Select Page

Essential reading

Essential reading

Engineering professors say these books offer lessons to help forge your path through life

Your engineering professors haven’t risen in their careers only because of their mastery of technical fields.

They’ve had to overcome a variety of challenges. They’ve had to develop skills to cope with the world both inside and outside the classroom and the laboratory.

Some of the knowledge, wisdom and practical advice that have benefitted them came from the books they’ve read.

The list below offers recommendations from 10 Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering faculty members on books they think students should read during their college years – books that teach valuable lessons about life, or more specifically about life as an engineer, scientist or researcher.

Some of the books can help you sensibly navigate a career path or guide you in making smart decisions about your future. In those and other books on the list, you can find inspiration as well as the insights that can be gained from stories of human drama and even humor.

Jim AdamsJames Adams
ASU President’s Professor
Materials Science and Engineering Program Chair
School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy

“The Soul of a New Machine” by Tracy Kidder

This classic book chronicles the challenges of an engineering team racing to develop the next-generation computer chip. It provides great insight into the lives of the team members as they push themselves to the limit, working every waking minute to win the technology race. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. This is a must-read for science, engineering and business students.

“Your Life is Not a Label” by Gerald Newport

This is a great book written by an adult with autism about how to live a happy, successful life regardless of your level of ability. Jerry has incredible savant math skills (he won an international math contest in 2010) but is severely challenged by autism. Hollywood made a movie about his life, “Mozart and the Whale.” This is a funny, easy read, and uplifting in its lessons about dealing with life’s challenges.

# # #

Brad AllenbyBrad Allenby
ASU President’s Professor
School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment
Professor of Engineering and Ethics for ASU’s Lincoln Center for Ethics

“Cities in Civilization” by Peter Hall

This is a fascinating study of cities throughout history. If you don’t understand and appreciate cities, you don’t understand humans – and your search for environmental quality and sustainability is potentially unrealistic because of that lack of understanding. Hall highlights the role urban systems have played in the cultural evolution of the human species, pointing out that to think of cities in purely material and energy terms is to grossly misunderstand what cities actually are and what they do. He suggests creativity and innovation arise not from stasis and peace but from the dynamics of controlled conflict found in cities where diverse cultures, beliefs and classes come into contact with each other – and where violence is not unknown. The book is an excellent corrective to the simplistic ideologies that all too often pass for intellectual accomplishment these days.

# # #

LenoreDaiLenore Dai
Associate Professor
Chemical Engineering Program Chair
School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy

“Think on Your Feet” by Keith Spicer

Spicer’s book cautions us that we can’t speak or write effectively unless we can think clearly. The author illustrates theories on how the brain functions and how its functions impact our communication. Based on understanding of that cognitive dynamic, he provides practical techniques for analyzing, organizing and presenting your ideas – an invaluable skill no matter what field you choose for your career, especially engineering and research. You can save yourself hours of time attending professional workshops by reading this short, enjoyable book.

# # #

Esma GelEsma Gel
Associate Professor
Industrial Engineering Program Chair
School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering

“Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error” by Kathryn Schultz

A striking commonality among the most successful people I know is their attitude toward their own failures: They refuse to call them “failures.” Instead, they see these experiences as opportunities to learn and evolve. One of the most unpleasant parts of failure is facing the realization that we were wrong about something. In her book, journalist Kathryn Schultz gives you a sense of why being wrong is a fundamental part of being human, and shows that by changing the way you think about and deal with your mistakes you can actually use your failures to feed your imagination and creativity. “In the optimistic model of wrongness, error is not a sign that our past selves were failures and falsehoods,” Schulz writes. “Instead, it is one of those forces, like sap and sunlight, that imperceptibly helps another organic entity – us human beings – to grow up.”

# # #

MichaelGoryllMichael Goryll
Assistant Professor
Electrical Engineering
School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering

“The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists” Cambridge University Press

When I was an undergraduate student, I always found it interesting to read biographies of the engineers and scientists behind the laws and mathematical equations. My physics textbooks had them summarized in an appendix. Most of these short biographies were taken from “The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists” (Cambridge University Press). Some of the stories are extremely catching, and reading about different people’s passions and struggles makes me think about what I would have done in their situation and what can be learned from them. Would I have pursued my ideas in spite of the criticism by established colleagues, or be that convinced of my invention that I defended it vigorously? Or would I just have given in and moved on? Another interesting aspect is that of the personalities of the great researchers. Some of them can easily serve as good role models, while others seem to be complete jerks.

“Portraits of Discovery: Profiles in Scientific Genius” by George Greenstein

Readers looking for a more comprehensive record of famous scientists’ biographies can find it in the book “Portraits of Discovery: Profiles in Scientific Genius.” It is more of a storybook than a dictionary, making it easier to read. It has been criticized for having too few references, which is correct. Readers who desire to know more about a particular person always have the opportunity to perform a literature search on their own. I particularly liked the chapter on Richard Feynman, who made a big impact in theoretical physics, but also put a lot of effort into developing freshman physics courses and thereby revolutionized undergraduate teaching. He was certainly a strange person, but his books are fun to read.

“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” by Richard Feynman

Readers who would like to learn more about Feynman can do so by reading this book, which is an edited collection of reminiscences by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Some paragraphs are hilarious, so it is anything but a dry physics book. I like the anecdotes in which he describes what he did for summer jobs, trying to make everything into a puzzle. One anecdote is titled “He fixes radios by thinking.” Well, not really. But it shows that by stopping and spending time thinking about what could be wrong, you can save yourself a lot of time. This holds true not only when fixing things but in many other situations in life.

# # #

KarmellaHaynesKarmella Haynes
Assistant Professor
Biomedical Engineering/Synthetic Biology
School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

This nonfiction work puts a human face on the entire history of human cell culturing, the technique that made every textbook cell illustration and 3D cell animation possible. Familiar names you see on reagent bottles in the lab show up in this book as the names of early tissue culture innovators. Most importantly, the book describes and honors the life of the woman who died from a cancer that is still growing in Petri dishes at ASU and in thousands of other labs across the world today.

“Intuition,” by Alegra Goodman

Readers who are not research scientists will get an accurate peek into the dynamics of high-stakes science in this book. Researchers will immediately relate to several of the characters, and possibly find comfort in the familiarity of the characters’ experiences. This tale of the friction that arises between a down-on-her-luck postdoctoral researcher and a fellow post-doc who strikes it big with data that seems too good to be true is enthralling and brilliantly written.

# # #

JeffLaBelleJeffrey La Belle
Assistant Professor
Biomedical Engineering
School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering
and Barrett, The Honors College

“On Leadership” by John W. Gardiner

Gardner worked for four U.S. presidents. Based largely on that experience he wrote a great book on what makes great leaders – whether a leader of a country, a business or a family. Leaders – no matter how smart – are people who will make mistakes, and who won’t succeed without support from those they lead.  The secret to great leadership? Valuing and cultivating great followers. What kills great leadership? “Mind manacles” – the fears that keep us from taking on daunting challenges. I say, try to do the impossible. It’s much more fun. Nothing boosts your credibility as a leader more than leading a team to accomplish something others said couldn’t be done.

“How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way” by Stan Lee and Joe Buscema

Aspiring engineers need to hone their hands-on creativity. Developing drawing skills is a great way to do that. This book can get you started. Crafts such as woodworking, blacksmithing and glass-blowing can be just as useful as pursuits that require technical know-how and artistry.

# # #

HuanLiuHuan Liu
Computer Science and Engineering
School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

This book is based on the research of the author, one of the world’s most influential psychologists and winner of a Nobel Prize for pioneering accomplishments in behavioral economics. His work is the inspiration for many fascinating research projects seeking to better understand human thinking and behavior. His book helps us better understand ourselves and the world around us.

# # #

JamesMiddletonJames Middleton
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy

“Longitude” by Dava Sobel

In this book the history of the development of the chronometer is presented as a quintessential engineering problem, solved by the most unlikely of engineers:  John Harrison, a self-educated clockmaker and woodworker.  His unique skills and unrelenting passion for the problem of creating a clock that would keep accurate time on board a sailing ship revolutionized navigation, but embittered the scientific establishment and politicians entrusted with solving the problem themselves. For lovers of science history, this is a must-read.

“The Curve of Binding Energy” by John MacPhee

This book chronicles the life of Ted Taylor, the inventor of the “suitcase” nuclear bomb. Taylor, a physicist at Los Alamos Laboratories, devoted his life to his Quaker principles of nonviolence, yet he worked on the Manhattan Project, and refined those principles into a device of terrible destruction. The story lays bare the moral and ethical conflicts that can confront engineers, and the personal decisions that each of us must make to remain humane in the face of cold economics and politics. Taylor is shown to be a moral and just man, a creative force in nuclear science, and true to his beliefs throughout his life.

# # #

AviWiezelAvi Wiezel
Associate Professor of Leadership
Del E. Web School of Construction Programs Chair
School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment

“How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler

Not only will you think differently about the books you read after reading this classic book, but you will learn how to read books so that they help you think more effectively about everything. Adler explains the different ways to read a book and offers a list of about 140 books that are worth reading. Some liberal arts colleges say those books offer all you need to know to spark your creativity.

“StrengthsFinder 2.0” by Tom Rath

So you make it all the way through college, and by then you know that if you work hard enough you can achieve anything. Or can you? Now it’s time to revisit your idea of “YOU.” Is it really worth the effort of trying to become better at something you are not good at? Find out what you are good at doing and what things you should delegate. This is a first step toward how to find out what things you are good at and becoming a good manager.

Note: Buy a new copy of the book. New copies contain a unique code for taking the Strenghtfinder Appraisal. For the Kindle version you will be emailed the code.

“Emotional Intelligence 2.0” by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves

In the early 1990s, Daniel Goleman observed that the correlation between intelligence (as measured by IQ or by academic scores) and individual success is only 25 percent. Some people have interpreted this to mean that 75 percent of people with lower IQs than yours will outperform you! So how do you change that? We know that one key to success is having other people help you be successful. And how do you achieve that? By understanding your own emotions and other people’s emotions. This is a first step toward becoming a leader.

Note: Buy a new copy of the book. New copies contain a unique code for taking the Emotional Intelligence Appraisal. For the Kindle version you will be e-mailed the code.

# # #

Media Contact Joe Kullman, [email protected]
(480) 965-8122
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering



About The Author

Joe Kullman

Joe Kullman is a science writer for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Before joining Arizona State University in 2006, Joe worked as a reporter, writer and editor for newspapers and magazines dating back to the dawn of the age of the personal computer. He began his career while earning degrees in journalism and philosophy from Kent State University in Ohio. Media Contact: [email protected] | 480-965-8122 | Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Communications

ASU Engineering on Facebook