Universal Principles of Design


This is a fantastic catalog of design guidelines that apply to almost anything you might want to design. These 125 principles are not infallible rules, but rather recurring patterns that are found in the best designs. This tome is sort of a “pattern language” for industrial, graphic, and system designers. The different patterns can be combined and recombined in many ways. It will be most useful for engineers, architects, product designers, inventors and prototypers. It can be used in tandem with the previously reviewed 40 Principles, which is a “pattern language” of engineering principles.

-- KK  

Universal Principles of Design
William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, Jill Butler
2010, 272 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Contour Bias: A tendency to favor objects with contours over objects with sharp angles or points.

…This seems consistent with the kind of innate response one would expect from potential threats and suggests a tradeoff between angular and contoured features: Angular objects are more effective at attracting and engaging thought; contoured objects are more effective at making a positive emotional and aesthetic impression.

From the top left to bottom right, the Alessi il Conico, 9093, 9091, and Mami kettles arranged form most angular to most contoured. At the extremes of this continuum, the il Conico will be most effective at grabbing attention, and the Mami will be most liked generally. The 9093 and 9091 incorporate both angular and contoured features, balancing attention-getting with likeability. Historically, the il Conico and 9093 are Alessi’s best-selling kettles.

Interference Effects: A phenomenon in which mental processing is made slower and less accurate by competing mental processes.

designer 3.jpeg
In populations that have learned that a traffic arrow always means go, the introduction of a red arrow in new traffic lights creates potentially dangerous interference.


Law of Pragnanz: A tendency to interpret ambiguous images as simple and complete, versus complex and incomplete.

The law of Pragnanz is one of several principles referred to as Gestalt principles of perception. It asserts that when people are presented with a set of ambiguous elements (elements that can be interpreted in different ways), they interpret the elements in the simplest way. Here, “simplest” refers to arrangements having fewer rather than more elements, having symmetrical rather than asymmetrical compositions, and generally observing the other Gestalt principles of perception.

Therefore, minimize the number of elements in a design. Note that symmetrical compositions are perceived as simpler and more stable than asymmetrical compositions, but symmetrical compositions are also perceived to be less interesting. Favor symmetrical compositions when efficiency of use is the priority, and asymmetrical compositions when interestingness is the priority.

designer 4.jpeg
Low resolution images (let) of a rock formation on Mars led many to conclude that intelligent life once existed there. Higher-resolution images (right) taken some years later suggest a more EArth-based explanation: Humans tend to add order and meaning to patterns and formations that do not exist outside their perception.


Mapping: A relationship between controls and their movements or effects. Good mapping between controls and their effects results in greater ease of use.

designer 5.jpeg
The relationship between the window control and the raising and lowering of the window is obvious when it is mounted on the wall of the door (good mapping), but ambiguous when mounted on the surface of the armrest (poor mapping).


Recognition Over Recall: Memory for recognizing things is better than memory for recalling things.

The advantages of recognition over recall are often exploited in the design of interfaces for complex systems. For example, early computer systems used a command line interface, which required recall memory for hundres of commands. The effort associated with learning the commands made computers difficult to use. The contemporary graphical user interface, which presents commands in menus, allows users to browse the possible options, and select from them accordingly. This eliminates the need to have the commands in recall memory, and greatly simplifies the usability of computers.



Love it, or hate it, the iPod is a quintessential cool tool. That scrappy white-and-chrome mp3 player forged a legacy that permanently shifted the direction of personal technology in the 21st century.
I was first given a second-generation iPod as an early birthday present in 2002, almost a year after they were launched. It had yet to become an icon, but I was an instant convert. At 16, it was the first piece of technology I had owned that redefined what technology could be. It was perfectly functional, easy to use, and way ahead of the pack. It made technology beautiful and human.
I used that iPod every day for the next five-years (until the hard-drive inevitably and heroically failed). I learned to love music, in part, because it was always with me. While many may wax poetic about the glory days of vinyl, I will always remember building the perfect playlist on my iPod, and the comfort I found in knowing that no matter how long the bus or plane ride might be I’d have my music.

That yellowing, scratched-up, almost antique-looking iPod remains one of my most cherished possessions. It converted me into a Mac-user and a tech nerd. It was my first cool tool, and one that played no small part in cementing my passion for finding the best tools out there.  
Thank you, Steve Jobs, for finding beauty and joy in technology. You will be missed.

-- Oliver Hulland  

iPod classic
Available from Apple

Weather.com Text Alerts


I used to be a weather idiot. When it was going to rain, I usually found out by getting wet or by seeing everyone else holding an umbrella or rain coat on public transportation. I wanted something that informed me when it was going to rain (but not something that I had to look for). I wondered if there was a text message alert system for when it rained.

I did some searching and found weather.com’s text message alerts. I signed up for Rain Alert’s and get a text message at 4 pm anytime rain is expected the next day (you can customize the time). It’s fantastic. You can have them send a rain alert for “Any Rain (which I use),” “Moderate or Heavy Rain” or “Heavy Rain only.” I also get the daily forecast every morning at 6, which gives me enough time to grab a jacket before heading to work if the text says I need one. You can sign up for e-mail or text or both messages, and customize times. They have a bunch of other options as well, like pollen alerts, extreme heat or cold alerts, surf conditions. The alerts are free, but you have to pay whatever text message fees your phone company regularly gouges you for. The alerts do seem to get messed up by an hour when the time changes (as do I, I suppose) and I have to go online and change them on my account.

I’ve been using this for two years now and am now better prepared (and happier) when it does rain (plus I get to impress my friends if my pocket buzzes at 4 by announcing it’s going to rain tomorrow). I don’t know if another service like this exists, but I couldn’t find another one when I looked before.

-- Matt Salazar  

Weather.com Text Alerts

Available from Weather.com

What Technology Wants


I’m breaking all the rules of Cool Tools here. I am going to review my own book, and it is not 100% toolish. But the book does have a lot to do with technology, and some readers may find it personally useful in helping them decide what kind technology to embrace. I promise to unleash this kind of self-promotion only once every ten years, so I’ll keep it interesting.

My book, What Technology Wants, presents an unconventional view of technology. I inspect the world through the eyes of technology as if it were an autonomous system. Here are some provocative things I see through its point of view:

* Technology is the most powerful force on the planet.
* Technology is an extension of evolutionary life, best thought of as the 7th kingdom of life.
* Humanity is our first technology; We are tools.
* Technology is selfish; as a system it exhibits its own urges and tendencies.
* Technologies cannot be banned, and none go extinct.
* The progression of technologies is inevitable.
* Because technologies are inevitable we can prepare to optimize their benefits.
* Technology is not neutral but serves as an overwhelming positive force in human culture.
* We have a moral obligation to increase technology because it increases opportunities.
* The origins of technology lie in the Big Bang.
* Technology preceded humans and will continue beyond us.
* Among the things technology wants are increased diversity, complexity, and beauty.
* Technology may be as much a reflection of the divine as nature is.
* Technology is an infinite game, a grand story we can align ourselves with for greater meaning.

What I learned from writing this book is that I want to minimize the amount of technology in my own life while maximizing it for others. I want the largest pool of choices possible so that I can select a minimal set of highly-evolved tools that will optimize my gifts. At the same time I have a moral obligation to maximize the amount of technologies in the world at large so that others may also select their minimal set from this ever growing pool of possibilities.

I hope what you get from reading What Technology Wants is a useful framework for understanding what technology means in our lives — a way to anchor your own self in the face of ceaseless accelerating technological change.

(I think of this book as the second part of a conversation that began with my research postings in The Technium. I’ve taken those rough posts, improved by readers’ comments, thrown out half of the material, and then refined the best into a readable book much better than the blog. I’ve set up some forums for discussions, and a Facebook page where you can “like” it. I’ll be on the road speaking about the book in October, November and January. My schedule and more can be found at the book’s webpage.)

Oh, and one more thing: Starting with the premise that technology is selfish and slightly autonomous, I lay out a dozen or so long-term trajectories inherent in the technium. Taken together these giga-trends inform the development of technology investment and the choice technological expressions today. These “wants” of technology provide a long-horizon framework for business — your business. I’ll be doing as many talks at companies and organizations about “what technology wants” as I can in the coming months.

-- KK  

What Technology Wants
Kevin Kelly
2010, 416 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

We are not the same folks who marched out of Africa. Our genes have co-evolved with our inventions. In the past 10,000 years alone, in fact, our genes have evolved 100 times faster than the average rate for the previous 6 million years. This should not be a surprise. As we domesticated the dog (in all its breeds) from wolves and bred cows and corn and more from their unrecognizable ancestors, we, too, have been domesticated. We have domesticated ourselves. Our teeth continue to shrink (because of cooking, our external stomach), our muscles thin out, our hair disappears. Technology has domesticated us. As fast as we remake our tools, we remake ourselves. We are co-evolving with our technology, and so we have become deeply dependent on it. If all technology-every last knife and spear-were to be removed from this planet, our species would not last more than a few months. We are now symbiotic with technology.


We have domesticated our humanity as much as we have domesticated our horses. Our human nature itself is a malleable crop that we planted 50,000 years ago and continue to garden even today.

As we refined this stuff through generations of technological evolution, it lost much of its hardness. We began to see through technology’s disguise as material and began to see it primarily as action. While it inhabited a body, its heart was something softer. In 1949, John von Neumann, the brainy genius behind the first useful computer, realized what computers were teaching us about technology: “Technology will in the near and in the farther future increasingly turn from problems of intensity, substance, and energy, to problems of structure, organization, in- formation, and control.” No longer a noun, technology was becoming a force-a vital spirit that throws us forward or pushes against us. Not a thing but a verb.


A Thousand Years of Helmet Evolution. The American zoologist and medieval armor expert Bashford Dean sketched out this diagrammatic “genealogical tree” of the evolution of medieval European helmets starting in the year 600.


There is a more precise way to say this: Of all the sustainable things in the universe, from a planet to a star, from a daisy to an automobile, from a brain to an eye, the thing that is able to conduct the highest density of power-the most energy flowing through a gram of matter each second-lies at the core of your laptop. How can this be? The power density of a star is huge compared to the mild power drifting through a nebulous gas cloud in space. But remarkably, the power density of a sun pales in comparison to the intense flow of energy and activity present in grass. As intense as the surface of the sun is, its mass is enormous and its lifetime is 10 billion years, so as a whole system, the amount of energy flowing through it per gram per second is less than that in a sun- flower soaking up that sun’s energy.


I make the case in this chapter that the course of biological evolution is not a random drift in the cosmos, which is the claim of current text- book orthodoxy. Rather, evolution-and by extension, the technium- has an inherent direction, shaped by the nature of matter and energy. This direction introduces inevitabilities into the shape of life. These nonmystical tendencies are woven into the fabric of technology as well, which means certain aspects of the technium are also inevitable.


From this single omnipotent quasicrystal [of DNA] the awesome variety of life in all its unexpected shapes springs forth. Subtle rearrangements along its tiny, ancient spiral will produce the majesty of a strolling sauropod 20 meters high, and also the delicate gem of an iridescent green dragonfly, and the frozen immaculacy of a white orchid petal, and of course the intricacies of the human mind. All from such a tiny semi-crystal. If we acknowledge no supernatural force working outside evolution, then all these structures-and more-must in some sense be contained within the structure of DNA. Where else could they come from? The details of all oak lineages and future species of oak are resident, in some fashion, in the original acorn of DNA. And if we acknowledge no super-natural force working outside evolution, then our minds–which all descended from the same original first cell–must also have been encoded implicitly in DNA. And if our minds, then what about the technium? Were its space station, Teflon, and internet also dissolved in the genome, only to be precipitated later by constant evolutionary work, just as an oak tree is finally manifested after billions of years?


Homo sapiens is a tendency, not an entity. Humanity is a process. Always was, always will be. Every living organism is on its way to becoming. And the human organism even more so, because among all living beings (that we know about) we are the most open-ended. We have just started our evolution as Homo sapiens. As both parent and child of the technium-evolution accelerated-we are nothing more and nothing less than an evolutionary ordained be- coming. “I seem to be a verb,” the inventor/philosopher Buckminster Fuller once said. We can likewise say: The technium is a tendency, not an entity. The technium and its constituent technologies are more like a grand pro- cess than a grand artifact. Nothing is complete, all is in flux, and the only thing that counts is the direction of movement. So if the technium has a direction, where is it pointed? If the greater forms of technologies are inevitable, what is next?


Technologies are like organisms that require a sequence of developments to reach a particular stage. Inventions follow this uniform developmental sequence in every civilization and society, independent of human genius. You can’t effectively jump ahead when you want to. But when the web of supporting technological species are in place, an invention will erupt with such urgency that it will occur to many people at once. The progression of inventions is in many ways the march toward forms dictated by physics and chemistry in a sequence determined by the rules of complexity. We might call this technology’s imperative.


Extrapolated, technology wants what life wants:
Increasing efficiency
Increasing opportunity
Increasing emergence
Increasing complexity
Increasing diversity
Increasing specialization
Increasing ubiquity
Increasing freedom
Increasing mutualism
Increasing beauty
Increasing sentience
Increasing structure
Increasing evolvability

Whole Earth Discipline


Stewart Brand inspired Cool Tools. This blog is a continuation of the user-generated recommendation mechanism that Brand invented in the Whole Earth Catalog (which I worked on in its later years). Brand has spent his long career successfully changing people’s minds by offering them tools. The tool he offers here is simply the tool of “changing your mind.” How do you do it rationally, smartly, wisely? What kind of evidence do you need? What is more important, principles or pragmatism?

This book can be seen as a challenge to green theory and green dogma, but it directly challenges ideology itself. I think this is Brand’s best book yet. As you follow his arguments, you get a great education in following science and data rather than righteous assumptions. Instead, says Brand, assume much of what we think is true isn’t, and then go from there with a fresh look at the evidence. Being pragmatic about something as complex as a technological planet can lead you to unconventional ideas for dealing with planetary woes — even if they seem contrary to cherished beliefs. Some of the solutions — like nuclear power and genetically modified crops — will be dismissed as outright heresies among greens. But you get to watch a great mind change his mind. As Brand’s education continues he makes as good a case for these heresies as you’ll hear anywhere.

This book may change your own mind about things you thought you believed. What more can you ask of a book?

-- KK  

Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
Stewart Brand
2009, 336 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

When roles shift, ideologies have to shift, and ideologies hate to shift. The workaround is pragmatism — a practical way of thinking concerned with results rather than with theories and principles. The shift is deeper than moving from one ideology to another; the shift is to discard ideology entirely.


Forty years ago, I started the Whole Earth Catalog with the words, “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.” Those were innocent times. New situation, new motto: “We are as gods and have to get good at it.” The Whole Earth Catalog encouraged individual power; Whole Earth Discipline is more about aggregate power.


The three broad strategies for dealing with climate change are mitigation, adaptation, and amelioration. Mitigation, cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions, has been called avoiding the unmanageable. Adaptation, then, is managing the unavoidable — moving coastal populations to higher ground, developing drought-tolerant agriculture, preparing for masses of climate refugees, and keeping resource warfare localized. And amelioration is adjusting the nature of the planet itself through large-scale geoengineering.

Civilization is at risk, but civilization is the problem. The key positive feedback in the current Earth system is us. Accelerating wealth (especially in developing countries these days), a still-growing human population, and accelerating industry are pouring overwhelming quantities of green-house gases into the atmosphere. As Australian biologist Tim Flannery puts it, “The metabolism of our economy is now on a collision course with the metabolism of our planet.”


Once upon a time, I dreamed that economics would eventually swell up and include ecology, and we would no more be misled by notions of “externalities.” Now I’m not so sure. I recall a friend leaning on me to admit that ecology and economics are the same thing. “No, damn it,” I said. “Ecology is devoid of intention, and economics is made of little else.” (I suspect that my friend was on to something, though, because economics enthusiasts and ecology enthusiasts share an affliction. Conservative think that the self-organizing properties of a market economy are a miracle that must not be messed with. Greens think that the self-organizing properties of ecologies are a miracle that must not be messed with.)


The emphasis of the vigilance principle is on liberty, the freedom to try things. The correction for emergent problems is in ceaseless, fine-grained monitoring, which largely can be automated these days via the Internet, by collecting data from distributed high-tech sensors and vigilant cellphone-armed volunteers. (Wikipedia, for example, is an orgy of vigilance: A cluster of diligent amateur watchers and correcters actively surveil each entry, with a response time of seconds.) Managing the precautionary process in this mode consists of identifying things to watch for as a new technology unfolds.

The Deniers

About 99% of the scientists involved in climate studies, paleontology, atmospheric chemistry, and planetary ecology agree on the presence of human-caused global warming. We call that a scientific consensus. But in every science there are a few heretics who don’t agree on the consensus. That 1% dissent is what powers science forward. In fact, tolerating heretics is what makes science different from religion. The dissent is usually wrong, but every once in a while if you don’t kill it off, it corrects the consensus.

What should we do with the 1% who dissent about global warming? By logic, we should embrace them, but currently “deniers” of global warming have become demonized, which is a sign that global warming has become slightly religious. Which is a shame because many global warming skeptics are not crackpots or paid shills, but first-class prestigious scientists with a minority view.

Throughout its history, science usually advances from the edges. Heretics should be cherished for forcing edges to the center. The most respected scientific global warming heretics have been rounded up in this very readable book, The Deniers. Significantly, many of the eminent scientists included here don’t call themselves deniers at all. They say, “I believe global warming is evidenced in all these other fields; Except in the field that I am expert in, the evidence is totally bogus.” One by one the field-specific heretics make their case. And a number of them are rather persuasive. But at the moment there is no unified alternative theory of climate change, so the critique of global warming amounts to exposing holes in the current science. Any good scientific theory will have holes.

Until the heretics can change the consensus, we should proceed with the remedies that make sense no matter how climate change rolls out: getting off oil and coal, upping conservation, drastically increasing efficiency, expanding solar, wind, nuclear, and embracing cities while protecting wildlife habitat.

At the same time cherish your heretics. This is a solid, fairly evenhanded treatment of this particular heresy. It’s the best volume I’ve seen that presents the scientific case (such as it is) for skepticism of the standard claims of anthropogenic global warming. There might be something in these skepticisms, there might not. We should fund more of these heretics. That’s science at work.

-- KK  

The Deniers
Lawrence Solomon
2008, 240 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

“Much public discussion on global warming is underpinned by two partly self-contradictory assumptions. The first is that there is a ‘consensus’ of qualified scientists that dangerous human-caused global warming is upon us; and the second is that although there are ‘two sides to the debate,’ the dangerous-warming side is over-whelmingly the stronger. Both assertions are unsustainable. The first because science is not, nor ever has been, about consensus, but about experimental and observational data and testable hypotheses. Second, regarding the number of sides to the debate, the reality is that small parts of the immensely complex climate system are better or less understood–depending upon the subject–by many different groups of experts. No one scientist, however brilliant, ‘understands’ climate change, and there is no general theory of climate nor likely to be one in the near future. In effect, there are nearly as many sides to the climate-change debate as there are expert scientists who consider it.”

As CO2 levels rise it takes more and more CO2 to produce additional temperature increases: “[T]he relationship between increasing carbon dioxide and increasing temperature is logarithmic, which lessens the forcing effect of each successive increment of carbon dioxide.”

The way the problem is customarily presented to the public is seriously misleading. The public is led to believe that the carbon dioxide problem has a single cause and a single consequence. The single cause is fossil-fuel burning; the single consequence is global warming. In reality there are multiple causes and multiple consequences. The atmospheric carbon dioxide that drives global warming is only the tail of the dog. The dog that wags the tail is the global ecology: forests, farms, and swamps, as well as power stations, factories, and automobiles. And the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has other consequences that may be at least as important as global warming–increasing crop yields and growth of forests, for example. To handle the problem intelligently, we need to understand all the causes and all the consequences… — Freeman Dyson

My deniers certainly demonstrate that the climate-change doomsayers should not have the last word, but they also demonstrate that they, themselves, can’t have the last word either. After all, most of my deniers disagree with each other as well as with the doomsayers. They can’t all be right. They could all be wrong. Just as the doomsayers, the great majority of whom I believe to be entirely sincere and highly qualified, could all be wrong.

Tide Widgets


Tide data, like time and gps coordinates, now flows freely almost anywhere you desire, so there is no reason not to tap into this stream. Plugged into the data I feel more in tune with the outside, and better prepared when I head to the shores.

Downloadable applications like Mr. Tide 3 for the Mac can chart tide highs and lows on any day you want anywhere in the world. Mr Tides displays results in a brilliant visual graph (image below).

But usually all I want to know is what is the tide right now, and for that purpose widgets are perfect. One keystroke and the answer pops up on my screen. There are two free tide widgets for the Mac. In both you set your preferred default place, and then when you invoke the widgets screen it will display current tides and highs and lows for the day. Tide Widget is simplicity itself and works better on my PowerPC version Mac, while Tide App shows the sunset and sunrises as well but prefers an Intel Mac. For 99% of the time, Tide Widget gives me exactly what I need instantly. (Tell me which Windows widgets are best and I’ll append them here.)

Yes, you can get the Tide App for your iPhone (I haven’t used it there yet), or the previously-reviewed Tide Tool for your Treo.

— KK


Tide App
Free, available from TideApp


Tide Widget
Free, available from August Hahn

Mr. Tides
Free, available from August Hahn

(top pic via National Renewable Energy Lab)


Cosmic Jackpot

Do the primeval laws governing the universe precede the existence of the universe; if so, in what realm do they operate? Or do the laws expand into existence along with the universe itself? If the latter, what determines the rules of the laws’ arrival? This big set of questions is usually pushed away from science and left for theologians and philosophers to invent answers for. Cosmologist and astrophysicist Paul Davies reclaims these fundamental topics as suitable for scientific answers. He reports from the frontiers of knowledge where researchers are measuring, quantifying, and theorizing on the nature of universal laws. Davies includes in the range of answers the very weird possibility that we sentient observers may be partly responsible for the fundamental laws of nature. Let that one sink in. This is an incredibly heady, trippy book, done with masterful clarity and sanity. It’s probably the “biggest” book I’ve ever read.

— KK

Cosmic Jackpot
Paul Davies
2007, 336 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

Mutability was [Wheeler’s] byword. He liked to quip that “there is no law except the law that there is no law.” Adopting the catchy aphorism “law without law” to describe this contrarian position, Wheeler maintained that the laws of physics did not exist a priori but emerged from the chaos of the quantum big bang – coming out of “higgledy-piggledy” was the way he quaintly expressed it – congealing along with the universe that they govern in the aftermath of its shadowy birth. “So far as we can see today,” he maintained, “the laws of physics cannot have existed from everlasting to everlasting. They must have come into being at the big bang.” Crucially, Wheeler did not suppose that the laws just popped up, ready-made, in their final form, but that they emerged in approximate form and sharpened up over time.


Super-turtle! To avoid an infinite regress (the bottomless tower of turtles) one might consider a levitating superturtle, which is self-explaining and self-supporting. Theologians call this “a necessary being,” and some have tried to prove that such a being exists. Some scientists have argued for the necessary existence of a unique superunified theory.


The novel feature Wheeler introduced via his delayed-choice experiment was the possibility of observers today, and in the future, shaping the nature of physical reality in the past, including the far past when no observers existed. That is indeed a radical idea, for it gives life and mind a type of creative role in physics, making them an indispensable part of the entire cosmological story. Yet life and mind are the products of the universe. So there is a logical as well as a temporal loop here. Conventional science assumes a linear logical sequence: cosmos -> life -> mind. Wheeler suggested closing this chain into a loop: cosmos -> life -> mind -> cosmos. He expressed the essential idea with characteristic economy of prose: “Physics gives rise to observer-participancy; observer-participancy gives rise to information; information gives rise to physics.” Thus the universe explains observers, and observers explain the universe. Wheeler thereby rejected the notion of the universe as a machine subject to fixed a priori laws and replaced it with a self-synthesizing world he called “the participatory universe.” By postulating a closed explanatory loop, similar to the self-consistency argument of Benioff that I considered in the previous section, Wheeler deftly circumvented the infamous tower-of-turtles problem. There is no need for a levitating super-turtle if the bio-friendly universe explains itself.


To understand the high information content of life, we must recognize that it is a product not of the laws of physics alone, but of the laws of physics and the history of the environment together. Life emerged and evolved its immense complexity as the result of a process that took billions of years and required a vast number of information-processing steps. A biological organism therefore encapsulates the products of a complex and convoluted history. To sum it up in a phrase, life as we observe it today is 1 percent physics and 99 percent history.

Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:


Programming the Universe


The Intelligent Universe





This superb biography of Einstein is really a biography of his ideas. It mines the newly opened archive of Einstein’s prolific correspondence for clues into his theories. We watch his ideas stir in embryonic form out of witty exchanges with his family and other scientists. We hear the evolving defense of his unorthodox approaches, and his lovely explanations to those who don’t understand. Einstein turns out to be a wonderful writer — as is Walter Isaacson, his biographer — and someone who thought and spoke in pictures. Although I’ve read explanations of special relativity and unified field theory many times, reading this biography was the first time I really came close to fully understanding them. A scrutiny of an idea’s origins is perhaps the best path to its understanding. One thing this vivid biography of concepts makes clear is that Einstein’s chief talent was not his genius, but his imagination. “Imagination,” Einstein wrote, “is more powerful than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

— KK

Einstein: His Life and Universe
Walter Isaacson
2007, 704 pages
Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

The group would usually make their way to the Congress hall together, working on ways to refute Einstein’s problem. “By dinner-time we could usually prove that his thought experiments did not contradict uncertainty relations,” Heisenberg recalled, and Einstein would concede defeat. “But next morning he would bring along to breakfast a new thought experiment, generally more complicated than the previous one.” By dinnertime that would be disproved as well. Back and forth they went, each lob from Einstein volleyed back by Bohr, who was able to show how the uncertainty principle, in each instance, did indeed limit the amount of knowable information about a moving electron. “And so it went for several days,” said Heisenberg. “In the end, we — that is, Bohr, Pauli, and I — knew that we could now be sure of our ground.” “Einstein, I’m ashamed of you,” Ehrenfest scolded. He was upset that Einstein was displaying the same stubbornness toward quantum mechanics that conservative physicists had once shown toward relativity. “He now behaves toward Bohr exactly as the champions of absolute simultaneity had behaved toward him.”

In Santa Barbara, 1933. “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” — Albert Einstein, in a letter to his son Eduard, February 5, 1930.


As with his letter six months earlier, Einstein went on to reveal quite casually a momentous scientific breakthrough, one that would be expressed by the most famous equation in all of science: “One more consequence of the electrodynamics paper has also crossed my mind. Namely, the relativity principle, together with Maxwell’s equations, requires that mass be a direct measure of the energy contained in a body. Light carries mass with it. With the case of radium there should be a noticeable reduction of mass. The thought is amusing and seductive; but for all I know, the good Lord might be laughing at the whole matter and might have been leading me up the garden path.”

Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:

Corliss Sourcebooks

The MindMap Book

The Singularity is Near


Universal Heritage

This chart rewards careful study. Inspect one timeline of the universe from the Big Bang to yesterday. It skips through this vast scale in 16 jumps, each period nested inside the preceding epic. Combined here is cosmic history, geological history, biological history and cultural history into one unified, universal snapshot of the Great Story.

— KK


Universal Heritage Chart
27 x 39 inches
(shipping not included)
Available from timelineposter.com (currently unavailable)

Also available from Scribd

Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:


Cartoon History of the Universe III


Correlated History of Earth


Singularity is Near