Archive for the 'Books' Category

That’s Some Catch, That Catch-22

‘Catch-22′: A Paradox Turns 50 And Still Rings True

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. [Bomber pilot] Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. … Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

One of my favorites, even if I didn’t “get” some of it the first time I read it back when I was a teenager.

Soon to be a Major Motion Picture

Gbur’s Mathematical Methods

By golly, I wish I’d had this book as an undergrad.

As it was, I had to wait until this past January, at the ScienceOnline 2011 conference. These annual meetings in Durham, North Carolina feature scientists, journalists, teachers and students, all blurring the lines between one specialization and another, trying to figure out how the Internet can help us do and talk science. Lots of the attendees had books recently published or soon forthcoming, and the organizers arranged a drawing. We could each pick a book from the table, with all the books anonymized in brown paper wrapping. Greg “Dr. Skyskull” Gbur had brought fresh review copies of his textbook. Talking it over, we realized that if somebody who wasn’t a physics person got a mathematical methods textbook, they’d probably be sad. So, we went to the table and hefted the offerings until we found one which weighed enough to be full of equations, and everyone walked away happy.

The “we” includes me, because I scored a copy as well, and was in on the activity of sizing and weighing the anonymized books. There were probably more of these books than physicists (perhaps we can do better this year), though, so I imagine some species of biologist and/or journalist (statistically speaking) was disappointed.

Contemplating Conjurors

Pulling back the curtain: MIT anthropologist peers into the mysterious world of professional magicians

To find out how the craft works, Jones spent two years inside Paris’ thriving world of magic. He acquired mentors, passed an examination to join France’s largest magic association, and has emerged with a new book about the experience, Trade of the Tricks, published this month by the University of California Press.

Aragorn, the Physicist

Abstruse Goose: Aragorn

Home Field Advantage

Swing for the Fences. A discussion of Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won

What is the source of home field advantage? Is it one of the usual suspects, or an influence of the crowds on referees?

Take any European football league in which all the teams play each other twice in a season, once at home and once away. Add up the total number of home victories and compare it to the total number of away victories. The ratio will be at least 60:40 in favour of the home sides (often it’s more: in the English Premier League home advantage currently runs at around 63 per cent, in Spain’s La Liga it’s 65 and Italy’s Serie A it’s 67). The advantage holds across almost every major sport, though exactly how big it is tends to vary. Fans are so used to this that they take it for granted their team is much more likely to win on its own turf. They also take it for granted that they know why – it’s because the home crowd is cheering the team on. But there is no evidence for this. In fact, despite a fair amount of research in the top sports science journals, there is no conclusive explanation of what makes teams play better at home. This is the real puzzle about home advantage: everyone knows it exists but no one knows why.

It’s a Computer, so it Must be Right. Right?

The best intro book for any topic

Of course I checked out physics and in addition to Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon Guide to Physics, it gave a bunch of books on various topics within physics. I have read none of these books, so I have no basis for endorsing or disputing the choices; I don’t know if “Best Intro” means they were going for pop-sci books for a general audience or intro textbooks for the student or serious amateur. The Cartoon Guide might indicate one way — I’m not sure — but the other titles are or seem more like textbooks. The closest I can come to a recommendation is noting that the QM book is by David J Griffiths, I’ve heard good things about it, and his Electrodynamics textbook is very good.

Just Leave the Beretta, 007

Letters of Note: May I suggest that Mr. Bond be armed with a revolver?

Boothroyd’s long letter continued in a similar vein, filled with incredibly detailed weaponry suggestions for 007. Fleming, delighted to be furnished with such expert advice, immediately replied with the letter seen below, and, as a result of their subsequent correspondence, equipped Bond with a Walther PPK in the novel Dr. No.

Boothroyd’s observation about the Beretta being a lady’s gun lacking stopping power made it into the movie as “Nice and light — in a lady’s handbag. No stopping power” and the armourer was given the name Major Boothroyd.

The Making of James Bond

Terence Young: James Bond’s Creator?

Was Sam Spade charming? Phillip Marlowe? No. Their magnetism relied upon a novelist´s scratch of the pen or a female character that was there simply to fall for the hero. James Bond in the books suffered from the same malady, but what if Young and Maibaum could come up with a different approach. What if Bond CHARMED the ladies into bed. What if Bond could be taken back to the Errol Flynn personae that Fleming truly believed he had created. Bond would be a man of action like Flynn´s Don Juan, but now, for the first time, he wouldn´t just kiss the girl then swing out the window on a conveniently placed rope. This character was spending the night. James Bond was about to become irresistible to women AND he was going to bed the female characters with handsome good looks, and charm.

Scientists: More Kirk than Spock

The Model Scientist?

But if the history of chemistry lays only dubious claim to being the greatest adventure in all of history, it certainly is an adventure: quite different from the nerdy stereotype of the history of science, and much more like Captain Kirk than Science Officer Spock. Such is the lesson of Patrick Coffey’s lively survey, Cathedrals of Science. The men (mostly) and women (more every year) who make this history fight for jobs and recognition just like ballplayers, doctors, artists, actors, and accountants who strive to reach the top of their profession. Along the way, they prefer their friends, sabotage their enemies, and tilt playing fields the world assumes are level. Those of us who work in a place that bestows awards and collects oral histories know that every sort of personality can be a great scientist: the bold, the shy, the plodding, the brilliant, the generous, the spiteful, the humble, and those with more self-assurance than a shark in a minnow tank.

The Brain Stork

Steven Johnson: ‘Eureka moments are very, very rare’

Good ideas happen in networks; in one rather brain-bending sense, you could even say that “good ideas are networks”. Or as Johnson also puts it: “Chance favours the connected mind.”

Another surprising truth about big ideas: even when they seem to be individual flashes of genius, they don’t happen in a flash – though the people who have them often subsequently claim that they did. Charles Darwin always said that the theory of natural selection occurred to him on 28 September 1838 while he was reading Thomas Malthus’s essay on population; suddenly, the mechanism of evolution seemed blindingly straightforward. (“How incredibly stupid not to think of that,” Darwin’s great supporter Thomas Huxley was supposed to have said on first hearing the news.) Yet Darwin’s own notebooks reveal that the theory was forming clearly in his mind more than a year beforehand: it wasn’t a flash of insight, but what Johnson calls a “slow hunch”. And on the morning after his alleged eureka moment, was Darwin feverishly contemplating the implications of his breakthrough? Nope: he busied himself with some largely unconnected ruminations on the sexual curiosity of primates.

I’m not sure if he’s drawing the distinction between “thinking about a problem” and “coming up with the solution;” I’ve certainly had this happen on the much smaller scale of problems on which I work. You can be thinking about something, and making efforts to come up with a solution, and have a flash of insight which comprises the bulk of the answer. But the point about networks is, I think, well taken — it is invaluable to be able to bounce ideas off of someone and get feedback. It saves time to hear the fatal flaw that you have not yet discovered.

The broader thesis of needing certain other ideas, techniques or technology to be present before a solution is possible is something I thought was fairly obvious. “Conventional wisdom” has a way of setting in and restricting thought processes, and sometimes the best thing one can do is to find a person who doesn’t know a problem can’t be solved, and let them have at it. Experimentally you need certain technologies to exist before a phenomena can be investigated. Or, put another way, scientists tends to work on the cutting edge, but that cutting edge is defined by what is already known.

Two Thousand Words

Short history of print in two pictures

This is why it bothers me when people say things like “the book is stalled out, in terms of technology, at 1500 AD.” You just have no idea what you’re talking about.

There’s Antimony, Arsenic, Aluminum, Selenium

Blogging the Periodic Table

Sam Kean is doing a series of blog posts in support of his new book, The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of the Elements

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