Tagged: science

Miracles

miracles c.s. lewis harpersanfrancisco 2001Miracles: A Preliminary Study by C.S. Lewis, 5/5

It’s like no one told C.S. Lewis that you can’t prove the existence of God, so he just does.  And that is merely to lay the foundation for his main topic, which I actually found much less interesting and convincing than the preliminary discussions–the man does not shirk an intellectual challenge.  Though I have occasionally sensed some antagonism from him towards science, in this book he cheerfully tackles both the known and unknown with the grace, focus and rigorous logic that make me sometimes fear that I tend to put more faith in him than in God.  Of course, no matter how hard one tries to be open-minded and logical, it cannot be too difficult a task to convince someone of something they already believe.  With that in mind, I would love to know how this book is perceived by people with different backgrounds and beliefs than me.

Why I read it: C.S. Lewis is one of my favourite authors and thankfully, every time I think I’ve read all his books I come across a new one.

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The Meaning of It All

meaning of it all feynman helix books 1998The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist by Richard P. Feynman, 4/5

The rare combination of humility and genius is as beautiful as it is surprising, especially when encountered in one of the greatest physicists of the modern age.  These three lectures, given at the University of Washington in 1963, explore a variety of unscientific topics–from politics to religion–and surprisingly, do not provide any answers.  What they do give, however, is the opportunity to see non-scientific issues from the point of view of a scientific genius.   This point of view is very different from the arrogant, condescending, closed-minded attitude that comes across from many figures in popular science, who seem to feel that their expertise in a narrow field qualifies them to make pronouncements on everything.  In fact, the emotion that stands out most in these lectures is doubt.  Not a lazy, depressing, hopeless sort of doubt, but a humble, searching doubt that fuels relentless curiosity.  Feynman seems unwaveringly respectful of opinions and beliefs that contradict his own, while applying a formidable intellect and rational approach to the less scientific aspects of human existence.

Why I read it: I’ve enjoyed the two other books by Feynman I’ve read (QED and Six Easy Pieces) and jumped at the chance to read a less challenging book by him when I came across it in Henderson Books.

Alex & Me

alex and me irene pepperbergAlex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene M. Pepperberg, 2/5

Readers looking for more than a heartwarming animal story will be disappointed by this relentlessly unscientific book.  Pepperberg spends more time complaining about being unappreciated by the scientific community, blatantly anthropomorphizing her parrot and giving unsubstantiated anecdotes of Alex’s human-like behaviour than providing anything of academic interest.  I was annoyed right from the beginning of the punishingly emotive first chapter, which is all about the emotional trauma that Alex’s death caused the author.  Pepperberg appreciatively quotes a letter from a lady who said the parrot’s demise caused her as much grief as the death of her only child, even though this long-distance sympathiser had never even met Pepperberg or Alex!  Now that’s just crazy talk, but the author treats it as a matter of course.  While some interesting comments are made about the model/rival method of teaching (where the learner observes two trainers interacting), no satisfying explanation is given of the time between Alex being taught, with difficulty, his first word and Alex spontaneously spouting grammatically correct, complete sentences in response to complex social scenarios.  Given Pepperberg’s credentials, I can only assume that she is a legitimate scientist, but this book is not at all convincing.

[Why I read it: frustratingly, this book has been sitting by my bed for so long that I can’t even remember why I ordered it from the library in the first place.   I think it might have been mentioned in some other book I read.]

The Talent Code

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. by Daniel Coyle, 4/5talent code daniel coyle

Exploring the manifestations of talent in diverse subjects that range from Brazilian footballers to the Brontë sisters, Coyle proposes three factors that give rise to all the athletic, musical and mental skills that seem so innate and unattainable to us otherly-gifted: deep practice, ignition, and master coaching.  Of these three elements, I found the first to be most interesting because it provides a description of the physical effects of concentrated practice.  Now, I have logged numerous hours of piano practice (though, admittedly, somewhat fewer hours of “deep practice”), but never understood that this kind of focused skill-development was actually wrapping nerve fibers in my brain in layers of an insulating substance called myelin.  This magical myelin affects the timing with which neurons fire electrical impulses and the speed with which these impulses travel, resulting in an increase in whatever skill is being practiced, regardless of the nature of the skill or the “natural talent” of the person involved.  The implications are immense: suddenly it seems that real genius is the drive to perform thousands of hours of deep practice, not to have a high IQ, innate ability, or access to top coaching from the beginning.  Also, it definitively establishes the value and efficiency of that painfully-focused, mentally-exhausting style of practicing that might otherwise cause discouragement when it does not generate immediately-impressive improvement.

Coyle’s writing style is entertaining and easy to read, but is somewhat lacking from a scholarly point of view; he is, after all, no neurologist or scientific researcher.  Some of the studies he references and examples he uses seem questionable, and his sources are rather casually collected in sparse end notes.  All in all, this book’s value is more in its descriptive powers than its prescriptive ones: lacking any of the three elements of talent (deep practice, ignition or master coaching), you are unlikely to become a world-class anything, whether you read it or not.  However, lots of Coyle’s observations and claims resonated with me because I am fascinated by the learning process and hunger for accomplishment in a variety of areas.

[Why I read it: a friend, Joy, mentioned that she was reading it and got me interested.]

What If?

what if randall munroeWhat If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe, 5/5

What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?  Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?  From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?

With his trademark wit, scientific know-how, and ability to draw strangely hilarious stick figures, Randall Munroe answers some of the vital questions that have been asked by readers of his webcomic, xkcd.  I expected this book to be underwhelming and a bit of a chore to read (à la almost all the other books based on webcomics I’ve encountered), but it was hilarious and accessible–my teenaged brother got his hands on it before me and read the whole thing in short order.  The content seems well-suited to book format and, surprisingly, I found it to be even funnier and more readable than the What If? blog that inspired its creation.

[Why I read it: I’ve been a fan of xkcd for several years now.]

Six Easy Pieces

six easy piecesSix Easy Pieces: The Fundamentals of Physics Explained by Richard P. Feynman, 5/5

This book contains six accessible, non-technical lectures from Feynman’s famous Caltech physics course:
1. Atoms in Motion
2. Basic Physics
3. The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences
4. Conservation of Energy
5. The Theory of Gravitation
6. Quantum Behavior

Feynman’s genius, contagious enthusiasm, conversational tone, ability to simplify concepts without dumbing them down, and knack for creating memorable explanations, combine to form a book that allows non-geniuses like myself an intoxicating glimpse into the dazzling world of physics.

[Why I read it: I admit I’m a bit addicted to having my mind blown by theoretical and quantum physics.  Also, I had previously developed a minor crush on Feynman during a lecture by my college physics teacher, who had an even bigger crush on him.  So when I came across this book in Hay-on-Wye, it was a no-brainer to buy it.]

The Universe in a Nutshell

universe in a nutshellThe Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking, 4/5

This book’s strengths and weaknesses balance very well with those of Hawking’s older work, A Brief History of Time, making this an excellent companion to the latter.  Where A Brief History is old and short on illustrations, The Universe in a Nutshell is updated (2001) and illustrated in a style that can only be described as luxurious.  Additional topics covered include a chapter on the future of biological and technological innovation, as well as a chapter on p-branes.

Despite these improvements, the layout of the new book feels uncomfortably disjointed for the subject matter – the meaty parts of the text are interrupted by large pictures, captions and info boxes.  I actually prefer the drier, straightforward presentation of A Brief History.  Additionally, I feel that many parts of this book are not as clearly communicated and I missed the tone of charming humility and open-mindedness that was evident in such abundance in the older version.

The illustrator’s website is definitely worth a look.

[Why I read it: I was looking for a more modern Hawking book with which to follow the aged A Brief History of Time.]