I originally went to Oxford to study politics, philosophy and economics. I became a banker, before moving into medicine, and some of these books influenced that decision.
I’ve read all of George Orwell’s books many times, but my favourite is Down and Out in Paris and London, which is just really funny. I thoroughly enjoyed 1984 and Animal Farm, but I enjoyed his journalism more. Down and Out in Paris and London is an insight into taking someone from a privileged background and transposing them to rougher parts of the world.
Since I came from a very privileged background, I like the idea that it’s Orwell who first introduced me to the idea of becoming a journalist. He puts himself at the heart of the story, which is something that I’ve done with my programmes by self-experimenting.
An author I came to quite late was Jane Austen. I love Jane Austen, I think she’s insightful and witty. It’s difficult to choose a favourite, but I’d probably go with Emma. Emma is a very sparky and bright woman. I loved her as a character, the fact that she’s always certain but frequently wrong was quite charming. I was in my teens when I read it, trying to understand women, and I found Jane Austen helpful.
Next up would be Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. It’s a classic because he makes you think about the world in a completely different way. It’s interesting, because Dawkins doesn’t use his own original research, but rather weaves together other people’s. That’s what I’ve tried to do, weaving other people’s academic research together into a more popular narrative.
See more reading lists of the best science books:
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Then, John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash. He’s the guy who introduced me to economics. I originally wanted to study maths, but when I read Galbraith I thought, “Golly, that’s interesting,” and changed my mind.
I read a lot of philosophy but another writer I like is David Hume. He wrote A Treatise of Human Nature, and is recognised as probably the greatest British philosopher, but few have heard of him. He inspired Adam Smith, and people like Darwin. He’s a sceptic and an empiricist, so he’s very keen on looking at the foundations of knowledge. He’s sort of the founder of cognitive science. He just writes really well – you have to read it several times before you understand it though! He’s been a huge influence.
The last one is by Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers. It’s about how science progresses not in a rational sense, but in strong leaps and bounds.
One thing that unites all these writers is the idea that human behaviour is governed by emotion, rather than reason. And that really shows you the power of human emotion. Galbraith said the great crash was perpetuated by stupidity and fear, things like that. Hume’s biggest thing was that human behaviour is driven by emotion and we should recognise that.
And Jane Austen’s Emma is a very smart cookie but makes numerous mistakes – she thinks she’s making rational decisions but she’s just completely wrong. She tries to matchmake based on what she thinks is reasonable, but it just turns out that she has misunderstood things.
Read Dr Michael Mosley’s BBC Science Focus column: