Bite-sized books that pack a punch

Our Essential Knowledge series books might be small, but their impact is not

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the MIT Press, and we’re thrilled to celebrate another rapidly-approaching milestone: We are nearing 100 titles published in our Essential Knowledge series.

The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series offers accessible, concise, beautifully produced books on topics of current interest written by leading thinkers. In today’s era of instant information gratification, we have ready access to opinions, rationalizations, and superficial descriptions. Much harder to come by is the foundational knowledge that informs a principled understanding of the world. Essential Knowledge books fill that need.

Read on to discover just a few of our titles in the series, and explore all of the Essential Knowledge Series books here.

Extraterrestrials by Wade Roush

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Everything we know about how planets form and how life arises suggests that human civilization on Earth should not be unique. We ought to see abundant evidence of extraterrestrial activity—but we don’t. Where is everybody? In Extraterrestrials, science and technology writer Wade Roush examines one of the great unsolved problems in science: is there life, intelligent or otherwise, on other planets?

“Whatever your viewpoint, this is an excellent guide and introduction to SETI with plenty of insightful anecdotes, glossary, notes, further reading list, and index.” —Starburst Magazine

Read an excerpt from the book on the MIT Press Reader: Alien Dreams: The Surprisingly Long History of Speculation About Extraterrestrials

AI Ethics by Mark Coeckelbergh

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Artificial intelligence powers Google’s search engine, enables Facebook to target advertising, and allows Alexa and Siri to do their jobs. AI is also behind self-driving cars, predictive policing, and autonomous weapons that can kill without human intervention. These and other AI applications raise complex ethical issues that are the subject of ongoing debate. Written by a philosopher of technology, AI Ethics goes beyond the usual hype and nightmare scenarios to address concrete questions.

Ketamine by Bita Moghaddam

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Ketamine, approved in 2019 by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of depression, has been touted by scientists and media reports as something approaching a miracle cure. Ketamine chronicles the ascent of a drug that has been around for fifty years—in previous incarnations, a Vietnam-era combat anesthetic and a popular club drug—that has now been reinvented as a treatment for depression. Bita Moghaddam, a leading researcher in neuropharmacology, explains the scientific history and the biology of ketamine, its clinical use, and its recently discovered antidepressant properties, for the nonspecialist reader.

Read/listen to a discussion with the author on the MIT Press Reader: The Many Lives of Ketamine

Visual Culture by Alexis L. Boylan

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The visual surrounds us, some of it invited, most of it not. In this visual environment, everything we see—color, the moon, a skyscraper, a stop sign, a political poster, rising sea levels, a photograph of Kim Kardashian West—somehow becomes legible, normalized, accessible. How does this happen? How do we live and move in our visual environments? Visual Culture by Alexis L. Boylan offers a guide for navigating the complexities of visual culture, outlining strategies for thinking about what it means to look and see—and what is at stake in doing so.

“Boylan’s work is provocative: she pushes readers to step outside of the routine passive reception to images everywhere and asks for consideration of the impact of these thousands of images on our psyches and our sense of our place in the world.” —PopMatters

Read an excerpt from the book on the MIT Press Reader: A Crisis of Vision: Can Art Shake Humanity From Its Global Stupor?

Critical Thinking by Jonathan Haber

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Critical thinking is regularly cited as an essential twenty-first century skill, the key to success in school and work. Given our propensity to believe fake news, draw incorrect conclusions, and make decisions based on emotion rather than reason, it might even be said that critical thinking is vital to the survival of a democratic society. But what, exactly, is critical thinking? Jonathan Haber explains how the concept of critical thinking emerged, how it has been defined, and how critical thinking skills can be taught and assessed.

Machine Learning, Revised and Updated Edition by Ethem Alpaydin

"Cover of Machine Learning, Revised and Updated"

Today, machine learning underlies a range of applications we use every day, from product recommendations to voice recognition—as well as some we don’t yet use everyday, including driverless cars. It is the basis for a new approach to artificial intelligence that aims to program computers to use example data or past experience to solve a given problem. Ethem Alpaydin offers a concise and accessible overview of “the new AI.” This expanded edition offers new material on such challenges facing machine learning as privacy, security, accountability, and bias.

Nuclear Weapons by Mark Wolverton—Forthcoming February 2022

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Although the world’s attention has shifted to drone-controlled bombing and cyberwarfare, the threat of nuclear war still exists. There are now fourteen thousand nuclear weapons in the hands of the nine declared nuclear powers. Even though the world survived the Cold War, we need to understand what it means to live with nuclear weapons. In Nuclear Weapons, Mark Wolverton offers a primer on nuclear weapons, from the science of fission and fusion to the pursuit of mutual assured destruction, the SALT and START agreements, and the Bomb in pop culture.

Cybersecurity by Duane C. Wilson

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It seems that everything we touch is connected to the internet, from mobile phones and wearable technology to home appliances and cyber assistants. The more connected our computer systems, the more exposed they are to cyber attacks—attempts to steal data, corrupt software, disrupt operations, and even physically damage hardware and network infrastructures. In this book, cyber security expert Duane Wilson offers an accessible guide to cybersecurity issues for everyday users, describing risks associated with internet use, modern methods of defense against cyber attacks, and general principles for safer internet use.

Death and Dying by Nicole Piemonte and Shawn Abreu

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Death is a natural, inevitable, and deeply human process, and yet Western medicine tends to view it as a medical failure. In their zeal to prevent death, physicians and hospitals often set patients and their families on a seemingly unstoppable trajectory toward medical interventions that may actually increase suffering at the end of life. This book by Nicole Piemonte and Shawn Abreu examines the medicalization of death and dying and proposes a different approach—one that acknowledges death’s existential and emotional realities.

Gender(s) by Kathryn Bond Stockton

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In Gender(s), Kathryn Bond Stockton explores the fascinating, fraught, intimate, morphing matter of gender. Stockton argues for gender’s strangeness, no matter how “normal” the concept seems; gender is queer for everyone, she claims, even when it’s played quite straight. And she explains how race and money dramatically shape everybody’s gender, even in sometimes surprising ways. Playful but serious, erudite and witty, Stockton marshals an impressive array of exhibits to consider, including dolls and their new gendering, the thrust of Jane Austen and Lil Nas X, gender identities according to women’s colleges, gay and transgender ballroom scenes, and much more.

“Stockton presents an accessible, witty and contemporary examination of the true queerness of genders and gendering.” —Ms.

Science Fiction by Sherryl Vint

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The world today seems to be slipping into a science fiction future. We have phones that speak to us, cars that drive themselves, and connected devices that communicate with each other in languages we don’t understand. Depending on the news of the day, we inhabit either a technological utopia or a Brave New World nightmare. This book by media and cultural studies expert Sherryl Vint surveys the uses of science fiction. It focuses on what is at the core of all definitions of science fiction: a vision of the world made otherwise and what possibilities might flow from such otherness.

Read an excerpt from the book on the MIT Press Reader: A Century of Science Fiction That Changed How We Think About the Environment

Hate Speech by Caitlin Ring Carlson

"Cover of Hate Speech"

Hate speech can happen anywhere—in Charlottesville, Virginia, where young men in khakis shouted, “Jews will not replace us”; in Myanmar, where the military used Facebook to target the Muslim Rohingya; in Capetown, South Africa, where a pastor called on ISIS to rid South Africa of the “homosexual curse.” In person or online, people wield language to attack others for their race, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability, or other aspects of identity. In this book, Caitlin Ring Carlson examines hate speech: what it is, and is not; its history; and efforts to address it.

“Carlson presents a compelling view of a problem that seems to have no good answer and yet she provides suggestions for methods that might help to end the easy spread of hate speech in media and online.” —Shelf Awareness

Read a discussion with the author on the MIT Press Reader: Tackling Hate Speech: In Conversation with Caitlin Ring Carlson

Explore more of the Essential Knowledge Series