sci & lit

Nihilist Girl: Great Russian Mathematician Sofia Kovalevski 

Posted January 15, 2015
Sofia Kovalevski linocut
'Sofia Kovalevski', linocut 9.25" by 12.5" (23.5 cm by 32 cm), 2014 by Ele Willoughby
Today is the birthday of the great Russian mathematician and writer, Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevski (1850-1891), in honour of which, I'm going to make the first of a series of posts about scientists I've portrayed.

Also known as Sofie or Sonya, her last name has been transliterated from the Cyrillic Со́фья Васи́льевна Ковале́вска in a variety of ways, including Kovalevskaya and Kowalevski. Sofia's contributions to analysis, differential equations and mechanics include the Cauchy-Kovalevski theorem and the famed Kovalevski top (well, famed in certain circles, no pun intended). She was the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe or to serve as editor of a major scientific journal. She is also remembered for her contributions to Russian literature. All of this despite living when women were still barred from attending university. Her accomplishments were tremendous in her short but astonishing life.

Born Sofia Korvin-Krukovskaya, in Moscow, the second of three children, she attributed her early aptitude for calculus to a shortage of wallpaper, which lead her father to have the nursery papered with his old differential and integral analysis notes. Her parents nurtured her early interest in math, and hired her a tutor. The local priest's son introduced her to nihilism. So both her bent for revolutionary politics and passion for math were established early.

Unable to continue her education in Russia, like many of her fellow modern, young women including her sister, she sought a marriage of convenience. Women were both unable to study at university or leave the country without permission of their father or husband. Men sympathetic to their plight would participate in "fictitious marriages" to allow them an opportunity to seek further education abroad. She married the young paleontology student, Vladimir Kovalevsky, later famous for his collaboration with Charles Darwin. They emigrated in 1867, and by 1869 she enrolled in the German University of Heidelburg, where she could at least audit classes with the professors' permission. She studied with such luminaries as Helmholtz, Kirchhoff and Bunsen. She moved to Berlin and studied privately with Weierstrass, as women could not even audit classes there. In 1874, she present three papers, on partial differential equations, on the dynamics of Saturn's rings (as illustrated in my linocut) and on elliptic integrals as a doctoral dissertation at the University of of Göttingen. Weierstrass campaigned to allow her to defend her doctorate without usual required lectures and examinations, arguing that each of these papers warranted a doctorate, and she graduated summa cum laude - the first woman in Germany to do so.

She and her husband counted amongst their friends the great intellectuals of the day including Fyodor Dosteyevsky (who had been engaged to her sister Ann), Thomas Huxley, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and George Elliot. The sentence "In short, woman was a problem which, since Mr. Brooke's mind felt blank before it, could hardly be less complicated than the revolutions of an irregular solid." from Elliot's Middlemarch, is undoubtedly due to her friendship with Kovaleski. Sofia and Vladimir believed in ideas of utopian socialism and traveled to Paris to help those the injured from the Paris Commune and help rescue Sofia's brother-in-law, Ann's husband Victor Jaclard.

In the 1880s, Sofia and her husband had financial difficulties and a complex relationship. As a woman Sofia was prevented from lecturing in mathematics, even as a volunteer. Vladimir tried working in business and then house building, with Sofia's assistance, to remain solvent. They were unsuccessful and went bankrupt. They reestablished themselves when Vladimir secured a job. Sofia occupied herself helping her neighbours to electrify street lamps. They tried returning to Russia, where their political beliefs interfered with any chance to obtain professorships. They moved on to Germany, where Vladimir's mental health suffered and they were often separated. Then, for several years, they lived a real marriage, rather than one of convenience, and they conceived their daughter Sofia, called Fufa. When Fufa turned one, Sofia entrusted her to her sister so she could return to mathematics, leaving Vladimir behind. By 1883, he faced increasing mood swings and the threat of prosecution for his role in a stock swindle. He took his own life.

Mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler, a fellow student of Weierstrass, helped Sofia secure a position as a privat-docent at Stockholm University in Sweden. She developed an intimate "romantic friendship" with his sister, actress, novelist, and playwright Duchess Anne-Charlotte Edgren-Leffler, with whom she collaborated in works of literature, for the remainder of her too short life. In 1884 she was appointed "Professor Extraordinarius" (Professor without Chair) and became the editor of the journal Acta Mathematica. She won the Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Science, for her work on the rotation of irregular solids about a fixed point (as illustrated by the diagram in my linocut) including the discovery of the celebrated "Kovalevsky top". We now know there are only three fully integrable cases of rigid body motion and her solution ranks with those of mathematical luminaries Euler and Lagrange. In 1889, she was promoted to Professor Ordinarius (Professorial Chair holder) becoming the first woman to hold such a position at a northern European university. Though she never secured a Russian professorship, the Russian Academy of Sciences granted her a Chair, after much lobbying and rule-changing on her behalf.

Her writings include the memoir A Russian Childhood, plays written in collaboration with Edgren-Leffler, and the semi-autobiographical novel Nihilist Girl (1890).

Tragically, she died at 41, of influenza during the pandemic. Prizes, lectures and a moon crater have been named in her honour. She appears in film and fiction, including Nobel laureate Alice Munro's beautiful novella 'Too Much Happiness', a title taken from Sofia's own writing about her life.

The Periodic Table of Storytelling

Posted October 2, 2013

Since I've been thinking about the intersection of science and literature, I thought I'd share the Periodic Table of Storytelling.

Periodic Table of Storytelling by Dawn Paladin/ComputerSherpa

You can find a larger version here. I really like how he used the concept behind a periodic table of elements, rather than being too strictly literal and arbitrarily forcing their categorized tropes into the precise formation of the periodic table.  Each element has a one to three character acronym and little description to describe a trope, and they are grouped in periodic table-like families. Also, I'm charmed that he's listed Tbl Parodic Table of the Elements as one of the (pale yellow) Metatropes. Ooh, self-referentiallity! Further, the atomic number is replaced by 'Popularity in kilowicks' or the number of thousands of links to its page within the wiki. At the bottom he explains how the elements bond together in various stories (only two of which I know....  so I can't really tell is there is anything more than a design choice behind the nature of the drawn bonds), much like elements in a chemical compound. This is a a Parodic Table of the Elements made with some care and love.


The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

Posted September 5, 2013

I seem to have fallen out of the habit of regularly reviewing books on my blog. I used to be more disciplined about it, and there is a series of reviews on the minouette blog (and here), including the one below for one of my favorite books of the last several years. I've also mentioned The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet on magpie&whiskeyjack, comparing the whimsical maps and scientific illustration of everything incorporated into the work of artist Simon Evans with those of the more strictly empirical modern-day Humboltian cartography protegy Spivet. If you, like me, are inspired by the fertile intersection of art and science, this is a novel for you. You should go read it right away, because as I was very pleased to read this morning, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (director of Amelie, or Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain in French) has adapted the novel for a movie to be released in France (filmed in English, with French subtitles) in October.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

Reading this novel I thought, yes, this is what I want to do all the time. Why can't I just get paid to read books like this? I would be happy doing this indefinitely. Of course, are there books like this one? That is a harder question to answer. Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (best. name. ever.) is a gifted prodigy in cartography at 12 years old. He lives on a ranch near Divide, Montana, with his mother, stalled entomologist, Dr. Clair, his teenage sister, Gracie, who would love to escape their small town and peculiar family, and strong-silent cowboy father T.E. Spivet. His brother Layton, has died, and we slowly learn more. T.S. keeps different coloured notebooks for maps of people doing things: zoological, geological, and topographical maps; and insect anatomy (should Dr. Clair ever call on his help), respectively. T.S. learns he has won the prestigious Baird Award from the Smithsonian, for his incredible mapping and scientific illustration work, and his adventure begins, as he decides to accept in person, but being 12, he sees his best means of transport as to hop on a freight train and hobo east. In this beautiful, whimsically illustrated book, T.S. maps everything from the Continental divide, to beetle subspecies, to cowboy moves, to facial expressions, to geology, to how McDonald's "penetrates my permeable barrier of aesthetic longing", to concentration of litter in Chicago, to his family history, to a many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and what this might have meant for his family. This book is beautiful, in terms of the sensitivity and originality of the story (Wormholes of the Midwest! the hobo hotline?), the love of knowledge expressed, down to the layout of the text and images on the page. Maybe we will be lucky enough to be recruited into the Megatherium club. The manner in which this child's mind breaks up the world is a reminder of why science is wonderful and the joy of unfettered thinking. The story is also interwoven with that of T.S.' ancestors, including his great-grandmother the early geologist. We get both 'when science was young' and 'the young scientist'.

Maybe I'll go reread it myself now.  (cross-posted to minouette)

Litarature and Science

Posted April 11, 2013

I am of the opinion that the alleged gulf between art and science is not only exaggerated but to do a large degree a mere legend. Notwithstanding the high degree of specialization and training required of a contemporary scientist, which makes being a Renaissance man or woman a real challenge today, or the way education systems often force young people to chose one path or the other, we find artists involved involved in science in roles ranging from enthusiast to professional researcher producing peer reviewed studies. This has long been true and is reflected often in their art. Usually I write about the intersection of visual art and science. Today I want to look at writers of literature and science. The very concept of a 'scientist' is quite modern, and if we look back more than a couple of centuries, thinkers were thinkers and generally did 'all of the above'. Natural philosophy was rarely if ever a full-time gig. Even if we restrict ourselves to the era after the term 'scientist' was coined (by Whewell, initially in 1834), it's not hard to find a rich and fascinating intersection between the worlds of science and literature, beyond the obvious areas of science fiction or popularization of science. As Vladamir Nabokov wrote, "Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of ‘scientific’ knowledge joins the opposite slope of ‘artistic’ imagination?”

No less a writer than Charles Dickens corresponded with the great physicist and chemist Michael Faraday in 1850. Dickens wanted Faraday's Royal Society Christmas Lectures of 1848, Chemical History of a Candle, to be adapted for his weekly journal Household Words. Dickens wrote to Faraday that ‘it occurred to me that it would be extremely beneficial to a large class of the public to have some account of your late lectures on the breakfast-table…and (for) children.’ Faraday agreed, and Dickens assigned his friend Percival Leigh to write the adaptation. Dickens' interest in chemistry can be seen in his Christmas tale, A Haunted Man, written in 1848, in which a phantom appears to a chemist, 'a learned man in chemistry…surrounded by his drugs, instruments and books among a crowd of quaint objects…glass vessels that held liquids…’ named Redlaw. In this Dickensian Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the ghost offers Redlaw the ability to forget painful memories so long as he passes the gift on. Later, in Our Mutual Friend (1864–5), Dickens likens a mysterious retainer to a gloomy analytical chemist. (via Bill Griffith, Dickens and the Haunted Chemist, chemistry world)

Henry David Thoreau considered himself a civil engineer. He worked on a way to make pencils with inferior graphite, using clay as a binder, developed a new grinding mill, invented a pipe forming machine, and designed water wheels. (via).

We would never have Lewis Caroll's Alice, without Charles Dodgson's mathematics.

Mark Twain participating in an experiment in Tesla's laboratory. 
Century Magazine, April 1895. Source:
Literary giant Mark Twain and Serbian-American inventor, engineer, physicist and futurist Nikola Tesla became good friends and spent much time together in his lab and elsewhere.

"I had hardly completed my course at the Real Gymnasium when I was prostrated with a dangerous illness or rather, a score of them, and my condition became so desperate that I was given up by physicians. During this period I was permitted to read constantly, obtaining books from the Public Library which had been neglected and entrusted to me for classification of the works and preparation of the catalogues. One day I was handed a few volumes of new literature unlike anything I had ever read before and so captivating as to make me utterly forget my hopeless state. They were the earlier works of Mark Twain and to them might have been due the miraculous recovery which followed. Twenty-five years later, when I met Mr. Clemens and we formed a friendship between us, I told him of the experience and was amazed to see that great man of laughter burst into tears." — Nikola Tesla, Electrical experimenter magazine, 1919.

Twain had three patents of his own including an "Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments" to replace suspenders, a history trivia game and a self-pasting scrapbook in which the dried adhesive on the pages needed only to be moistened before use. This third invention enjoyed some actual commercial success.1 Thomas Edison visited Twain at home in 1909 and filmed him. Twain's interest in science and technology shines through in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, where the protagonist time traveler tries to introduce contemporary technology to the Arthurian court. This of course spawned a whole sub-genre of later science fiction.

Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, with Poe on the right, Source:

Edgar Allan Poe spent time at the “Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia,” doing research on mollusks. He's shown at right in the Academy's building at Board and Sansom Streets during the winter of 1842-43. This daguerrotype, possibly by Paul Beck Goddard, is incidentally the oldest-known photograph of the interior of an American museum (via Brainpickings). Poe was hired to write a preface and work on translating Cuvier's work on conchology from French into English. The work (The conchologist's first book: a system of testaceous malacology, arranged expressly for the use of schools, in which the animals, according to Cuvier, are given with the shells, a great number of new species added, and the whole brought up, as accurately as possible, to the present condition of the science), written by Thomas Wyatt (with some text lifted from English naturalist Thomas Brown) was attributed to Poe, perhaps in the aim of attracting more sales. His own biographers accused Poe of plagiarism, seemingly embarrassed by his foray into natural philosophy, but modern historians of science see that Poe actually reorganized Wyatt's work, having learned from Cuvier that shell shape wasn't enough to classify mollusks and made genuinely useful contributions to the taxonomy of these creatures. (via the Smithsonian Library and Engines of our Ingenuity)

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) admires a catch aboard the Pilar, 1934. Source:

Ernest Hemingway whose passion for sport-fishing is well-known, was a later member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. In 1934, the Academy's Managing Director Cadwalader asked for his aid for a research expedition to study the life histories, migrations, and classifications of Atlantic marlin, tuna, and sailfish, lead by the Academy's Chief Ichthyologist, Henry W. Fowler, in Cuban waters. The three of them spent a month aboard Hemingway's vessel, the Pilar, catching, measuring and classifying fish. Correspondence between them after the expedition shows that Hemingway contributed to Fowler's ability to accurately classify the marlin of the Atlantic Ocean. (via ANSP) Hemingway's love of fish and fishing are of course evident in the fishers in his stories, not least The Old Man and the Sea.

Nabokov's drawing of a heavily spotted Melissa blue and the scale-row classification system he developed for mapping individual markings. Source:

Perhaps better known than Hemingway's contribution to ichthyology, is Vladimir Nabokov's contributions to lepidoptery (or the study of butterflies). As well as writing and teaching literature at Wellesley, he worked as the de facto curator of lepidoptery at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and in fact wrote Lolita on butterfly-collection trips in the western United States each summer.2 After these trips he published detailed descriptions of hundreds of different species. He wrote, "My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.”3 Recently, research has shown that Nabokov's hypothesis that the American Polyommatus blues had evolved over millions of years of successive waves of emigration from Asia is true. His dissections and alternate classification methods based on their multifarious genitalia lead him to question the accepted relationships between species and even speculate that “a modern taxonomist straddling a Wellsian time machine,” would find only Asian forms of the butterflies existed millions of years ago, but that five waves of butterflies would arrive in the New World with advancing time. Kurt Johnson revived Nabokov's classification scheme in 2000, and with Coates wrote the book Nabokov's Blues. The species Nabokovia cuzquenha was named in his honour. His disputed claim that the rare Karner blue butterfly is distinct form Melissa blues has recently been supported by detailed DNA sequencing. Then in 2011, entomologists reconstructed the evolutionary tree of blues and found that Nabokov's emigration hypothesis was right and further that they emigrated as he imagined, via the Bering straight and then south. (via NYT)

I started reading Jeanette Winterson after I heard her interviewed about Gut Symmetries, which of course alluded to GUT (or Grand Unified Theories) symmetries in particle physics. Her 1997 novel about a love triangle, held together like quarks in a proton or neutron, plays on contemporary physics. She explained in the interview how her fascination with quantum mechanics and cosmology lead her to get a physics tutor and then write this novel. A.S. Byatt's novels are full of scientists doing actual science. In particular zoology, entomology, neuroscience and the theme of Darwinism are common. She's called herself a "failed scientist".4 Unlike Keats who claimed science stole nature's magic, she told the Independent, "Science is now, and was even in Keats's day, revealing to us mysteries and miracles considerably greater on the whole than those invented by poets."5 She explains that, "We have a moral responsibility to engage with science, we're destroying the natural world quite rapidly."4 Author Alan Lightman of course, is a physicist (who works on theoretical astrophysics, General Relativity particularly under extreme conditions like accretion disks around blackholes). His most well-know novel, Einstein's Dreams is very tied to physics - a sort of poetic and literary telling of relativity, time and fantasy.

Whether impelled by their sense of moral responsibility or sheer interest in the world around them, these authors have not only stayed abreast of their contemporary science, or communicated science elegantly, many of them have participated in the grand enterprise itself. After all, explaining the world is a variation of the process of writing; it's a function of observing closely, and telling stories. As scientists we of course must test our hypotheses, make testable predictions and ensure our hypotheses are consistent with all available data (requirements not explicitly made on the novelist), but at its heart, science is also about storytelling, both working to understand and working to explain: can we tell a self-consistent story about a given phenomenon? I don't think it's all that surprising that writers who care about people, the world and think closely about these things are also attracted to the natural world around them.

Book Review: Seduced by Logic

Posted April 5, 2013

detail from a portrait of Madame de Pompadour by Francois Boucher.
Seduced by Logic - Émilie du Châtelet, Mary Somerville And the Newtonian Revolution by Robyn Arianrhod. 

I picked up this book because Émilie Du Châtelet and Mary Somerville! While the two are not entirely an obvious pairing, born almost a century apart, on either side of the Channel, they are two of author Robyn Arianrhod's favorite women in history (and mine). They both taught themselves mathematics and became world authorities on Newtonian mechanics, when few imagined a woman capable or even interested in such a thing. Émilie may today be remembered as Voltaire's lover, but her impact on continental physics, and bringing Newton's Principia to Europe (and even to those in England more able to read French than Latin) cannot be overstated. To this day, modern translators of Newton's Principia (where he finally, after much goading, printed the bulk of his understanding of mechanics and his famous three laws), still rely on Émilie's translation, explanations and re-organization of his work. She was aristocrat who not only dedicated herself to knowledge, writing about physics and experimentation, she enjoyed clothing and could be extravagant. Voltaire was known to call her Madame Newton-Pompom-du Châtelet for the pompoms she wore. His own writings on physics were written in collaboration with her and often quoted her word for word. It wasn't long before her skills and interest far exceeded his own. She had some insight into the relationship between light colour and heat, long before a modern understanding of energy (at the time, scholars debated whether kinetic energy or momentum was the pertinent thing - we now know that both are important, yet distinct). She leaned towards Leibniz' ideas on the subject, which shows how she was at the cutting edge of contemporary physics knowledge and debate. She translated Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees into French and used the preface to denounce the prejudice that prevented women from access to a proper education. Nonetheless, a product of her time, she focused more on her daughter's marriage prospects and her son's education. She had to fight to be taken seriously and deal with sexism from even the well-meaning; she and contemporary part-time Bolognese physics professor Laura Bassi were not impressed when their friend Algarotti wrote a rather patronizing popularization of Newton's physics called (I wish I were kiding) Newtonianism for the Ladies (I feel like there is a Kate Beaton comic in this anecdote). The story of her long-lasting relationship with Voltaire is quite fascinating, as is that of her husband, Voltaire and final lover Saint-Lambert all at her bedside with she died. Mary Fairfax Somerville was born in 1780 in Scotland and allowed to run wild, roaming the fields. She happened upon mathematics at 15, when she saw which published mathematical puzzles. She proceeded to try to teach herself using one of her father's books on navigation, and convincing her brother's tutor to buy her Euclid's Elements. Luckily when she first attempted solving published puzzles she met another self-taught mathematician and early mentor Wallace. Soon she moved on to Laplace's Celestial Mechanics, which she would eventually translate into English - and her translation became the standard university text for decades. This brought her fame. After a brief, unhappy marriage, she was mercifully widowed, and went on to meet her beloved husband and supporter of 41 years, William Somerville. As she continued to educate herself and write about mathematics and astronomy, she came to meet the leading scientists of the day (before the word or concept of a 'scientist' really had meaning... in fact the word was coined by Whewell when reviewing one of her books). She also wrote On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), Physical Geography (1848), and Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869). In 1835, she and Caroline Herschel became the first women members of the Royal Astronomical Society. Her excellent writing skills made her a best-selling author of science texts. She also believed in the rights of women and in 1868 (at age 87), she signed John Stuart Mill's unsuccessful petition for female suffrage. These two women and their stories are inspiring and the book is engaging. Unlike many history of science books this one has the context needed to really understand the contemporary state of science and the role they played, since Arianrhod is an astrophysicist by training; she does put the mathematics in an appendix, if that's not your thing - but it's all there for those of us who appreciate it.

Illustrating Science

I just saw a preview for The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate the Wondrous  Mysteries of the Universe (Chronicle Books, 2012) by Matt Lamote, Julia Rothman, and Jenny Volvovskim who collaborated with a collection of scientists who wrote essays on a series of questions of science and a collection of 75 artists and illustrators who illustrated each question. They specifically gave artists free reign to represent the science as literally or imaginatively as they desired. At left is a fairly literal illustration by Isaac Tobin relating to whether earthquakes are predictable.

Yelena Bryksenkova's illustration for "the peppered moth, which changed color over several generations in response to industrial pollution in london" in answer to the question of whether evolution can outpace climate change.

Matt Forsythe's illustration for the question, "If humans and chimps have nearly identical DNA, how can we be so different?"

Gilbert Ford's illustration for why people blush.

Lotta Nieminen's illustration of latitudinal patterns in species diversity.

JooHee Yoon's illustration for "why do we dream?"

I really like the idea of combining the reasonably strict "scientific illustration" shown on the cover with more artistic freedom (as long as it's clearly the goal, as it is here). Sometimes scientific illustration is less than true to the science not because it uses a metaphoric artistic language, but because there's been some sort of break down in communication; that of course, is not something I appreciate (except, occasionally, because it's funny). Often concepts in science cannot be illustrated in a literal way without highly technical diagrams and associated education to 'read' these diagrams. Occassionally scientists wax poetic in their language, to handle communicating the difficult-to-communicate. Rarely, are they afforded a chance to be figurative in their figures (or work with artists to do so). Between that and the line up of illustrators, I think I would like to get my hands on this book. After all, science, art and books are three of my favorite things.


Book Review: The Game

Posted December 16, 2011

books in the snow, wit of the staircase

(image source)

The Game by A.S. Byatt This is a shorter, early novel by Byatt, which tells the story of two adult sisters, Casandra the Oxford don and Medievalist, and Julia, best-selling novelist. As children they had an elaborate, shared, imaginative life and the titular game, inspired by Medieval romances, reminiscent of what the young Brontë sisters made with their mythology of Gondal and the associated maps and stories they created together. The adult sisters are distant, but brought together when their father has a stroke. They grew apart, we learn, as the novel progresses, due to a series of perceived transgressions (Julia writing about their shared game, their mutual and competitive love of the neighbour Simon -now a jungle-dwelling herpetologist with a budding TV career, Cassandra's rather melodramatic denunciation of the family's Quaker faith and conversion to Anglicanism, Julia's sort of self-sabotaging hero-worship for her older sister). Cassandra is a spinster, with a secret obsession still for Simon, who shared her early religious investigations. Julia is married to would-be Quaker saint Thor, and has a teenage daughter Deborah. Julia finds herself on a TV show about art and ideas, through which Simon re-enters their lives. Once again, Byatt has a natural scientist as a character to involve zoology, but also the symbol and mythology of snakes and serpents. I appreciate her consistent argument that science, like art, contributes to culture. Julia, initially intending to repair her relationship with her sister, ends up writing a novel, which is a thinly-veiled story of Cassandra and her relationship with and to Simon, without much thought to consequences. This is a study of family relationships, unrequited love, ideas, the nature of art versus science, writing, mental health, suicide, charity, academia, and responsibility. The characters feel quite real and the story is engaging, though it is perhaps less of a tapestry of ideas than Byatt's later novels. 


Book Reviews: Too much happiness, The Crying of Lot 49, ghost

Posted November 14, 2011

(image by Mladen Penev

Too much happiness by Alice Munro.  
This is an excellent collection of short stories and the titular novella. (It won the 2009 Man Booker International Prize). I sought it out because I am interested in Sophie Kovaleskaya (there are various spellings and means of transliterating from Cyrillic characters, Со́фья Васи́льевна Ковале́вская) the nineteenth century master of mathematics and literature, and first female university professor in Northern Europe. Like the other (fictional) characters in these stories, her real life and marriage was complex, and she sought love in the wrong places. The stories have stayed with me; the people seem real, with faults and virtues, interacting in ways they don't foresee any more than the reader would. Several stories are overshadowed by violence, or the threat thereof. The collection is capped with the novella based on the facts of Kovaleskaya's turbulent life (her nursery wallpapered with her father's old calculus notes, her introduction to nihilism, her initially sham marriage as a means to escape Russia and pursue a higher eduction, her fight to study mathematics and her relationship with her thesis supervisor Karl Weierstrass, her return to Russia, the birth of her daughter, the complexity and end of her marriage, her writing, her life and professorship in Sweden, her lover, her premature death) and her ironic last words, 'Too much happiness.' Beautifully crafted and plotted stories.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I managed to read another Pynchon novel, but this early one is a mere 126 pages. Though, he packs those pages with more life, conspiracy, insanity, radio DJs, dead millionaires, secret codes, illegal underground mail systems, engineer bars complete with Lissajous figures on an oscilloscope for a sign, dive motels, psychiatrists doling out LSD to housewives, skeletons, a teenage band called the Paranoids, clues in bloody Jacobean Revenge Plays, stamp collecting, and one sex scene of more slapstick hilarity than can be imagined without reading the book. Oedipa Maas gets more than she bargained for when she agrees to be the executor of her former lover's estate.

ghost by Alan Lightman. I've read a few of physicist-turned-novelist Alan Lightman's books and articles. I really enjoyed Einstein's Dreams, which was genuinely new and innovative. I have found some of his writing less to my taste. I wasn't sure what I was getting into with ghost. As it turns out, it's compelling and subtle novel about a man struggling to cope with something that defies characterization. David was always smart, but did not finish law school. He finds himself, divorced from a wife he adored and mystified how he lost his job at the bank. He takes a job at a mortuary, temporarily he thinks, because he needs a salary. There, in the resting room, he sees something. That is where his problems begin. How does he process what he's seen? What should he say or not say to the people in his life (his girlfriend, the people in his apartment building, his colleagues, and ultimately, the press and scientists who become embroiled in the story). This is a very earnest character-driven story, and the relationships between the characters are quite something. It's also a meditation on knowledge, the bounds of knowledge and superstition. 

Book Review: Mason and Dixon

 Posted August 25, 2011

(image source, could easily be a representation of a certain character)
Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon 
In which Mr. Pynchon's wild, Unfettered, Profound, tightly woven (and Sporadically, giving the Appearance, of Unhinged) Mind takes on the Lives of two Eighteenth Century English Astronomers, Servants of the Royal Society, now Best Rem'mbred for their Survey of of the Boundary of Pennsylvania and Maryland.... Though the language is suited to the protagonist's era (complete with unfathomable capitalization rules) and the narrative winding and non-linear, ... it's addictive.

While less raucous than Gravity's Rainbow, it had level of detail and critical eye for history I've come to expect - both mentioning figures from the history of science like Bouguer, someone I would only expect geophysicists to know (and then, really, only those of us who work with potential fields methods, and I don't even expect anyone reading this to know what 'potential fields methods' means), and forcing me to reconsider my thoughts on General Wolfe. Dixon is identified as 'Geordie', and Wolfe's actions in Northern England, what today we would call union-busting, like his actions in Scotland (covered in the next novel I read - No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod) go beyond pragmatic into mercenary, despite the heroic image presented in Canadian history books. It does present an epic story just prior to and after the American Revolution (both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin appear as characters), but it is unflinching in detailing the violence including massacres of native people and the slave trade and its brutality, and the plight of women. Both Mason and Dixon are reminded of their time in South Africa, and are repulsed, the Quaker Dixon in particular. It wouldn't be Pynchon without the delightfully absurd Learnèd English Dog (L.E.D.), a chatty terrier, snooty pirates, the ghost of Mason's wife, sentient clocks (and Harrison's clock, of Longitude fame), a lovesick duck automaton chasing the object of her desire, a French master-chef through the woods, Jesuit plots and prostitute-nuns, a Chinese Jesuit Feng shui practitioner, serious coffee abuse, flying over leylines and a variety of magic accomplished through the magnetic and telluric fields of the earth, and the mysterious power of their surveyed line itself. It is epic, serious, absurd, and a touching tale of friendship between our odd couple, Mason and Dixon.

Book Review: Heavenly Intrigue and Natural Experiments in History

 Posted August 25, 2011

(image credit: Ramon Casas- Decadence 1899)
Heavenly Intrigue - Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History's Greatest Scientific Discoveries by Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder  

This was great. You should read it. I read a lot of history of science, and sometimes when you read a book like this you think perhaps the history of science books should be left to people who aren't scientists. I am a big fan of Tycho Brahe. The Danish sixteenth century astronomer not only found a supernova, but his excellence as an experimentalist and insistence on repetability of measurements literally provided a definition of the modern scientific method. He does not get enough credit. That's partially because he had one biographer who disliked him (as the Gilders convincingly show) and he was painted as a hot-head, who lost his nose in a duel over a woman of questionable reputation (which is quite unfair, and also fails to express the sheer commonplace nature of dueling amongs the Danish nobility of the time). Further, Tycho lived his life in the open, including his devotion to his life-long, common-law wife and his efforts to ensure his offspring could inherit, so it's not so surprising he had a metal nose made and got on with it. Without Tycho's data Kepler would not have been able to calculate his three laws of planetary motion (and come within a hair's breath of Newton's law of Universal Gravitation). It would have been very easy to erroneously assume orbits were circular, not ellipses (as the orbits are damn near circles) but Tycho's data was too good for this and included estimates of accuracy. Tycho often gets a lot of flack from theorists for failing to entirely accept the Copernican heliocentric model of our solar system. The Tychonian model has the planets rotating the sun, and the whole kit n' kaboodle circling the Earth. This is often explained as his reticence to make that 'paradigm shift'. The Gilders put the lie to this idea. They show that he would have accepted the model, except the notion that the Earth rotates around the sun would lead any good astronomer to deduce that there would be stellar paralax. (Hold your index finger up and look at it with alternating eyes closed - left-right-left-right. The finger appears to move because of binocular paralax. As we trace out our orbit through space, we expect the stars' observed positions to change through the same effect. This does in fact happen, but because the Universe is many many orders of magnitude larger than Tycho knew, the effect is so small, it was not observed till the 20th century. So, like a good experimentalist, he was unable to accept a theory which was counterdicted by the data.) I've read previous (disappointing) biographies of Kepler. This biography certainly paints him in an unflattering light, though the assessments from his diaries are self-assessments. The authors produce a convincing argument that Tycho Brahe was murdered (an expert experimentalist and alchemist/pharmacist, he was poisoned) and then establish a motive, a rather bizarre and anti-social character, opportunity for Kepler that they use to argue that .... guess who did it? While a using forensic science to solve a murder from 1601 will by necessity require some circumstantial evidence (I am convinced of the poisoning but not entirely of the poisoner), they tell a good story. Further, since they go back to the primary sources, they avoid the mistake of far too many scientists, of re-telling legends. It's good to know that one does not in fact die from neglecting to relieve one's bladder at a royal banquet. I'm sure some guests of this week's upcoming nuptials will be relieved.

Natural Experiments of History. Edited by Jared Diamond and James A. Robinson. 

Now, I read this because the journalist brought home the uncorrected page proofs, as newspapers can not store these free books from publishers indefinitely. So, it's not impossible a couple of the more eggregious statements were removed by a sensible person at the Harvard University Press before the final version was put to press. One can only hope so, though I doubt they will bother re-plot the data, unfortunately. I was intrigued. The editors point out that any field of study involving the past cannot be directly investigated with experiments, however some "natural experiments" can often be drawn from amongst events which have occured which can allow us to draw insight from comparative case studies on one end of the spectrum through to quantitative analysis. I think this is great, and fairly obvious to an earth scientist - someone trained with all the numerical tools of a physicist to study the earth where natural changes happen over geological time. I read the chapters on a variety of subjects which would not normally cross my path (Polynesian cultural evolution, parterns of boom and bust in settler societies of the 19th century, development of new world banks and the relationship to government, ecology and inter-island comparisons in Polynesia or intra-island comparisons between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the present-day economic consequences of slavery on Africa, land tenure and public good in India, the spread of the French revolution in conquered regions of what is now Germany). These were very interesting and for the most part convincing - partially because the analysis of numerical data was so shallow and claims so small that they had to be convincing (i.e. x and y are positively corrolated, when with some no-how it would have been posible to establish far more significant claims.) The attitude of the editors, Diamond in particular, was rather unfortunate. I should have guessed when I read in the Prologue that the inability to make controlled and replicated laboratory experiments "misleads laboratory scientists into looking down on fields of science that cannot employ manipulative experiments" that perhaps this was not to be a book which celebrates scholarship without petty inter-disciplinary biases. The comparisons to science are neither helpful nor accurate and the comments about statistics are downright rude. By the time I reached the Afterword, and read the scorn-drenched sentence, "Mathematicians and physical scientists who have never tried to measure something as important as urbanization or happiness often sneer at the efforts of social scientists to operationalize these concepts, and they quote examples of operationalizing pulled out of context to justify their scorn," I wondered about the burden of carrying around such a chip on one's shoulder and whether that was what blinded them to the possible benefit of seeking some advice from "mathematicians and physical scientists" - you know they sort of people who have known about the importance of error analysis since Tycho Brahe, when handling messy data. I will say what I do think is dreadful: Diamond's own chapter actually states that he and co-author aren't staticians so they hired one and these are the results (without any sort of evidence whatsoever... unless you count the advice to go read the article they wrote with the aid of the stastician elsewhere). That would not pass the peer review in science. It's simply inconceivable. I doubt that there's anything wrong with their models, but have the respect to share them with your audience rather than say, this is the right answer, trust me. Further I am saddened that a dataset which strikes me as downright heroic (imagine gathering the records of all slaves exported from Africa for centuries) is not used to its full potential. Lastly, there are entire paragraphs written to explain the unexpected "trends" in voter turn-out versus nature of land tenure in India when it is obvious that a random-number generator could produce an equivalent plot. THERE IS NO TREND. Basic hypothesis-testing, which is something taught to undergraduates in say, biology or statistics could have avoided these needless errors. Some of these articles could have been vastly improved if the authors learned to judge the quality of a linear fit by looking at the chi-squared per degrees of freedom. Pity they took more time taking cheap shots at the numerate, and too little time to learn why and how we apply numerical methods. These words and attitudes really taint what otherwise would have been a fascinating book.

My desire to read any of Diamond's other books has plummeted.

Analogy, Metaphor, Literature and the Brain

Posted February 10, 2011

scan of multimedia valentine
minouette's thinking of you
This morning I've been listening to A.S. Byatt being interviewed by the Australian Radio National 'All in the Mind' for National Science Week. It was a great pleasure to hear a favorite author talk about her love of science, her horror at the idea that the English Department would be the centre of the University, snail neurons, mirror neurons, her mind maps (though she doesn't use that term) and the colours of her novels (in an almost synesthesian* sense).

I am fascinated by the intersection of art and science, and this is one of the reasons I am so fond of her novels. She quite clearly articulates that she understands what some of her more disdainful peers in literature did not; that science is very much a creative field of endeavour. Further, she explains how she develops some of the key concepts underlying her novels (specifically Babel Tower) through the process of analogy, which she links to metaphor. Byatt is quite obsessed with metaphor, as well as being very interested in neurology. As such, I always think she should read one of my other favorite authors, Douglas Hofstadter. I am always telling people they should read Gödel, Escher, Bach, and then refusing to lend it to them, because I need to have it on my bookshelf at all time.**

Hofstadter works in artificial intelligence, so he thinks very deeply about how it is we think. He feels that analogy is the core of cognition, as he explains in the amusing and unpretentious lecture included below (the unpretentious part his lecture itself begins at 13.5 minutes in). When I was in grad school and he came to give a physics colloquium. He was trained as a physicist (and in fact, his father was a Nobel laureate in physics). He created a wonderful lecture on how Einstein, in his miraculous year (1905 - wherein he discovered the core of special relativity and much of the core of quantum mechanics), came up with his ideas through the process of ANALOGY. Einstein was also a great and honest observer of his own mind. The talk as I recall it, in fact, went through the entire history of physics and explained it all as a process of analogy. I'll give you but a hint: Rutherford proposed his model of the atom (which of course is both wrong, and a revolutionary step forward) with electrons circling the positively-charged nucleus by analogy to our model of the solar system, with planets orbiting the sun.

I think it is quite wonderful that Byatt can look to science as a means of enriching her literature - not simply with pretty metaphors, but in a deep structural sense, and Hofstadter can look at the tiniest linguistic errors we make***, and see them as data on how it is we actually think. In the interview Byatt speaks about mirror neurons - neurons which light up both when we perform an act and when we see an act performed. This is explained as a possible source of empathy. I wonder if this mirroring (which I've seen also postulated as an explanation for how we understand facial expression) does in fact indicate that on a fundamental level we understand actions we observe directly from analogy - not just in a higher level 'software' sense, as Hofstadter tends to discuss, but in a neuron-level 'hardware' sense as well.

*Is this a word? I think it should be. I created it by analogy.
**I made an exception for the time, years ago, I convinced my friend JM to go get it signed by Hofstadter, since I had to teach when he was speaking with the grad students in our department. JM was a good sport. I confess I was actually unsure I wanted to meet Hofstadter - because I was uncertain he would match the mental construct I had formed of him in my head. This is ironic since I formed my ideas about mental constructs of people partly by reading Hofstadter's Le Ton Beau de Marot (which of course, is in English).
***He collects linguistic slips. My favorite, of the spoken errors in English by native speakers, which I have observed is one made by my friend Jill. Jill once said, "I'm turd, even though I have a chordle-neck on." I love that 'turd' came from 'turtle' and 'cold' not only swapped places with the first syllable of 'turtle', it also morphed into 'chord', because, presumably, she couldn't drop the 'r' sound. (Also, it's quite interesting that I typed 'turdle' before correcting myself with 'turtle'). But, most of all, I love that she said, "I'm turd" and persisted with her sentence despite the fact that I was laughing uncontrollably. Incidentally, Jill also faces a prospect discussed late in this lecture. That was a teaser, to try to intice you to listen to it.

Book reviews: White Noise, The Stone Gods,  R.U.R.,
Posted December 29, 2010

{image 'Robot Reading' by CarlosNCT}
The themes of my reading lately seem to be mass consumerism, war, environmental degradation (see mass consumerism), people stranded waiting for their boat to come in and robots. I don't know why.
White Noise by Don Delillo
I got the 25th Anniversary Edition (by Deluxe Classics - incidentally, one with a beautifully illustrated cover and elegant design), which I mention because it does stand up 25 years later. It does seem farsighted (with the exception perhaps of the state of air travel, which Delillo did not foresee) - our world is full of more and more noise. It's a great novel, though hard to categorize. Part academic satire, send up of consumerist society, Big Pharma, television, and government, part environmental warning, both poking fun at the modern 'blended' family while simultaneously gently portraying the relationships and love there, it is also about death, and our obsessions and fears. It follows a year of Prof. Jack Gladney's life (Chair, and inventor of 'Hitler Studies'! at The-College-on-the-Hill, despite ignorance of German). He's on his fourth wive Babette - who teaches breathing in church basements and has a morbid fear of death - with whom he's raising four of their various children and this and previous relationships. Everything from the Airborne Toxic Event to the mysterious drug Dylar manages to be both entertaining and provide insightful commentary on the state of our world. It is a great read.
the stone gods by Janette Winterson 
Before I read David Mitchell's The Cloud Atlas I would have said I had read nothing like it, but now I see parallels in the stone gods. Both are ultimately about how we use and use and use the earth's resources and each other. Both are set in multiple times and places, linked by a manuscript, including the future, and the south Pacific of two centuries past. Both involve robots and the distinctions between natural and created lifeforms. I think if I hadn't read The Cloud Atlas, I would be more impressed with the stone gods, but it is nonetheless an excellent novel, and one of the best I've seen from Winterson. Read it. There are love stories, explorers, space travel - with pirates, robots, literature, Robinson Crusoe, dinosaurs, Easter Island, dystopian future England, woven into an elegantly structured and thought-provoking cautionary tale. She clearly loves stories, but is concerned here with nothing less than the fate of the planet. (And I for one, appreciate that she bothers to be careful and clever with her planetary science).
R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek 
Karel Čapek, Czech playwright, introduced the world to the word 'robot' in 1921 with this play, in which he imagines a world where robots have been invented to relieve man of labour. They are grown on a factory on a remote island, and appear to be just like people, but lack emotions. Helena, daughter of the President of some industrialized nation, visits the island with its small group of men and one woman (manager, engineer, physiologist, psychologist, managing director, clerk and maid) with the view of freeing the robots. She is unable to incite rebellion, as they have no emotions, and she falls for Domin, the General Manager. The play continues years further into the future when the robots have spread around the globe, to do all labour, and even work as soldiers, and the creation of 'national robots' foments more war. Human births decline (presumably inspiration for Children of Men). Eventually the now universal robots - slaves- of course, do rebel, and our human characters may be the last of their kind. However, the robots can do everything but reproduce on their own... This is a fascinating play - it is as much about industrialization and the dangers of nationalism (viewed by a far-sighted Czech in the 1920s, known for his fearless campaigns against both Nazism and Communism) as much as its science fiction subject. But it also hits upon the question of what is human, and under what criteria would a machine match a human.

 The Chess Machine by Robert Löhr, translated from German by Anthea Bell

This is a sort of 'intellectual beach book' like the stories of Arturo Perez-Reverte. The Chess Machine, for those of you who aren't history of science, engineering and computing nerds, was an actual automaton, presented by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen at the Austrian court in Vienna in 1770 - 'The Mechanical Turk'. Except, of course, it was a hoax. The fearsome Turk purported to play chess - invincibly of course. At the time automatons were popular and his rivals produced a mechanized statue which could write and a sort of robot duck (which waddled, ate and well, defecated) and the like. Kempelen however, promised to wow the court, and he succeed with his Turk, a machine which allegedly could think. The novel centres around Tibor, a devout war veteran and dwarf, making his living through chess, whom Kempelen rescues from a Venetian prison and recruits as the hidden brains of the Turk, hidden behind the gears and showy machinery. Reviewers seem to have taken this novel more seriously than I - citing 'psychological depth' and 'period detail'. I enjoyed the novel, but wonder whether, for instance the chapter wherein Tibor meets Mesmer and is 'magnetized' and enjoys a threesome with two masked noblewomen using Classical monikers, or the unlikely infatuation of the lusty Hungarian Baroness with the automaton, or the rather ham-fisted recurring image of plucked eyeballs, constitute 'psychological depth' or 'period detail'. However, it's certainly entertaining, and it has some basis in actual events.

Plotting Stories

Posted August 12, 2010

I feel these whimsical yet truthful plots by Kurt Vonnegut speak for themselves, but you should go read the article too. {via swissmiss}

Book Review: Curiosity

Posted July 30, 2010

(image by Andre Martins de Barros)
Curiosity by Joan Thomas
If you know anything about the history of earth science, you will know the name Lyme Regis, neither as English beach resort, nor as the set of Persuasion but as cliffs which were key to early 19th century understanding of the very nature of fossils, and the beginning of paleontology. Curiosity is a novel based on the life of Mary Anning, "fossilist", dealer and paleontologist. Anning was an outsider in every way - a working class woman, a religious dissenter, whose natural intelligence, insight, sense of injustice and largely self-taught knowledge set her apart. At a time when women were not even allowed to attend the meetings of the Geological Society of London, let alone belong to the Society, some upper class gentlemen-scientists seemed barely capable of acknowledging the daughter of a cabinet maker as a fellow human being (citing the gentlemen who purchased her fossil finds, rather than name her), most of her siblings did not even survive childhood and geologists were still trying to explain dinosaur fossils in terms of the Biblical flood story, Anning single-handedly found, identified and excavated dinosaur, fish and marine fossils (the first ichthyosaur skeleton to be correctly identified, the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found, the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany). Other real-life characters appear in the novel, including, Henry De la Beche, William Buckland, William Conybeare and Elizabath Philpot - all of whom owe certainly their fossil collections, and some of their fame and success in science to the discoveries of Anning. This is a novel, and a love story. Joan Thomas relied on primary sources which allude to a secret of Anning's, possibly thwarted love. She takes the liberty to interpret this as a love between Mary and Anning's great supporter and friend, who eulogized her to the Geological Society, Henry De la Beche. De la Beche was a bit of an iconoclast himself - expelled from military college for insubordination, willing to question received wisdom and be an actual scientist, rather than a theological apologist, and able to recognize genius in a woman, and a working-class woman at that. Nontheless, he also was a plantation -and slave-owner in Jamaica, for all his otherwise progressive beliefs. It makes for a rich story, of memorable, rounded characters, in a time of change and discovery.


Book review: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing

Posted: April 12, 2010 

(photograph by Nina Leen)
The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Richard Dawkins. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. There were some excellent selections, interesting themes, authors who were new to me, and I (a professional scientist) learned many things. Some authors are stars or revolutionaries in their fields. Some are scientists with a real gift for communication. A few science writers are represented. Any anthology, as soon as it is published, is open to second guessing about content. I can recommend this book The Oxford Book of Modern Science Evolutionary Biology with Bits of Astrophysics and Some Other Things -Especially Entropy* Writing (note: entropy is over-represented but it is arguably the portion of physics with the most ramifications for, you guessed it, evolutionary biology and genetics) as an excellent repository of some science writing over the last century. The content is excellent, if biased towards Dawkins' own field of evolutionary biology. Now, when a scientist accuses another scientist of bias, well, them's fightin' words, but I'm not certain Dawkins would find an accusation of bias in favour of evolutionary biology all that insulting. It's sort of like water to fishes, or the air we breathe; when something is omnipresent sometimes it's difficult to notice. Like a good experimentalist, I thought I would try to be quantitative, not just qualitative in my analysis. (I recognize by presenting statistics in a book review about science writing I'll probably loose my last imaginary reader, but I'm afraid I don't care. Numbers are useful, and our friends, so stick with me!) In order to insure some sort of impartiality, after doing my own count, I switched to identifying author disciplines based on his one-line biographies. So these are disciplines according to Dawkins himself:

Number of entries in the book: 88
Number of Featured Authors: 83 (this does not include hapless co-authors)

You can see that 'soft' or biological sciences in cool colours are well over half the entries, leaving the orange and red 'hard' physical sciences a mere third of the entries. The slight to chemistry seems very odd, but poor Earth and planetary sciences (geology, geophysics, geochemistry, atmospheric science, oceanography) are not represented at all (though one paleontology entry comes close to geology).

Biological Sciences
Biologists: 12 (4 of whom get two entries)
Zoologists: 3
Evolutionary Biologists: 11
Molecular Biologist: 1

Philosopher of Biology: 1
Ecologists: 2

Neurobiologists: 1
Neuropsychologists: 2
Psychologists: 2
Medical Doctors: 2

Paleontologists & Paleoanthropologists: 5 (2 of whom get two entries)

I confess I would lump a lot of the above into an undifferentiated mass labelled 'biology' or 'soft sciences'.

Earth & Planetary Sciences
Geology: 0 (though in fairness, one of the Paleontologists is pretty close)
Geophysics: 0
Geochemistry: 0 (though one of the chemists give a hint)
Planetary Science: 0 (though some astronomers allude to it)
Atmospheric Physics: 0
Climatology: 0
Oceanography: 0

Physical Sciences
Chemistry: 2
Physics: 16
Astronomy: 7 (3 of whom get two entries and 1 of whom writes about, you guessed it, evolutionary biology)
Frankly, differentiating these last two groups is somewhat arbitrary.

Mathematics: 7
Philosophy: 1 (about, you guessed it, evolutionary biology)
Cognitive science: 1
Engineering: 1

Another bias might be somewhat less obvious, unless plotted.

Male featured authors: 77
Female featured authors: 2
(though one male authour writes about Dorothy Hodgekiss, and Barbara Gamow, not a 'featured' author, gets a half credit for one song, though in the actual book the credit is for the music, not the words)

But, science is male-dominated, you can't imply bias just because an anthology of science writing only has 2.4% entries by female writers.
Can't I? Considering the strong bias towards biological sciences, which are far less male-dominated, in fact, I think allowing women less than one twentieth of their statistical representation in nature, in a discussion of SCIENCE, one of the greatest intellectual achievements of our species, is, in a word biased. Let me be clear: I use the word not in the colloquial sense to mean close-minded, but in the technical sense to mean that there is a systematic error. The data are not reflective of the candidate population, even when we take into consideration that women represented less than half of all of the sciences included, with decreasing representation the further back in time one looks. The above pie chart might have been somewhat representative in the Middle Ages, but it is strongly skewed for selections since 1900.

I noticed that all the glowing reviews in serious periodicals, and wondered if anyone else objected to this bias. A google search lead to the book's wikipedia entry which details how well-received the book has been, but that the book had been critized by many science bloggers for its lack of female authors. If you follow the link you can see some discussion. Dawkins defends himself by claiming "It is not an anthology of 'science writing' ...[rather] It is a collection of writing by good scientists, many of them dead and very distinguished." Strange, as this is not strictly true, since he includes Martin Gardner, a (male) science writer, so he could just as well have included "Olivia Judson and the other admirable science writers" who happen to be female. Further, I do not buy his claim that he was limited by the demographics of scientists from 1900 onward (because the pie chart above still wouldn't match, and would be off by more than a factor of 10, anyway you slice it). Now, I do not think either a) he should include more women merely on principle or b) that there should necessarily be a one-to-one relationship between gender of scientists and authors in the book. However, I do think that even if quality of writing is the sole guide, his list is biased, as there are many excellent female scientists who were or are known for their writing ability. Further, I think that it is harmful to make that group even more invisible, by implicitly denying their existence. Lastly, readers are missing out on these other voices, and entire fields of science.

For reference I checked a couple of anthologies of science writing which happened to be on my shelf -both managed more than 2 female authors despite beginning at earlier times (mid 19th century) or being limited to physics, the most male-dominated field, respectively.

I will also comment that in an otherwise excellent and fascinating entry on the mathematics of the growth of spirals in nature (in everything from ram's horns to nautilus shells) D'Arcy Thompson repeatedly uses the word 'velocity' in error. He tries to define a spiral as 'If, instead of travelling with uniform velocity, our point moves along the radius vector with a velocity increasing as its distance from the pole, then the path described is called an equiangular spiral.' The problem with this, as every high school physics student knows, is that velocity is a vector quantity with a magnitude and a direction. One cannot speak of moving with uniform velocity while continuously changing your direction. There's a good, simple, old-fashioned, Old English, monosyllabic word that would suit the purpose (where the fancier velocity does not fit). It's called speed. I hate when people use polysyllabic words erroneously rather than simple words correctly. I can only assume our biologist/mathematician/Classicist and our evolutionary biologists/anthologist were ignorant of this fact.

So, now that I've taken an excellent book to task for not being better, I thought I would do the unfair thing and list some people who I feel he left out.

J. Tuzo Wilson - Not only was Tuzo Wilson one of the sources of the major 20th century revolution in earth sciences - plate tectonics (filling that gap in subject matter) - but he was a successful author as well. His seminal (there's a loaded word for someone complaining of gender bias) 1963 paper 'A possible origin of the Hawaiian Islands' is so readable, I would quote it directly even for the lay person.

Derek York Derek was a geochronologist, a leader in his field, whose paper 'Least squares fitting of a straight line with correlated errors' has 1852 citations - its applicability and reach extending far beyond his own field. He also wrote popular science books and a science column for the Globe and Mail. He was, full disclosure, a friend and colleague.

Ted Irving As another revolutionary of plate tectonics - but also a world expert on rhododendrons- I would think his writing about the spread of plants through plate motions would give Dawkins another excuse to talk about evolutionary biology. He is, full disclosure, a friend and was a colleague.

Ursula Franklin I've already explained why renowned scientist and engineer Ursula Franklin ranks amongst my heroes. She is both a brilliant physical scientists and famous author.

Dava Sobel - astronomer and psychologist by training, first-rate, award-winning science writer by vocation, I think if Martin Gardner met Dawkins' criteria, Sobel does as well.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell - though in a typical move they opted to give the Nobel to her supervisors, for research she did, Jocelyn Bell Burnell is widely recognized as world-class astrophysicist and author and has even edited a volume of poetry.

Melba Philips - developer of the Oppenheimer-Phillips theory of neutron capture renown for her skills at physics education, writer of texts on electromagnetism from the introductory to the graduate level she would have made a great author to add to this collection.

Lisa Randall - well-known particle physicist, cosmologist and author (her allegories recall George Gamow, according to the New Yorker), Randall has also had a popularization of modern particle physics book make the New York Times Bestsellers List.

These are skewed perhaps to physics and geophysics*, but it isn't hard to think of some renown biologists and writers, who happen to be female.

Jane Goodall - renown primate biologist, ecologist and popularizer of science
Olivia Judson - evolutionary biologist and award winning science writer

I can also think of many excellent female science bloggers, but bloggers are probably too hip for Dawkins and OUP.

*Also biased towards people I've met, but if I were actually editing an anthology, I could devote some time to acquainting myself with more world-class scientists and authors who I have not met and I would find some chemists, as a matter of principle.


Book reviews: Beautiful Evidence, Mr. Thompkins in paperback

Posted: March 2, 2010

{image: The Power of Books, by Mladen Penev}
Beautiful Evidence by Edward Tufte 
As you may have noticed, I, like many scientists interested in communicating results effectively and/or graphic design, am a fan of Prof. Tufte. He has created his own tiny self-publishing empire, filled with beautiful books explaining how to use words and images together to express ideas, convey data and results, show causal relations, avoid ambiguity, and foster deep -honest- analysis, with elegance and beauty. His books are something which should be on the shelf of any professional who uses graphic information - not just the scientists, but the social scientists, journalists, and in fact, I think the artists would appreciate much of this work as well. For instance, he draws his indeed beautiful examples from scientific classics, like the notebooks of Galileo, but he's as likely to use Leonardo da Vinci or Albrect Dürer. Arguments about time series analysis are made with allusions to an 18th century treatise on the choreography of the contredanse. He discusses diagrammatic presentations of schools of 20th century art, maps of cubist paintings and debunks a therory of mystical geometries inherent in sculpture. He uses a French art nouveau ski manual and mid-20th century map of the area surrounding a Kyoto flower arranging school. Concepts from his other books reappear: 'sparklines' for concise communication of rich time series; the evils of 'chartjunk'; Minard's famous, and heart-wrenching flow map of the advance of Napoléon's dwindling army during the Russian campaign 1812-1813. I enjoyed his comparisons of Feynman diagrams, circuit diagrams and John Cage's musical scores. I, as you may have gathered, love the idea of combining text and image and delight in the reproductions of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an illustrated manuscript from 1499 in Greek, Italian and Latin, shown side-by-side with an English translation. He praises Galileo, but also, is never afraid to re-draw diagrams to illustrate his theories and philosophy of clarity, succinctness and focus in displaying graphical information. He devotes an entire chapter to the evils of Powerpoint (basically, it seems that a culture of sloppy presentations and associated thinking within NASA killed seven astronauts) and another chapter to sculpture pedestals. There is nothing, it seems, which can be seen and which communicates that he would not take on as a cause - to make more elegant and more beautiful, and allow the evidence to speak for itself. This is definitely a book for any lover of art, science and books, like me.

Mr Tompkins in Paperback by George Gamow. George Gamow is one of the giants of 20th century nuclear and astro-physics and his Mr Tompkins is a classic of the popularization of physics (both relativity and quantum mechanics). Known for his humour, Gamow famously once wrote a paper with Ralph Alpher but convinced Hans Bethe to add his name to the author list during the revision process so the paper would be known as Alpher, Bethe and Gamow. See, Classics jokes are common in physics, if not always sophisticated; what, after all, could be simpler than α, β, γ? Much of this book, parts of which were first written in 1938, and first published in this form in 1965, are now quite out-of-date. So, it is unlikely to be read by people who are not physicists or interested in the popularization of science. But, it has its charms. Mr Thompkins - even dimmer than than your usual 'Watson' - is a bank clerk who attends a physics lecture and dreams himself a world where relativistic physics is everyday (i.e. where the speed of light is very low, and length contraction and time dilation can be observed riding a bicycle). He continues to attend the Professor's lectures (ultimately falling for and marrying his daughter, an artist). He continues to fall asleep during lectures, and dream about other worlds, where, for instance Planck's constant is very large, and hence quantum effect are seen in billiard balls or even elephants. The stories are illustrated by John Hookham, and upon his retirement, Gamow himself. Gamow's illustrations are both amateurish, but delightfully naïve, and somewhat surreal (and remind me of a less proficient Glen Baxter). There is even music - including a chapter detailing an opera about the Big Bang versus steady-state models of the universe with a libretto featuring 'characters' the Abbé Georges Lemaître, "a Russian physicist, George Gamow, who had been taking his vacation in the United States for the last three decades" (a wonderfully post-modern trick) and Fred Hoyle. The character "George Gamow" sings "Gaily and drunkenly"
Good Abbé, ourr underrstandink
It is same in many ways.
Univerrse has been expandink
Frrom the crradle of its days.
Univerrse has been expandink
Frrom the crradle of its days.

and so forth. Clearly, this is a man with a sense of humour about himself. My favorite, the suave Maxwell's Demon, makes an appearance. The way he wrote his own colleagues and contemporaries into a sort of fairytale - and illustrated them too - is sort of hilarious, to the physicist. Though some cultural and gender biases, as well as particle physics from just before the conceptualization of the quark, now seem quite dated.

If you would like a similar sort of approach, with more up-to-date information, you might like the Alice in Quantum Land by Robert Gilmore.

Book reviews: Ingenious Pursuits

Posted: March 2, 2010 

The sorceress (1911) by John William Waterhouse (Rome 1849-London 1917)
Ingenious Pursuits by Lisa Jardine 
Following reading Jardine's biographies of both Christopher Wren (accidental architect/astronomer/anatomist/mathematician/occasional surgeon/man about town) and Robert Hooke (engineer/architect/microscopist/inventor/surveyor/secretary to the royal society/astronomer/botanist/unfortunate self-medicator and coffee enthusiast) I read her story of the birth of modern science. It is a well written, clear concise and beautifully-illustrated book detailing astronomy, microcopy, anatomy, the early pursuit of clockworks to solve the longitude problem, the collection of exotic specimens and wunderkammer, the birth of the peer-review with an epilogue on the discovery of DNA's double-helix. Disclaimer: Now, if you're like me, you are ill-equipped to read about the earliest discoveries of William Harvey about blood circulation and worse - those who tried to verify his claims through vivisection. I did enjoy learning more about a variety of scientists and enthusiastic supporters. I will also re-iterate my one frustration: scientists sometimes make loosy historians of science, because they can lack context or create hagiographies, conversely, my issue with this fascinating 'anthropology of scientists' created by Jardine is the lack of scientific context. Yes, I am interested in reading about Hooke and Christiaan Huygens battling it out over their respective attempts to claim priority for spring watches, however, insufficient technical detail is provided here to allow the reader to form an informed opinion on the issue! When Hooke claims priority over Newton for the inverse-square law form for the force of gravity, can this be substantiated? Was Oldenburg a spy? She points out that Newton himself erroneously dismissed astronomer-royal Flamsteed's ideas about periodicity in comet orbits by saying they follow straight line at a time that Hooke and Wren were discussing inverse-square laws for gravity, but she does not go that (to a physicist) obvious next step, to discuss who knew what when!
Also, I ♥ Edmond Halley. He should be the next topic of any scientific biography! Without Halley, all these prickly scientists would have not functioned. Not only was he a sea captain/astronomer/geophysicist/adventurer/gentleman and discoverer of the periodicity of his comet. He was the one who managed to pry data away from Flamsteed and the Principia Mathematica away from Newton! Poor man was repaid for many of his efforts on behalf of the Royal Society with 50 copies of Willoughby*'s A History of Fishes.

Also, the minimal sketches of a few interesting female astronomers left me wanting to read more.

*To my knowledge, no relation.

Book review: The State of Constraint 

Posted: January 30, 2010

(image via the wit of the staircase archive)
The State of Constraint - New Work by Oulipo, by Paul Fournel, Harry Mathews, Jacques Jouet, Hervé Le Tellier, Ian Monk, Jacques Roubaud, Olivier Salon, Marcel Bénabou, Lynn Crawford, Frédéric Forte, Michelle Grangaud, François Caradec, Anne F. Garréta  

Oulipo is a name derived from Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle; it's a school of literature devoted to employing mathematics and science to develop new literary structures. It's not as deadly as that may sound. Think of the joy of reading Lewis Carroll, whose work could not have existed in the absence of mathematics. One of my favorite authors, Douglas R. Hofstadter argues in Le Ton Beau de Marot (a book, by the way, which is actually written in English) that constraints can inspire creativity. In it, Hofstader discusses (amongst many other things) Georges Perec's La disparition, a lipogram, written without ever using the letter "e". The pieces in this anthology include similar word games, stories with binary structures (the literary equivalent of a choose-your-own adventure book), variations on themes, works based on the structure of classical music forms, "shattered" limericks, folk songs written by selecting four words from ninety Tom Waits songs, univocalism written with a single vowel, and so forth. Some have the same effect as reading puzzles or mind games, and some have more literary merit above and beyond the structure of the medium. 


Book reviews: A Whistling Woman, Noh

Posted: January 17, 2010

Courtesan reading a love letter (Edo)
A Whistling Woman by A.S. Byatt

This is the fourth and final (?) book in a cycle by Byatt, completing the quartet which began with The Virgin in the Garde, Still Life, and Babel Tower. This is a rich world Byatt has created, around the life of the North Yorkshire Potter family, and red-headed, independent, intellectual Frederica Potter in particular, during the 50s and 60s. The first novel is intertwined with a play about Queen Elizabeth I being performed for Elizabeth II's coronation. The second is intertwined with the story of Van Gogh. The third is intertwined with a battle over censorship, freedom and pornography with a character's novel Babeltower. The fourth is rich in symbolism, but does not have as much of a dualistic structure. The character Agatha's fairytale story Flight North begins the novel, and the story of its publication is a thread in the novel, but plays a far more subtle role than say, Babeltower in Babel Tower. Ironically, now that I've claimed the final novel is less dualistic, one of the major themes is the syzygy in the Gnostic sense (a male-female pair of aeons), in the Jungian sense of archetypal pairings, and in the zoological sense (and the discussion of sexual versus asexual reproduction) - not to omit, the on-going story of the twins John Ottokar and Paul/Zag (and his rock band Zag and th Syzygy Zy-goats) and the discussion of whether monozygotic twins are an example of asexual reproduction with the one twin as both mother and genetic pair of the other. Other major themes include blood, birds, mind & body, reproduction, mirrors and light, Manichaeism and the Biblical stories of Abraham and Issaac, and that of Joshua. The novel, as you may have gathered, takes on a lot: mental illness, religion and cults, psycotherapy, changing role of women in society and evolution of the actual family unit, duty, media and television in particular, love of knowledge, love, domestic violence and counter culture. Frederica and her son Leo are still living in South London with Agatha and her daughter Saskia. Byatt makes various allusions to The Golden Notebook and the concept of free women, or unmarried women with children sharing a home to share child-rearing duties. Frederica is still seeing computer scientist and Quaker John O., but soon he accepts a job at the University of North Yorkshire (where several characters from previous novels work including Marcus, Frederica's brother). Frederica is convinced by Edmund Wilkie to host a television show about ideas called Through the Looking glass. This is a way for Byatt to weave in all sorts of knowledge, whether it be neurology, sociology, art history to even things not found in universities, like astrology, along with the imagery of Lewis Caroll (not without its own binary pairs). Meanwhile, the Quaker Spirit's Tigers (including psychologist Elvet Gander from Babel Tower) merge with Gideon Farrar (Still Life)'s Children of Joy, and we watch in increasing dred as the budding cult falls under the sway of Manichaen Joshua Lamb (or Ramsden), a charismatic man whose mental health was shattered when his father acts on the belief he was commanded by God to sacrifice his family. Joshua survives, his family does not. The group contains other religious characters and one ethologist from the previous novels and centres around Lucy Nighby, a woman battered by her husband, who may, or may not have attacked both he and their children - again the bloody image of sacrifice of children. At UNY, biologist Luk Lysgaard-Peacock is in love with Jacqueline Winwar (who in turn loves Marcus, who may love Ruth, who is embedded in the Children of Joy). Gerard Wijnnobel is organizing a conference on Mind and Body (another means of Byatt to express her love of knowledge) while a growing encampment called the Anti-University of counter-culture student protesters, plans their response. Byatt deftly weaves all her strands together, making a strong argument for interdisciplinary, unfettered celebration of knowledge, for real people living true, if messy lives, and for independence.
One could easily write a doctorate on these books. Consider the symbolism of names alone (Marcus and his mystical, instinctive approach to mathematics, compassionate Ruth, Lady Wijnnobel is née Eva Selkett, Joshua Lamb, Elvet Gander, Daniel with his foresight and tests of faith, Lucy Nighby who makes a religion of light, Lyssgard-Peacock, and even Avram Snitkin). I'll refrain from attempting to summarize such a richly-woven a web with a few lines. The cycle as a whole is both long and heavy, but very rewarding, and I highly recommend them.

Noh - The Classical Theater. Performing Arts of Japan IV by Yasuo Nakamura, introduction by Earle Ernst

No one is going to read this post and then read this book, if for no other reason than its obscurity. I found it in a used bookstore, years ago. I would have prefered Bunraku: The Puppet Theater, but this is what I found, and I do have a thing about masks. The author varies between claims that the ancient theatre is in fact avant guarde or whether it is so slow and stylized to be undoubtedly boring. The history of Noh, in excruciating detail, is likewise a mix of the undoubtedly boring with some real gems of ideas and stories. The introduction vivdly presents Tokyo, immediately after WWII, where Prof. Ernst was ironically tasked with censorship in name of the democracy, to prevent the feudalistic from re-appearing. He recognizes art, rather than nostalgia for neofeudalism. The author, mathematician-Noh expert Nakamura, relates the history of Noh from 200 BC to (his) modern day, the training of actors, the masks, music, sets and costumes (down to the socks). Just when it might get boring, he explains the difference between dramatic and supernatural parts as akin to the difference between living in three and four dimensions (with a metaphor that could have be straight out of Flatland), or a juicy story about an emperor's advisor who became addicted to Noh, or a love affair between a shogun and young Noh apprentice.  

Book review: Little Black Book of Stories

Posted: December 20, 2009

Young Girl Reading by a Window by Delphin Enjolras
 Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt
Little Black Book indeed. A.S. Byatt writes fairytales for adults wherein sometimes the monster wins, and it may not be the one expected. The Thing in the Forest is a war-time story within a contemporary frame which revisits the British-style dragon, the worm, which appeared in The Djinn in the Nightengale's Eye. It is about alienation and guilt. Body Art is an amazingly visual story, combining some of my favorite things (art, art history, history of science and cabinets of curiosity) with rounded characters and ethical dilemma. The Stone Woman is a wonderful story of geology and the modern-day, accidental, Nordic troll. Raw Material is a very dark story about writer's block - the violence is just beneath the surface. I am certain that no author before or since has ever made the Teletubbies quite so creepy, or combined them with Greek mythology, as in The Pink Ribbon. These stories appeal to our primordial pleasure in being scared just enough. Byatt has a lot of control and the confidence and insight to take the reader to the edge. Read this book.

Book Review: The Measure of All Things

Posted: November 20, 2009

{Image: The South-Going Astronomer, a wonderful
and topical etching I have on my wall,
by Lindsey Clark-Ryan, ole rattlesnake herself}
The Measure Of All Things - The Seven-Year Odyssey That Transformed The World by Ken Alder 
Now this is how you write a popular non-fiction book about science. Sit-up and take notice all ye of whom I have previously written. This marvelous book details the incredible, heroic story behind the birth of metric. It should be required reading for undergraduates in science and physics in particular. As the image can attest, the story is one which can capture the imagination of an artist as well. Mid-eighteenth century revolutionary ideas about democracy, universality, human rights, trade and economics lead naturally to the realization that natural, universal units were a necessity (in the Old World and the New). We can little imagine the complete chaos of local units, based on the arms of merchants, or areas measured in days of labour expected to harvest a given crop which my vary depending on slope, or rocks, or who knows what all. It is in the last days of the ancient régime, before the French Revolution, that two self-made astronomers, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-François-André Méchain (illustrated in the etching) were despatched on the epic adventure of measuring the meridian from Dunkerque to Barcelona. The goal was to set the length of the meter as 1/10000th of the quarter-meridian, the basis of length from the shape of the earth itself. Neither scholar imagined that they would face such incredible obstacles, including arrest, the French Revolution (forget the Spanish Inquisition - nobody expects the French Revolution), ignorance of peasants at a time when accusations were often followed with prompt decapitation, war with Spain, life threatening illness and injury, the Terror, execution of loved ones and colleagues, dissolution of the Academie, astronomical inflation and associated severe budgetary crises, Napoléon, on top of all the vagaries of weather, and the incredible scope of the expedition. Most troubling of all was dealing with the unprecedented precision from Borda's repeating circle, recognition of errors (before error analysis) and the complete mental break-down of Méchain in view of his own mistake. Not only does this book make their adventures come alive, it is one of the strongest explanations of the importance of errors in measurement I have ever read. The significance of this to science cannot be over-stated. The cast of supporting characters is wonderful, including the ugly, egalitarian yet womanizing astronomer Lalande, famed chemist and (tragically for him) tax-farmer Lavoisier, and one-and-only mathematician Legendre are priceless. Basically, go read this book!

Book reviews: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, Windswept

Posted: October 2, 2009

[image: via Wit of the Staircase archive]

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments by George Johnson A very nice piece of history-of-science writing including such gems as Galileo using music to measure acceleration due to gravity, all the way to Milikan's literally beautiful oil drop experiment (like stars in the night sky) to measure the charge-to-mass ratio of the electron (one still performed by undergraduates here today). It also covers William Harvey (the heart and the circulation of blood), Newton (colour and light), Lavoisier (oxygen and redox reactions), Galvani (with Volta of course, animal electricity and how they were both wrong and yet vital to the invention of the battery), Michael Faraday (electricity and magnetism), Joule (quantification of heat), Michelson (speed of light, and though he never quite saw it, the non-existence of ether), and Pavlov (the dogs and psychology). The book is compelling and clear and I would recommend it to interested parties and armchair scientists.

The afterword though, was irksome. I paraphrase, "Why these 10? Well it could have been another 10, but these are my 10. It was pointed out to me there are no women, sorry about that, but these are my 10. I could have included Marie Curie, but she was really just patient and precise rather than making a beautiful experiment. I could have included Mme. Wu, but, I didn't." This is just plain annoying. It is okay - the experiments are clever and important. Women have been excluded from or marginalized in science for so long, including women in a history of experimental science is challenging, and I do not mind his choices. He does include Mme. Lavoisier, along with her husband - but he could have written more about her influence on science in her own right. He includes some on Ada Lovelace, when writing about Faraday. But I found his pseudo mea culpa annoying. What's the point in writing "It's bad that I've excluded women but I did it anyway"? Either you think it's important, or you don't. After all, while any such list is subjective, Chien-Shiung Wu's experiment to demonstrate violation of parity is the most beautiful I can imagine! (They gave the Nobel to the theorists, Yang and Lee, and excluded her) Not to mention Lise Meitner (who explained nuclear fission - they gave the Nobel to her male colleagues who didn't happen to be Jews who had to flee Nazi Germany), or Rosalyn Franklin (whose incredible x-ray crystallography provided the first indication that DNA is a double helix - they gave the Nobel to the colleagues who helped themselves to her research and didn't happen to die) or Jocelyn Bell Burnell (who discovered pulsars - they gave the Nobel to her supervisor).... Some days, I want to write a history of science which only mentions women, as if this were unremarkable; of course it only mentions women.

Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather by Marq De Villiers

This is a largely enjoyable non-fiction account of wind. De Villiers, who lives in Nova Scotia, writes from the point of view of one scared of the wind since childhood, when he was blown over and nearly off a cliff and out to sea in his native South Africa, and ties the book together with the story of Hurricane Ivan. He combines myth, history and science and covers a wide array of material. His discussion of the complexities of things like climate change is very good; unlike a lot of popular science he actually discusses contradictory evidence and acknowledges that the science is messy. However, he really needs a proper scientific editor. I found several errors. He describes tectonic plates colliding "deep within the mantle" - not bloody likely. The earth's plates - part of the crust - do interact with the mantle, and occasionally subduct into the mantle, but never deep within the mantle; deep within the mantle rocks, or the crust, would melt. In one place, low and high pressure are reversed. The following footnote (yes, I am now going to rant about a footnote - I know this is hopelessly nerdy) is idiotic ridiculous as written (Chapter Four, footnote 29),
"The energy within a single tornado has been calculated at between 104 and 107 kwh, not much less than the 20-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which was 1013."

Let's look at all the errors in this single sentence. First, the most egregious: it appears to claim that 107 anything is 'almost' the same as 1013 anything. That is, of course, absurd, as the second is a million times larger than the first. How can he make such a mistake? Well with a little thought and research, one can find that the energy released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima is of the order 54 TJ, or 5.4 x 1013 J. So he has omitted a single letter, to disastrous effect. A true statement, that 54 TJ is approximately 107 kWh (note, the W does need to be capitalized) is lost. He meant to imply that the energy was 1013 JOULES, not KILOWATT-HOURS. Never omit units! Now, let's talk about that unit, shall we? A kilowatt-hour (more properly written kWh) is a rather silly unit in which to measure energy, unless you are buying gel cells or paying your hydro bill. It is quite literally power (W) multiplied by duration (h)- but since a Watt is a Joule per second you end up mixing two units of time (seconds and hours). You could argue that it is useful in that the layperson might not have a good feeling for a Joule (let alone a terajoule) so use something they might have seen, or can relate to their own homes. Fine, but let's not then turn around and compare apples (kWh) with oranges (J)? Isn't it messy enough to compare something which is extended in time and space, like a tornado, with a localized explosion? In my book, this sort of sloppiness undermines his credibility. I like that metric units (such as km/h) are included alongside the imperial (miles/h), though it is a shame this in not done consistently. Plus "vortexes" is just plain ugly; why write that when one could write vortices? Certainly, there is no excuse for writing both. Really, McClelland & Stewart, I expect better.

Oh dear... I've just vented about an Afterword and a footnote, am I becoming cantankerous? Or, is it important to try and keep 'em honest? Books are precious people! They should be neither suppressed, nor burnt, nor edited without sufficient care.

On a happier note, here's a story about wind and irrepressible curiosity and inventiveness.

Book review: Gravity's Rainbow

Posted: August 2, 2009

(Image: left -London County Council Bomb Damage Map, right - William Vandivert for Life, September, 1940, via Le Divan Fumoir Bohémien)

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow. I read this book because reviewers always compare Haruki Murakami to Pynchon, and because I thought I would enjoy the science, history and the surreality. I now think reviewers have some fundamental misconceptions about Murakami! He is not like Pynchon, though they both use the surreal and are interested in men searching for missing women and power, corruption thereof, atrocities in war and the role of corporation in all of this. I see no other comparisons. They have a very very different style from one another.

This is quite the book. It was not what I expected. Set in WWII, it is essentially a sort of quest. British military intelligence notice an American soldier, named Slothrop, who is stationed in London. He has a habit of mapping sexual conquests on a map of the city. These positions match precisely with the positions of hits of German V2 rockets. The question is why and what to do about it? Mayhem ensues. "Gravity's rainbow" is the parabola mapped by any projectile, including a rocket. Eventually Slothrop (aka 'Rocketman') is sent to find the secret of a mysterious device named the "Schwarzgerät" that is to be installed in a rocket with the serial number "00000." There is also a lot of discussion of the occult (the British military intelligence folks are up to all sorts of bizarre things), organic chemistry, Pavlov and animal psychology, conspiracy theories, rocket science, non-linear physics, and projectile motion and POISSON DISTRIBUTIONS. I have never read so much about Poisson distributions in my life, and I have three degrees in physics. I have never seen a novel with an entire paragraph about Reynold's numbers, a concept I did not encounter until fourth year non-linear physics; this is pretty specialist knowledge. There are chase scenes of staggering vividness and hilarity, with Hawaiian shirts and an octopus, or a cape and a helmet, or the famous zoot suit. There is copious drug use. Mostly, I was surprised this book could be published. I think I'm open-minded and I think that consenting adults can get up to what ever activities they want. He's pretty systematic in breaking taboos. Sexual activities of course involve every permutation of gender and groups of people, but there is also a lot of S&M, some non-consensual acts, some incestuous acts, some acts involve animals, or feces and in one instance, um, a sentient lightbulb. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Book reviews: The Stuff of Thought, A Trip to the Stars

Posted: April 14, 2009

Lerolle painting
La Lettre by Henry Lerolle (Paris, 1848-1929)

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker.

This book is excellent. Any concerns that it would be too dense to read in bits and pieces on the streetcar were alleviated by his clear, engaging and sporadically colloquial style. He investigates how we use language (in particularly, subtleties of grammar) and what this reveals about our primordial systems for categorizing the world as we know it. He is just as likely to allude to contemporary studies in psychology, ethnology or neurology as he is to allude to the Simpsons, comics, movies, or jokes, which makes this book fun to read. I learned a great deal about grammar, which was distinctly more interesting than that may sound. The discussion of Linguistic Determinism (the idea that our language limits thinkable thoughts) and why he thinks that is nonsense, is fascinating. (This reminded me of arguing with Mrs. McRae in grade 11, who claimed that in Nineteen-Eighty Four, the reduction in allowed language would prevent members of their society from thinking certain things. I thought this was a bias of a language-dominant brain in an English teacher. She scowled at me when I said that I do not think in words and that words were a meta- level of thought. When placed on the spot to explain how I could think anything other than words, I could only cite images and mathematics, which she dismissed, and a good portion of civilization as we know it, but she seemed bemused that I would argue with her.) I was surprised to learn that many high-profile philosophers subscribe to this idea, though it comes in and out of fashion. How we semantically break up the world around us, how we name things, what metaphors or lies tells us about the mind, and taboos and culture are all elucidated. The taboo chapter was particularly funny. I really recommend this book.

A Trip to the Stars by Nicholas Christopher

I loved this novel - you should read it. In 1965 in New York, a 10 year-old Enzo finds himself at the planetarium with his only surviving member of his adopted family, his 21 year-old aunt Alma. Enzo is abducted and both their lives change forever, in ways neither they, nor the reader, would ever foresee. Enzo becomes Loren and Alma becomes Mala. Loren grows up in a hotel in Las Vegas surrounded by unusual scholars (of asteroids, Atlantis, memory, and more). Mala works in libraries, for an arachnologist and then becomes a nurse serving in Vietnam, where she meets and then looses the love of her life. This too is a story about adoption, family, feuds and love, but also of the stars, navigation, Classics, spiders, vampires, and Jelly Roll Morton. It is full of rounded and amazing characters. It is really a magical web of ideas and connections, weaving together the life histories and families. I cannot reveal too much - just trust me- this one is worth picking up.

Book reviews: the biographer's tale, The Dark Lady of DNA, Pendulum

Posted: December 29, 2008

[image: La Liseuse by Carl Larsson via Le Divan Fumoir Bohémien]

A.S. Byatt the biographer's tale. Byatt who has tremendous skill and imagination and is clearly a born storyteller is almost showing off here. The story unfolds from the point of view of Phineas G. Nanson, frustrated postmodern literary theory graduate student, who switches his thesis project to researching a biography of Scholes Destry-Scholes, the underappreciated biographical master and biographer of Sir Elmer Bole (a rather Burton-like character, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS (19 March 1821 – 20 October 1890) was an English explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, ethnologist, linguist, poet, hypnotist, fencer and diplomat, that is). Nanson finds collections of Destry-Scholes' papers suggesting he was working on a partially fictional tripartite biography of Linnaeaus (who it turns out, was not the most scientific of early taxonomists, after all), Francis Galton (renaissance man, follower and cousin of Darwin, unfortunate champion of eugenics) and Ibsen (misanthrope and playwright). How Byatt manages to weave this together, along with Nanson's own life, involvement with Vera (his subject's niece), Fulla (a Swedish bee taxonomist) and Christophe and Erik (owners of the most wonderful literary-themed travel agency ever invented, Puck's Girdle), not to mention one evil villain, is of course quite magical and amazing.

Posted November 1, 2008

Brenda Maddox Rosalind Franklin - The Dark Lady of DNA. I put off reading this biography for too long, thinking it would depress me. It is Rosalind Franklin's excellent xray crystallography which enabled the mapping of the double-helical structure of DNA- an explanation of which gained Watson, Crick and Wilkins (who helped themselves to her results without her permission) the Nobel and her nothing (she in fact, had an untimely early death prior to the award). As such, she is almost the poster child for many studies of the history of women in science. However, there is, as is always the case with history, more to the story, and Maddox' nuanced biography is immensely readable.

Posted July 4, 2008

Pendulum: Leon Foucault and the Triumph of Science by Amir D. Aczel. This was a very enjoyable history of science book. I confess it has been gathering dust on my shelf for some time. I was wary of Aczel, because he always seems to choose the obvious physical science stories- this bias was unwarranted, I am glad to report. In fairness, Foucault, who finally provided experimental evidence of the rotation of the earth in 1851 (!) with his pendulum- the model of elegant simplicity- was not a usual scientist. He was self-trained and never really part of the establishment. He gained fame outside of France long before the Académie would accept him. He was a brilliant experimentalist with a real intuition about how things work, which superceeded the theoretician's abilities to do the same. His other contributions included early work on photography (including microscopy), the gyroscope (an engineering revolution - no pun intended- in and of itself) and remarkably precise measurements of the speed of light. The amazing thing is that no one previous to 1851 thought of this experiment, despite centuries of trying to disprove the literal interpretation of the Bible and the implication that the earth is still while the heaven revolve. This is also the story of France during the Second Empire, and, unexpectedly, of Napoléon III. Though, my favorite bits were about François Jean Dominique Arago establishing the length of the metre and pirates. What is history of science without pirates, after all?

Book reviews: A Crack in the Edge of the World, The Woman and the Ape 

Posted: June 4, 2008
(with some from April 16, 2008)

Simon Winchester A Crack in the Edge of the World - America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. I keep reading Winchester, though he irks me. He does provide a lot of information. The man in the oil painting over my left shoulder (J. Tuzo Wilson) appears by page 8, which is good. The way he (Winchester) wants to claim the revolutions of modern geophysics for geology will likely become grating as I make my way through the book. And, though the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 (which killed 2000 people) and the response to it are interesting, I cannot help but note that in 1906 ten times as many people were killed by the devastating megathrust earthquake which hit Vaparaíso, Chile. There were some interesting annecdotes, when he wasn't going off on self-indulgent tangents or making inane comments about geophysicists (which, Mr. Winchester, is not a clever thing to do as a good proportion of the people you thank in the Acknowledgments, ARE geophysicists, several of whom I've met). Enrico Caruso and John Barrymore's experiences of the earthquake are worth reading. Barrymore was spotted the next morning filling sandbags under Army supervision, leading to the famous line that it took "an earthquake to get him out of bed and the US Army to get him to work in the morning". Also interesting is how the biggest heroes involved worked for... wait for it... the POST OFFICE! The US Post Office comes off as the single most impressive organization in any way involved in dealing with the crisis post-quake and fire. They not only set up office in cars (where buildings were unavailable), delivered mail without fail to refugees of no fixed address, they accepted any letter whatsoever from private citizens without stamps. So persons who lost everything could tell friends and relatives that they had survived and needed help. This was tremendous for morale.  

Peter Høeg The Woman and the Ape. I bought this on a friend's recommendation. My mother had recommended his earlier novel Smilla's Sense of Snow. It was indeed a compelling novel, and a very different one. The blurb on the back was one of the most misleading I have ever seen. The book is about Madelene, a young, rich Danish housewife to a high-powered British zoologist Adam Burden, who finds that her husband and his sister are housing an escaped anthropoid ape, Erasmus, in their home, after he escapes from animal smugglers. The ape is a newly discovered species and Adam wants to be the first to study him. Madelene develops a relationship with the ape and decides to help him. It's a fable about love and humanity and the environment. Much of the humour in in first half of the novel derives from Madelene's alcoholism- a subject I cannot find funny. But there was much I enjoyed in the novel as a whole. [Also, at one point he says that biology boils down to chemistry which is essentially quantum mechanics and "hence deterministic and predictable" which is WRONG. That's the entire point of why we have a separate physics for the very small: quantum mechanics is non-deterministic! The very small is very odd and we can only predict the behaviour of large numbers of small things in a probabilistic fashion. I mean, give me talking, thinking, loving apes, no problem, but if you claim quantum mechanics is deterministic that really hinders my suspension of disbelief.] 

Book reviews: The Man Who Found Time, The Baroque Cycle, Salamander, I am a strange loop

Posted: April 3, 2008

The Man Who Found Time- James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth's Antiquity by Jack Repcheck was excellent! A joy to read, such simple, concise, clear and most importantly, interpreted history of science. Repcheck is an editor (not a geologist with a fetish for his alma mater *cough!* I mean you, Simon Winchester, a very good author, with a very bad weakness for irrelevant trivia and anything whatsoever which relates to Oxford) with a background in history. His ability to well, edit, the story is wonderful. We learn about what Hutton's discoveries actually mean, in terms of the period in which they occurred, the history and sociology of contemporary Scotland and the importance in terms of science (yes, I am contrasting him with Lisa Jardine, an excellent historian, who still fails to make clear the importance of the discoveries of her subjects). Extremely readable and highly recommended. Of course, since I am beset with inter-relations between randomly chosen reading material, this book includes personages who eventually appear in the Baroque Cycle (the Old Pretender, Locke and Newcomen).

Before commenting of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, I have some general comments which may or may not be fair. I was completely engrossed and greatly enjoyed the books, but I recall why I avoided them. Every time I read Stephenson, I want to send him some Simeon de Beauvoir. I want to convince him that women may differ from men but are not 'other' or alien. Some of us are interested in physics and engineering and cryptology and the sorts of things he is clearly obsessed with. I read and enjoyed the Cryptonomicon  and the Baroque Cycle and was kind of irked by the dearth of female characters, or the dearth of female characters who are there for themselves, rather than as temptation or as foils for male characters. He even states at one point (in the Cryptonomicon) that there are no female engineers, which of course, as an absolute statement is wrong, even if mostly true. Because it is mostly true, perhaps I am unfair, but I think it is because I am actually into several of his hobby horses that I read his books and think how I would have made different choices- and I do not respond this way to any other author I've read. Now, he has created some wonderful characters for the Baroque Cycle, including the brilliant Eliza, who befriends Leibniz, is interested in natural philosophy and seems to know more about proto-economics than anyone and outfoxes most everyone. But she does rely also on her beauty and 'feminine wiles' and I can't help but notice that the men only rely on their minds and/or their strength. This dichotomy annoys me. It could be argued that most of this is reflective of history, however, I am not convinced. I think he thinks women are great but other.

Any writer of historical fiction sets his or herself up for criticism of historical inaccuracies. Here are some thing which struck me. I quite enjoyed the way he played with words, using historical spellings (i.e. Ph'antsy) that often revealed the source of words. However, because he employs some archaic spelling, I was conscious of anachronisms such as Enoch root suggesting to the young Ben Franklin that he could play with electricity and magnetism! No one had lumped these two phenomena together in 1713 and it seems a particularly bizarre error. I kept waiting for an explanation from the fiction side of the historical fiction- none was forthcoming. Also, he uses the word 'force' when no such concept existed (which is a decision I can understand, but it means he clarifies Newton's comments, but does not allow Leibniz the luxury of modern terminology like 'kinetic energy' or 'momentum'). Also, it was the Duke of York who blew up houses during the Great Fire of London (to stop the spread of the fire), not the King, however that artistic license made sense in terms of the story. Most of his natural philosophers were quite convincing. Newton was identifiable from the first allusion (small, too clever boy, probably gay with a streak of sadism). I love that he includes Wilkins. Hooke was well written and entertaining character; brilliant, jack-of-all-trades, giving and devoted to friends, and yet paranoid and sometimes cantankerous. The lechery was also plausible. He characterizes Wren as a sensible man who choose architecture rather than the natural philosophy, but historically, a series of sovereigns left him little choice. Oldham gets off easy, as he could be pettier than described. I know little of Leibniz's life. Huygens I could not easily believe; he was groomed to be a diplomat at the highest level, extremely sophisticated, and is depicted as a bit too common (or the sort of person on whose table Eliza would select to ... um... do things I cannot describe without locking this post).

My other criticism is the packaging (so this is probably directed at the publishers). The books were published as three massive hardcovers, Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World. Then they released paperbacks in which the tomes were broken into VERY CONFUSINGLY:


    * Book 1 - Quicksilver
    * Book 2 - The King of the Vagabonds
    * Book 3 - Odalisque

 The Confusion, Vol. II of the Baroque Cycle

    * Book 4 - Bonanza
    * Book 5 - The Juncto

The System of the World, Vol. III of the Baroque Cycle

    * Book 6 - Solomon's Gold
    * Book 7 - Currency
    * Book 8 - The System of the World

You cannot release two separate books by the same author, with the same name, wherein one is but a part of the other!

I'm going to pretend I read all hardcovers, so this is simpler.

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. Great fun! The English revolution and Restoration. Our hero, Daniel Waterhouse is a Puritan (but no Phanatique) son of rebels, who just wants to do Natural Philosophy. He is an outsider, by definition. He is easy to relate to since he is very clever, and yet not a genius and recognizes this, as he is exposed to Newton young. The second book is about Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe (literally) and Eliza; a rollicking adventure. Jack and Eliza are wonderful characters. In the third book the broader stories come together. Really we are getting a history of the birth of modern nations, the slave trade, economy and science, with pirates and vagabonds.

The Confusion by Neal Stephenson. More Pirates! Ties the European history to the Middle and Far East. Great characters. Political intrigue. Kidnapping!

The System of the World by Neal Stephenson. How alchemy did and did not relate to the birth of modern science (also weird, fundamentalist theology). Pirates. Adventure on the high seas. Economics and swindling with early market speculation and court intrigues. Versailles. Blackmail. Black magic. Satanists and a really bad Jesuit. Epic (and bizarre) love stories. The birth of modern physics and the rift between English and Continental science.

History, adventure, intrigue, great characters and story telling. Worth reading (and ranting about).

Posted February 4, 2008 

Salamander by Thomas Wharton. I requested this book after reading The Logogryph. I was surprised to see that his previous novel was more or less about the same theme; the magical, legendary, infinite book. But this was also delightful; automatons and 17th century robots and a mechanized castle on the river Vah (which thanks to The Dictionary of the Khazars I now associate with vampires), a love story, bookmaking, magical libraries, a spunky girl trapped in an orphanage, rather evil Jesuits from New France, type which appears to be alive, a worldwide adventure (Vienna, Alexandria, Canton, London, Quebec) in search of the mother and items to make the infinite book, the magic of paper, stories within stories, and of course, pirates, of the female variety. A real pleasure.

Posted December 23, 2007 

I am a strange loop by Douglas Hofstader. This is the book in which he tries to make sure the audience understands his theories about how the mind actually works. Thus it was quite readable, but less boisterous and varied than some of his other books. I feel that I have a better idea of how Gödel's theory works, and I read his Gödel, Escher, Bach quite carefully, but that was 16 years ago (gasp!). I rather miss the miscellany, and am unconvinced on some of his ideas about souls, but he is always fascinating and I for one appreciate his 'horsies and doggies' style.

Book reviews: On a Grander Scale, The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, Visual Explanations, Alexander Graham Bell: Relunctant Genius

Posted: December 3, 2007

You might recall that I began Lisa Jardine's On a Grander Scale- The Outstanding Life of Sir Christopher Wren because I opened her biography of Robert Hooke, only to find the Preface basically told me she would skip anything already covered in the biography of Wren. Initially I felt for an academic book by a historian of science, it was immensely readable. By the end I had some quibbles;
a) I am an academic. I read footnotes. I can't help it; I'm just wired that way. I can cope with footnotes in French, but is it fair to all? Some of us academics are scientists, not historians, and thus, no longer required to read things in anything but English. Most of us can't read Latin or Greek and thus, I think she could at least provide a gloss.
b) Actually, I was looking for some more science and opinion. Where does Wren's science fit in with his contemporaries' research? Where was he right? wrong? and where has he not received credit? That goes DOUBLE for Hooke. Wren's life was turbulent, through the reigns of the deposed Charles I, the interregnum, James II, William & Mary, and Anne, and of course the great fire of London. His tremendous range of skills and interests straddling arts and science which did make fascinating read. But this was more of a biography than history of science.

The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London also by Lisa Jardine. See comment above. Hooke in particular, has been shafted by history, largely because he had no offspring to write his hagiography (à la Christopher Wren, Jr.), and would today be recognized as having various drug dependencies. See, not only did he discover F= -kx (which, by the way is hardly mentioned in the book and as a physicist and a geophysicist I find that scandalous since I could go on ad naseum about simple harmonic motion- but I won't), write his famous Microscopia with beautiful illustrations of the tiny, do all of Boyle's experimental work on vacuum pumps, make astronomical observations, devise clever spring-based clocks to try and solve the longitude problem, measure and rebuild most of London with his good friend Wren, but he treated himself regularly as an experimental specimen. He self-diagnosed and treated his ailments (many of which were self-induced side effects of the drugs he self-proscribed) at a time before addiction had been discovered (the anecdote about Sir Edmond Halley, of comet fame, excitedly presenting a paper to the Royal Society when he accidentally got stoned on opium- previously just a sleeping pill in diluted amounts- was rather amusing). So, the chronically sleep-deprived, over-worked Hooke, became increasingly cantankerous and suspicious and managed to fight with Newton (not hard, Newton was a bastard), Christiaan Huygens (of wavefront and astronomical fame), John Flamesteed and other fonding members of the Royal Society. From a document quoted by Jardine (in a footnote!) it seems obvious to me that Hooke clearly published that gravitation followed an inverse-square law, long before Newton devised his Universal Law of Gravitation, but Newton purposely removed any reference to Hooke in the Principia (because, as I said, he was a bastard) when Hooke got too uppity about it. People ridiculed Hooke as if he made inflated claims without basis; his claims always had basis, but sometimes were inflated as he never managed to finish everything and his mathematics weren't quite on a par with Newton's. But what gets me is that the same text clearly states "Newton's" 3rd Law (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) long before Newton did, and Jardine fails to even mention this. I don't understand. Further at one point she casually says mentions a confusion about parabolas being cubic, which today, grade 9 students ought to be able to disprove, but I can not fathom how Newton could invent calculus (*note: moreorless simultaneously with his other nemesis Leibniz) could think that a cubic makes a parabola? So, overall, these two are very complete, readable portraits of lives lived, but somewhat lacking in scientific detail. I, for one, who gladly have sacrificed all the detail of how frequently Hooke purged himself for medical purposes, or even the racy suggestions of an elicit affair with his niece, for some more detail form him lab book! [Though this was the first time I learned that Boyle swore off matrimony when Charles II impregnated his sister-in-law. I did enjoy learning about Lady Ranelaugh, Boyle's sister, who did play a role in early science of the Royal Society]. I have a photo I took of the plaque in Oxford at the lab where Hooke and Boyle worked. It reads:
In a house on this site
between 1655 and 1668 lived
Here he discovered BOYLE'S LAW
and made experiments with an
AIR PUMP designed by his assistant
Inventor Scientist and Architect
who made a MICROSCOPE
and thereby first identified

But I must say, all this feuding amongst scientists at the begging of the Royal Society makes me sad- as if it were inherent in the process. I see no reason why feuding is necessary to science. I'm will not make any sexist assumptions and say it had something to do with the skewed gender distribution (though the thought occasionally crossed my mind). In these books, it seemed to me it was more the class structure which was the problem (but that's for someone else to write their thesis on).

Posted October 30, 2007

Edward Tufte Visual Explanations. I don't usually read multiple books at once, but this book is too large and beautiful to leave my home. I became convinced of Tufte's genius after reading The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. I'm not sure that I can express the importance and clarity of his work to those who may not spend much time thinking about how to make data tell their stories. This is the intersection of two of my favorite things; numbers and images. But, since many scientists are surprisingly (to me) non-visual thinkers they need to hire graphic designers to bash their information to appealing and informative images. The books of Tufte should be equally useful to those in design (who ever work with data) as to those who spend their time gathering quantitative information. He uses vivid examples to illustrate his points; for instance how intelligent mapping of deaths from cholera in London helped elucidate the drinking fountain as source of the epidemic is contrasted with the appalling lack of scientific thinking and useless display of engineering information (which failed to plot the pertinent variables; damage versus temperature) contributed to the wrong-headed decision to launch the Challenger and the death of seven astronauts.

Posted October 12, 2007

Charlotte Gray's Alexander Graham Bell: Relunctant Genius.  I have been a fan of Alexander Graham Bell since I visited his home on Cape Breton Island, as a child. The biography places the love story between he and his wife at the centre. She was obviously integral to his life and invaluable to him. She kept him grounded. She was the practical one who made sure he pursued patents. You might not know that the invention of the telephone followed naturally from his fascination with hearing and teaching the deaf. His father invented "Visible Speech" a notation system which allowed an human vocalization to be depicted. Alec used this to teach the deaf. His own mother was deaf and his wife was a former deaf pupil. In addition to the telephone, he was a pioneer of flight and his many inventions included the photophone, integral parts of the gramophone, tetrahedral kites and magnificent hydrofoils (which could beat the contemporary speed record and were decades ahead of their time)! He founded Science and added photographs to his father-in-law's failing National Geographic Magazine. He developed a metal-detector with telephone receiver to try to find the bullet in President Garfield (and received honorary doctorates in medicine). He was a life-long advocate for lip-reading instruction for the deaf because he believed they should be integrated into hearing society (contentious to some), friend to Helen Keller, a father and grandfather. He was the sort of person, who invented an automatic signal routing system for telephones before the turn of the 20th century and refused to patent it so that he would not put the telephone operators out of work. He was a fascinating man; anyone who casually observes in the 1890s that in the future telephone signals might be carried by light and mail sent "electrically" is a genius in my book.

Book reviews: The Logogryph, The Book Nobody Read, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies, Alva and Irva, Collected Fictions

Posted September 17, 2007

The Logogryph by Thomas Wharton, is what reading is all about! I was lured into buying the book by the beautiful letterpress edition by Gaspereau Press, complete with slip case and woodblock prints. I would have bought this book for the colophons alone. The logogryph is a mythical creature made of books, the way a gryphon is made of lions and eagles and such. Books were originally unbound, and the pages are now mixed in with others, uncountable and impossible to pin down. The Logogryph is like a series of short fiction, including everything from the story of a 16th century Spanish missionary being infected by indigenous stories of Mexico to such Borgesian fantasies as the contemporary literature criticism for fiction from Atlantus, interwoven with the story of the Weaver family in Jasper, from the perspective of our young male narrator. This book is truly marvelous and I can't understand why Mr. Wharton isn't famous. Go! Buy it! Read it now!

Posted August 27, 2007
[Illustration, "E is for Eames" by Jen Renninger]
Owen Gingerich, The Book Nobody Read. A title, either daring, or ill-advised and self-fulfilling, this is the story of the writing of a census of existant copies of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus. This book had one of the most misleading descriptions on its back cover, of any book I've ever read. Despite the erroneous publisher's blurb, this book is not written as a counter-argument to Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers, a novel, which contends that no one actually read Copernicus' opus, alleged to have changed Western civilization and precipitated the Copernican revolution (in which we learn that we are not the centre of the universe, after all). Koestler contends that Kepler is the real hero of the "Copernican" revolution. Gingerich actually is referring to his own book, the census of De revolutionibus in a sef-deprecating manner, and implying he searched the world, looking for surviving 1st and 2nd editions and more importantly, their marginalia, to show, who owned the book, when, and whether there is evidence that they read and understood it, but that no one read the census. This is a story about the practice of the history of science. I found it quite interesting, in the end, and different from books about the history of science itself. There are at least 600 existing copies of the 1st and 2nd edition. There is plenty of evidence of enthusiastic readings, rapid transfer of information about interpretations, as well as negative reactions, amongst a Renaissance who's who. I often read history of science books without learning much (as I did, after all, TA a history of science course for N years). I learned several things from this book including a convincing argument that the "epicycles upon epicycles" story is a myth (one does not need circles upon circles to be added to the Ptolemaic geocentric planetary system model to predict "retrograde" motion) and contemporaries of Copernicus were often more excited about the details of the math and getting rid of the Ptolemaic equant than they were about the idea that we could live on a moving planet in a sun-centred solar system (bizarre to the modern reader)! [Aside: Am I talking to myself? Does anyone know or care about these questions, other than me? Who knows what an epicycle is, and if you don't, do you care?]. Also interesting, is that Eames, of mid-century designer-chair fame, took many of the photographs in the book, having been hired to design IBM's display in honour of the 500 year anniversary of Copernicus' birth.

Posted July 30, 2007

I thought I'd never finish Douglas Hofstadter's "Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought". While interesting and thought-provoking, I stick with my initial impression, "you probably have to be a cognitive scientist, computer scientist or hardcore Hofstadter fan to want to read this book. I'm very stubborn. This book is much more restricted (hence less fun) in terms of subject matter than his more popular books."

Edward Carrey "Alva and Irva: The twins who saved a city" is a most unusual book. It is a novel, disguised as a guidebook for the imaginary, seismically-active, and rarely-visited European city of Entralla. The eccentric twin sisters become local heroes, when their immense plasticine model of the city remains the only record of what once was. The author is also a sculptor; the narration relies not only on his drawn map of the city, but on his sculptures of and those attributed to his 'heroines'- though a more socially backward set of heroines would be hard to find. This is a quirky book. It contains the best description of an earthquake that I've read in fiction.

Xul Solar, [via Giornale Nuovo]
Jorge Luis Borges, "Collected Fictions" kept me busy in many-an-airport recently. I had read several of the stories previously, in older translations, but I read the entire book anyway. As always I enjoyed his particular take on the world, the infinite, the unknown, literature, knife-fighting gauchos and imaginary permutations thereof. Dividing the works of Borges into "Collected Fictions" and "Selected Non-Fictions", as Penguin has, seems a particularly arbitrary choice for an author obsessed by blurring the line between real and imaginary. The painting is by Xul Solar, an Argentinian "painter, sculptor, writer, and inventor; a visionary utopian; an occultist and astrologer who yet remained catholic; an accomplished musician who was fluent in seven languages, two of which were of his own devising; and a minor character in Borges’s Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius."

Reposted from Inkling Magazine, published May 1, 2007

Der Schwarm: A Geoscientific Page-Turner

German thriller plants one foot firmly in real science - the other gets chewed by clairvoyant, needle-toothed methane worms
by Ele Willoughby
01 May 2007 

Der Schwarm: A Geoscientific Page-Turner
Image: Ian MacDonald/NOAA
Ice worms (Hesiocaeca methanicola) feeding on some delicious orange frozen methane at 540 meters below sea level in the Gulf of Mexico
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“Is Gerhard Bohrmann a real person?” he asked.
I paused. My musician friend had never previously questioned the existence of my scientific colleagues.
“Ah… Sure. Gas hydrate researcher. German. Think he’s at Bremen University or at...”
Kiel,” he interrupted. “I’m reading The Swarm.”
I sighed. My German colleagues had begun raving about Der Schwarm in 2004, when Franz Schätzing’s best-selling eco-sci-fi-thriller was first published. I remained uninterested. When it was finally translated into English in April 2006, I still held off. As a marine geophysicist, I didn’t think I’d get much out of a trashy thriller, which I suspected would twist science to suit the plot, even if it did mention my actual colleagues. But when I started getting questions from a Canadian musician, I knew it was time to succumb.
In the book, ocean denizens fight back against an exploitive humanity. First the transient whales (orcas, gray whales and other traveling species) arrive late to their summer grounds off Vancouver Island. And when they do arrive, they attack the whale watchers. Mutated zebra mussels by the thousands block giant rudders, paralyzing the shipping industry. Jellyfish swarm off the coasts of Pacific Rim nations. The Atlantic fares no better. A Parisian gourmet chef’s carefully selected Normandy lobster proves fatal. It explodes, raining neurotoxin around the kitchen and ultimately into the municipal water system. Characters begin to suspect the onslaught of marine disasters all are connected by a mysterious group intelligence beyond any human comprehension, a swarm of creatures dubbed “the Yrr.”
The major global disaster, however, centers on my own research field, gas hydrates. These icelike solids form when methane – from organic matter decaying on the cold, pressurized sea floor – combines with water. Though it sounds like a convoluted process, deposits are abundant all along the world’s continental margins. In fact, they are so common that they may contain twice as much organic carbon as all other sources (oil, gas, coal) combined. If they could be harvested safely, they would be an immense, untapped and cleaner fuel resource.
But extraction is not yet simple or safe. Should the deposits become destabilized, vast quantities of methane – a greenhouse gas – could be released into the atmosphere and speed up the already terrifying pace of climate change. There is also geological and paleoceanographic evidence of huge underwater landslides in the past that triggered tsunamis and possibly were associated with hydrate destabilization. Some researchers have argued that this might have occurred at the “Storegga Slide” off Norway. It’s a theoretically devastating situation, which Schätzing refers to as the “hydrate researcher’s standard litany of doom.”
The hydrate deposit at the chaotic center of The Swarm is indeed located off the Norwegian coast. It also comes complete with its own population of methane ice worms. Methane ice worms are small centipede-like creatures discovered 10 years ago in the Gulf of Mexico – still their only known habitat. In Schätzing’s story, the worms not only show up across the Atlantic, they are also mutated, angry and primed for mass destruction.
It takes real-life scientist Gerhard Bohrmann to uncover the real danger of these vicious worms, and ultimately the true nature of the Yrr. Bohrmann places the worms in a deep-sea simulator, where hydrates in sediment are housed beneath saltwater at high pressure. Unlike the friendly Gulf of Mexico hydrate dwellers, which live symbiotically with methane-eating bacteria, the mutated Norwegian worms have developed teeth with which to dig into the hydrate and deposit their bacterial companions in position to destabilize the entire continental shelf, wreaking global havoc. The gas blow-out described, any hydrate researcher’s nightmare, was chilling. In the end, responsible, mild-mannered Bohrmann plays quite the heroic role, risking his life to save humanity.
Despite the seemingly far-fetched premise, The Swarm contains more science than any novel I have read, not to mention the real-life scientists. Schätzing manages to create his thriller without obviously breaking any laws of physics or chemistry (though I have some doubts about the speed of communication within the swarm itself). He bends the rules of genetics and microbiology, but he does provide the readers with the background needed to understand. He discusses behavioral studies and intelligence tests for marine mammals. He succinctly describes the world’s massive conveyor belt of ocean currents and how saltiness and temperature drive them, helping to regulate climate. Most importantly, he gives a refreshing description of what scientists actually do that I haven’t seen in fiction: What it’s like to do experiments on a boat, what sort of tools we have, why we use them and how we develop explanations of new phenomena.
Apart from the inclusion of so much real science and so many real-life scientists, The Swarm can’t claim much originality. Schätzing alludes to many popular sci-fi and disaster flicks. The international response to the destruction wrought by marine creatures includes a none-too-subtle parody of the current U.S. administration. Characters are consistent, but not exactly deep. This is an entertaining, exciting thriller, not high art. But if you like your thrillers with a side order of current marine science, from biogeochemistry to oceanography, it can’t be beat. Or if you always wanted to know how your friendly neighborhood Earth scientist might respond when the fate of humanity hangs in the balance… this is the book for you. 
I wonder who will play Bohrmann in the movie

Book reviews: Maps of the Imagination, Lighthousekeeping, The Map That Changed the World, Escher on Escher, The Book of Imaginary Beings, Measuring the World, Scientist as Rebel, The Planets, Borges and the Eternal Ourangutangs, Kepler's Witch

Posted May 31, 2007

Peter Tuchi's "Maps of the imagination: The writer as cartographer". The illustrations are lovely and intriguing, but occasionally simply random and unrelated to the text, which irks me. The book, which I hoped would be about ties between maps, imagination and creativity, is more about "how to write". It is interesting and enlightening. I find the style clunky, which is rather funny from a professor of creative writing, though he certainly can draw on a wealth of examples from literature of his various points. The ties to maps seem slightly tenuous, but we'll see... I think Simon Winchester should read the chapter about blank space, "putters-in" and "leavers-out". The final two chapters related the story of how the author made a mental link between cartography and writing (the first book he read was Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island") and how Stevenson came to write "Treasure Island". Apparently, it all came to him in a dream- or at least a detailed map of the island itself came to him this way. He awoke and drew the map. This was followed by him rapidly writing the novel in the next few weeks. This occurred at a difficult time in his early career, before he was making any money. In fact his father, who had paid to have his previous book published had had to withdraw it for lack of sales. "Treasure Island" was apparently a make-or-break book for young Stevenson, so after feverishly writing, he sent the manuscript and map off to the publisher, with some trepidation. And you know what happened? THE MAP GOT LOST IN THE MAIL! So already concerned about his future, after creating a map which inspired a book, he had to do the obverse; he had to recreate the map using the novel. Apparently, he did a good job as we know the book is now a children's classic (though he was never satisfied with the 2nd version of the map, shown here).
Robert Louise Stevenson, map for Treasure Island

Sometimes I read books along a certain theme. Sometimes I want to break free from themes and yet they haunt me. Next, I read Jeanette Winterson's "Lighthousekeeping" because it looked like some nice, shortish, fiction. And lo and behold, Robert Louis Stevenson shows up as a minor (though structurally important) character. The beautiful little book tells the story of Silver, a girl born out-of-wedlock to a mother in a small Scottish town. They live in house perched precariously on a cliff outside town, until the mother falls off the cliff, orphaning Silver. The disapproving school marm finds her a home with Pew the blind lighthousekeeper, who agrees to take her on as an apprentice. Together they live in a dark world, filled with stories and past and present are blended. Their story is interwoven with tales told by Pew of 19th century clergyman Babel Dark, whose family had the lighthouse built by Robert Louis Stevenson's father and uncle. Dark is alleged to have been Stevenson's inspiration for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and lived a double life. This is a love story. It's the story of love betrayed, parental love, and love ultimately found by the adult Silver. It's actually quite touching and beautiful to read. Because I am being haunted by reoccurring themes, I knew when I read that Darwin came to see and speak with Dark the clergyman that he would be a fossil-collector (like the clergymen in William Smith's life, in "The Map that Changed the World").

Posted May 14, 2007

Simon Winchester "The Map That Changed the World", a best selling non-fiction about William Smith (also end of 18th century, early 19th century), a self-trained blacksmith son who is the "father of modern geology". Simon Winchester is a talented popularizer of science and an interesting non-fiction writer with a background in geology. Simon Winchester is a bit chauvinistic about England and his alma mater, Oxford. Simon Winchester never read a single fact which he did not find fascinating. Simon Winchester needs a more brutal editor. I don't have the book in front of me so I can't give an exact quotation, but was got me was when a minor person in William Smith's life is described as not being related to some other contemporaneous person with the same last name, who was accused of murder (and he goes on to sketch the details). Argh! I think that sometimes leaving things out can be as important to storytelling as putting things in. That said, the book is clear, interesting, informative and largely enjoyable. It is also brilliantly packaged in hardcover, with a reproduction of William Smith's revolutionary geological map of Britain (he introduced the very concept of geological map) as a dust-jacket. This map "changed the world" by eventually showing the true sorce of fossils and the incredible age of the earth, facts which along with Darwin's "Origin of Species" changed the way western civilization viewed themselves and the planet. (I prefered Krakatoa where the tangents were more interesting).

Posted April 9, 2007

"Escher on Escher: Exploring the Infinite" by Maurits Cornelis Escher (Author), J. W. Vermeulen (Contributor), Karin Ford (Translator). This was an interesting read- it contained many writings of the adamantly "mere" graphic artist. He is a bit dry, and a bit sad, walking around by himself in the garden of tessellations. His discussion of this print alone, however, makes the book worth reading. He states that the imaginary winged lions on the paper become real when reflected in the mirror, a property of imaginary creatures known since "Alice Through the Looking Glass". I felt this single sentence provided new insight into a treasured book. I've often felt that my facility for mathematics has enriched my enjoyment of Lewis Carroll. It doesn't make it less magical if one can see the mathematical inspiration, but more. And while I feel that I can see the math, I'd missed this play on optics. If a reflection in an optical device, a mirror of some sort, is behind the mirror it is 'virtual', if in front it is 'real'. Of course the virtual becomes real when reflected!

Also, I enjoy the interconnectedness of things, like when one author alludes to another. Lewis Carroll is of course, a perennial favorite of imaginative scientists and mathematicians, like Douglas Hofstadter and Martin Gardner.

Furthermore, I now need to learn lithography, though this is a book of the artist's philosophy and intentions, rather than methodology. Speaking of the imaginary, and inter-connectedness...

Jorge Luis Borges with (poor forgotten) Margarita Guerrero (who is often omitted from the author list), "The Book of Imaginary Beings" in a new translation by the increasingly sarcastic and long-suffering (yes, I read footnotes) Andrew Hurley and beguiling illustrations by Peter Sís. The cover shows what could be seen as a winged lion, but in fact it is a buraq, a horse-like creature with peacock wings and tail and sometimes human face. This book is a miscellany, of selected imaginary creatures is designed to be dipped into at random, but I read the whole thing, with delight, from cover to cover, of course. It includes many passages by Borges' favorites, like Kafka and C.S. Lewis. This is my sort of thing. How could I not love a book which introduced me to the zaratan, a giant sea creature, possibly a whale or sea turtle often mistaken for an island? The history of the book, its authorship and translations is so baroque it would appeal, I think, to Borges himself. It is an imaginary encyclopedia of sorts.

The text, or a version thereof, with alternate illustrations by the graduate students in the Department of Illustration and Art of the Book at the Vakalo School of Art and Design in Athens, Greece, can be found here

Posted March 22, 2007

"Measuring the World" by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from German. I bought this book about the polymath explorer/geologist/physicist/chemist/biologist/defender of human rights, Alexander von Humbolt and the mathematician/astronomer/physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss, because Henry (Heinrich) raved about a book he was reading about Humbolt which he was sure would be translated, when I was in Berlin. I'm guessing this was it. The book was an easy read. It alternates chapters between the two characters, explaining how one was a diplomatic nobleman, virulently opposed to slavery, and the consummate experimentalist and explorer, forever competing with his brother the humanist, bewildered by the entire concept of women. The other, a peasant, also unimpressed with the hierarchical social structure, but completely lacking in social skills, the consummate theorist, and bizarrely, a lady's man. The two map the world in their own ways- Humbolt by travelling to the remote corners of the earth, from jungles to mountaintops, with his poor, long-suffering French colleague and Gauss, staying preferably at home but imagining the structure of space itself. The geniuses meet late in life. The book is remarkably funny and an interesting read.

Posted February 16, 2007

Freeman Dyson "Scientist as Rebel"- I enjoyed this series of essays, though I didn't always agree, I certainly learned some things about the recent history of science (the insider's view of mid-20th-century particle physics), war, math and how to write a book review (not that this blurb will show much evidence thereof). Interestingly, Dyson is a Christian, and has some intelligent things to say about ethics and atheism, while providing a probabilistic explanation for "miracles" which does not invoke the supernatural. Strangely, he does not discount the possibility of telepathy, which is very unusual for a scientist. Also weird, for someone who provides a more sophisticated and nuanced review of the Manhattan Project*, his ideas about the future promise of nanotech and biological engineering strike me a naive and almost Victorian in their sense that history is "progressing" towards something better by definition.

*coincidentally, the visiting scientist with whom we had dinner last night now lives in Edward Teller's old house.

Posted January 15, 2007

Dava Sobel, "The Planets"- which is really a series of essays on each of the eight planets and sentimental favorite minor planet/glorified planetessimal Pluto. It was a pleasant read. I actually learned some things (which is not a given when a planetary scientist reads such a book aimed at the lay public) but it was not as engrossing as her longer works of non-fiction, like "Longitude" or "Galileo's Daughter" (both of which I can wholeheartedly recommend). Sobel combines her degrees in astronomy and psychology to provide unusual insight into science, the actual practice thereof and its practitioners.

Luis Fernando Verissimo, "Borges and the Eternal Orangutans". I couldn't resist this Brazilian novel featuring Borges as a character and relating to locked-door mystery involving scholars of Poe and Lovecraft. The Orangutans are John Dee's hypothetical orangutan who wrote for eternity and eventually wrote all works of literature, past, present and original as well as Poe's culprit from the "Murders in La Rue Morgue". Entertaining pastiche and tribute to Borges...

Posted August 7, 2006

Connor "Kepler's Witch" While this biography of Kepler was interesting and informative, I feel cheated. It is sold under the false pretext that it relates the great scientist's life and science to his mother's "wise woman" traditional knowledge and explores the themes of witchcraft and history of science. It does no such thing. Kepler's mother is a minor character and is portrayed as being framed for witchcraft largely because of an unpleasant personality. I certainly learned some history, but not about science or witchcraft. If you are interested in the history of science and know nothing about Kepler, this might be quite an enjoyable book.

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