings, at the time special adviser on policy to the education secretary of Britain Michael Gove, argued in Some Thoughts On Education and Political Priorities thatwe need an ‘Odyssean’ education so that a substantial fraction of teenagers, students and adults might understand something of our biggest intellectual and practical problems, and be trained to take effective action.”

What does an “Odyssean” education mean? Cummings draws primarily from two influential thinkers: Nobel prize-winning physicist Murray Gell Mann and the famous biologist E.O. Wilson, one of the founders of modern evolutionary biology.

Murray Gell Mann aruged there is a scientific and political need for “an ‘Odyssean’ philosophy that can synthesize a) math and the natural sciences, b) the social sciences, and c) the humanities and arts, into necessarily crude, trans-disciplinary, integrative thinking about complex systems.”

E. O. Wilson argued, in his book Consilience, for the need to integrate knowledge across subjects. Wilson says, “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

Cummings wrote: “An Odyssean curriculum would give students and politicians some mathematical foundations and a map to navigate such subjects without requiring a deep specialist understanding of each element.”

In an appendix, he gives a number of recommendations for what he thinks such a curriculum might entail. I have included only the books and papers he recommends and removed some of his comments, although those are worth reading in entirety. In the full document he also gives recommendations for content areas to master. Keep in mind this is his list, which is a reflection of his mind and interests.

Click on the links for the full references. Read his entire paper here. If you think something should be added to this list, please leave your recommendation in the comments so we can all benefit.


The Method of Coordinates, Gelfand, Glagoleva, Kirillov.

Functions and Graphs, Gelfand and Glagoleva.

Lines and Curves, Vassiliev and Gutenmacher.

Mathematics for the Nonmathematician, Morris Kline.

Mathematics and the Physical World, Morris Kline.

Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos.

Reckoning With Risk, Gigerenzer.

Mathematics: A short introduction, Gowers.

The Story of Mathematics, Marcus du Sautoy.

Symmetry, Marcus du Sautoy.

Number, Dantzig.

The Joy of X, Strogatz.

Scott Page’s Model Thinking on Coursera.

How to Solve It, Polya.

Solving Mathematical Problems, Terence Tao.

Causality, Judea Pearl.

What is mathematics?, Courant.

Gödel’s Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to its Use and Abuse, Franzen.

Mathematics: Its content, methods and meaning, Kolmogorov et al.

Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times, Morris Kline.

Calculus, Spivak.

Hardy’s A mathematician’s apology.

Mathematical Education, Bill Thurston.

Tim Gowers’ blog.

Terence Tao’s blog. Tao on sets and logic.

Computer Science

Artificial Intelligence, Russell & Norvig.

Sebastian Thrun (Udacity) and Andrew Ng (Coursera) on machine intelligence.

Scott Aaronson course.

Wired for War, Peter Singer

Gleick on a history of information theory and computation.

Dyson on the story of Turing, von Neumann and the computer.

Introduction to the Theory of Computation, Sipser.


Six Easy Pieces, Feynman.

Tips on Physics: a problem-solving supplement, Feynman.

Here is a wonderful interview with Feynman.

Physics for Future Presidents, Richard Muller.

Theoretical Minimum, Leonard Susskind.

Fab: From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, Gershenfeld.

The Great Equations, Crease.

A Cavendish Quantum Mechanics Primer, Mark Warner.

The Second Creation, Crease & Mann.

The Infinity Puzzle, Frank Close.

A great biography of Einstein by Isaacson.

A great biography of Dirac,The Strangest Man, Farmelo.

The Dance of the Photons, Zeilinger.

The Limits of Quantum Computers, Scott Aaronson.

Quantum Computing Since Democritus, Scott Aaronson.

Michael Nielsen: Why the world needs quantum mechanics, Quantum Computing for Everyone, and Quantum Computing for the Determined.

Woit’s blog.

Dorigo’s blog.

Genetics, The Brain, Mind, And Artificial Intelligence

Natural selection 150 years on, Pagel.

Pinker’s The Blank Slate.

Plomin’s Behavioral Genetics.

What is Thought?, Baum.

Consciousness, Koch.

Thinking, fast and slow, Kahneman.

Expert Political Judgment, Tetlock.

Sources of Power, Klein.

Drexler describes how he educates himself.

Hamming on how to do research.

Carlson’s Biology is Technology.

The Language of Life by Francis Collins.


A Farewell To Alms, Gregory Clark.

Beinhocker’s Complexity Economics.

Mandelbrot’s The Misbehaviour of Financial Markets

Vernon Smith’s Rationality.

Mackenzie’s An Engine, Not a Camera and anessay.

This paper by Lo.

This memoir by Charles Ferguson.

Complex Systems And The Math of Prediction

This talk by Fields Medalist Terry Tao.

Gell Mann’s The Quark and the Jaguar.

E.O.Wilson’s Consilience.

Barabasi’s Linked.

Mitchell’s Complexity.

The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver.

War And International Relations

Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War.

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

Clausewitz’s On War.

van Creveld’s The Transformation of War.

Colin Gray’s Introduction to Strategic History.

John Robb’s Brave New War.

This paper on nuclear strategy.

Pontecorvo’s movie The Battle of Algiers.

Bismarck: Pflanze’s Biography.

Hoskyns’ Just in Time.

Plouffe’s Audacity to Win.

The Victory Lab, Issenberg.

Cialdini’s Influence.

James Frayne’s Meet the People.

Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Rumelt.

Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto.

Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Beautiful Evidence.

© 2014 by Jonathan Wai

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