I do sound like a broken record when reviewing nearly all "popular" book on science and technology. These are almost always sort on the science and teI do sound like a broken record when reviewing nearly all "popular" book on science and technology. These are almost always sort on the science and technology and long on secondary material such as the personal lives of the participants. In this case, Cheung heavily favors the business aspects, while leaving out most of the very interesting technical details, which will extremely frustrate those wanting to learn something. It would have not taken many more pages, with figures, simple circuit diagrams, and more photos, to add this detail, while not compromising the author's goal of charting the path of the development of electronics. I'm not advocating a textbook, but a respectful work which will satisfy and challenge readers.
I'm sick of the fear that technical and science writers have of being seen as smarter than their audiences....more
Crazy...crazy...what we think we can do to change the course of nature! In three long essays, McPhee exposes our insane overconfidence and ridiculousCrazy...crazy...what we think we can do to change the course of nature! In three long essays, McPhee exposes our insane overconfidence and ridiculous hubris, all to serve the short-term.
In the essays "Atchafalaya" and "Cooling the Lava", the rampaging Mississippi and flows of hot lava are temporarily diverted and held back.
The final essay, "Los Angeles Against the Mountains", is a classic. No longer will I worry about all the reports of total "disaster" in the media each year when the San Gabriel mountains of Southern California burn, and the destructive debris flows inevitably follow. It's all part of a completely normal cycle. The residents are only getting what has happened regularly for tens of thousands of years. Yet they build there anyway, protected from history by forgetfulness and absolved from reason by deliberate ignorance. And we all pay for their stupidity through increased taxes which support the multitude of control works, cleanup efforts, firefighting, and federal insurance. McPhee lays it all out for your amazement....more
This is Sacks' inspiring memoir of his early teenage years, when his growing scientific mind recapitulated the history of chemistry through reading anThis is Sacks' inspiring memoir of his early teenage years, when his growing scientific mind recapitulated the history of chemistry through reading and his own hands-on experiments. It can be read either as a record of one person's education, or as a high-level history of chemistry. The magic of this book is how Sacks combined the two into an engaging narrative.
He begins by telling of his earliest observations, when not yet ten years old, of simple material categories. This grew into differentiating the elements by their properties. When he saw the periodic table for the first time in a museum, along with samples of each element, it all came together in a blinding mind-storm. His romance with chemistry continued for another year or two, eventually leading him to flirt with basic nuclear processes at the dawn of the atomic age shortly after WW2. Then it all changed for him when adolescence barged in, bring with it other imperatives.
How fortunate Sacks was to have mentors (outside of the school system, of course) who recognized his non-conforming abilities and encouraged him. We see the universal, and despicable, bullying given to boys who are different and talented—a theme shatteringly taken-up in his 2015 memoir covering adulthood On the Move: A Life. We also see the amazing ability of the (even young and formative) human mind to understand the universe, one that is available to anyone curious....more
Glad I finally read this classic. It's a quick-reading sketch, two or three hours, a half day at most if you need a break. Watson's prose is obscurelyGlad I finally read this classic. It's a quick-reading sketch, two or three hours, a half day at most if you need a break. Watson's prose is obscurely ironic at times, which keeps the reader on his toes (or bores him as the case may be) along with quite a bit of humor if you are looking for it. The science, not difficult even at its original full strength, is hardly toned-down for the popular reader, which is a disctinct positive. Watson avoids confusion by simply skipping a few topics, like the mathematics of crystallography or the intimate details of chemical bonds, which are not necessary to follow the "action" anyway. All considered, it's a privilege to be able to share in his discovery first-hand.
Now, what about the elephant in the room? Watson treated his female colleague Rosalind Franklin very badly, and he doesn't hide that from his readers. (They nearly come to blows at one point.) Apparently all the men at Cambidge looked down the same way at all women there. It's entirely unforgivable, but mitigated somewhat by what seems to be his sincere apology in the book's Epilogue. You'll make your own judgment. Certainly, Watson's recent racial shenanigans, 50+ years after his discovery, and at the end of his long life, are disgusting. None of this detracts from the brilliance of his youthful scientific accomplishment described herein.
It might be argued that Linus Pauling, at Cal Tech, the beloved world's greatest chemist at the time, only a few weeks behind Watson's lead, hot on his trail, would have been a more worthy discoverer. That's not how science, and history, works, where there's usually no accounting for pleasantness....more
This is Stegner's most advanced book for readers of "popular" science. In many such books, the tension between the absolute need to use mathematics toThis is Stegner's most advanced book for readers of "popular" science. In many such books, the tension between the absolute need to use mathematics to explain the science and the powerful editorial command to exclude all such math is embarrassingly obvious, and makes many otherwise admirable books essentially unreadable, full of too much vague prose. Going against this trend (isn't this always the right thing to do?), Stegner provides both a readable narrative, and the necessary advanced math. Presented in two sections, the first half is the narrative, the second half is the same "story" re-told using math at the full-scale undergraduate physics level.
Like the famous physicist Richard Feynman, Stegner often looked at the world differently than most, with a simplifying perspective that cut away the obscuring nonsense to expose a clear understanding. In this book, his goal is to derive all the fundamental laws of physics from one simple principle: point-of-view invariance (aka gauge invariance). He puts it this way:
What has been attempted here is to show that the laws of physics do not follow from very unique or very surprising physical properties of the Universe. Rather they arise from the very simple notion that whatever mathematics you write down to describe measurements, your equations cannot depend on the origin or direction of the coordinate systems you define in the space of those measurements or the space of the functions used to describe those laws. That is, they cannot reflect any privileged point of view. Except for the complexities that result from spontaneously broken symmetries, the laws of physics may be the way they are because they cannot be any other way.
From this, in a mathematical tour de force, he constructs space-time itself, then Newtons laws, Galileo and Einstein relativity, the Standard Model with its particles, forces, and their ranges, thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, cosmology, and the physics of the void. Quite a nice bit of work in 173 pages of narrative and 115 of textbook math.
There's nothing new here that any physics student wouldn't know already, but what a wonderful, concise exposition of the totality of reality by the late, great, Victor Stegner!...more
Note: I wrote this review in May, 2015, then let it sit until today when I heard that Oliver Sacks just passed away. I have not re-edited the text toNote: I wrote this review in May, 2015, then let it sit until today when I heard that Oliver Sacks just passed away. I have not re-edited the text to reflect that sad fact.
This is a book that I could not put down until I finished it, save for six hours of sleep overnight.
For Dr. Oliver Sack's most personal and poignant work, which I believe is his best, I will provide a different perspective to what others on Goodreads and most respected newspaper reviewers have already said. The differences are mostly those of other reviewers' omissions.
Dr. Sacks is a very well known neurologist and a widely-read, successful author. He is greatly liked as a lovable "teddy bear" by his many hundreds of clinical patients. These are indisputable, well-deserved facts. Sadly, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly before this book was released, too late to be mentioned within. Certain issues I will mention have nothing to do with Dr. Sacks or the book's content, and don't reflect upon him in the slightest.
I enthusiastically agree with essentially every reviewer that this is a wonderful book. It's open and candid, inclusively covering every phase of his life after his earlier 2001 memoir of boyhood, Uncle Tungsten. It's written in the typical Sacks style: direct and logically organized for clarity, with repetitions here and there for reinforcement. If it sounds like I'm describing the usual "scientific" style as applied to a life story, that's exactly what it is, but without any overloading pedantics. The key characteristic is that you feel as if you are sitting with him at dinner, or at a bar, while he's talking one-on-one with you, describing his life. It's an excellent example of what must be his clinical style when dealing with patients. It reads effortlessly, almost automatically.
Of course, Sacks is a man of science, as is plainly evident by examining his large output of books on various aspects of neuroscience. In a nutshell, these record his clinical observations, then synthesize these observations into general hypotheses, which often lead to the discovery and application of palliative treatments and sometimes outright cures.
However, all the science he presents is available in much more detail from his other books. What's here is a summary of those books, to which the reader should go if more depth is needed. His memoir is more valuable as a record of how Sacks' career evolved, how each subject area fitted into his larger life. Not all were successes: I found his honest acknowledgments of his failure as a research scientist a surprise, and he supplies ample amusing evidence of this. Thus, fortunately for his patients, and us, he was "forced" to become a clinician and writer.
If not the scientific details, then why do I think this is book so great? I could say it's in how it provides comfort to struggling writers. We sympathize with Sacks as he writes manuscript after manuscript, each being rejected by multiple publishers. He often wrote a long book, 50,000 words say, in just a few days, which was subsequently rejected. Then he would immediately start another one, shelving the rejected one for possible later rework, but most often it was forgotten. He gives us an inside view of the creative process.
More of a lesson to us, he lost several complete manuscripts, and some irreplaceable research data, due to carelessness. Again, rather than rewrite or redo, he either tackled another work or conveniently changed jobs. Genius? Assuredly. Absentmindedness? Certainly. Irresponsibility? Yes, he admits it. But these memories still are not why the book is so important.
What's left then? Only the most important part of anyone's life: his real life, his loves, his experiences which make him human—all of which are deliberately defined as apart from his career. What a life's treasure Dr. Sacks includes! Just by reading published reviews and advertising, we expect to read—and do—about his disturbing near-fatal drug addiction, his love for motorcycles, which also nearly killed him, and his wandering nearly penniless across tens of thousands of miles of American roads. The jacket copy gushes nicely and adds to the list of Sacks' enthusiasms:
With unbridled honesty and humor, Sacks shows us that the same energy that drives his physical passions--weight lifting and swimming--also drives his cerebral passions. He writes about his love affairs, both romantic and intellectual; his guilt over leaving his family to come to America; his bond with his schizophrenic brother; and the writers and scientists--Thom Gunn, A. R. Luria, W. H. Auden, Gerald M. Edelman, Francis Crick--who influenced him.
Embedded there is mention of "romantic love affairs." This, finally, is what On the Move delivers in a big way! The first four chapters, a full 132 pages out of a total of 384, deals predominantly with sex: his sexual shyness in college, his sexual awakening, his search for partners, his emotional devastation of being dumped, and the terror of dumping in turn. (Of course, nothing is pornographic.) I was nearly open-mouthed in amazement to see how his sexual urges drove him to risky behavior and fairly extreme promiscuity in San Francisco and New York City around 1960, when Sacks was in his late-20s, at the height of the Beat movement.
All this sex is interwoven with motorcycling, speed, adventuring, and eventually drugs. This is a raucous new voice for Sacks. It rounds out the person and brings his sometimes distant scientific expert persona closer to many, if not literally every, reader.
The remainder of the book, eight more chapters, are framed by—not his career—but by this same theme of sex and love. As he gets older into his 50s and 60s, his sexual experiences understandably recede: in his case, to almost nothing. Indeed, Sacks avows that he was celibate for several decades at this time. The story then is solely his growing career as a neurologist and writer, with occasional wistful imaginings as erotic subjects appear and disappear, almost as signposts to the narrative.
Sacks chooses to end his memoirs by revealing a late, new love affair he entered into at age 75. With this most moving section of the entire book, he closes his recollections. It's all very extraordinary, beautiful—this episode, and the entire book—it's so human, and unexpected.
I'm sure you've guessed it by now: Sacks is gay. All his sexual experiences have been with men, save for the usual unsuccessful experimentation driven by curiosity. He discloses this on page 9 and it is the central thread of the entire book all the way to the end.
Thus, Dr. Sacks comes out publicly, frankly, and with no apologies, at age 81. This is important. That is the real value of this book: it shows to his adoring reading public, and to politicians who literally control the fate of gay people around the world, that someone of his stature, popularity, intelligence—his "value" to society in short—can actually be gay. He can be sexual just like everyone else, and still help innumerable people with their neurological problems. Yet the world didn't end as a result. Amazing, yes?
There is a serious problem, though. Why is his homosexuality, which I show is so central to this book that gay sex, his relationships, and love affairs actually frame the narrative—why then is this missing from reviews and advertising? It's certainly no secret to all readers of the book, including all of its reviewers.
Why do respected reviewers from major book review publications and newspapers, and all Goodreads popular reviews, fail to mention the most important aspect of the book? We can assume they've read it, right? They probably didn't skip the first 132 pages, huh? And every reviewer on the planet, particularly if they don't have time to read a book in its entirety, will at least read the last chapter or two for its conclusions, where Sacks reveals with deeply moving prose, his new "love affair" (to use the book's oh, so gender-neutral advertising term) with author Billy Hayes. Surely any reviewer whose reviews are worth reading would consider the book as a whole, not just some filtered parts of it, excerpted to avoid inducing his, the reviewer's, queasiness.
If Sacks instead were straight, and had revealed his sexual history as he has done in these memoirs, every single reviewer would mention it, and some of them certainly would be negative given their general uncomfortableness with sex, period. So why the double standard?
I obviously love Sacks book, its intellectual content right along with its gay sex. This pairing of the "high" and the "low" is what makes it great. But not everyone, surely, would agree with me.
Reviewers, please, treat all writers equally, straight and gay, with respect and honesty. To do otherwise is to hide, through "covering," a normal aspect of the human behavior. Doing so perpetuates homophobia in social relations and politics....more
I'm not partial to collections of an author's shorter, previous writings. Although they can give an overview of the subject's thoughts, too often theyI'm not partial to collections of an author's shorter, previous writings. Although they can give an overview of the subject's thoughts, too often they are hodgepodges of ideas better formulated in the author's major published works. Objectively, A Devil's Chaplain: Selected Essays does give the reader general insight into Dawkins' thinking from the groundbreaking The Selfish Gene (1976) until he began writing the greatly important The God Delusion (2006). Practically, most readers will want to pick and choose which items to read in this collection, then, if interested, go to the related major work for a more complete explication.
Everything we know of Dawkins is represented here: science, Darwinian evolution, religion, a bit of Africa, book reviews—mostly on books which I suspect few readers will have read. There are also obituaries, a letter to his daughter, and email correspondence with the contradictory evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould. Fans of Dawkins surely will find something of interest.
For me, the best essay is the angry newspaper editorial "Time to Stand Up", written shortly after the 9/11 attacks. I don't know if this tragedy was the trigger for him to eventually write The God Delusion, but I wouldn't be surprised: that 2001 editorial is a powerful call to change the way we uncritically accept religion.
Here's a quote from A Devil's Chaplain that I love—they're not Dawkins' words, but from a teacher he respects—which seems to apply quite well to him, but only wishfully to me since I sit in my chair reading too much:
"I agree with Nietzsche that 'The secret of a joyful life is to live dangerously.' A joyful life is an active life – it is not a dull state of so-called happiness. Full of the burning fire of enthusiasm, anarchic, revolutionary, energetic, demonic, Dionysian, filled to overflowing with the terrific urge to create – such is the life of the man who risks safety and happiness for the sake of growth and happiness."
Stephen Weinberg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist for his work on the electroweak force, author of textbooks on cosmology, gravity, general relativity,Stephen Weinberg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist for his work on the electroweak force, author of textbooks on cosmology, gravity, general relativity, and quantum field theory, writer of several popular books of popular science, here—at the age of 82—uncharacteristically offers his readers and fans not a work of greatness but a high school-level, superficial, simplistically argued, unoriginal overview of the history of science from the Greeks through Newton. Unexpectedly from an author of his calibre, this is not a prize winning work.
This nearly complete failure of a book, with its flat, uninteresting text, will not inspire non-scientists to embrace the field. For curious readers, it fails to explain even simple concepts in the main text, instead awkwardly referring readers to the "Technical Notes" at the end which are nevertheless insufficient. They give the reader only an illusion of understanding. To really grasp the science, you will have to look it up on Wikipedia or elsewhere. The main text is entirely devoid of illustrations, and are only barely adequate in the Notes.
For working scientists the book offers nothing. It's not a textbook; it's not a reference; and it's certainly not a model of good popular science writing.
Its frequent platitudes deliver a work of astounding commonplaceness. The problems begin with the two opening sections on Greek Physics and Astronomy. Weinberg unnecessarily goes out of his way to list the names and dates of countless Greeks of the Classical and Hellenistic periods, each with a few summary sentences describing their ideas: this cataloging is the worst kind of history.
We are treated to all the usual characters: Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, through Hipparchus and finally Eratosthenes when the world finally learned how big it is. Most readers will already realize the only reason they are presented is to get us to Aristotle, Ptolemy and that other one (I forgot his name) who first thought that the Earth revolved around the sun, which we know, while reading, will connect us to Copernicus a thousand years later. All the other characters serve as space-filler supporting these biggies.
At this point, readers will wonder "What's new here? I have already heard all this before in high school. When is Weinberg going to tell me something new?" Sadly, he never does.
Continuing forward then, he moves to the Romans, who, compared to the Greeks, didn't contribute all that much to science, so that era was glossed over to get to the Middle Ages. Weinberg again repeats his performance with the Greeks: a list of minor characters which support the linear push toward Copernicus—with the rising specter of the Church adding potential interest to the tale. There are a whole bunch of monks copying Greek and Latin texts, and a lot of Arabs translating Aristotle. Again, there is no new material, or even original analyses, presented here. Instead, we read: "Whatever the scientific revolution was or was not, it began with Copernicus." Really? Wow!
Then, on to the chapters about the discovery of science, where the reader hopes it will finally get interesting. Weinberg unoriginally claims this happened when time-honored explanations of the natural order developed solely from observation were for the first time augmented by experimentation. Thus, any high school graduate will wonder "Is this book written for adults? Maybe it's for educationally-challenged people from Texas? I learned all this in eight grade when I had to do that horrible Observation-Hypothesis-Experiment-Revision-Experiment-Conclusions thing over and over again! Yeah, Galileo and his Leaning Tower and his telescope! I must be as smart as Mr. Weinberg!"
By this point the reader is either feeling pretty good that he already knows what a Nobel prize guy is lecturing him on—or, like me, he is wondering why he is wasting his time and money on this book.
The final (final?) chapter is about Newton and his synthesis of all that came before into the first non-trivial scientific theories, those of light and gravity, complete with explanatory and predictive power. Weinberg had a chance to rise to the topic, it now being much closer to his own life's work. To his credit he does, but not without the worst sophomoric statements in the entire book. What follows below is an outline of the Newton chapter, highlighted by quoting some of these simplistic utterances.
He breathlessly begins the last chapter with: "With Newton we come to the climax of the scientific revolution. But what an odd bird to be cast in such a historic role! ... Until middle-age he was never close to any woman, not even to his mother. " Oh, my god. One wonders how, and with whom, Newton's climax occurred, if it did at all.
Then, "It was Newton's theories of motion and gravitation that had the greatest historical impact." Really??? I never knew that, nor did any of his readers! We're sure happy he told us that; it led to the belated realization that this is actually a children's book—minus the sorely needed pretty pictures.
Showing evenhandedness to other scientists, he must not, and does not, acknowledge Newton as the "god" many thought he was: "Newton's theory did not meet universal acceptance." But why is that different from any new theory from any other scientist an any time in history?
Hitting him a little bit harder: "General relativity rejects Newton's notion of absolute space and time." Thank you for that, Mr. Weinberg. Since you ended your book with Newton, and didn't continue through to Einstein, we stupid readers wouldn't have known that—unless we had already learned it from other, less patronizing teachers.
Now, astonishingly, at the end of Newton's final chapter, Weinberg undermines the entire purpose of his book (on page 253) with the howler: "A question remains: why did the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries happen when and where it did?" What? Come again? Maybe Weinberg didn't expect that many would read his Preface to the book, but I did. There he states "My focus in this book...is how we came to learn how to learn about the world." This recursive sentence is nevertheless quite clear. I'll grant that he explains a limited form of "how" simply as the onset of experimentation. But "how" is answered sufficiently only if the "why" "when" and "where" are also addressed. As Weinberg admits, he leaves these unanswered. That's a major failure.
(Just like the criminally unfulfilled promises that Volkswagen would deliver "clean diesels" to its customers, I want my money back from Weinberg because he didn't deliver what he promised, either.)
He should have stopped at that point, but Weinberg appends an epilogue, I'm guessing because pre-publication reviewers complained about the abrupt end at Newton, leaving unaddressed the following centuries, even Weinberg's substantial, accomplished research. In this section, readers are told about the controversial topic of scientific reductionism, where the work of Newton and later physicists was increasingly invoked to explain everything from biology and cosmology, to god and morality. I'll leave it at that, except to mention that Weinberg writes more banalities in this section, such as: "Faced with a puzzling world, people in every culture have sought explanations." Duh... does it take a Nobel prize winner to figure that out? Wouldn't nearly all of us known that already? We are then hit with a blazingly obvious declaration about Darwin: "It took a long time for natural selection to be accepted as a mechanism for evolution." ...wait...wait...clunk!
Could it get any worse? Yes. At the closing line in the book the reader suddenly realizes why Weinberg brought up Darwin in the first place. That earlier reference set the stage for this engineered line, one of some embarrassment, and one of the worst I can recall in any work of science: "It is toward a more fundamental physical theory that the wide-ranging scientific principles we discover have been, and are being, reduced."
Does that graceful sentence ring a bell? It should. Even done as as a joke (which I am not inclined to think it was since the rest of the book is entirely devoid of humor) ending this forgettable book by corrupting the eternally famous last line of Darwin's On the Origin of Species is in bad taste at best. And it's insulting if done to add some ill-defined kind of gravitas or authority to Weinberg's mediocre book.(*)
Hey, you scientists out there! I'm speaking to you now. You are allowed to write deep, challenging books for intelligent readers. Show us what you got! Don't be afraid to go over our heads. Force us to think, to improve our minds! Write about what you know, about your expertise. Don't write to the lowest common denominator, which in the United States is a very low level indeed. At the same time, don't patronize those less educated. Whose book do you think will still be read 500, or 50—or dare I say 5?—years from now: Darwin's or Weinberg's? You can pick only one, good luck.
*Charles Darwin's most famous quote of all, from his most famous book in of a full lifetime of scientific works, is the last line of On the Origin of Species: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
By the way, notice that I didn't bring up Darwin first, he did. After that, the associated criticism was fair game. I can't fathom the audacity of any author, Nobel Prize or not, using a corrupted version of that exquisite quote for any purpose, let alone to close his own inferior book. It is consoling to reflect on the near-certain probability that any such book, as is certainly the case here, will be forgotten in a few years, while Darwin's will live on to the end of human civilization in one form or another....more
This is the earliest of Dehaene's three books about the brain and how it supports mathematics, reading, and consciousness. I have read these books inThis is the earliest of Dehaene's three books about the brain and how it supports mathematics, reading, and consciousness. I have read these books in reverse order, beginning with the latest, Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts, an epic up-to-the-minute treatise that spares no detail, and which is a model of excellent scientific writing. His earlier book on reading, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention, was written in a similar way, and again, is thoroughly educating without an unwelcome excessive "dumbing-down," which is so common in much of modern popular science writing.
The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, Revised and Updated Edition is written with the same expertise as his later two books. Still, the material is somewhat dated (1998 for the original edition). Dehaene does add a new final chapter updating the state of knowledge to 2011. It would have been better for the reader to have wholly rewritten the book, integrating the new last chapter into the relevant older sections, thus relieving the reader of having to stitch and replace the new data onto what he might have remembered from the old.
My interest in the various chapters was somewhat uneven and they seemed scattered. Those covering the basic (rather simple) hypothesis on number sense are essential. Then, Dehaene spends too much time covering how a child's mathematical ability increases from birth to adolescence. His motivation is clear: he rails against the failed "new math" teaching of the 1970s, and rebuts that pedagogy with opposing scientific data. Good historical background, indeed, but we're past that true educational disaster now, I hope. Then...there is a fascinating chapter on the nature of mathematical prodigies, and the calculating techniques which they use, that "flew by." Excellent, but too short.
The last part of the book covers brain imaging and locating those brain areas responsible for particular math abilities such as numerosity recognition, number comparison, addition/subtraction, and calculation. I admit to jumping to the conclusions here: in his books on consciousness and reading, cited above, Dehaene goes deep into PET and fMRI imaging for those activities, presenting it very well and convincingly. Therefore I was already prepared to accept the application of the same techniques to mathematics processing, and go directly to the summary results without reading all the details.
I don't know of any practicing research scientist, in any field, who is writing books for an educated, intelligent public, that does it better than Dehaene. I can't wait for his next book, whatever it might be. ...more