How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems by Randall Munroe, 5/5
This book does not disappoint! It is filled with hilarious, ridiculous, scientifically strenuous “solutions” to problems ranging from “how to jump really high” to “how to change a light bulb.” As a piano teacher, I found the chapter on how to play the piano particularly hilarious and thought-provoking. I’ve never thought to ask questions like “how many keys would need to be added to the piano keyboard to make music for whales?” (spoiler: it’s not as many as you’d think!).
Miracles: 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.
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.
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.]
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 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.]
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.]
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.]
If I learned anything from this book, it is that theoretical physics is an unfortunate area of interest for skeptical non-geniuses like myself. When the skeptic in me complains about a lack of compelling evidence in support of complicated concepts, the non-genius assures me that I wouldn’t be able to understand such evidence anyway.
This book covers much more than just the topic of time, ranging from an overview of basic physics to an in-depth analysis of black holes. I appreciate the tone of the book, which is enthusiastic without being overbearing or condescending. Hawking demonstrates the rare virtue of valuing what is right over simply being right. I especially appreciate how he expresses his doubts about the existence of God in a respectful and thought-provoking way instead of indulging in the vicious and insulting approach that has been popularised in recent years by many members of the scientific community.
My main complaint about the book is its age. It has been fifteen years since the last update, which is quite a long time in terms of scientific advancement. It killed me every time Hawking mentioned a theory that would likely be proved or disproved in “the next few years” because I know that such events have likely happened, but are too technical for me to learn about on my own.
Having established my basic inability to question or critique this book’s content and method of presentation, here is a brief sampling of some bits that made my brain really happy:
1. The strange fact that “we can measure time more accurately than length” (22).
2. Rockets have to travel more than 7 miles/second to escape earth’s gravity (42).
3. The concept that something can be both finite and without edges or boundaries (47).
4. Particles with spin 1/2 “do not look the same if one turns them through just one revolution: you have to turn them through two complete revolutions” (69).
5. If you picture real numbers on an x-axis, then imaginary numbers can be represented by the y-axis – being “in a sense numbers at right angles to ordinary real numbers” (139).
6. That Hawking’s “no-boundary” description of the universe closely matches both my own personal conception of God and God’s description of himself as “I am who I am.”
The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE” (141).
7. A process called “renormalization” cancels out seemingly absurd infinities by introducing other infinities (173).
8. String theory’s “strings” have length but no other dimension (174).
On four-dimensional space-time:
Einstein made the revolutionary suggestion that gravity is not a force like other forces, but is a consequence of the fact that space-time is not flat, as had been previously assumed: it is curved, or “warped,” by the distribution of mass and energy in it. Bodies like the earth are not made to move on curved orbits by a force called gravity; instead, they follow the nearest thing to a straight path in a curved space, which is called a geodesic. A geodesic is the shortest (or longest) path between two nearby points. For example, the surface of the earth is a two-dimensional curved space. A geodesic on the earth is called a great circle, and is the shortest route between two points (Fig. 2.8). As the geodesic is the shortest path between any two airports, this is the route an airline navigator will tell the pilot to fly along. In general relativity, bodies always follow straight lines in four-dimensional space-time, but they nevertheless appear to us to move along curved paths in our three-dimensional space. (This is rather like watching an airplane flying over hilly ground. Although it follows a straight line in three-dimensional space, its shadow follows a curved path on the two-dimensional ground.) The mass of the sun curves space-time in such a way that although the earth follows a straight path in four-dimensional space-time, it appears to us to move along a circular orbit in three-dimensional space” (30).
On extra dimensions:
Why don’t we notice all these extra dimensions, if they are really there? Why do we see only three space dimensions and one time dimension? The suggestion is that the other dimensions are curved up into a space of very small size, something like a million million million million millionth of an inch. This is so small that we just don’t notice it: we see only one time dimension and three space dimensions, in which space-time is fairly flat. It is like the surface of a straw. If you look at it closely, you see it is two-dimensional (the position of a point on the straw is described by two numbers, the length along the straw and the distance round the circular direction). But if you look at it from a distance, you don’t see the thickness of the straw and it looks one-dimensional (the position of a point is specified only by the length along the straw). So it is with space-time: on a very small scale it is ten-dimensional and highly curved, but on bigger scales you don’t see the curvature or the extra dimensions” (179).
On popular science:
In Newton’s time it was possible for an educated person to have a grasp of the whole of human knowledge, at least in outline. But since then, the pace of the development of science has made this impossible. Because theories are always being changed to account for new observations, they are never properly digested or simplified so that ordinary people can understand them. You have to be a specialist, and even then you can only hope to have a proper grasp of a small proportion of the scientific theories. Further, the rate of progress is so rapid that what one learns at school or university is always a bit out of date. Only a few people can keep up with the rapidly advancing frontier of knowledge, and they have to devote their whole time to it and specialize in a small area. The rest of the population has little idea of the advances that are being made or the excitement they are generating” (185).
[Why I read it (twice): the Internet loves Stephen Hawking and I grew tired of being constantly reminded that I’d never actually read anything by him. My enthusiasm during the first reading was a little diminished by feelings of mental inadequacy, so I read it through again, hoping to clarify the difficult bits. I was certainly less bothered the second time around, but I think that was more because of a shallow familiarity with the content than from any mental breakthroughs.]