Free books, old and new

The Internet Archive is best known for its Wayback Machine – the time machine of the Internet – but there’s also plenty of books and media collected from different sources. I was pleasantly surprised to find full digitized copies of some books that I really loved as a biology student: JZ Young’s Life of Vertebrates, and D’arcy Thompson On Growth and Form.

These books are classics of the biological literature not only for their scientific value, but also for their literary style. Unfortunately, the PDF files are huge and load slowly on a tablet device, and the resulting lag in turning pages is very distracting. Trying to read them as ebooks (my paper copies are on a shelf back home) also drew my attention to how much flipping back and forth between different pages is a part of how I read; something is missing when I can’t thumb a book open, almost by reflex, to a favorite chapter.

Some newer books, also free to read, I have also come across recently online. They might also stand a chance of becoming classics in the coming years. Sanjoy Mahajan’s Street Fighting Mathematician (and his related Art of Insight) uses plenty of examples to show how to tackle seemingly difficult questions through approximation and other heuristic tools. Both books are published by MIT Press but are available as a PDF download under a Creative Commons license.

In a similar vein, Cell Biology by the Numbers, by Ron Milo and Rob Phillips, uses order-of-magnitude estimates to give a feel for the quantitative aspects of cell biology. One vignette in that book that really struck me was their illustration of how a typical protein is dwarfed (in molecular mass) by the mRNA that codes for it. The facts are all there, but I had never considered to make this comparison before. This book is newly published by Garland, but a draft version can still be downloaded from their website.

To me, what makes a good book is pretty much the same as what makes a good tutor: a friendly guide who still vicariously enjoys the path to understanding, despite having walked down the road many times before. In this age of high-powered multimedia teaching aids and “intelligent black boards”, we could do with a bit less flash, and a bit more sparkle.



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